Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Talking Heads

I don’t have any moralistic objections to videogames, so it was interesting to be the designated skeptic on the “Video Games: Content and Responsibility” panel at SIGGRAPH today. I pointed out the debate about whether or not certain media benefit society or corrupt it goes back to Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics, and that the hearings that rail against videogames now could be superimposed against the ones against comic books from the 1950’s quite easily. I also said – my favorite line – that using a few hate games to justify restrictions on videogames was like talking about banning books because Hitler wrote Mein Kampf.

So, here were the issues I raised:

1) Videogames are being promoted by advocates as a way to improve learning in schools, but in an environment with so much scripted teaching and emphasis on standardized tests, sacrificing live interactions for virtual ones could be a mistake. Although there is a lot of interesting work being done on literacy and videogames, even the best videogame is inferior to good teaching in many ways. In addition to having overly simple master narratives, these games also can be pretty time inefficient. And if you compare the work done even in a "good" game with historical primary sources with what happens in a history class, there's no comparison as far as the reading and interpretation skills taught.

2) There are also a lot of government-funded videogames that are used for training and education. Unlike flight simulators, which have demonstrated effectiveness, these games can be uneven in their usefulness as well. Some of these games also function as political spectacles, which are designed to SHOW the media that intransigent problems for soldiers are being addressed -- poor Arabic skills, poor IED spotting, poor recovery from PTSD -- rather than actually prove their efficacy at solving the problem.

3) As far as commercial games go, lots of them aren't very good, and the higher budgets get, the more big companies are dependent on licensed franchises ripped off from Hollywood and sports/driving games. Furthermore, kids (or anyone else) don't get much opportunity to use their creativity in these games. Take something like making graffiti, which a lot of games have the player do. Some might object to these games on moralistic grounds, because they encourage vandalism. That's not my beef. My objection is that a kid could make much better graffiti art in PhotoShop than in Getting Up.

In general, games constrain choices much more than real life does and the payback is much lower. They may gratify power fantasies, but Guitar Hero doesn't make you a better guitar player compared to actually learning to play with the chord book open.

And compare top-selling children's games to top-selling children's books. The books are a lot better, more varied, more imaginative, more diverse in the identity positions possible.

Maybe it's true that we need a "Corporation for Public Gaming" to foster better games, but with this administration pushing really lousy educational games (all based on invasion or attack), I'm not optimistic that it would produce better games.

4) In general, games don't function as a very good "third space" between home and work, although some game theorists argue that that's what they've become in our society. Sociality and participation are constrained in a number of ways, and the world doesn't get any better with more game players. If so many kids play sports games because real-life school PE is humiliating and frustrating, wouldn't it be better to improve the PE?

Even MMORPG's emphasize temporary, ephemeral social interactions oriented around events like raids or dance performances. Look at the whole genre of the "goodbye film" in which scenes of game play are cut together to commemorate a group that is breaking up. In real life you know who you are interacting with, since they use their real social identities, so you can't just cut yourself off from people who are annoying or who don't help you achieve your goals or who might be dependent in other ways. In a second life, you can be free of them easily.

5) I also have trouble with how game advocates use the mimetic argument. Games are mimetic when they do something good (like teach world history), but they aren't when they do something bad (like encourage teen violence). You can't have it both ways. Either games cause users to replicate in-game behavior or they don't.

6) Finally, with digital rights under assault from so many sides, that's not a cause I'd choose to prioritize right now.

My fellow panelists had a lot of interesting things to say as well. Jason Della Rocca of the Game Developers Association and his own Reality Panic blog had some useful counterintuitive statistics about game players and social dynamics. Furthermore, Tamsen Mitchell, of Shaba Games, pointed out that game designers have many constraints placed upon them by commercial interests and that the fear of government regulation may make it even more difficult to generate excellent games. Moderator Gil Irizarry, who was grappling with genre questions back in the days of Myst, raised lots of interesting questions.

We also had a great audience. I enjoyed meeting Brenda Braithwaite of the very interesting Sex & Games blog, patent attorney Gregory P. Silberman, and visual effects wizard David "grue" DeBry, who pointed out that the "interactivity" argument can't work both ways either: if interactive media are qualitatively different, they can't also be the same.



Blogger farmer said...

Nice post. Sorry I didn't attend . Of course, I have deep and wide responses to almost every paragraph in this post. Contact me if you are inclined to talk more. Or just peruse my video blog: Media Nipple.

Holland Wilde

10:10 AM  

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