Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ludical Delusions

At a keynote address by Kumar Garg of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Obama White House at this year's Game Developers Conference, creators of videogames were asked, as Wired put it, "What Game Developers Can Do for Your Country." In particular Garg promoted First Lady Michelle Obama's program for Apps for Healthy Kids, an anti-obesity game challenge, as a model of how pro-social games could be promoted by government entities. Mrs. Obama also sent a letter to attendees urging them to participate, and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra also addressed the crowd with a videotaped message.

Although Virtualpolitik friend Ian Bogost has created the anti-obesity game Fatworld, which encourages players to consider the systemic factors that create overweight families and communities, he had no kind words for the recent White House pitch.

First, Bogost gave an interview to GamePro, which appeared under the heading "Analysis: Public interest vs. propaganda game development," where he described how such overtures may ultimately prove to be demeaning to games.

"I'm not sure we can yet conclude that the government really wants to make games," he said. "This contest reads as PR more than politics. Look we're hip! We <3>

Even without the contest angle to the Apps for Healthy Kids Challenge, Bogost is still concerned that government involvement with game development could create a negative environment for games. For example, he discussed the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) game design program where the White House partnered with major publisher/developers like Sony to use LittleBigPlanet as a math learning tool for kids. He called it "embarrassing" because it suggests government endorsement of developers – like you should buy Sony products because Uncle Sam trusts Sony.

The only way government involvement with game design would benefit the public, he said, was if they took the medium seriously enough to let game developers do their job.

"If the government is making games," Bogost said, "let's do it the way the government contracts anything else."

Then Bogost published even more damning prose in his own column in Kotaku, "Playing Political Games," which included a nice plug for the chapters on government funded videogames in the Virtualpolitik book. I have omitted his analysis of Fatworld, even though it is certainly worth reading.

I am not thrilled. I am not encouraged. I am distressed and I am embarrassed.

My eyebrow started to raise when the White House announced Obama's Educate to Innovate campaign, a part of which encourages children to build levels in Little Big Planet. LBP is a clever and creative game, and players have done incredible things with its creation tools. It's true, LBP has physics, and physics is relevant to science and engineering. Half-Life 2 also has physics, as it happens.

But I'm not sure the government ought to endorse Sony in general, or one game in particular, as an unusually promising entry point into science. As a part of the deal, Sony gets to put 1,000 PS3s into libraries and community organizations. Don't blink, the US government just endorsed a videogame platform.

But it's the Apps for Healthy Kids contest that really loosens the bile from my liver.

You see, I was in that meeting that Chopra mentioned in his recorded comments before the Game Developers Choice Awards, along with twenty-some other participants from "the games industry." I put the term in scare quotes because only a fraction of us had actually shipped games, and perhaps a handful of those had previously made games dealing with social and political issues.

Like many of my kindred, I raised red flags. Games are hard to make. Good games are complex. The real promise of games as educational and political tools is in their ability to demonstrate the complexity and interconnectedness of issues. Games, like all media, can't ever really change behavior; a game about nutrition won't magically turn a player healthy, just as a game about criminality won't magically turn a player delinquent.

Instead, games can help us shape and explore our values. And today, our values better damned well be complex. They ought to be well informed and nuanced. They ought not to be black and white. They ought not to be bite-sized. They ought to take many factors into account.
. . .

No matter, those lessons will not be learned and applied to health. Nor will the lessons learned on thousands of commercial games made and marketed on consoles and PCs. Why? Because the contest has chosen to swap expertise for publicity. After the meeting, Chopra's staff was eager, but not to follow up with those in the room; rather, they were eager to go blog about it. Go forth, users, and generate content! One percent of it will probably not suck!

But more importantly, it's my opinion that the White House does not really care if such games get made or not. You see, the kind of game rhetoric I've previously written about and practiced builds arguments into the games themselves: for example, nutrition is a complex function of politics and economics; pandemic flus affect a smaller global population than the media frenzy would have you believe; perfect storms of simultaneous unrest and natural disaster drive oil prices to the highest levels. In each case, the argument is in the model.

But there's another sort of digital rhetoric, one you can read about in Liz Losh's book Virtualpolitik: just the very act of endorsing or making a game has its own political outcome.

By championing the potential existence of games, the force of the games' political or social action becomes irrelevant. The political aspects of the game are not in their speech, but in their existence. Look, the government makes games now! That's a political win no matter how good or bad the games (or "apps," whatever that means might be. As I said recently in GamePro, this contest reads as PR more than politics. Look we're hip! We <3>

These days, when you tune in to the radio or turn on television or load up the web, you'll often hear Obama disparage "politics as usual." You'll hear him call for courage and action. You'll hear him sound brave and determined. Then you'll look at the happy green broccoli on and think, wow, maybe the government is really trying this time. Maybe they mean it in earnest. Maybe they'll use our media to do governance, rather than just as objects to be governed.

But make no mistake, initiatives like Apps for Healthy Kids are absolutely politics as usual. Sure, they're online. Sure, they have large font sizes and rounded corners. Sure, they make the White House younger and more modern. But they do exist not to change the world in which you live. Real change would involve, say, overturning the massive and intricate farm subsidies that have made corn sweetener a part of nearly everything we eat, particularly the cheap, nutrient-poor packaged foods available in lower-income communities. Instead, these contest and initiatives exist to replace the very need for political change with the performance of apparent effort.

They are anything but courageous. They do not take advantage of the unique power and potential of videogames to complexify rather than simplify the world. They promise a magic dreamworld in which cute carrots somehow eradicate a century of politics and economics through the sheer sexiness of a shiny device.

You'd demand more of Valve or EA Sports or Blizzard, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you cry out with vulgarities, unhinged, if this were a commercial rather than a governmental promise? Will you really settle for this as "good enough" or "an important first step?"

It is not enough for the White House to pat this medium on the head, nor for us to accept such affection like so many dogs left out in the cold for the night. Videogames can do more. We should demand more of them. We should demand more of those who would put them in use.

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