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Power for Good: A Discussion on Video Games

I wrote this essay as a college composition assignment with the topic question of: "How can video games help improve the world?" This proved to be an extremely wide topic, so the focus was narrowed to education, collective thought, and art.

            As a man in my 30’s in the construction industry, I’ve come to expect the glazed-over look in a coworker’s eyes when I explain to them how I am attending school online for video game art and design.  Mind you, most of these guys have been in the construction trade most of their lives, and video games are about as clear to them as welding codes are to a software programmer.  The two generally don’t mix.  On another side of that, I have family members who support my career decision but    truly don’t believe in any practical use for them.  Video games are interactive by nature, and require active participation from anyone engaged in playing them by providing a chance to learn, communicate, and experiment in ways otherwise difficult or impossible.  Because of this, they are designed to process input from players and respond based on their expressed purpose, allowing for a number of worthwhile intellectual applications.

 

            In order to truly learn any material, most of us need to do more than just listen to someone talk about it or read information or instructions from a book or website, we need to put it into practice, or even better, to help another person by teaching them while we both learn.  I remember Mr. Larson, a math teacher in high school, standing in front of the class one afternoon explaining to us how that worked, and how important it was for us to put our best foot forward working in our groups.  I couldn't tell if that idea sunk in for everyone, but after several minutes of daydreaming on the concept and completely ignoring everything else he had to say before starting on our lessons for the day, it made perfect sense to me.  I thought: the more engaged I am in what I'm doing, the more of my brain is used to process the information.  If I'm just listening to a teacher lecture about something I may or may not use later in life, chances are that I'm paying more attention to the random pattern of specks on the tile.  Going one step further, If I read the textbook material along while simultaneously listening to the teacher, I'm engaging in a slightly more active learning process, but I can't remember how many times I started to thumb through random sections of the book that had nothing to do with what Mr. Larson was attempting to teach me as my disinterest grew.  At the point in class when we would bury our noses in the assigned mathematical problems to finish for the next day, my brain wasn't prepared at all.  I had all of the text, audio, and visual information dangled right in front of me for the last twenty minutes or so, but it wasn't organized.  There was no structure, no chronological order to what I should think of first, second, or what was intended to come in at the end.  Only when working with someone who was worse off than I was did I have the proper reference for how much more I could learn if I actively worked to help them learn the material with me.  The reason for this was that I had a reason to understand it, to go back and dig at the heart of the problem and solve the issue for both of us.  Enter: active problem solving for a purpose.  I had a clear objective, an incentive to achieve that goal, all the necessary resources, and another person who depended on me to focus all my effort in pulling it together. 

Stepping back to look at this, I see stagnation and disinterest in the first two situations.  Sitting in a classroom listening to a teacher in an attentive manner teaches children more about how they're supposed to act than the material.  Ian Bogost mentions this issue in an article for the MIT Press where he says "Play and learning have been segregated from one another in contemporary schooling, further cementing their perceived disparity.  Children learn while seated in desks, listening attentively to a teacher or reading from a book.  This sort of valid learning is interrupted by recess, where children are allowed to play." (120).  Taking this idea and my experiences in school into consideration, I believe where greater learning takes place are the times of application, when students have the material in front of them and can actually do something with it. 

I looked up the definition of "teacher" and found that it's pretty vague, almost looping back on itself, pointing to the title of instructor which then points back at teacher.  I would prefer if teachers were looked at as "facilitators of learning" or "purveyors of information".  It's a much clearer way at looking at what a teacher does.  In that sense, we would expect teachers to provide students with the information they require, the tools to apply that information to a real or simulated situation, and act as a conductor to keep students on track with the material.  Games, whether they be in video, board, card, or other format, can provide teachers and their students with a means to apply the material in a way that maintains the students attention.  Asking students to create their own games around particularly important subject matter would even require them to fully understand every angle of the material, allowing the information to be absorbed and used by the students.  Inhabiting a game space and making it our own, we feel a greater connection to the space and its content.  Bogost also mentions that "... video games are usually created with some expressive purpose in mind; they represent models of systems or spaces that players can inhabit, rather than serving as mere tools." (122).  To me, an expressive purpose is anything that shows that the game designer had something to say, or they had information they wished for game players to understand.  When I think of a tool, I think of an implement that will allow me to accomplish a task, which can be any number of things.  It can be a physical tool like a hammer or screwdriver, or an intellectual tool like an equation or established mode of reason.  Video games can be both a tool for a teacher and a learning space for students simultaneously.

 

            Technology and the internet have gifted the world with the ability to access and submit information instantaneously from nearly any place at any time.  I like to think of this as collective thought.  The entire world is out there for anyone to reach out to, and the amount of knowledge available is staggering.  There is a dark side to this however, one which burrows itself into every nook and cranny of the internet that allows for even the smallest perceived level of anonymity.  Video game communities are no exception, and there is certainly no shortage of people young and old, who will belittle and taunt another based on things they see make them different instead of unique.  A few years back, my wife began to play Halo 3 online with me in random matchmaking rounds.  We quickly found that even though our headsets allowed for vital communication while navigating through a map and forming strategies with people outside of our home, they also allowed her feminine voice to attract plenty of unwanted attention.  While some of it was rather innocent in a "Hey, you're a girl ... I'm a guy ... wanna talk?" way, there were more of the "Girls don't play games", "I don't want you on my team", "Oh great, we're gonna lose.", or other, more expletive phrases aimed at her.  The fact that people can't find you in real life unless they already know who you are means that they can't do anything to you, which leads to some people becoming game versions of "internet trolls": people who find enjoyment in angering others on the internet based on their ideas or simply who they are.  The developers of most video games meant for online play understand this issue and do what they can to provide players with options to mute, permanently block, or report offenders.  The down side is that in order to filter these people out of an online experience, they first need to be encountered.  One game community is placing the responsibility of policing player actions into the hands of those same players.  In League of Legends by Riot Games, the developers have created “The Tribunal” where players of a certain level have the option of voting on complaints against other players.  In this system, cases are built against players within various areas of misconduct.  Player statistics and chat logs are included in each case which “…requires a significant majority of votes in order to punish the player for wrong-doing.” (Youtube).  The system sounds to be one to help with the unruly sort of online gamers, and is an example of how game developers are working to make the online world of video games as safe as a living room.

The better side of online communities nods back to the idea of education and our teachers.   Working within the realm of games, which video games are just a sub-section, if students learn to apply materials in the creation of a structured set of rules, they are then better equipped in "knowing how to advance arguments, how to think independently, and how to express and improve oneself." because they are "literate in the fundamental operation of a knowledge domain" (Bogost 263) as educated individuals.  Bogost's discussion on "being schooled vs. being educated" brings to light the difference between the two and how they can help to shape a person's way of thinking.  Being capable of thinking independently allows for a greater variety in a pool of collective thinking and reasoning.  One of the first things newly hired individuals will see when they enter into orientation for Cianbro, the construction company I work for, is a phrase on a placard hung on the wall: "No one in this room is smarter than all of us".  The idea behind this is that by working together, we are able to tackle obstacles and complete a task much easier with the input of several people.  When people have the educational capability of independent thinking and know how to express their thoughts, it becomes a far simpler thing to solve or simplify extremely complex tasks. 

This idea is something the U.S. military is familiar with, as well as gamers.  Massively Multiplayer Online games, or MMO's, contain vast worlds in which players develop their game characters along a storyline while working in parties of varied skill-sets to make the tasks presented to them possible.  The idea of the outside world affecting an MMO and vice-versa, can be shown by the U.S. Navy's "Massive Multiplayer Online War Game Leveraging the Internet", or MMOWGLI, where the idea is to get more minds in on the think tank of countering/preventing pirate attacks.  The driving force behind this is the danger presented by Somali pirates, whom several countries around the world recognize as a serious threat to the safety of innocent people, but haven't been able to stop.   The game isn't what most people will think of when they hear Massive Multiplayer however, because the game is based on thoughts, ideas for strategy, research, funding, etc.  There's no running and gunning happening here.  Instead of deciding which button to press in order to blow in the doors of a storage container, players engage in discussions.  This is an example of how games are evolving and becoming more intuitive to how our brains actually work. 

In Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, author Tom Bissell states "Anyone who plays modern games such as Gears [of War] does not so much learn the rules as develop a kind of intuition for how the game operates.  Often there is no single way to accomplish a given task; improvisation is rewarded.  Older games, like Super Mario, punish improvisation: You live or die according to their algebra alone." (54)  With this evolution of video games, the options for real world application and real educated thought driving the development and execution of video games bursts through the doors of possibility.  Video games are very likely to impact other areas of the online world as well.  Jason Lentz of Gazillion Entertainment states “I predict that many of the lessons learned in games will be adopted by future on line communities that have nothing to do with gaming.” (Lentz)  This is an easy notion to believe when we consider the fact that online communities for video games are constantly evolving, with updated iterations of player matchmaking structures, discussion forums, and

 

            It's clear to me that video games can definitely be fun, video games have the potential to teach at a level beyond conventional classroom capabilities, and video games provide opportunities to pool educated thought to advance knowledge and strategy, but can they be considered art?  Jason Lentz defines art as: ”Anything that expands one’s perception of the world … However I also make a distinction between good and bad Art is good Art continues to expand your perception of the world beyond its initial viewing.” (Lentz)  This is a rich topic for discussion both inside and outside of the game development industry.  My perspective on the matter is: How can we not think of games as art?  Creating characters, some if which players develop an emotional bond with, eco-systems, worlds, universes, self-sustaining economic and political systems ... the list goes on.  There is one commonality behind every element of a video game: Creative people.  Creative people, or "creatives", strive to solidify their thoughts and visions to bring them into the world in a way for other people creative, critical, or otherwise, to see, to believe, to live, to hate, to build upon, and to tear down.  If any of this happens at any time due to an experience within a video game, if I were to look at a character or series of events within a game world and apply that in even a fantastical view to the real world, then by Mr. Lentz’s sound definition of personal art, the game has succeeded on an artistic level.

In his book Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games, author Edward Castronova discusses the political, cultural, and economic impacts of video games, specifically MMO style games, already have on the real world and how these impacts are likely to expand and grow with time.  One thing he touches on in this book is how these worlds reflect on the people who play them, and his statement: "But perhaps the most important effect of these synthetic roles is their influence on your own self-development." (109) probably holds more of an artistic statement than he realizes.  I gather from this that as we spend time in a synthetic world of a video game, we begin to see how our actions develop our character.  The interesting side of this is that it's our actions that make the character, not the other way around.  We can make the personal decision to be a protagonist or an antagonist, all within a game where our actions aren't going to physically affect anyone.  In games where the designers give us the chance to choose a "good" or "bad" path, it is worth noting that this is seen as merit for "re-playability".  What this means to me is that even when a gamer chooses to play an antagonistic role, it has more of an exploratory and experiential purpose than one of looking into a mirror.  It's a way to see the other side of the story, to think of things from a different angle.  How can someone know for sure they are a good person at heart until they know they feel remorse for committing a cruel or immoral act?  While I can't say for sure, I have a strong feeling that question has popped up during more than one game design meeting.

Given that, barring a global catastrophe, technology and everything it has to offer is isn’t going anywhere, it would be in the best interest of the human race to search out what we can do with it.  I see video games as media digging in its heels and carving its own path as designers, artists, programmers, musicians, teachers, military personnel, economists, entrepreneurs, politicians, and everyone else involved in creating any type of video game learn how to make them as useful, practical, and fun as possible.  My hair stands on end in anticipation for what the future holds in video game design and application, knowing full well the only boundaries are that of creativity, constantly expanding technology, and the never-ending search for knowledge.

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited:

Bogost, Ian. “The Rhetoric of Video Games." The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Edited by Katie Salen. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008.

Castronova, Edward.  Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.  Print

Bissell, Tom.  Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.  New York: Pantheon Books, 2010.  Print.

United States Navy.  mmowgli.com.  United States 2011.  Web.  10 June. 2011.

Lentz, Jason.  “Essay Questions.”  Message to the author.  15 June. 2011.  E-mail

RiotGamesInc. “The Tribunal.”Youtube.  24 May. 2011.  Web.  16 June. 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnkalhOdOs8

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