Why Game

A couple weeks ago at the CeC, Chris Melissinos – Sun Microsystems’ CTO of Web 2.0 and Chief Gaming Officer and a self-proclaimed video game addict – gave quite the keynote and while I dutifully took notes in a linear fashion and while, I would have normally provided those notes straight, with a week having past, I’m slightly calmed down from the hype and offer a reflection on topics raised in the lecture. The core elements are from Chris, but I have fused together some of my own ideas where I have found an opportunity. So Chris, if you ever read this, please let me know what you think.

Most human cultures have had games that have been used to provide a means of training the youth or inexperienced for situations that might occur later in life (either in general or specific situations). Humans are not unique in this, many animals also play as a form of learning how to gather food, defend against attack etc. The one common denominator across the species, with the exception of a few hunting games, games are played with others of one’s own species. In human terms, sports, the common rallying cry of the anti game movement are in fact games that are played to prepare for war. What games have allowed us as a society to do is explore and discuss experiences without having to deal with the unfortunate consequences – like death. Ironically, computer based games, blamed for so many evils do the same thing – even allowing for death – but with one key difference until recently (long ago in ‘net time), they were all played alone and discussed in small groups.

The 1970s saw the “bit babies”, the arrival of Pong and things would never be the same. Now an entire world, not limited by any physical limits, only the limits of what could be displayed on the screen arrived and games like pinball and well… anything else were on their way out. Perhaps even parents were on the way out – always telling us to “do something real” – not understanding this device and how it “enslaved” the minds of children. Not having grown up with these devices, most parents were just getting comfortable with TV at the time, so the computer was truly an odd duck. Games that kids played alone were even more so. This enslavement that was perceived by the parents was actually moving in both directions – children had enslaved their computers, programming them to do their simple bidding and the computers had enslaved the imaginations of children by providing them freedom and control (how ironic). This control was facilitated through programing languages that empowered this early symbiotic relationship and leading the world down a path with with more literacies (both new and old) to master than had existed before.

With games, even without the language, users have control over a world and compared to their own world where they have to listen to all manner of commands and lack any control, there is a real addictive (maybe not) character to this experience. They have to be cognoscente of a range of input stimuli and be literate (more recently) in as many of those (or at the very least semi-lingual in older games) as possible to succeed. When played alone, these games offer an escape from reality, but more recently, any game worth playing is being played together with other players around the world. It used to be that old games created communities where participants engaged in their activities and then communed after the fact. These were often small and “nerdy” groups that were easy to disregard.

***ok so I’m getting tired of this post – having let it sit for so long… so this might not make as much sense from here***

Fast forward to 2007 and these gaming communities are the games themselves, the communication is all in real time and the participants are legitimate successes in both the virtual world and “IRL” with players making the money that some traditional professions could only dream of. I wonder if Richard Garriott has been considered for any awards for starting the modern MMORPG with Ultima Online.

Looking to the future gamers 5-14 are actually driving the industry, all their friends are online at places like Club Penguin or now with systems like Wii the physical and other barriers to entering gaming are falling (with the wii, you have three generations of gamers who are able to collaborate). The ways that this generation will change the world is obviously yet to be seen, but we can get an idea based on Got Game (Beck & Wade 2002).

Even though games are great for some instructional purposes, they are not the be all and end all. If they are not used in an appropriate context, they have no value. So the trick is to understand those contexts, and these contexts do not include “edutainment” that forcefully grafts “learning” into a game. Kids don’t like the overt learning that is forced on them, not many people do, people like to feel that they are, on their own or with little help figuring out things.

Some people might think that games can make flashcards interesting because “games are just repetition” and while it is true that the brain gets tired of overt repetition – the mode that much of the instructional practice for the past few generations has been based – and once a pattern is found, it’s time to move on. Games add to this repetition some novelty and some risk to keep the brain interested. But I say this knowing that there are quite a number of “entitled” or otherwise lazy people out there that want to have others “learn for them” or provide their learning because they have “paid for it”. Edu-tainment/replacement games fail for this reason. It’s candy coated baby okra/brussel sprouts/what have you. But (in my view) if you look at Brain Age (especially on the DS which could be the ultimate learning machine), it’s a game that is math and matching and nothing more. It’s also freaking addictive and it’s also accessible, that is a game that is a game that happens to reinforce learning or help generate new connections for those who have not yet achieved mastery of the basic elements of the game – which by the way are not that different from flash cards – the difference? Flash cards are… cards that don’t flash, there is no reward of any kind, risk isn’t present and it’s too easy to “cheat”. There is no “fun” in the system (be sure to check out Koster’s book). These “schooly” games allow for exploration of knowledge, not just the presentation as per one defined view of that knowledge. But games are not the answer for every teaching and learning situation, each media has it’s strengths and weaknesses. people are willing to learn if there is some element of entertainment or novelty involved and time and other resources committed to entertainment are often quite “easy” to rationalize.

Other examples of these exploration based games are Peacemaker (my post) that takes it’s material from the middle east or Steer Madness that puts you in the hooves of a steer that has escaped from slaughter. These games, though based on models of commercial games like Command & Conquer and GTA, that are for the most part playable as a single player really gain their value as they encourage people to talk about their individual experiences after playing – like book clubs of old. But unlike books that have a linear presentation model, games are lateral or even non linear and this can often get people quickly into the mode of exploring and then talking about their explorations as one can find out that something is going to happen, but the spoiler may not be that it’s going to happen, but rather the method that you arrive there and the feeling that you had to get there through some measure of your own ability provides quite the reward. This exploration can allow people to learn faster and earlier than they would have using traditional methods.

*** ok it’s done – I’ll try to get some wheat from this chaff when I get the chance. When you get a chance, check out what Wes wrote on games and passion.

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