Jun 292006
 

MTV has posted their take on the Games for Change conference, including my talk. The tone of the article is really interesting, and I get the impression that the reporter is one who resented some of the cold water he says I threw on the proceedings. He asks,

The first knock on anyone criticizing games is that they possibly haven’t played them. It wasn’t clear if Koster had attended the Tuesday-night game expo and sampled some of the activism in action. Had he played “Peacemaker,” a strategy game that tasks players with settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by steering the leadership of either side? Had he tried “Earthquake in Zipland,” a cartoonish game that stars a moose trying to assemble a giant zipper to merge the separate islands upon which his parents are drifting apart, an extended metaphor about divorce?

Had Koster played the prototype of “The Organizing Game,” which is designed to teach grassroots activists basic skills like recognizing which doors in the neighborhood are the good ones to knock on? Had he tried “Homelessness: It’s No Game,” a simple game that challenges players to keep their homeless character alive and out of trouble for 24 hours of video game time? Did he harbor no enthusiasm for Ian Bogost’s anti-Kinko’s game, “Disaffected” (see “Game Lets Players Step Into Toner-Stained Shoes Of Kinko’s Workers”)?

And had Koster not been encouraged by the announcements earlier Tuesday, when mtvU General Manager Stephen Friedman announced his network will issue 10 $25,000 grants to college students making games for change? MtvU had sponsored the creation of the Sudan awareness game “Darfur Is Dying” and, Friedman announced, will launch a student-made game called “Squeezed” that depicts the lives of immigrant farm workers — a “first-person picker” — on mtvU.com in September.

No, I didn’t see the expo. Yes, I was already familiar with many of the games shown. And yes, I think that Ian’s Disaffected? is pretty fun, too. I also applaud what MTV is doing in this regard.

But.

There’s basically two ways to approach games for change.

  • One is simple awareness-raising. Awareness raising is fine, and perhaps games let you reach a different audience that you otherwise would. But then you are firmly in the arena of propaganda (not using that word in any negative sense here) and you will have all of the strengths and weaknesses of propaganda — and likely, few of the strengths of games. If this is how you are planning to use games, it is absolutely critical that the games be fun, or else you will fail to connect with the large audience that you seek. This is what the vast majority of games for social change are doing and seek to do — raising of awareness of issues. Nothing wrong with that.

    A huge part of the problem with social change work is precisely this: that it fails to connect with an audience. It is earnest, rigid, dogmatic, holier-than-thou, and depressing. The article cites conference founder Suzanne Seggerman saying that the games biz is risk-averse, which is certainly true — but I can tell you that the people in the games biz are by and large still concerned about social issues. They’re not heartless. They’re like most people — too uninvolved to get up and do something, and too concerned with their own welfare to spend a lot of time on issues that are far away.

    Most critically, the games biz spends all of its time paying very close attention to “what gets the largest number of people to play.” And earnest, rigid, dogmatic, holier-than-thou, and depressing are not on that list anymore than they are on the list for pop singers or Hollywood. Nobody likes to be lectured at. This is a big part of the disdain that many in the industry have for academic and artsy game design — that it leaves the audience behind.

  • The other way to use games for social change is to leverage what games do better than other media, what they are, which is the way in which they are abstracted simplified models of systems. And here, as in pretty much every other art form, succumbing too much to propagandistic tendencies will be bad art. What the best games for change can offer is an avenue towards solutions, because they are models that can be used to approximate the problem and try things out. In fact, the more unbiased the model, the more likely it is that something useful will emerge (by contrast, propagandistic models, like Gonzalo Frasca’s September 12th, will intentionally distort or bias the model in order to make their statement — again, raising awareness is a perfectly valid approach, so I am not knocking this). This is part of what I was urging the attendees to think about.

I’ve spent enough time at themed conferences to know that pouring cold water on things is usually necessary — just as it was at the Metaverse Summit. Does it mean that I don’t believe in the possibilities? Of course not. In fact, it’s sort of odd to be painted as somehow the industry insider opposed to games for social change; after all, I’m the industry guy who was actually willing to show up at the conference in the first place.

Rather, what it means is that it’s all too easy to try tackling famine, war, and poverty from a posh apartment, all too easy to sum up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a facile statement; all too easy to rely on “raising consciousness” as an answer to real social change; and all too easy to think that “oh, we’ll make a game and it’ll connect with the kids.” The cold water is needed, because it takes a greater focus than that to really do the work. I know many of the people who were there know that, because they have done the work and they know there aren’t facile answers. I know it, because as I said in the speech, a very large portion of my family does exactly that for a career.

In the speech, I said

It’s almost like if you were a paper-airplane maker and somebody came up to you and said, ‘You know, paper airplanes, it seems like all the kids are into them at school these days. So we really want to make paper airplanes about Darfur.’

One needs to ask these questions about such a proposition, if one is serious about the cause or about paper airplanes.

  • Is this the best way to spend money on Darfur?
  • What special service can paper airplanes supply that Hula Hoops or Sea Monkeys (or food and medicine) cannot?
  • Is this the best use of paper airplanes, or are they served better by being used to teach aerodynamics instead?

It’s not that there isn’t a match to be made; there very well may be. But you have to have those answers in your mind from the beginning to do justice to the problem.

  43 Responses to “MTV News – Can Social-Change Video Games Tackle Divorce, Poverty, Genocide?”

  1. Who the heck is crazy enough to think Peacemaker would actually help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Did Conflict: The Middle East Political Simulator manage that back in the 80s? No. Did Balance of Power end the Cold War in the 90s? No. Also, these games are limited, deterministic model simulations. Inasmuch as they teach anything, they teach you to behave how the Programmer/Designer THINKS you should behave in order to solve the problem. There’s no guarantee that people will actually behave the way your woefully limited simulation says they will.

  2. […] 총 15개  |  최종업데이트: 2006-06-30 14:47 function PrevPage(goto_bottom) { } function NextPage(goto_top) { } MTV News – Can Social-Change Video Games Tackle Divorce, Poverty, Genocide? Raph 2006-06-30 13:36 작성 | Games […]

  3. Raph,

    Stephen Totilo wrote:

    The first knock on anyone criticizing games is that they possibly haven’t played them.

    The first knock on anyone criticizing an author is that they possibly haven’t read the author’s work.

    But he snuck some kind words in too — for his own work. …

    In the end, Koster proved to be knocking the legs out from the Games for Change movement in order to champion what he cherishes most about games: their levity.

    From our discussions and my understanding of A Theory of Fun, your definitions of the terms "entertainment" and "fun" differ. The psychological purpose of fun is to facilitate learning. Chris Crawford said, as quoted in your book, "Fun is the emotional response to learning." Stephen’s description of you as someone who cherishes levity (i.e., that which lacks seriousness) more than learning leads me to believe that Stephen is unfamiliar with you and your work. Is Stephen’s criticism of your keynote credible? Hardly.

    So there was the veteran of corporate games — the deep-thinking Koster — unloading his doubts in front of these outsiders.

    Corporate games? Those are serious games intended as corporate entertainment to achieve non-entertainment goals, such as team simulators and process training tools. I believe the correct term is interactive entertainment. Since that term encompasses serious games, those who develop serious games are not "outsiders". Serious games are a part of this industry. Unfortunately, the serious games people think they’re doing something totally unique, totally revolutionary, and totally separate from the rest of us. There’s a void between those who develop games for entertaining fun and those who develop games for serious fun. From my perspective, that void seems to be largely created by those who develop games for serious fun. I’m working on building a bridge across that void through the San Diego Chapter of the International Game Developers Association, and the parent association too. Hopefully, my efforts will be fruitful.

    Raph wrote:

    There’s basically two ways to approach games for change. One is simple awareness-raising.

    Public relations necessitates awareness initiatives. Without awareness initiatives, PR can achieve neither credibility nor differentiation. Awareness initiatives need to be cyclical in order to consistently produce long-lasting effects that establish, retain, and improve the credibility of an organization. This also applies to interactive entertainment.

  4. Holy lip service, Batman.

    I was so, so terribly confused when I read “fighting homelessness.” Can games do that? Like, is homelessness caused by a boss monster or something, and you shoot him in a video game, and that destroys his real-life soul?

    Hundreds of thousands — millions? — of people have played the Ultima series, where you’re rewarded in the game for helping homeless people. Ultima has been around for over twenty years, and is still available today. I don’t know of any study that has linked homeless trends to the Ultima series, but…something tells me Ultima hasn’t made a difference.

    Awareness-raising is good, but I really think that’s all a video game can do to “fight homelessness,” and I can think of other media that would do this better.

    Don’t spend dollars on game development; spend dollars on HELPING THE HOMELESS.

  5. I find it interesting that a few of the comments trend towards attacking the concept of games for change. I agree that Ultima probably made no dent in the homeless issue. Neither did most books that featured homelessness.

    But every once in a while comes The Jungle, which blew the top off the meat packing industry. It’s not that novels cannot effect social change, it’s just that it works rarely, and when done in a particular manner. I believe the same must be true of games.

    So I am not down on the whole concept. I am down on certain implementations.

  6. I think that’s a bit of Rahp’s point Slyfiend. Question what you are doing to make sure you are going to have the impact you intend; if you aren’t, look to other opportunities that your resources provide and find out if you can come closer to the desired impact.

    Can games raise awareness? Sure. Can they motivate people to elicit change? Unproven. Does this mean that it’s a moot point and shouldn’t be investigated? Not at all, but don’t look into this with rose colored glasses and expect that a game that raises social awareness on a particular cause/issue will motivate people to act on that awareness.

  7. […] Raph Koster rocked the house in the closing keynote (which I wish had come earlier) by challenging the core notion of games for change and the ability of games to even come close to representing the world’s worst problems accurately, let alone not trivialize them (speaking about genocide, endemic poverty, and political corruption). But then he stood this on its head suggesting that it may be just because games and simulations can hack outrageously overwhelming problems into tiny, abstract, tractable pieces that they might stir the will power and confidence to make real change. More from Raph on this right here. I was on the “Virtual World, Real Change” panel with Pathfinder Linden from Linden Lab/Second Life, Barry Joseph from Global Kids, and Lauren Gellman from Stanford. The podcast of this and all sessions should be up in a couple of weeks. […]

  8. Interesting post; I thought the criticisms you made about potential problems in this area were valid.
    To be honest, my first reaction to reading about the MTV games was that they sound in poor taste; they inadvertently trivialize the issues they’re trying to promote. Certain media are poor at conveying messages on grim topics; musicals are one, and it seems to me that games might be another such medium. Part of the problem here might be that “game” is often used in our society as a metaphor for an endeavor in which the participants don’t really care deeply about the results–for example “it’s no game”, “it’s all a game to her”, “treating someone like a chess piece”, etc. So that, when someone makes a game like “Peacemaker”, it conveys the idea that political change is just a game…
    The other objection is that although I don’t normally consider games a waste of time, it would certainly feel frivolous helping a virtual homeless person when I could be helping an actual homeless person. I can see this cognitive dissonance being resolved in two ways: a) the more desirable of the two–stop playing the game and go help some homeless people or b) simply stop playing the game.
    I think a less heavy handed approach of games for change would be to create games that within an “escapist setting” reward/develop some of the positive traits that we hope will be demonstrated in the real world as well–such as games that reward cooperation as opposed to competition, creative thinking, generous behavior, helpfulness to others, etc., and as it happens, many games already do this to some extent.

  9. Your distinction is prudent Raph. I remember at a conference last year Ernest Adams was talking about a side-scroll shooter where you play a sperm cell and the message was to use condoms. Ernest thought it was pretty neat, and then Micheal Mateas came up and talked about games that merely “skin” on an aesthetic or theme without really emboding it procedurally.

    Obviously I’m for the latter, but the problem is that good procedural rhetoric is non-trivial and requires some sort of investment. I think Storytron might be an interesting paltform for procedurally representing social realitiesp; interesting from an academic/underground connouseur perspective (as it probably won’t be interesting from a commercial perspective). More so than closed narrativ systems, Storytron seems ideal for these purposes since the dev overhead is technically zero (sans time) and the engine is geared for global agency.

  10. I can’t wait to see the full text of your speech, and I’m so glad you took on the problem of sanctimoniousness and the hortatory and indoctrinating nature of a lot of these “games for change”. The very name of the conference and the movement implies that those involved *change* things and are, naturally, “progressive” in doing so. There’s no “games for muddling through the sick, bloody mess which is much of the world’s conflict zones, and making unholy alliances in defense of dubious causes” there’s only breezy and vague “peace” based on awful moral equivalencies such as seem evident in the Israel/OPT game (I suppose it’s progress that the game presupposes the right of Israel’s existence.)

    There’s the underlying undertow of this discussion, too, which is that we are all distracted with games, and the illusory notion that virtuality can change reality precisely at the moment when our own nation is really, graphically, inexorably bogged down in, and complicitious in, a horribly unjust war in Iraq even for a just cause (unjust because the classic definition of “just war” is a war that brings about peace; just cause because…what was *your* solution for ending the tyranny and massive crimes against humanity of Saddam?)

    Nobody made a game about Iraq, did they? And that’s because they’re afraid to really have it out when it comes to the war of civilizations. And there *is* a war of civilizations to be had (unless everybody reading this blog would like women to be under a veil and unavailable for sex or careers when they want). The question is whether these cultural wars could be fought in games more profitable or at least usefully and with less bloodshed.

    To accomplish the goal of cultural warfare, you’d first have to jettison all the sanctimonious do-good stuff that says it’s all hands-across-the-sea, we-are-all-one and all the rest of that blather.

    I don’t see that either games, with their rote, imposed, and often silly legends (medieval dreck) nor open-ended social worlds like SL (suburbia, Goth, Vampires, BDSM) are able to supply the culture, tools, or secured space for narratives of the import of the Jungle. They are just coming into their own, more as spaces within which to do things like the machinima, graphic novel, theater-in-the-round, cartooning, that might be the Jungle equivalent. The Jungle’s narrative impact could be as large as it was precisely because there was the capacity of culture and governance available to respond to it in some meaningful way (100 or even 50 years before and it wouldn’t have made a difference).

  11. I’d say that most of these games are missing the point. While it is certainly good to provide (hopefully) factual data to people, which these games certainly seem to try to do, they fall down bigtime on emotional involvement, which is an area I feel games can really push ahead of other media if done right. While I definetly support the educational side of the project, I think we need to get people more emotionally involved with the subject as well, otherwise the data is just meaningless words, because the people on the receiving end aren’t made to care about it.

  12. […] MTV News – Can Social-Change Video Games Tackle Divorce, Poverty, Genocide? Gaming industry guru Raph Koster responds to MTV comments.read more | digg story […]

  13. Great Post Raph. Really, just very spot on r/t this topic

    Other Gems:
    “Public relations necessitates awareness initiatives. Without awareness initiatives, PR can achieve neither credibility nor differentiation”

    Huzzzah! Great point…Repetative recurring and focused messages change perception, and subsequently reinforce credibility..

    Like, is homelessness caused by a boss monster or something, and you shoot him in a video game, and that destroys his real-life soul?

    And here is the crux of the issue: The disassociation of the person from the reality. The simplifacation of the complexeties of real world isssues lends itself more to MTV: “The Real World” than it does to say the Tribal Genocide commited daily in sub-sahran Africa. You cannot simplify an issue, by encouraging interactivity on a VW level and magically imbue someone with the will to act. Awareness of the issue….yes, and I say go for it, else you propagate entire generations with nothing to believe in or care about.

    “Can they motivate people to elicit change? Unproven.”

    Unless you have a data point that can measure this, every issue, problem, and behavior is in fact a data point, measureable over time. I dont know enough about “Games for Change” to accurately describe what data points would be relavent to people involved in this. If someone has a document or material related to what they are interested in capturing I’d be happy to include it in what I’m doing.

    “can see this cognitive dissonance being resolved in two ways: a) the more desirable of the two–stop playing the game and go help some homeless people or b) simply stop playing the game”

    Related to my point above, and Im wondering how many of these games PROVIDE relavent information through interactivity. How many redirect the user to sign up for the peace corps? How many have a localized list of homeless shelters where people can go to volunteer? How many have phone numbers for the teen suicide prevention hotline? Is there real support via the game for activism or is it fluff? Because a person playing a video game thats a “lecture” and “holier-than-thou” can get that kind of interaction off of the radio…

    “So that, when someone makes a game like “Peacemaker”, it conveys the idea that political change is just a game inadvertently trivialize the issues they’re trying to promote”

    Oh I dont know about that, I suggest you pick up a copy of Foreign Affairs for some lite geopolitical game simulation reading. “Peacemaker” is just broadening the accessability of the same simulation, albeit a bit more simplistic. Also theres a significant amount of simulation in these peoples academic endeavours: http://www.carlisle.army.mil/ in fact almost everything they talk about is a “game” simulating various alternative possibilities and outcomes.

  14. There’s no “games for muddling through the sick, bloody mess which is much of the world’s conflict zones, and making unholy alliances in defense of dubious causes”

    And yes, when I refer to (hopefully) factual data, I mean painting things as they are, rather than as simplified versions. After all, what’s the point of a game about Iraq being evil, and the US invading them for their own good, or, for that matter, Iraq being good, and the evil US invading them? What we need is an accurate portrayal of the real reasons these things happen, in all their complexity, so that kids can start to understand all the behind-the-scenes action that goes on in global politics, and the terrible situations it can lead to.

  15. Simplification is good. See Occam’s Razor. The core issue concerns the intent of simplification. Should abstraction promote change? Or should abstraction promote learning?

  16. And yes, when I refer to (hopefully) factual data, I mean painting things as they are, rather than as simplified versions.

    Not possible. Honest. Just, straight out, not possible. If we were capable of “painting things as they are”, we’d also be able to create myriads of NPCs who not only passed the Turing test, but surpassed it into the realm of computerized creativity.

    Incidentally, this little piece of writing by a friend of mine is notable:

    “You’ll trade pieces, but you always refuse to sacrifice any of them, even if it means victory. Chess is the game of kings, my friend. I’ll admit nobody can match you at tactics, but sometimes, simply making brilliant maneuvers in war isn’t enough. A good king needs to know how to sacrifice some of his people for the good of his kingdom.”

    “And what kind of king would I be if I let some of my people die, so that others may live? Every mandate to rule comes from the citizenry. A king’s only duty is to protect his people… all his people.”

    Freedom and Fate, Thread 1

    The two speakers have just finished a game of chess (the victor was the former, as shown when he earlier said, “Had you moved your Knight there, you would have checkmated me in four moves. You were perfectly positioned.”)

    Remember Raph’s 40, esp. #18? The data doesn’t matter as much as people make it out to. I don’t pretend I know how to actually achieve the ideal of G4C with this knowledge; but I’m convinced it can be done.

    I think part of the answer lies in the idea that it’s not the specific situation that needs to be specifically addressed. Player studies really ought to be done on games that are already popular, but have theme-specific data, like Civilization or Warcraft, and see what they get out of it.

  17. Simplification is good. See Occam’s Razor.

    “We invaded Iraq because they’re evil” isn’t simplification, it’s a lie. Don’t confuse simplification with obfuscation.

  18. Lobosolitario wrote:

    Don’t confuse simplification with obfuscation.

    I’m not. In fact, the only mention of "obfuscation" in the previous fourteen posts is in your response to me. Also in the previous fourteen posts, several respondents are apparently assuming that "to simplify" is "to trivialize" and "to trivialize" is "to obfuscate". Use the words you meant to use. Don’t expect others to know that you’re not communicating what you intended to communicate. Keep your message simple. Don’t obfuscate your message with unintended meanings.

    What we need is an accurate portrayal of the real reasons these things happen, in all their complexity, so that kids can start to understand all the behind-the-scenes action that goes on in global politics, and the terrible situations it can lead to.

    To achieve accuracy, we need people who are capable of achieving accuracy. Matt Sakey wrote about industry xenophobia in April 2005.

  19. Morgan, could you elaborate #12? I was going to ask whether simplification is the same as abstraction, because I don’t think they are, and I don’t think that’s what you meant, but it sounded hostile the way it would have been phrased.

  20. Michael Chui wrote:

    Morgan, could you elaborate #12?

    While commonly misinterpreted as complication, abstraction is the removal of a concept or idea from a specific context. Simplification is the reduction of complexity, often by removal of superfluous details (e.g., context) from a concept or idea. Abstraction is a method of simplification.

    All simulations (e.g., games) are models of a reality that is simplified and/or abstracted to facilitate understanding and/or execution.

  21. I come from the nonprofit sector. The questions you lay out at the end are the ones many of us who work nonprofit (and the board members) would ask if looking at game versus other strategy to reach their desired outcomes related to social change or a particular cause. Nonprofits don’t have a lot of extra resources and many are risk adverse in the sense that it may take money, resources, and time away from the real work.

    With that said, I think that for the organizations/causes where there is a good match and it is done well, those should be celebrated.

    Thank you for this post and the comments – much better than a transcript! Sparking some thoughts!

  22. Honestly, I think that focussing games on narrow issues may be the mistake.

    Games, especially multiplayer games, teach you to deal with people. Like other forms of art or communication, they can be designed to lead you towards the wrong things (murder, prostitution, etc), or designed to lead you towards the right things (cooperation and politeness towards people you’ve never met, enlightened self-interest, etc). This columnist here is on a productive track, I think: http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0614/p17s01-cogn.html?s=u

    (Wow, you get a lot of hits if you search their archves for computer games… but I digress)

    You might be able to bring the focus in a little more. Maybe with environmental issues as part of the game mechanics, or somesuch, but if you try to bring the focus in too much, you’re likely to do just what Raph said– trivialize the issue, or take it from only one propagandistic point of view.

    (As in the aforementioned Israeli-Palestinian case… presupposing Israel’s right to exist pretty much prejudges the entire conflict– and it’s fundamentally why the Arabs don’t trust the US as an honest broker and turns the whole peace process into an impasse… but that’s certainly not the sort of debate that belongs on this site. And again I digress.)

    All in all, you won’t solve anything in Darfur by making computer games. The best you can do is teach people about other people, and how to get along with them. Games can do that, I think.

  23. Well, another take on the talk (and the conference as a whole) can be found here at The Skeptic Tank, and it’s well, skeptical. His reading of the talk was pretty much on the dark side:

    The best part of the whole conference was the final speaker Ralph Koster, who grew up in Haiti and Peru while his mother was on mission for Unicef, and now works for Sony where he worked on Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies, so he had more first-hand experience with both gaming and social issues than most people in the room had with either.
    While most of the panels basically had nothing more to say than to repeat that games had potential without going into any details of how, Koster was the only one to cut through the BS.
    He had a cynical attitude about the whole idea of ‘games for change’ and educational games in general, criticizing them as not being fun enough, and thus having no hope of engaging players long enough to deliver the message effectively. He also slammed ‘over-optimistic do-gooders’
    And he pointed out one of the main flaws with the concept, in that a game ultimately needs to be fun, while the social issues being addressed tend to be the opposite of fun.
    Some in the audience were outraged by his candor, while others (like me) appreciated it.
    He described some of the things he saw growing up in Haiti (poverty, disease) and Peru (intimidation of the locals by the Shining Path), and asked how a game could possibly solve or prevent any of them. No one had any answers, other than ‘raising awareness’ which sounded feeble.

    I don’t think I was quite that negative either. 🙂

  24. Occam’s razor is not equivalent to the idea that “perfection is simplicity”. Albert Einstein probably had this in mind when he wrote in 1933 that “The supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience” often paraphrased as “Theories should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.” It often happens that the best explanation is much more complicated than the simplest possible explanation because it requires fewer assumptions. In the light of this, the popular rephrasing of the razor – that “The simplest explanation is the best one” – can lead to a gross oversimplification when the word simple is taken at face value.

    From Wikipedia “Occam’s Razor”

    Sorry for being a bit brusque, Morgan, I’m just used to encountering people who mean trivialize when they say simplify, and as I was short of time, I didn’t read your post as thoroughly as I should have.

    Simplification is always necessary, indeed. The problem is that most of the issues being dealt with have political roots, and politics is based entirely on complication and subsequent misdirection through trivialization. Therefore it’s very hard to tackle any of these issues without being highly complicated, even at the simplest possible level, because they’re highly complicated problems (if they were simple, we’d have solved them).

    All in all, you won’t solve anything in Darfur by making computer games. The best you can do is teach people about other people, and how to get along with them. Games can do that, I think.

    I think maybe it’s worth a try (anything is), but in general I agree. What games can do for sure is teach basic values, and this is possibly what Games for Change should be focusing on more. All the politics behind war may be hard to follow and express, and portraying honesty and fairness as being desirable can be a lot easier to do, and have a similar effect in the end.

  25. Like I said, the specificity of a situation is irrelevant in the context of a game.

    Not to be unfair to teachers (a profession I see myself entering, one day), games fulfill a similar role. A teacher does this through the vehicle of his humanity; a game does this through something… different. I’m not sure what. They impose artificial constraints and provide an artificial objective in order to drive you towards understanding something beyond what you have imagined.

    It’s fake. It’s all fake. Often times, we even know this. But you notice that, between the same curricula, some kids rant about how the subject matter is irrelevant to their lives, whereas others will admit it, but don’t care. Because it’s FUN, damn it.

    You can’t do something foolish like modeling reality and expect to get away with it. (And I’m not saying that virtual worlds or their effects or participants are fake. Worlds are not games; games are not worlds.)

    What’s the vehicle that games use?

  26. The sky is falling! The end is near! Repent! … 😐

  27. Michael–

    It’s not all fake, in multiplayer games. The other players are real.

    (And for some of the rest of it, I’d use the term “intangible” rather than “fake”. Bragging rights, sense of accomplishment, beauty, sportsmanship, perseverance, blowing off steam… actually I see computer games as eventually filling many intangible needs we have today; popcorn-type entertainment, acquisitive consumerism, etc, but I digress again).

    Point being, what we have is a structured activity where people deal with other people. We can get some mileage out of that.

    And honestly, I wouldn’t give up on people learning at least something useful about a situation from a computer game, much like people can learn a little something about actual history by reading historical fiction.

    Want to know why the Chinese government feels it is justified in suppressing the Falun Gong? Play a wargame based on the Taiping Rebellion (second bloodiest conflict in human history, that’s right, WWI is in third place) and you get some sense of why the Chinese gov’t has a holy terror of independent religious groups. Which might lead to some insights about how to bring an end to the practice of suppressing them, considering the fact that any solution to that problem would need to be acceptable to the powers that be in China.

    So instead of Games for Change, you may have to limit that to Games for Understanding. But considering the number of people who actually read the backstory… we may not have much luck with that either. 🙁

  28. I think Understanding would be a good Change; though a first Change would be awareness. On the spur of the moment, last night, I wrote this. Every step up the ziggurat is a Change, and generally speaking, a change for the better. On each ones of these, games have the possibility of facilitating the ascent.

    It’s not all fake, in multiplayer games. The other players are real.

    I’d argue that they’re not part of the game. The actual game itself, the core rules that discuss “So, after this happens, you do this,” don’t hinge on the players themselves.

    Saying that it’s not all fake is like saying, “It’s not all fake; the player is real.” You can’t abstract the players into the rules of the game; people are too complex.

    And honestly, I wouldn’t give up on people learning at least something useful about a situation from a computer game, much like people can learn a little something about actual history by reading historical fiction.

    That’s certainly true, but is that the strength of the medium of a game? History is a story. A very specific type of story. That’s why linear media, such as films, books, plays, etc. are good at relating history (assuming a competent author, of course).

    A not insignificant number of today’s games incorporate stories into their play; the stories are (typically) not part of the rules. If the rules govern the building of a story, then you have some potential. Games like Diplomacy, Making History, and even Thrones and Patriots all do this. On the other hand, I have heard an anecdote about Final Fantasy 7, where people felt powerless when a character was killed in a cinema sequence, making it impossible to prevent. In this case, the story builds the game. Instead of learning “I can do something about this situation,” you learn “It just happened; I couldn’t do a thing.”

    Understanding history is fine; but if it’s a game first and foremost, you have to be able to rewrite it. If you play Waterloo, Napoleon must be able to win. If you play World War II, the Axis has to have a viable chance. The outcome cannot be predetermined.

    If you just want to show them history, make a movie. Make it Flash. Make it a cinema sequence. Just don’t make a game.

    And despite Godwin’s Law, consider a game about pre-World War 2. You take control of the Germans. The goal is to restore Germany to its former glory. Do you, or do you not initiate the Holocaust? Do you deprive Jews of their rights, yet simply deport them (if possible), rather than herding them into camps? And so on. Yet a more important question is: if they do something you don’t expect, can you still simulate it realistically?

  29. Michael Chui wrote:

    You can’t do something foolish like modeling reality and expect to get away with it.

    Every science is founded on and develops using models of reality. Human perception is driven by models of reality; yet, clearly many people believe that their models of reality are reality. (Note Prokofy Neva’s ethnocentric entry #8.) Perception is how we simplify and abstract reality to facilitate an operational understanding of the world. Science enables us to manually and directly build models of reality to gain a deeper understanding of that which we perceive. Modelling reality is not "foolish", and naturally, we tend to believe what we perceive thus rendering the second clause of your claim false.

    You can’t abstract the players into the rules of the game; people are too complex.

    Inherent to the mechanics of human perception, people are operationally simplified and abstracted. Science enables us to understand people at a deeper level; however, understanding people at this level is not necessary to achieving and using an operational understanding of people. We know that when a person is pushed, that person will push back (fight) or run away (flight). An extended scenario will also reveal that when a person is pushed, those people in the vicinity will act in their own interests (egoism) by either aiding the person who was pushed (fight) or ignore the incident and/or run away (flight). There are additional factors that may contribute to a person’s decision to fight or flight, but these are factors that can be qualified using an operational understanding of the scenario or quantified using science. Regardless, we build models of the scenario (the reality) to achieve an operational understanding of the scenario.

    Since we naturally simplify and abstract reality, there are rules to this world. There are rules to this game of life. The physical laws of nature, for example, are unbreakable rules. These are the boundaries in our universe. A clever tester may be able to find a hole, but that’s a remote (im)possibility according to many physicists. There is logic to human behavior, described by the decision-making process. There are motivations to act, and variables to be addressed that enable the concept of "free will". Perception also allows us to build models of reality that are beyond our understanding. After all, that’s the point to modelling reality.

    In every way, our reality — our perception of reality — resembles the construct of a game. A game with rules and direction. Life is our ultimate game with a seemingly neverending number of opportunities to learn. We live in a game, a virtual world, of our creation.

    At least, that’s another way to look at the issues! 😉

  30. Michael-

    I’d argue that other players are very much part of the game in Multiplayer games, those that are challenging enough to force you to interact with them. Your behavior in the game, if you want to succeed, takes into account those other players, with their thoughts, feelings, and needs. You shape your strategy around them. How, then, are they not a part of the game?

    You can abstract rules on how to deal with people. Common courtesy (or political correctness, as it’s now called) is a system of such rules. Ethics and morals are two other words for these sorts of rules.

    For the most part, these are small-scale interactions. Large-scale interactions are a bit more problematic. That’s not to say some games don’t try.

    I’d like to point to the Europa Universalis series as one that attempts to pose just those large-scale historical questions. Playing 15th century Spain, you’re actually given a choice of whether or not to expel the Moors. They boil it down to something like three different decision / outcome sets, all within the mechanics of the game. Very set-piece and somewhat simplistic, but they give the issue some screen time.

    More later.

  31. Life is our ultimate game

    Odd. I thought I was the one arguing (it was at least a month ago) that Life was analogous to a game, but the analogy was too hard to hold up to field here. =)

    Human perception is driven by models of reality; yet, clearly many people believe that their models of reality are reality.

    Yes, but a game that models reality successfully is life. I would argue that in order to successfully model this, you’d have to use VR headgear or somesuch, so that it’s indistinguishable. Yes, we model reality in the real world. Yes, the problems posed to you in physics, chemistry, biology class; they are all games. I am not being sarcastic; I am agreeing.

    But are these the games you want to build? That mimic reality by copying its rules? Do you expect that your imitation will hold a candle to the real thing, and not be seen for what it is? Reality is the product of thousands of years, in terms of history, and countless millenia, in terms of cosmology. Would even a decade of development be able to claim a successful model convincingly enough to actually use it to teach something? I don’t think it would. Maybe in another hundred to a thousand years, maybe we’ll have the models down solid enough—and well known enough—to really consider it. There is very good reason why players bring knowledge from outside the magic circle into the game: it’s got more weight. A lot more weight. There is no discovery of the printing press, for instance; just building it.

    We live in a game, a virtual world, of our creation.

    Such philosophy. I would note that I think games require victory conditions, whereas worlds do not. Thus, I agree that we live in a virtual world of our own imagining, but the game is one we must choose to play, in setting goals and determining the rules we must follow for that goal to be worth having.

    If reality is a game, then I must ask the philosophical: who are the players, and what is the end goal? =P As you’re undoubtedly well aware, the analogy has been made enough times to sound cliché, but not invalid.

    I’d argue that other players are very much part of the game in Multiplayer games, those that are challenging enough to force you to interact with them.

    Going with a simple (and my classic) example, let’s take chess. Chess is multiplayer. (AI would complicate this unnecessarily, but we can go into it if you want.) There are two people: you, and the opponent. I take chess, because if players are a “part of the game” in a multiplayer game, then they should be a part of every multiplayer game.

    What are the rules of chess? Specifically, its process? White moves. Then black, and they alternate until an endgame condition occurs.

    What are the other rules? They determine whether or not a piece can be moved to a specific location.

    That’s it. There are no other rules. That’s why a computer can take the place of a player. The player, in and of itself, is actually irrelevant.

    I am not advocating designing without the player in mind; no, of course not. If you have a specific demographic, no problem. But pertaining specifically to just the rules, without which there would be no game, the players are irrelevant. A game is not its players. It does not include them.

    You can abstract rules on how to deal with people. Common courtesy (or political correctness, as it’s now called) is a system of such rules.

    Yes, and it’s further noted that as intimacy rises, rules are regularly replaced. But is it part of the game, or is it part of a larger game? Perhaps you’ve got two buddies and a total stranger playing Monopoly. Is the difference in how you treat your buddies and the stranger part of the game of Monopoly? If you read the rules, there is no such stipulation.

    Europa Universalis

    Sounds like a fair game. What I would ask is this: posing large-scale historical questions is one thing. But, like Diplomacy and RoN, I don’t think that EU is attempting to teach history, argue for a specific outcome, or even give perspective to the situation of the time.

    I might note that I’m working to promote educational, but fun, games at UW Seattle when I’m not doing anything else up there, which is how I heard about Muzzy Lane.

    But the overarching question, for me, was…

    Can a game model the reality of a situation accurately? Yes. Can such a game be developed? No. It’s not a matter of whether or not a game is capable of it; it’s that no one knows all the details of such a situation. No Americans, no Europeans, no Isrealis, no Palestinians, no one knows the situation sufficiently to even produce the data to create the model. You may have a good grasp of the situation, but understanding the primary dynamic is different from understanding the complex political tensions underneath them. The ones that aren’t reported, because the reporters don’t know.

    How is a late arrival from the ivory tower going to even guess at those dynamics? Let’s say you do know them. That, through the power of astral travel and mind-bogglingly powerful telepathic reception, you know about all this.

    Is psychology sufficiently complete for you to take this immense awareness and model what the reactions would be to this move or that? More to the point: can you design a game accurately portraying that, and still be fun enough to play?

  32. I’m not going to rehash the same points I’ve already made. When you choose to avoid learning, you’ve made a decision that I do not care to reverse.

    But are these the games you want to build?

    Yes. Simplification and abstraction are ideal methods of simulation.

    Do you expect that your imitation will hold a candle to the real thing, and not be seen for what it is?

    No. Simulation is not imitation. Simulation allows for experimentation. Games are interactive simulations that use a model, or models, of reality.

    Would even a decade of development be able to claim a successful model convincingly enough to actually use it to teach something?

    Yes. Can simulations provide opportunities for players to experiment and learn? Of course!

    I would note that I think games require victory conditions, whereas worlds do not.

    Games do not require victory conditions.

    A game is not its players. It does not include them.

    Games require at least a single player. That player is not necessarily human; however, the player must be capable of learning.

    Is the difference in how you treat your buddies and the stranger part of the game of Monopoly?

    No; however, the treatment given to and received from players is a component of the Monopoly experience.

    If you read the rules, there is no such stipulation.

    Monopoly is a game that is part of a much larger game called life. In that larger game, the rules account for emergent gameplay.

    Can a game model the reality of a situation accurately? Yes.

    No. Games do not model reality. Games model a reality. The distinction is significant. Since the game is a simulation of a reality, players can experiment with the simplified and/or abstracted variables of a model. Through experimentation, players can be expected to learn and therefore experience fun — an emotional response to learning. Games for change are not games to change. Games for change are simulations of perceived realities that attempt to provide opportunities for experimentation and thus learning. Games are conversations. Games for change are conversations about specific topics.

    Is psychology sufficiently complete for you to take this immense awareness and model what the reactions would be to this move or that?

    I don’t know what you mean by "immense awareness", but yes.

    More to the point: can you design a game accurately portraying that, and still be fun enough to play?

    Yes. I do that every day. Would you like to play my game? Too bad! You’re already playing yours.

  33. I don’t know what you mean by “immense awareness”

    The sentence before. Specifically, “Let’s say you do know them. That, through the power of astral travel and mind-bogglingly powerful telepathic reception, you know about all this.” If you have any pointers, I could use some tips on telepathic reception.

    In any case, I can see we’re not disagreeing anymore; you’re not even answering me, just throwing words around that are defined differently. I seem to merely be too idealistic.

    But a piece of off-topic curiosity: how would you define the term “game”?

  34. Michael Chui wrote:

    But a piece of off-topic curiosity: how would you define the term "game"?

    Consider these working definitions. I reserve the right to change my mind at will. 😉

    — A game is an interactive software application that simulates a reality.

    Reality is that which is perceived.

    Interaction is that which is produced by the communication cycle (sender -> message -> recipient -> feedback -> sender) and enables the actors to effect change from within a reality to a reality.

    Software is that which enables adaptive reasoning.

    Application is the concentrated implementation of the software.

  35. I’ve spent the past few years struggling for the definition for one word…, a subject-to-change definition would be fine. =P

    Curious definition of software.

  36. […] Comments […]

  37. “If reality is a game, then I must ask the philosophical: who are the players, and what is the end goal? =P As you’re undoubtedly well aware, the analogy has been made enough times to sound cliché, but not invalid.”

    Assuming that perception (“I can percieve of god ergo god exists” Anselm/Descartes) is reality is an old concept. And accurate insofar as our limited gelatinous monkey brains can concieve of what surrounds us and appears to be “Real”

    Perception is what you believe experientially, and thus reality is in fact “different” for everyone. It is relative…but others have explained this more succinctly:

    “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, it seems like two minutes. When you sit on a hot stove for two minutes, it seems like two hours that’s relativity.” -Einstein

    Is a quote thats often mistaken for a simplistic explaination of relativity. Its much more than that. Einstien understood that explaining things simply, and without burdensome verbosity is often the key to increasing understanding (and I might add fun), it just so happens its also the key to good consulting/management/business/design and every other meaningful human endeavour you’d like to plug into this sentance. Understanding begets creation and iteration. Understanding changes the world…..

    That we cannot concieve of time except in the most rudimentary manner (linear) should give us pause before we begin making assumptions about how to best define games and reality.

    Games can simulate our percieved reality, else Nash would not have changed our world (for further refferance http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11631.html)
    no doubt by changing understanding of rulesets. This is required for humanity to advance forward.

    Games are creation and iteration on a smaller scale than the larger one which surrounds us. They can teach awareness, they can teach understanding, but as I mentioned earlier cannot magically imbue people with a will to act. The will to create is reliant on the individual, nothing more nothing less. This is known as free will. What you do with it is your own business….

    Creation and iteration to further creation, is its own driver, there is only the algorithim that runs the universe, neither you nor I factor into this algorithim, it runs now and 10,000 years from now when what we’ve done for our 80 years (more or less) on this dirtball floating around a large warm object wont matter. The algorithim does not care that you or I exist, or that we understand it.

    Having fun and the importance of creation and iteration were not lost on greator men than me and the importance of this should not be lost on you….

    “…one of the strongest motives that lead men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever-shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from the personal life into the world of objective perception and thought.”- Einstien

    There are no players, there is no end goal, just an ever expanding game of creation and iteration, and an ocassional good meal and discussion in between 🙂

  38. […] (8) In response to an MTV News article about his closing address at the Games for Change conference, Raph Koster admits that Disaffected is “pretty fun.” […]

  39. […] July Kim Flintoff11:05 amAdd comment Over at MTV they are commenting on Raph Koster’s talk and other speculation at the Games for Change conference last month.  Apparently all was cheery and hopeful until Raph delivere his final keynote that some felt dashed the hopes of the attendees.  Raph’s blog offers an interesting rejoinder where he advises that it isn’t thta he is opposed to the ida of creating games that are geared to bringing about positive social change, nor does he believe a futile exercise; rather he is concerned that there is too much lip service given in the form of platitudes and very little real consideration of the problem at hand.  I’ve spent enough time at themed conferences to know that pouring cold water on things is usually necessary — just as it was at the Metaverse Summit. Does it mean that I don’t believe in the possibilities? Of course not. In fact, it’s sort of odd to be painted as somehow the industry insider opposed to games for social change; after all, I’m the industry guy who was actually willing to show up at the conference in the first place. […]

  40. Raph: I’m sorry I didn’t comment earlier, but I wanted you to know that as an attendee of G4C, I feel you gave the most humane and realistic talk of the entire conference, and I left feeling elated rather than depressed.

    “Humane” because, quite uniquely among the speakers, you told a powerful and personal story about your own commitment to social change that most people in the room seemed unable to articulate. I was enthused to hear a story about PEOPLE and not just IDEAs.

    Realistic because, the MTV games notwithstanding, through MUDs/MOOs/MMORPGs you have reached out to far more people and attempted to touch their lives in a meaningful way than any of the other attendees at the conference. I wouldn’t underestimate the power of propoganda, but personally I’m more interested in what you’ve espoused in your book, Raph, which is to examine what the game’s mechanisms themselves teach and not just get hung up on the skin, important as that might be. I asked you at the end of the conference what mechanisms you think are most important for today’s people to learn, but I believe you’ve already answered that question with your own work and the rules you established in your online worlds.

    Your closing remarks powerfully captured both the concepts of “games” and “change.” I would hardly describe them as “cold water.”

  41. Heh, revisiting this thread.

    Instead of answering you directly, Allen, I’d point to a phenomenon Raph’s book makes a note of: as people grow up, some grow serious. (I paraphrase; book’s not handy.) The cartoon is of a pair of generals (or was it one?) looking at a map of the world. The more I think about it, the more it eludes me; there might be a political science thesis hidden in here.

    Gene, your comment reminds me of a debate between architects Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman. It’s worth reading.

  42. […] carrying Google ads on the page, then they somehow recoup the cost of the Google ad? Puzzling…] # posted by Ben : 6:19 PM    Games for Change (G4C) [Organisers of a conference ongames, etc] # posted by Ben : 6:14 PM    Raphs Website — MTV News – Can Social-Change Video GamesPoverty, Genocide? [Are “persuasive games” (for example, the Darfur is Dying game) just a gimmick?] # posted by Ben : 5:37 PM    Water Cooler Games – Newsgames Archives [The Zidane Flasha category called “newsgames” at Water Cooler Games. Dick Cheney hunting games are there, too…] # posted by Ben : 5:00 PM    Persuasive Gaming: Third World Farmer viagame Third World Farmer online – its not exactly a barrel of laughs, but its message is clear.” # posted by Ben : 3:11 PM    NGO Security: “Although some within the NGO community arepractitioner (just swap the word ‘information’ for ‘intelligence’ if you’re uncomfortable).” # posted by Ben : 2:19 PM   […]

  43. […] 29-Jun: Raph Koster’s Blog […]

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