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    Playing with Our Heads

    On a Monday evening in fall 2005 in the Crystal Gateway Marriott
    a few blocks from the Pentagon, a group of academics, journalists,
    and software developers gathered to play with the U.S. military’s
    newest toys. In one corner of the hotel’s ballroom, two men climbed
    into something resembling a jeep. One clutched a pistol and
    positioned himself behind the steering wheel, while the other
    manned the vehicle’s turret. In front of them, a huge,
    three-paneled television displayed moving images of an urban combat
    zone. Nearby, another man shot invisible infrared beams from his
    rifle at a video-screen target. In the middle of the room a player
    knelt, lifted a large, bazooka-like device to his shoulder, and
    began launching imaginary antitank missiles.

    The reception was hosted by the Army Game Project, best known
    for creating America’s Army, the official video game of the U.S.
    Army, and was intended to demonstrate how the military’s use of
    video games has changed in just a few years. America’s Army was
    released in 2002 as a recruiting tool. But the game has evolved
    beyond mere propaganda for the PlayStation crowd into a training
    platform for the modern soldier.

    If you have absorbed the familiar critique of video games as a
    mindless, dehumanizing pastime for a nihilistic Columbine
    generation, the affinity between gaming and soldiering may seem
    nightmarishly logical. And some members of today’s military do view
    video games as a means of honing fighting skills. The director of
    the technology division at Quantico Marine Base told the
    Washington Post in February of 2005 that today’s young
    recruits, the majority of whom are experienced video-game players,
    ‘probably feel less inhibited, down in their primal level, pointing
    their weapons at somebody.’

    To view video games merely as mock battlegrounds, however, is to
    ignore the many pacific uses to which they are being put. The U.S.
    military itself is developing games that ‘train soldiers, in
    effect, how not to shoot,’ according to the New York Times
    (Aug. 22, 2004). Rather than use video games to turn
    out mindless killers, the armed forces are fashioning games that
    impart specific skills, such as parachuting and critical thinking.
    Even games that teach weapons handling, like those displayed at the
    Marriott, don’t reward indiscriminate slaughter-the
    shoot-first-ask-questions-later bluster that hard-core gamers
    deride as ‘button mashing.’ Players of America’s Army participate
    in small units with other players connected via the Internet to
    foster teamwork and leadership.

    Nor is the U.S. military alone in recognizing the training
    potential of video games. The Army’s display was only one exhibit
    at the Serious Games Summit, ‘serious’ being the industry’s label
    for games that are designed to do more than entertain. Games have
    been devised to train emergency first-responders, to recreate
    ancient civilizations, to promote world peace. The Swedish National
    Defence College has developed a game to teach United Nations
    peacekeepers how to interact with and pacify civilian populations
    without killing them. Food Force, an America’s Army imitator,
    educates players about how the U.N. World Food Program fights
    global hunger. A group of Carnegie Mellon University students,
    among them a former Israeli intelligence officer, is developing
    PeaceMaker, a game in which players take the role of either the
    Israeli prime minister or the Palestinian president and work within
    political constraints toward a two-state solution to the
    Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    The very phrase ‘serious games,’ however, suggests that
    unserious games may well be the societal blight that many believe
    them to be. It’s easier to vilify games such as those in the Grand
    Theft Auto series, in which the player’s goal is to rise to power
    in various criminal organizations by carjacking vehicles and
    killing their owners with a variety of weapons, including a
    baseball bat, a Molotov cocktail, and an AK-47. But Grand Theft
    Auto and its sequels are popular not just because of their
    transgressive content, but also because they are designed to allow
    players to roam freely across a gigantic three-dimensional
    cityscape. (With their combination of technical accomplishment and
    controversial subject matter, the Grand Theft Auto titles might be
    the video-game analogues of movies such as Bonnie and
    and, more recently, Pulp Fiction.)

    As far back as 1982, when video games consisted of simple fare
    like Space Invaders-a two-dimensional arcade game-a rabbi warned on
    The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour about their dehumanizing
    effects: ‘When children spend hours in front of a screen playing
    some of these games that are inherently violent, they will tend to
    look at people as they look at these little blips on the screen
    that must be zapped-that must be killed before they are killed. And
    it is my concern that 10, 20 years down the line we’re going to see
    a group of children who then become adults who don’t view people as
    human beings, but rather view them as other blips to be
    destroyed-as things.’

    Those who assume that video-game players are a
    bloodthirsty lot might be surprised to learn that of the 10
    best-selling games for the PlayStation and Xbox consoles in 2005,
    not one was a shoot-’em-up. Six of the most popular games were
    sports titles-including Madden NFL, a cultural juggernaut among
    athletes and young men-and the other four were Star Wars
    games. The bestselling PC game in 2005 was World of Warcraft, a
    multiplayer swords-and-sorcery game that millions of subscribers
    pay a monthly fee to play. World of Warcraft is the latest and most
    popular in the genre of massively multiplayer online role-playing
    games, commonly called ‘virtual worlds.’ In these games, thousands
    of players can interact with each other by connecting
    simultaneously over the Internet. (There’s a debate among
    specialists whether some of these worlds, such as Second Life,
    which offers its ‘residents’ no competitions or quests, even
    qualify as games.)

    Despite their popularity, video games remain, in the opinion of
    many (particularly those who don’t play them), brainless or, worse,
    brain-destroying candy. But for as long as critics have decried
    video games as the latest permutation in a long line of nefarious,
    dehumanizing technologies, others have offered a competing, more
    optimistic vision of their role in shaping American society.
    Opposite the rabbi on that MacNeil/Lehrer broadcast a
    quarter-century ago was Paul Trachtman, an editor for
    Smithsonian magazine, who argued that video games provide
    a form of mental exercise. Ignore the dubious content, the ‘surface
    or the imagery or the story line,’ he suggested, and you will see
    that games teach not merely how best to go about ‘zapping a ship or
    a monster.’ Underneath the juvenilia is ‘a test of your facility
    for understanding the logic design that the programmer wrote into
    the game.’ Games, in short, are teachers. And electronic games are
    uniquely suited to training individuals how to navigate our modern
    information society.

    As the gaming generation has matured, it has advanced this idea
    with increasing vigor. In 2005 Steven Johnson published
    Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is
    Actually Making Us Smarter
    (Riverhead), which included a brief
    for an idea that has been gaining currency among academics and game
    developers: All video games, even the ones that allow you to kill
    prostitutes, are a form of education, or at least edutainment.
    Games can do more than make you a better soldier, or improve your
    hand-eye coordination or your spatial orientation skills. They can
    make you more intelligent.

    On one level, this argument isn’t very surprising. Games of all
    kinds are a part of almost every human society, and they have long
    been used to inculcate the next generation with desirable virtues
    and skills. We enroll our kids in Little League not only so they
    will have a good time, but also to teach them about sportsmanship,
    teamwork, and the importance of practice and hard work. The Dutch
    historian Johan Huizinga argued in Homo Ludens, his 1938
    book on game studies, that the concept of ‘play’ should be
    considered a ‘third function’ for humanity, one that is ‘just as
    important as reasoning and making.’

    In the case of video games, even their critics acknowledge that
    they are instructing our children. The critics just don’t like the
    form and the sometimes violent and sexually explicit content of the
    instruction, which they believe teaches children aggressive
    behaviors. Yet if such games are nothing more than ‘murder
    simulators,’ as one critic has called them, why is it-as gaming
    enthusiasts never tire of pointing out-that the murder rate has
    declined in recent years, when there are more video games, and more
    violent ones, than ever? Why do IQ scores continue their slight but
    perceptible rise if an entire generation of children, the oldest of
    whom are now in their 30s, stunted its development with electronic
    pap? The important thing to find out about video games isn’t
    whether they are teachers. ‘The question is,’ as game designer Raph
    Koster writes in A Theory of Fun for Game Design
    (Paraglyph, 2004), ‘what do they teach?’

    As was true of games before the digital age,
    there’s a remarkable array of video games. Chess and bowling aren’t
    very similar, but we intuitively understand that both are games.
    Likewise, video games encompass everything from simple online
    puzzles to simulated football games and professional wrestling
    matches to the ‘God game,’ in which the player adopts an omniscient
    view to influence the development of entire societies. In The Sims,
    the best-selling PC game of all time, players control the lives of
    individual humans as they go about their mundane lives. (It may
    sound unappealing, but The Sims comes from a long tradition. It is,
    in effect, another way to play house.) New genres frequently
    emerge. A ‘music’ genre has arisen in response to the popularity of
    Dance Dance Revolution, a game in which players must move their
    feet in time to music on different areas of a dance pad.

    Exactly what is new about video games, other than their
    electronic nature, can be difficult to pin down. In the 21st
    century, almost all children’s toys have an electronic component,
    but that doesn’t make them all video games. In The Ultimate
    History of Video Games
    (Three Rivers, 2001), game journalist
    Steven Kent cites pinball as a mechanical ancestor of today’s
    digital games. Pinball created a panic in some quarters-no pun
    intended-as a new and dangerous influence on society. Foreshadowing
    the antics of today’s antigaming politicians was New York mayor
    Fiorello LaGuardia, who smashed pinball machines with a
    sledgehammer and banned them from his city in 1942, a prohibition
    that was not lifted until the 1970s. (To be fair to LaGuardia,
    governments have long perceived societal threats from new games. In
    the 1400s Scotland banned golf, now its proud national pastime,
    because too many young men were neglecting archery to practice
    their swings.)

    Nowadays you can play pinball on your PC, as every Windows XP
    machine comes packaged with a video-game version. The difference
    between this digital pinball and its mechanical predecessor is, at
    root, aesthetic. The rules of the game are the same, just as the
    rules and gameplay of computer solitaire and chess are identical to
    those of their analog forebears. (Beyond the translation of playing
    cards and chess pieces into pixels, there are some key differences,
    of course. For one thing, the computer doesn’t let you cheat-or, in
    pinball, ’tilt.’) Jesper Juul, a Danish video-game theorist,
    defines games such as pinball, solitaire, and chess as ’emergence’
    games, by which he means that the gameplay emerges from a
    relatively simple set of rules. Football and basketball-whether
    they are played online or off-are also emergence games, as are
    backgammon, Othello, and board games such as Risk and Monopoly. All
    those games can now be played using computers, but that doesn’t
    make them new.

    The first game that diverged from this 5,000-year-old emergence
    model was a 1976 computer game called Adventure that combined the
    elements of narrative with gameplay. Adventure was essentially an
    interactive text, somewhat similar to the books in the Choose
    Your Own Adventure
    series. While reading the story, the player
    typed in commands to tell the character what to do and to learn
    what happened next. Juul calls Adventure the first ‘progression’
    game, a new model that inspired most of today’s video games, from
    Grand Theft Auto to Halo.

    Nongamers who watch their slack-jawed,
    twitchy-thumbed children and conclude that they are brain dead are
    making the mistake of observing the spectator rather than the game
    itself. Research has shown that playing video games can help people
    improve their ability to manipulate spatial information, and that
    as little as 10 hours of play can improve a person’s ability to
    process visual information. But focusing on how video games improve
    coordination and memory misses the point. In Wired (April
    2006), well-known game designer Will Wright compares this mistake
    to studying film by watching the audience rather than what’s on the
    screen: ‘You would conclude that movies induce lethargy and junk
    food binges. That may be true, but you’re missing the big

    Wright proposes that video games teach ‘the essence of the
    scientific method,’ that ‘through trial and error, players build a
    model of the underlying game.’ To succeed, a player must establish
    a hypothesis about some aspect of the game, test it, and evaluate
    the results of the experiment. The organizer of a playground game
    explains the rules in advance, but a video game often hides its
    rules, revealing them only as the player figures out how to unlock
    the game’s secrets. And when that happens, a game player can
    experience an ecstatic Archimedes moment.

    Perhaps most important of all, the game adapts itself to the
    player’s ability. ‘The secret of a video game as a teaching machine
    isn’t its immersive 3-D graphics, but its underlying architecture,’
    writes James Paul Gee, an education professor at the University of
    Wisconsin, Madison, in Wired (May 2003). Gee, author of
    What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and
    (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), explains that ‘each level
    dances around the outer limits of the player’s abilities, seeking
    at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive
    science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle,
    which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and
    frustration-a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs.’ It
    is in that spirit that Atari founder Nolan Bushnell has said, in a
    statement that probably best distills the gamer ethos, ‘The way to
    have an interesting life is to stay on the steep part of the
    learning curve.’

    Despite the omnipresence of video games, most people who don’t
    play them still fundamentally misunderstand them. Nongamers often
    assume that video games, like so many electronic media, are
    designed to deliver instant electronic gratification. The opposite
    is the case, Johnson insists in Everything Bad Is Good for
    . The best video games are brilliantly designed puzzles.
    The Grand Theft Auto titles can take as long as 60 hours to
    complete. Finishing them requires discipline, problem solving,
    decision making, and repeated trial and error.

    In a May 7, 2006, New York Times column, David Brooks
    suggested that delayed gratification is the key to success in
    school, work, and life, and that it is a learned trait. If that’s
    true, and if the mental gymnasium of video games teaches delayed
    gratification, then gamers should be, on average, more successful
    than nongamers. No researcher has proffered that comprehensive a
    thesis yet, but the authors of Got Game: How the Gamer
    Generation Is Reshaping Business Forever
    (Harvard Business
    School) suggest that gamers do come out ahead in the world of
    business. John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade surveyed 2,500 Americans,
    mostly business professionals, and came to the provocative
    conclusion that having played video games as a teenager explains
    the entire generation gap between those under 34 years of age and
    those older (the book was published in 2004, so presumably the
    benchmark is now 37).

    Beck and Wade argue that the gamers somehow intuitively acquired
    traits that many more-senior managers took years to develop and
    that their nongaming contemporaries still lack. According to their
    survey, video-game players are more likely than nongamers to
    consider themselves knowledgeable, even expert, in their fields.
    They are more likely to want pay for performance in the workplace
    rather than a flat scale. They are more likely to describe
    themselves as sociable. They’re mildly bossy. Among these traits,
    perhaps the most important is that gamers, who are well acquainted
    with the reset button, understand that repeated failure is the road
    to success.

    The very purpose of every game is to become boring, as the
    player develops successful strategies to defeat it, the game
    designer Raph Koster observes. The best video games are designed to
    assist players in figuring out those strategies. The video games
    that are the most like the real world are often the least fun to
    play, because they don’t do a good job of communicating to the
    player what is important and what isn’t-which paths should be taken
    and which can be safely ignored, which items need to be collected
    and which can be safely left behind. But the real world doesn’t
    come with big blue arrows pointing toward the next door you need to
    open. The real world doesn’t always let you hit the reset button
    and start over. In the real world, there isn’t always a way to

    As games become better at adapting to the talent and skill
    levels of their players, more video games will be decoding the
    players as much as players are decoding the games. ‘Soon games will
    start to build simple models of us, the players,’ Wright predicts.
    ‘They will learn what we like to do, what we’re good at, what
    interests and challenges us. They will observe us. They will record
    the decisions we make, consider how we solve problems, and evaluate
    how skilled we are in various circumstances. Over time, these games
    will become able to modify themselves to better ‘fit’ each

    It feels preposterous and yet believable to suggest that the
    adaptive nature of video games might be one reason for the rise of
    the Organization Kid, a term coined by David Brooks when he visited
    with Princeton students for a 2001 Atlantic Monthly story.
    ‘They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb
    it,’ Brooks wrote of the respectful, deferential students he met. A
    Princeton sociology professor Brooks interviewed could have been
    describing ideal soldiers when he said of his students, ‘They’re
    eager to please, eager to jump through whatever hoops the faculty
    puts in front of them, eager to conform.’ Brooks summarized the
    love-the-power worldview of the Organization Kid like this: ‘There
    is a fundamental order to the universe, and it works. If you play
    by its rules and defer to its requirements, you will lead a pretty
    fantastic life.’ That’s a winner’s ideology: Follow orders, and
    you’ll be just fine.

    Whether you find the content of video games inoffensive or
    grotesque, their structure teaches players that the best course of
    action is always to accept the system and work to succeed within
    it. ‘Games do not permit innovation,’ Koster writes. ‘They present
    a pattern. Innovating out of a pattern is by definition outside the
    magic circle. You don’t get to change the physics of a game.’ Nor,
    when a computer is the referee, do you get to challenge the rules
    or to argue about their merits. That isn’t to say that there aren’t
    ways to innovate from within the system. Gamers are famous for
    coming up with creative approaches to the problems a game presents.
    But devising a new, unexpected strategy to succeed under the
    existing rules isn’t the same thing as proposing new rules, new
    systems, or new patterns.

    Our video-game brains, trained on success machines, may be
    undergoing a Mr. Universe workout, one that leaves us stronger but
    less flexible. So don’t worry that video games are teaching us to
    be killers. Worry instead that they’re teaching us to salute.

    Chris Suellentrop (www.suellentrop.com) writes an online column
    for the
    New York Times. Reprinted from the Wilson
    Quarterly (Summer 2006), a thought-leader publication and
    winner of the 2006 Utne Independent Press Award for General
    Excellence. Subscriptions: $24/yr. from Box 420406, Palm Coast, FL
    32142; www.wilsonquarterly.com.

    Published on Jan 1, 2007


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