Conrad interviews two kiwi academics about video game values
The last twenty years have seen an explosion in the forms and content of digital media that consumers can view, listen to and interact with. Videogames are no exception. In fact, with an industry that now outstrips that of music and cinema, it can be said to be leading the curve.
But, unlike music and film, there seems to be a dearth of critical commentary about what role videogames have in our lives. Of course, there are the knee jerk reactions by fundamentalists and political opportunists whenever a game is released that pushes the boundaries – but beyond these shallow remarks, a proper understanding of how we relate to games and how games relate, change, and influence us is thin on the ground. Games are now big business and occupy a significant amount of our leisure time. Never before in human history has entertainment of this sophistication been so readily available, and so hungrily consumed. As a consequence many questions need to be answered, but in particular the question of whether or not video games play a part in shaping our values is becoming paramount.
Thankfully we are not totally in the dark here. There have been brave souls who have tried to approach the relationship between video games and values in a rigorous and scientific way.
One such fellow is the Kiwi academic and serious gamer, Dr. Pippin Barr (who confesses to having an almost debilitating addiction to any Madden NFL title). Now working as a visiting researcher at the Centre for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen in Denmark, he has the awesome job of thinking, writing and researching about videogames and the social role they play. I had a chance to sit down with Pippin and his wife Dr. Rilla Khaled, who also works for the centre. We delved into a conversation about videogames, culture, values and what effects we can start to see from our continuing interaction with modern gaming. Read on – you might be surprised at what you learn.
NZGamer.com: Let’s start with a bit of context. How has our interaction with computers changed in the last twenty years?
Pippin: The last twenty years would take us from the early 90s to today. Going back only a little further would bring us to the first personal computers with graphical user interfaces, which was a rather substantial revolution in computing. In moving to graphical interfaces, the notion of using metaphors to explain how computing systems worked became much more explicit and popular. A User Interface Metaphor is something like the trash can or recycle bin we see on our screens that explains to us how to delete files (or at least to store them for deletion). It helps us to comprehend what is otherwise an extremely abstract function involving the bits and bytes of the underlying computer system.
Since then, user interfaces have arguably not undergone a similar revolution. We still use interfaces remarkably similar to the "original" interfaces. Icons, pointers, windows, menus and so on still form the main basis of how we interact.
On the other hand, the major revolution in computing in the past twenty years has really been the explosion of use and the varied contexts now possible. Cellphones are the obvious example of this. For instance, Smartphones these days are capable of doing far more than the desktop computers of not terribly long ago.
If there is a new paradigm for interaction then it's probably multitouch, which is becoming the de facto standard for mobile devices, and is also the basis for new tablet computers. Using computers via multitouch definitely has some key distinctions from using a keyboard and mouse, for instance, so it's interesting to monitor how the technology is used. At larger scales it's an inherently more social technology than we're used to.
NZG: The modern changes to the “form” of computers are interesting. How do you think video games have changed?
Pippin: Games are in many ways at the forefront of changing technologies - and indeed drive technology change, especially on the PC platform and especially with respect to graphics accelerators. At the most basic level, games have changed by becoming more and more complex, even as technology has becoming more and more sophisticated, powerful, and affordable.
For example, 1990 saw the release of the Super Famicom (SNES) in Japan along with Super Mario World. The biggest shift since then has really been the explosion of 3D graphics and multiplayer gaming over networks (coinciding with the unstoppable rise of the internet). From my perspective it's interesting to ask how much games have changed in terms of their actual mechanical complexity. In Super Mario World, for example, one can essentially only move, jump, fly a little, and shoot (as Fire Mario). Simplistic, and yet it's also true, I think, that contemporary games are not necessarily always a great deal more interactively complex. After all, in Portal all we can do is move, shoot portals, and pick up items.
What has changed a great deal is the sophistication of the settings and narratives we play in, the people we can now play with in multiplayer, and the sheer scope of contemporary games.
Rilla: I think there's been a broadening of the available genres. The rise of indie gaming has been extremely interesting – and in particular the ability not just to make one's own games, but to distribute them thanks to the internet. Also of interest is the "maturation" of games as a medium and the ensuing legal and social consequences of that maturation - issues of free speech, violence, and so on.
Conrad: What is “HCI” and how is it relevant to the academic study of video games?
Pippin: HCI stands for Human-Computer Interaction. At its most basic, HCI is the study of how people use computers and software. Traditionally, HCI focused on questions surrounding ergonomics and usability - concerning issues such as how to make software as efficient, error free, and learnable as possible. As technology and software has diversified to concern matters such as collaborative work over a distance or pervasive computing, our understanding of what HCI is and does has also expanded.
Videogames provide a unique challenge to traditional HCI conceptualisations because they don't quite behave like "normal" software. Videogames are specifically designed to lead us into error, for instance, and nobody would want a videogame designed to make sure we never made a mistake (some people complained about the recent Prince of Persia for this reason). Likewise, video games are by their very nature inefficient in terms of achieving game goals - Red Dead Redemption doesn't consist of a single "win" button that would be the most efficient way to do so, you have to play for likely at least fifteen to twenty hours to complete the game.
Videogames are software running on computers, and thus are naturally of interest to HCI research. Videogames present an exciting possibility for the extension of HCI to understanding games. In particular, I think, there is a great deal of work to be done in understanding the unique aspects of “play” as a form of human-computer interaction.
NZG: Your reference to “play” is interesting. Has this element of video games changed the way we understand HCI?
Pippin: Not as much as you might think. Despite being on the leading edge of various aspects of technology, and particularly graphics, videogames have not had an enormous impact on HCI thinking. There are now a good number of HCI researchers working with videogames in various capacities, however, so this is likely to change. A small number of researchers have contemplated the implications games and game design might have for other domains of interface design.
Rilla: It seems as though every month or so someone publishes a paper about what we could learn from games and play, though they often do not get very far. It's clear there are various features of games and play are highly intriguing to other disciplines, such as their ability to engage players for long periods of time and their levels of inherent motivation.
Conrad: Do videogames shape our values?
Pippin: It's not particularly clear that they do. For all the furore in the media about how videogames are corrupting the youth of the nation, and all the admirable hope in other circles that videogames are a force for good, there isn't a lot of hard evidence once way or another. The quintessential debate on violence rages on and yet has demonstrated next to nothing for sure.
It simply doesn't seem to be the case that we straightforwardly take our values from any media, but rather than they may play into the context of our lives in ways that allow us to confirm or question our beliefs about the world. A key reason I doubt videogames do terribly much to shape our values is simply that they rarely deal with issues or narratives that are particularly "deep" with respect to human values, and when they do, the level of engagement with the actual landscape of values is often rather trivial. We're all quite familiar with the simplistic moral choices we make in games like Bioshock or even Knights of the Old Republic compared to the realities of moral choices in our lives.
Rilla: There seem to be at least two levels here: "how do games shape our values as people in the world" and "how do games shape our values as gamers?" What it's okay to do in Manhunt versus what it's okay to do in Red Dead Redemption, versus the kinds of actions you would never take in any game. That's an area of discussion all its own, aside from questions about whether values can be taken from games and applied in the real world.
NZG: The exponential changes in the visual presentation of computer games, along with narrative and structural changes in games themselves, must be having an effect on us. Do you think we are in danger of de-sensitising ourselves to certain images or narratives?
Pippin: Doubtless people have asked exactly this sort of thing about every new technology that has come about - certainly, for instance, the early days of cinema were fraught with drama about what the new media might mean to people. I suppose, but do not know in any scientific way, that desensitisation is simply a risk one takes with any repeated exposure to any media - it really depends on whether we think this "desensitisation" is problematic.
Further, it's not clear to me that we genuinely do become desensitised to particular images or narratives. Rather we seem to be adept at following specific media cues that tell us how seriously (or not) to take particular instances of media. Watching Rambo or any other action hero slaughter dozens of soldiers leaves many of us indifferent to those deaths - but that's rather the nature of the movie in the first place. Recently, watching the Michael Haneke movie Caché, I was utterly shocked by the single moment of violence it presented. Being sensitised to an image or narrative hugely depends on its contextualisation in the media, rather than some notion of robotic media consumers who cease caring about any and all stimuli.
NZG: Perhaps then, these changes might be beneficial?
Pippin: At base, we could really only answer this kind of question scientifically with various large scale studies and so on. There's certainly evidence that games are beneficial in various ways, from improving surgeons's hand-eye coordination to improving people's awareness (if not comprehension) of important humanitarian situations (e.g. Darfur is Dying. It would seem to come down to how the medium is used, like any other. Just as there would seem to be beneficial and problematic uses of the media of film and video, so too the same will be true of video games.
Rilla: It really depends on who you are - the US military certainly thinks it's beneficial that today's children are learning important military-style responses to stimuli, such as fast twitch responses, rapidly differentiating between friends and enemies, teamwork, and so on. Further, the kinds of skills one learns in MMOGs for example are often cited as being beneficial: teamwork, communication skills, group coordination and management. Problem solving as a general skill is something promoted by games, and the repetitive nature of its presentation will at the very least lead people to have some practice which can be transitioned into the real world.
NZG: Can video games then play an important part in developing our culture?
Rilla: Every player has various cultures they affiliate with - and every game is designed and created by people affiliated with yet more cultures and who have aspirations for the kind of experience they want players to have. In that mix of cultures and values is a huge meeting of many different cultural norms and assumptions. Also, you can think of the structural components of games themselves as cultures. Both consist of compulsory rules, particular artefacts, guiding narratives, and so on. In other words, it's complicated!
NZG: Point noted, culture is a pretty massive topic to grapple with in the limited words we have here. But can video games play an important role in influencing us in other ways, for example, exposing us to political values or commentary? Some gamers will recall the philosophical objectivism and libertarianism in Bioshock, for example.
Pippin: There's plenty of evidence that videogames can embody particular ideologies of their creators, either consciously or unconsciously, and some excellent research has been done in this area. Ian Bogost's book "Persuasive Games" is probably the best example of this. Bogost talks about "procedural rhetoric" as being the unique way in which software can make arguments in a way that other media cannot. He regards video games as the best example of this. Essentially, video games can make arguments not just through text or imagery, but through the representation of systems which a player can interact with and thus come to more deeply understand.
There are various games which are explicitly used in this manner. “September 12th” is probably the iconic example. In it, the player is called on to target missiles at terrorists blending with a civilian population. However, the missiles do not fire immediately, but after a delay, essentially ensuring that the player will hit not just terrorists but various civilians too. This, in turn, leads other civilians to become terrorists themselves. Ultimately, firing missiles accelerates the growth of terrorists in the city. This is a system which makes an argument about the "war on terror", in other words, cautioning against aggression which, the game claims, will harm innocents and ultimately drive more people toward extremism.
There are plenty of other games like September 12th, but I also find it interesting to consider the ways in which "normal" games also contain powerful arguments and value judgments. Sometimes these are built more or less explicitly into the world of the game, such as the objectivist philosophy represented in Bioshock, and sometimes they are simply an artefact of the developer's culture and various cultural and video game conventions. The fact that a vast number of videogames provide, at base, only the abilities to move through an environment and to shoot or otherwise injure or kill other creatures or people in it, is rather clearly the representation of a kind of ideology, even though it may not be intended as such.
NZG: But surely political ideologies and morals are linked. What values do you feel are most easily presented on the virtual screen, and within those values are some harder to present than others? Surely 'passive' values like tolerance or empathy do not lend themselves well to videogames.
Pippin: This is a particularly interesting question. It does seem likely that games are better at representing some sets of values and cultural norms than others, at least as games exist today.
The point about passivity is apt. Games are almost universally about taking action, resolving situations, exerting power. These are all the values of a particular, rather Western, nature. An important part of our current research is to examine the state of universal human values - as proposed and validated by the psychologist Shalom Schwartz - in popular video games. Our expectation is that games, and particular genres of games, will tend to focus on a particular subset of these values, such as power, achievement, and stimulation.
What is unclear at present, and particularly exciting in terms of game design, is whether games could be representing a greater portion of human values, such as conformity, tradition, or universalism. A central question here is whether games are, in some sense, inherently suited toward particular forms of value, particularly those that lend themselves to competition and the expression of power, say, or whether the nature of games is sufficiently flexible to incorporate other value forms. Given that games are, at base, another medium for human expression, it seems likely that they would not be limited to only a small subset of human values.
Rilla: I don't think it's necessarily the case that some values cannot be represented, but it seems clear that certain values are heavily preferred in current game design - achievement is an obvious example. But values of cooperation are also hugely popular at present in games like Left 4 Dead. Even values like "benevolence" can be said to be active in the teamwork involved in being successful in games like World of Warcraft.
In communities of players there's a clear sense of upholding tradition, another common value. When David Myers experimented with playing specifically by the rules of City of Heroes, (going against the player-defined expectations of play) he was met with a great deal of resistance, suggesting that players highly value their own traditions of play, over and above the rules of the game itself. This event reflected a strong tendency toward the value of "conformity" in the game, too, with a negative reaction to members of an out-group.
NZG: What direction do you think videogame values will take?
Pippin: Not being a futurist, I'm hesitate to make a prediction about the future of all this. A critical element of the future of games, and by extension the values within them, is how to increase the complexity of the stories and situations we can represent. The central issue here is content creation - it takes an absurd amount of time and people to create the AAA games which we look to for the highest levels of complexity and interactivity, yet they are still rather simplistic when it comes to the kinds of interactions we have and the stories they tell.
To significantly increase the complexity, there are two major avenues of hope. One is artificial intelligence, in which we're able to create intelligent actors in the games who react dynamically to a player's actions and create extremely complex and unpredictable situations within which to act. AI is rolling along, but I don't think we're especially close - the nearest we've come in the video game world so far is, I suppose, Façade and it will be interesting to see how that work progresses. For the moment, computers and games are still relatively dumb and dynamically creating the kinds of experiences we want on their own.
The other major opportunity is to further exploit multiplayer games and to allow other humans to create the complexity and drama. The issue here is that, by and large, people aren't always great at creating their own narratives and situations in which to act. MMORPGs like World of Warcraft still have to provide players with quests and back-story and so on which contextualise the players' actions and make them feel meaningful, while the other players in the world provide a social and competitive context. The recent game Sleep is Death, by Jason Rohrer, is another interesting take on the "other players" approach. It's a two player game in which one player controls the story and dynamically creates the world and characters each "turn" while the other player simply exists and acts within that world, technically able to try anything they can imagine. This is an interesting form of collaborative story-telling, though it again relies on the creativity of players who, often, don't want to be in charge of the narrative themselves.
NZG: This conversation has really delved into the depths of videogaming and sociology, but are we just musing? At the end of the day the gaming industry is predominantly based around providing an 'entertaining' experience. It’s about escapism and fun. Does this detract or develop the ability of games to shape our values?
Pippin: I don't think the fact that games are primarily for entertainment detracts from their ability to be meaningful and value-laden experience. The comparison with cinema fairly quickly shows that media can be used to present experiences of many different kinds of intensity, artistic merit, morality, and so on. Games are still extremely young by media standards, so it's hardly surprising we don't have quite the variety of experiences we see in other media as of yet. The only concern on that front might be that because complex games require so much work and time, they will become the domain of the blockbuster and thus the Hollywood model of creation. That said, the very many excellent indie games being produced give at least some hope for a greater diversification of what games can be and mean.
Rilla: This really goes back to classic game studies ideas by people such as Huizinga. Play as an important social role and function. It may well feel like its pure escapism, but it's about much more than that – it’s about exploration, practice, identity. And at the same time, it's fun.
So, what can we take from this?
As both Pippin and Rilla have shown, as assessment of videogame values is essential. The rise of multiplayer gaming and visually immersive titles will only increase the ability of games to shape the way we think, judge and evaluate. At the moment, many of these value choices are restricted to the contexts in which we find them. However, what must be remembered is that videogames, like any other medium, carry with them a large measure of rhetorical power.
It is this that we must be aware of when we think about videogames and values. Videogames may still be an adolescent medium, but there is nothing to be lost in approaching them with a critical eye, and with a greater awareness of the increasing sophistication of the rhetorics hidden within them.
Because gaming is about more than just escapism. It’s also about creating worlds within worlds. Imaginary places that are simulacra of our offline experience. As gamers we are faced with a choice. Do we ask our games to conform to the morality we are familiar with? Or do we risk revolution, and invite the consequences that might bring. I don’t know the answer. But whatever we choose, having a strong understanding of what we will or won’t accept has never been more important.