Wednesday, October 26, 2005

What's in a game? Not culture.

  An article in the technology supplement of the Guardian annoyed me. Let me vent my frustrations in a way that is embarrassingly public.
  The article, written by Steven Johnson, first sets out his deep interest with the computer game Black and White 2, before adding "We are fast approaching the point where an ordinary gamer is more likely to have had a child than be one.... digital games [are] lodging themselves in the back of our consciousness, prodding us to think through their puzzles just one more time before going to sleep."
  So, it's OK, kids, playing games and thinking about them is normal! Fair enough, although I would have to add that there is definitely a series of increments to be considered, and at some point thinking about games will become unhealthy. He goes on (watch out, lazy masses of quoting ahead):
"'s games are exceptionally difficult. They tax the mind in ways that would amaze anyone who last played a game in the age of Pac-Man. In Black & White, for instance, the player must simultaneously track hundreds of shifting and interconnected variables... The best-selling PC game of all time, The Sims, involves an equally complex tableau of variables to track... Even the controversial hit game Grand Theft Auto maps a staggeringly large and complex world: one players' guide to all the variables involved in the game clocked in at 53,000 words, the length of a short book... But does this complexity, on its own, necessarily mean we should take games seriously as works of culture?"

  One might argue that effort in thought is not any indicator of depth in thought, as the A-level psychology students I teach might say, based on the Levels of Processing model. It's not a bad point, true, but what I would argue is that there are potentially a lot of variables to be considered when doing all sorts of things, many quite pointless: such as attempting to alchemise lead into gold, or flicking snot balls, or collecting and cross-referencing cereal packets and attempting to understand the implied interactions between each of the cartoon characters ("Tony the Tiger is scared of the Corn Flake Rooster, as back in 1978 on this variety pack there was..."). Steve is saying that he and others find such games involving because they involve plenty of variables. Does that mean they are works of culture? Lets go back to the man himself:
"I think the answer to that question is a decisive yes, but doing so requires that we develop new aesthetic criteria that are appropriate to the medium... Where psychological depth is concerned, most games are laughably simple. The great majority of gamers, I suspect, don't engage with games because they want to find out what happens, or because they care about the characters. They engage because they want to figure out how the system of the game works, or because they want to explore the space the game represents... We don't look down on buildings because they don't have strong narrative threads or well-developed characters. The same should be true of games. They are - first and foremost - environments and systems, not stories... All the complex simulation games on the market - from The Sims, to Civilization, to SimCity, to Black & White - are, in effect, animated theories of how a given society works, whether it is ancient Rome or a modern metropolis. You learn the theory by playing. One of the defining attributes of Grand Theft Auto that has been chronically ignored by critics is how explicitly the game plays as a satire of American inner-city culture."

  One might argue that figuring out the grand theory behind GTA is not that edifying: shoot ho's and stay away from the porky rozzers and their perfectly-round donut mouths. It's not a bad point, true, but what I would argue is that you can learn about a model society by, say, being alive and thinking about the world. And also acting within it to make changes. Sort of like a game, but a bit more important to both yourself and others. Because couldn't you see the world as a big, exciting system where our actions have consequences?
  Or you might, I don't know, read a book, such as Plato's Republic, and consider an ideal society.
  Might these activities be like playing games... but better, on the very same bases that Steve considers? I believe that there is a slight possibility that this is the case. Let me formulate it for you in a more concrete way:
  Steve Johnson sez: Games are interesting and complex. They are actually vast systems which one can journey into, to figure out, that represent a certain theory of society. For example, in the Sims you control the lives of fun-loving leisurely humans. In Black & White you attempt to convert worshippers to gain religious power.
  I sez: More complex and interesting than the world that we live in, a series of inter-related societies all relying on each other, with an almost limitless history and personally involving future that determines the course of our actual lives?
  Steve Johnson sez: Well, not that.

  Games are not as complex as reality. So, in those terms, reality should be MORE fascinating, and we should be thinking about that.
  The effects of being alive are more personally changing and fulfilling than those of playing a game. Getting a new job or girlfriend, or helping a friend, or working for charity, is worth more to anyone than getting a highscore or beating Black & White 2. If not, you are not existing in the same way as most people would accept as sensible, normal, or perhaps even moral.
  Playing a game is NOT as interesting as being alive. So that any insight gained from playing them is not equal to the insight you would have gained in taking the effort to consider life.
  The theory behind a game is intrinsically graspable, within moments. It is easy to figure out GTA - it involves a limited set of skills, such as driving, shooting, stealing etc. The Sims? Play it, for god's sake, you make houses for idiots and they throw parties, Tamagotchi with DFS sofas. You do not play to figure out the theory, but to keep exploiting it for your own ends. Because games are easier than life.
  I accept little of Steve's argument. Games are full of variables, do constitute a system, and are complex and engaging. You do have to figure out the system to play them. They are moreso like this than previous games. However, these facets might make them an interesting item for leisure consumption, but do not intrinsically improve a person in any noticeable way comparable with living fully and honestly. Questions: why do those who are avid gamesplayers often seem unusual and awkward? Why are they sometimes obsessive figures who others do not see as improving the world? Why do they seem to fixate on set goals that revolve more around them or an issue of geek culture rather than something wider?
  This advanced culture of gaming does not seem to be equipping anybody to do anything. I do not see games becoming parts of people's education and allowing them to deal with the systems in life as well as those in game worlds. I see them ignoring the world and playing games instead, which is personally very helpful to me. I'll give money to charity: you buy Morrowmind! Ta!
  And, I say exasperatedly, for I have been coming across this argument since I was an Amiga Power reading child, games are not cultural artifacts: compare the social theory of Plato's Republic with any of the games Steve mentions, or even might mention. Compare the life-changing effects of art on people compared with a game. Games are consumable leisure items that, although presumably improving hand-eye co-ordination, although sometimes being funny or satirical or puzzling or deep or comprising of an interesting system, they do not offer anything close to what is offered by cultural artefacts. It is no reason to play them because they are 'good', or 'educating', or 'improving'. That is the reason to be alive and be thoughtful. I think I am most pissed off with Steve's implicit summoning of moral egoism - the very old viewpoint that morality is good because it improve you - and linking it with Zelda: The Wind Waker. A fun game, which I have enjoyed, but I learnt nothing from it and I refuse to think it improved my capacity for anything else but killing monsters and collecting gems.
(You can read more about Steve's theory of how games improve thinking in yet another Guardian article, if you are interested in just how games are supposed to encleverise us.)

  Steve has also released books, as well as annoying my eyes in the paper. His book "Everything Bad Is Good For You" was reviewed in the Guardian, and better picked apart there than I could attempt. Yes, modern entertainment is absorbing and complex, with mini-series full of crossy-twisty plotlines, and games with lots of things going on. But Steve reckons this will make you 'smarter' - sadly I am not seeing evidence of this in the media, in my classes, or in my life. It makes you better at watching TV (and watching more of it), it does not improve cognitive or intellectual ability. Unless knowing how many times Jack Bauer has spent an hour giving an emergency tracheotomy to an infant using only a drainpipe is some heretofore undiscovered psychological measure of genius.
  Additionally, Steve allegedly makes a classic correlational analysis error - see the fourth paragraph of the book review - which shows that watching lots of films does not teach you even basic facts from A-Level psychology research methods. Otherwise my students would not look at me so blankly in class, as if across a vast feary divide full of clown's smirks. In fact, I'll use the argument that rising IQ over the past few decades is linked with the mentally improving nature of pop culture in class, and see which eager teens pop their shoulder in the rush to answer such an easy question.
  As well as this, he appears to have gone back to the very paper that showed how wrong his argument was to peddle the self-same stuff! (And you were thinking that I was picking on him for no reason.)   And then he wrote another, more chatty article on the same subject, concluding yet again that "video games force you to speculate about what's going on under the hood. If you don't think about the underlying mechanics of the simulation - even if that thinking happens in a semi-conscious way - you won't last very long in the game. You have to probe to progress". Well, isn't it just better than going to school? Don't people use this skill to be more thoughtful in everyday life? (Note: in the event I ever managed to write a book, I would not likely turn down the chance to big it up in the same paper multiple times, so please be aware of my own possible hypocrisy).
  You do have to admire the tenacity of a man, however, who writes articles in the paper that printed this 'digested read' of his book. It certainly was not altogether flattering!

  I conclude my argument with the reviewer of Everything Bad Is Good For You concluding that: "Everything Bad Is Good for You is in the end most interesting as an example of a particular philistine current in computer-age thinking. In an age of digitised media, everything is reduced to, and judged by, its brute sum of 'information'. 'What are the rewards of reading?' Johnson asks rhetorically at one point. The answer is: 'the information conveyed by the book, and the mental work you have to do to process and store that information.'"
  The lack of interest in truth or falsity implied by this paragraph chills me. It does follow on from Steve's inherently tortuous arguments, but to see it like this is very worrisome. Is this what thought is the subject of now, mere 'information'? Information can be many things: for example knowledge, belief, or opinion. Are we not now to distinguish between them?
  Of course, if Steve is right, then I will be very pleased, as his argument is that games will improve people. If this is true, I will be very surprised, but in a nice way. Let's hope that somehow it happens, and that games are not actually just silly things that you play to ignore this globalised world, full of pain and the knowledge that our actions are not good enough to help anybody.

  To lighten the mood - some excellent 'bad things that are good for you' that I have invented, that would exist on our very own The Internet:
  A website entitled "maureen lipman has no r's". Pictures of Maureen, with her arse, are presented, with captions such as "no arse here!". Also, the joke is that there is an 'r' in her name actually yes! It's a bit like "X ate my balls", but with r's.
  "Webstickle bricks". 'Where have you been, Simkins, the board meeting ended an hour ago!' 'Sorry, I stayed up all night smoking dope and giggling over webstickle bricks, because they are stickle bricks, but on the web. However I am not too hungover to realise that I have lost my job, and will probably spend the rest of my life being very angry with myself and physically abusing my family because of it.'
  Internet trivia quiz nights, run over massive MSN IM channels run by a syndicate, with a money prize paid in Amazon wishlist items. 'Fastest googler wins... find a webpage that lists the precise chronological progression of Z80 chipset improvements. You'll have to use boolean operators for this one!'
  MaraTRON. I imagine you'd run down a street, slightly out of breath in your hush puppies, being hit by frisbies. This is just a scary dream I had.

  Each one would expand our intellect so!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


  Thankfully, the Guardian has taken on the new kid at school, Wikipedia, and explained its limitations. I no longer feel like some odd sort left out at the sidelines of an e-revolution, as there is some public acknowledgement that it is not perfect. I no longer feel awkward that I belong to a small group of people that think a massive resource that is most erudite on aspects of Pokemon and computery nerdy things is a bit useless for my ends.
  I have always been annoyed with Wikipedia, because some people online use it as a repository of gospel truth! "It's written by everybody, so it's the spirit of the net, man!" However, bringing in every passing 'netizen' to write about something they (think they) know about is not exactly the same as knowledge, and I guess that this is what needles me.   Just like Plato's distinction between true knowledge and opinion, there is something lacking in Wikipedia that any thoughtful and inquisitive person needs.
  A Wiki article is built on the 'smoothing' process of allowing everyone to edit them, adding, subtracting, changing. What is written only stays as it is by an uneasy consensus between people of different views, so, 'therefore' what is produced is democratically authoritative. Or, perhaps, the inability to state a contentious view actually hampers any attempt to analyse, be provocative, or explore an unusual and innovative perspective.
  This is, I feel, exactly the problem the article uncovers. A bunch of experts review sample articles and find that the writing is often 'unhelpful', i.e. stating contested points as bland fact; there are absolute wrongnesses; it's "not analytical"; there are "omissions"; and, finally, the most damning criticism of the article on encyclopedias is "In other words, it is a school essay, sketchy and poorly balanced."
  I would agree broadly with "These cavils aside, it's obvious that someone has taken care to make the entry factually accurate, even if the way it is written lacks clarity and doesn't necessarily inspire confidence." But I would also agree wholeheartedly with, when discussing Sammy Pepys' diary, "And it is poor on the diary itself. There is no appreciation of its literary merits. It ends with, "Reading it, one cannot help thinking how very much we must all be alike. His characteristic closing sentence was: 'And so to bed'." Which is hardly a worthy summary of the literary merits of one of our great literary works."
  Interestingly, at the end of that 'school essay' encyclopedia article, the payoff is a little mention of how great and new and special an example of such Wikipedia is. See if you can spot the hagiography in the following, from the self-referencing article on Wikipedia, that was existant as of now (when this post was published):
On October 24, 2005, The Guardian published an article "Can you trust Wikipedia?" where a group of experts critically reviewed entries for their fields. Discussing Wikipedia as an academic source, Danah Boyd said in 2005 that "[i]t will never be an encyclopedia, but it will contain extensive knowledge that is quite valuable for different purposes." Wikipedia articles have been referenced by academics in peer-reviewed articles, including those appearing in the journal Science.

  To which the response is: scientists should be more careful about reading widely. And, also, it might be best to actually discuss what you reference rather than immediately dismiss it without even delving into its contents. Because that's what an encyclopedia entry is about. Just because anybody can write does not make Wiki the repository of all knowledge, just the stuff that gets through the prejudices and abilities of your average Wiki writer. And, sadly, they are hobbyists, and not necessarily right.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Collective action problem

  ASSUME that People Are Acting Rationally (in the economic sense). Let us say that the issue is either one of environment, with a solution such as using public transport rather than cars to lessen pollution; or perhaps one of poverty, with a solution of paying more taxes to fund the worst off to prevent crime.

  1) You can co-operate, acting in a way that harms you individually but helps all collectively
  2) You can defect, acting in a way that is economically rational because you can indulge in your self-beneficial behaviour, hoping to enjoy the state of the world after enough others have co-operated. Termed 'free-riding'.

  Obviously, this sort of thing is a major issue today, because we must act collectively on many issues but we are too lazy to do so, preferring to defect. And, inexhorably, the world worsens as we sit back protecting our own position, which we are only improving in terms relative to a co-operative position, while losing out in absolute terms. It is not that many of us are doing something and the rest are 'free-riding', it is that hardly anyone is doing anything!
  As mathematician Ian Stewart put it, "sometimes rational decisions aren't sensible!" And what does this say about the economic concept of 'rationality', I wonder?

  I believe that we must escape this way of thinking, as it seems little more than a clever way of reinforcing harmful concepts. Rationality is NOT simply a measure of short-term, relative cost. And we are not experiencing a problem of free-riding. We are experiencing a problem of terrifying self-destruction. If we are free-riding anywhere, it is to a collective hell, and if anyone wants to say that this is due to most acting 'rationally' then they can live and die by their definition of the term. To me, it seems a problem of undiluted ignorance. And there is no clever way of thinking about ignorance that makes it into an edifying theoretical conundrum of the economic benefits of inaction vs. action, it simply needs to be stamped on.