Posts in games

winning the information game (part one)

This is an unpublished piece I wrote last spring. It clearly is out of date, but I want to finish the thought. What I'm posting here is the original fragment. Next, I'll post my continuation of this thought.

Since I occasionally write a blog about games and libraries, it stands to reason that I'm a supporter of integrating video games into our libraries and our classrooms. I am not. (Though I'd like to be.) Still,  it seems that as I analyze games and think about their application to libraries, the clearest conclusions I can reach tell me games are not applicable to libraries and instruction. More accurately, approaches to using games in library work do not seem to solve the right problems.

I'm not interested in:

  • Bringing games into my classroom. I'm sure this can be done well, but I'm just not on board with taking valuable classroom time and spending it playing video games. I'm sure someone will figure out a useful way of doing this, but that person isn't me.
  • Inventing games to teach with. Games are hard to make and there are a lot of games out there that suck. I'm simply not confident that I could create a teaching game that didn't suck without investing time and effort that could better applied elsewhere. Non-gamers should remember:our students don't love video games per se, they love excellent video games. The key is excellence, not games. We should have enough faith in our students to believe that they can learn from good instruction. Trying to trick them into learning by using "fun" pedagogy won't work unless the "fun" is done well. Believing students are stupid is a mistake. (Even when they act stupid.)

That doesn't mean that games and libraries is a dead field for me. Quite the contrary, I'm enjoying where these thoughts take me. It's just that they are taking me away from the "Games and Libraries" movement.

I am interested in:

  • Understanding how games engage & teach so as to better understand how to engage and teach a generation of gamers in information literacy, higher education, and general critical thinking and communication skills.

Of course, I've gone over all this before. What brings it back to my mind is some comments that a colleague made about my presentation and the conversations it sparked. Games, like libraries, are systems. Games and libraries must teach players how to navigate their systems in order to be successful. This connection between games and libraries breaks down at a particular point. Games are human-created systems with a fixed set of rules. Research and information gathering are organic processes that very a great deal. The comments in info-fetishist really highlight this well: games are founded on solid rules and research is not. "It is hard to design a game to teach people how to research effectively because everyones research process is different, everyones goals are different, and people’s goals shift and change even as they engage in their own research process." Games are artificial. They are constructed systems with fixed rules and pre-determined values. (The ability of MMORPGs and moddable games to transcend this with user-generated content is an area worth significant attention.)

Games require rules. I'm referring to games writ large here, not just video games. Games ARE their rules. What sets games apart from other kinds of activities is that gaming activities are bounded and defined by clear rules. The difference between artificial rule-bound systems and organic human activities is important and troubling. I have difficulty explaining this concisely, so I'll refer y'all to some folks who explain it beautifully. Umberto Eco, Jose Luis Borges, and Jean Paul Sartre.

At the climax of The Name of the Rose, the solution to the abbey's labyrinth (game) was a book that opened up the possibilities of an organic world with infinite possibilities. Labyrinth's are artificial systems with fixed rules, reality is open. Borges' short stories (including The Library of Babel, The Garden of Forking Paths, The Minataur in his Labyrinth, and Death and the Compass, The Aleph, etc.) often deal with puzzles, labyrinths, or mysteries and reflect on the difference between finite and the infinite worlds. Sartre's Nausea (La Nausée) concludes with the protagonist choosing between the fixed, finite world of memory, mathematics, and other imaginary things and the wrenchingly contingent world of freedom. These authors and stories, or at least this reader's memory of them, all deal with the disconnect that occurs between the world of games, i.e., a magical space where rules are fixed and absolute and the mundane world of infinite possibilities, shifting foundations, and contingent rules.

This is why, I think, as the conversation quoted above alludes to, librarians can't teach research like a game.  At LOEX of the West Anne-Marie and Kate gave a rich and nuanced presentation on peer-review, library instruction, and the nature of academic communication. They referred back to Kuhn and pointed out that the peer-review process works like a game (according to fixed rules) but science can work ahead of the game. Real advances in our understanding re-write the rules and may seem like cheating to devotees of the rules currently in fashion. Galileo, Copernicus, and Einstein are popular examples of this sort of happening. People who play by the rules can get peeved when someone solves a problem by re-writing the rules. It breaks the game.

Now, I'm not suggesting that successful research at the undergraduate level should require folks to stand our collective understanding on its head. I am suggesting that if we want to encourage our students to learn how to research and write in a way that transcends the report model of parroting back facts collected from approved sources, if we want them to gather the best current information and integrate it into a point of view that evolves their understanding of a particular question, then games may not be an appropriate tool. If we can accept that learning changes us and that new understanding of a particular subject changes its meaning for us we can see that we are constantly reframing and rewriting the rules for what we research. This makes it difficult to present research as a game because games rely on fixed rules.

At least I'm not able to envision a game that can deal with the Hermaneutic Cycle. (That is not to say that one cannot be invented by someone who knows more about both games and hermaneutics than I do.)At best I can imagine a game that gives more points for peer-reviewed sources than unsourced Internet material. That is a start, but I wouldn't call that information literacy. Ultimately, I want my students to write their own games, so to speak, rather than play by the rules I set for them. I want to free them to solve problems, I don't want to write innovation out of the game.

Games are artificial rules bound by rules. When the rules are broken, the game-world ceases to be coherent. I suppose the reason I'm afraid to frame information literacy as a game is that I'm sure that whatever set of rules I codified for research, one of my students would find an exception to or a way around. I want to encourage that kind of creative thinking, and the metaphor of the game doesn't allow for that kind of fluidity.

So this is why I don't want to use games to teach information literacy: because I can't imagine designing a game that would do it very well. Coming up next counterpoint: why this post is wrong and games do have a place in teaching information literacy.

A Portal to Student Learning: What instruction librarians can learn from video game design

My article on Portal and learning from game design has been published in the most recent issue of Reference Services Review. This was the paper I presented at the LOEX of the West 2008 conference and my first real attempt to connect the structures of video games and teaching or learning.

It is available to everyone from the WSU Research Exchange. The link to the article text may be found at the bottom right of the page.

Fallout 3: Impressions

Fallout has impacted my thoughts on violence mostly as a counterpoint to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I didn't really get San Andreas. I was interested in the game and the context it immerse the player in. In the end, I really didn't have much fun playing it and uninstalled it in favor of other games. There were configuration issues (I couldn't get the camera controls to work on my controller and I can't drive using the keyboard and mouse) but I think really just don't care for the GTA games. I had a similar experience with Vice City on the PS2. Fallout 3, however, I really enjoyed. The original Fallout games were iconic games that I played in my late 20's and along w/ Betrayal at Krondor, the Dark Forces/Jedi Knight games, and the NOLF games made me realize that I was a gamer.

Thinking about why I prefer Fallout 3 to the GTA games, I've come up with three features or aspects to Fallout that add to my enjoyment that GTA lacks. First, Fallout 3 provides options and encouragement for acting generously or against one's immediate self-interest. Second, Fallout 3 offers multiple paths to success against certain challenges. Third, Fallout 3 engages me in role playing deeply, so that I'm more interested in being my character than I am in beating the game.

Fallout made a counterpoint to the GTA games in that it (Fallout) provided certain rewards for selfless or "good" behavior that GTA didn't. In Fallout, one can choose not to be a bastard. This means that when one chooses to play an evil character, the evil is the result of one's choices. What do we make of a world in which there are no good options? So while I enjoyed the fuller range of options that Fallout offers, GTA raises more interesting questions about the nature of choice, free will, and individual responsibility. So while Fallout may not cover new or interesting ethical ground, it makes my character's choices seem more significant. I get that being thrust into a world were characters are condemned to violence and there are few or no good options is a useful and ethically interesting expereince. Some of Socrates best insights came when he was asked whether it was better to actually be good or better to be though of by others as good while doing what one pleased. GTA immerses us in a world where simplistic morality and piety are of little use and it teaches us something about ourselves as we navigate a dark and violent world. The fact that this world is based on the recent past in the United States only drives home the lesson more firmly.

A second feature of Fallout that makes the game fascinating is that it gives different kinds of players different avenues of success. One can choose to become proficient with weapons and fight one's way out of every situation. Players also have the option of gaining clues from the environment and conversations and negotiating solutions that work for all sides. There are other paths to success as well. (The following example is a bit of a spoiler)

The Tenpenny Towers scenario is a great example of this. Ten Penny Towers is a luxury high-rise that survived the nuclear apocalypse largely intact. Inside, rich humans live a life of secure luxury that few others in the wasteland enjoy. A population of ghouls (radiation ravaged former humans) have the money to live there, but prejudice keeps them outside. As a player, one has the option of just killing one side or the other (or possibly both). Else one can convince either side to compromise. One also has the option of tricking the sides and finding another solution to the issue. One problem of the violent content of most games is that seeing most NPCs (non-player characters) as enemies or targets gets a bit stale after a while. Photo-realistic graphics and new gameplay mechanics don't always spice up the action enough to combat this boredom. Having the choice of who to fight, of whether or not to fight, and of how to resolve a thorny issue with many aspects is interesting. It also creates the desire to replay the scenario to see what would happen if another choice were made.

Another big success of Fallout is that it encouraged me to play a role. Many so-called role playing games come with an irresistible urge to "game" the system. In some games I find that I'm much more interested in finding the "right" answer to puzzles or the story and so instead of making choices based on my character, I find myself trying to "beat" the game. In other games I find myself so wrapped up in stats and strategy that my in-game experience becomes reduced to a level-grind in search of the perfect spec and the best
loot. In Fallout I found the game guiding me to make choices that were right for my character and not based on getting a stat advantage or finding a certain path through the story. Fallout isn't a perfect game
and the story is probably no more than mediocre. However, interactive entertainment are more than just another way of telling stories. This particular interactive entertainment succeeded in drawing on my
imagination and creativity to "write" a character and a story that took place on the canvas designed by the game designers. So, despite the temptation to see how Tenpenny Towers would play if I chose other methods, I'm not doing that for now. I have chosen a character and his motivations and I'm playing the game from that single perspective rather than looking to see every option.

This, I think, is the significant challenge of interactive entertainments. We are quite used to seeing the entire story in films or books. Games give the authors a chance to write multiple resolutions and players the chance to choose their path. Unfortunately, if we as players try out all the options to choose the best one, we end up in a paradox built out of Nietzsche's theory of infinite return and Milan Kundera's take on that in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. If we want to make the best choice in a given situation, we really need to see the consequences of every possible choice in order to know which one is best. As humans, we don't have that option, so our choices are significant and their impact unknown. Game players have the option, by saving and re-loading, of playing out every possible option and choosing the one with the most rewards. The problem with that is, playing like that is a lot less fun and immersive than making a choice and living with the consequences. However, as a player I rarely have the self-discipline to live with the concequences of my choices without going back to see if another option would be better. Fallout 3, by making playing a role rewarding, makes it easier to give up on "winning" the game (or "gaming" the system) by rooting the player more firmly in a chosen role. I think this feature is key to making an interactive entertainment truly work.

So Fallout 3 is a big success in my book. While it lacks the troubling perspective of the GTA games, it is more fun (for me) to play and it uses advances discovered by other great games to make an interactive entertainment that pushes the games medium forward. In the end, it may get my vote for Game of the Year. I don't think it is as groundbreaking as Portal or The Witcher were last year and it has its flaws, but the overall package is quite good. It is highly derivative (explaining this would be another post, but the best things about Fallout 3 were previously done in The System Shock series, Deus Ex, The Thief series, Oblivion and the Elder Scrolls games, and Fallout 1 & 2) but it does an awful lot of things really well. There is nothing wrong in creating a highly polished game and breakthrough games have their own unique frustrations when one's experience is crippled by bugs or other issues. Fallout 3 does most things well and a few things spectacularly.

Violence in Games: unjustified

This third general category of games is a bit more difficult for me to nail down. Games where the player is the good guy using might for right are easy to categorize. Games that don't attempt to squeeze the violence into the "justified by society" label but do encourage the player to see things from a players point of view are less clear cut, but still categorizable. This third category usually displays elements of the first two, but are perhaps more cynical. They avoid the easy tropes of "cops and robbers" or "allies versus axis" but don't abdicate moral judgments altogether. They present a world where ethics are in conflict and there may be no single approach to violence that is without blame.

The games that I would put into this category are games like [i]The Witcher[/i] and [i]Deus Ex[/i]. The Witcher takes place in a fallen world. People are selfish, petty, shallow, and liable to turn on their neighbors. Racism and ethnic violence are rampant. In this world your character is a Witcher (perhaps better translated Hexer) or a professional monster hunter. A Van Helsing, if you will. Moral tests come when the Witcher is tempted to stray from the Witcher's code which calls for working only as a contractor for hire and not getting involved in the affairs of people.

However, this detachment from worldly affairs isn't a great ethical position to take, since it involves turning an uncaring shoulder on injustice and the suffering of innocents. So, as one plays the game one must choose between being detached and just doing one's job and interfering in the circumstances of the people around. So, if the player chooses to take sides in an ethnic conflict or a gang war his or her violent actions will lead to the rise of one faction at the expense of another. The problem is, none of these factions are "good" or, viewed from a detached perspective, really any better in the long run then their enemies. One has the choice between standing by and watching injustice done, or choosing sides and participating in injustices.

This may sound bleak, but it does a wonderful job of highlighting what things the player values most. If one can't stand to see drug pushers poisoning children or racist thugs persecuting minorities, then of course the player takes action. In the game these actions are violent and bloody and lead to violent and bloody consequences. Without the ability to absolve violent actors of guilt by associating with a "good" cause, the consequences of violence are made stark and clear. In a world full of bad choices, the lesser evil is weighted with significance. The Witcher makes one ask "what is the lesser evil" and whether the concequences of lesser evil is leads to a more satisfactory conclusion than remaining detached. Bleak, but thought provoking.

The other game that I think does an excellent job of not trying to justify its violence is [i]Deus Ex[/i]. In Deus Ex, like the Witcher, the world is a bleak place where violence is commonplace. However, remaining neutral or detached is not an option. On the other hand, one does not have the option of just choosing a side and saying that one's loyalty to the group (family, gang, country, etc.) trumps all other loyalties. Instead, Deus Ex takes the player down the rabbit hole of conspiracy and each time it seems that the true "good guys" and "bad guys" have been uncovered, the game drops another reveal and everything becomes murky again. This process ends up with a similar situation to the Witcher, there are no good guys but the player must choose the best response to a bad situation. This sort of situation reveals more about the choices a player makes than the scenarios in other kinds of games. It is a bit bleak, in that there aren't many clearly good choices and everything has a cost. This bleakness seems more real to me than the artificial good and evil in some games and more hopeful than the "us versus them" ethics from other kinds of games. It is easy to be good when good is rewarded but perhaps our choices say the most about them when they come at a cost.

Justifying violence: Situated context

Just War games are fairly straightforward. The player fills the role of the "good guy". Ethically complex Just War games may give reasonable grounds to doubt whether the violence is truly justified, but in general the dominant social norms are respected. Situated context games take a murkier approach. In these games society may or may not find the violence justified, but the player is given a grounding in a character for whom the violence can be understood if not approved of. Games of this sort solve the "how do I justify simulating mass murder and carnage" question by giving a reason that can be strongly identified with even if it runs counter to the rules we govern our societies with. Examples can be seeking revenge for a grevious wrong, being a member of an unfairly oppressed group, or simply setting the game outside of a recognizable social order where nature is red in tooth and claw.

The Grand Theft Auto (GTA) games are the most popular examples of this group. They have received a lot of public attention for their violent and anarchic content and for their refusal to justify the violence according to rules that established society would find acceptible. I purchased the GTA series recently in large part so I could include them in this post. That experience was moderately successful, in that I played enough of GTA: San Andreas to get a feel for how the game was situated. It was less successful in that interface and control issues kept me from enjoying the game to play more than a few hours. I want to emphasize that my lack of enjoyment for this game was due more to trouble configuring an Xbox 360 controller to work on the PC than my dislike of the setting or the role I was playing in the story.

In the game I took on the role of a former gang member who returned to his old neighborhood after a prolonged absence. He discovered that the police were corrupt and his friends and family were set upon by police, crack dealers, and rival gangs. Through violence and intimidation the character achieves respect in his 'hood and sets about restoring the status and fortune of his old gang.

From one point of view, GTA: San Andreas is more honest than many just war games. That is, it doesn't offer up a simplistic view that the world is in a conflict between 100% good forces and their 100% evil enemies. Instead, one views the world of San Andreas as us verus them, and success is a zero sum game. I'm not in a position to say whether or not the violent anarchy portrayed in San Andreas is an accurate retelling of life in Compton in the early 90's, but I can say that while I empathized with the plight of the people in the game, I still can't say that they are good by most measures.

San Andreas doesn't attempt to tell the player that the violence is right, it shows the player that the violence exists in a context and allows players to engage in a violent fantasy of letting their will to power run unchecked. In the end, one's opinion on the justification of violence in San Andreas probably corresponds to one's opinion of whether such fantasy is a release or a sin.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion escapes much of the public critique that the GTA games have enjoyed. Largely, this is because this particular role playing game is clearly fantasy and does not closely simulate actual Earth-like conditions. Still, one has the option of engaging in many of the same sort of violent acts that GTA portrays. One can choose to play a straight-arrow or one can choose to play an amoral killer-for-hire. Oblivion gives the player some freedom to create their own context and the player can choose the rules they will obey. For example, if a player chooses to play a hero-type character she can take quests that have her rescuing innocents and punishing wrong doers. On the other hand, players can also choose to murder indescriminantly as long as they avoid the eye of the authorities.

Criticism of this kind of contextual violence can range from outrage that the game does not filter its content through the current dominant ethical framework to noting that for all the "freedom" touted in this kind of game, the player really doesn't have the choice not to be violent. At best they can choose a particular set of violent acts they approve of.

From my perspective, Oblivion is rather empty when it comes to ethical content. It takes few stands and the choices offered the player lack substance. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the game and played a few different kinds of characters and enjoyed most of them. I just didn't find that it made me think about my choices in very interesting ways. It avoids most kinds of ethical conflict merely by being bland.

On the other hand, playing GTA: San Andreas raised a lot of questions not all of which I have answers for. This is the source of its potential ethical impact on players, as they find themselves playing a man trapped in a savage lifestyle, they confront situations that do not have easy (if any) ethical solutions. I certainly did not get the perception that playing GTA games will help anyone to act more ethically outside of the game world, it does cause players to think about issues in a complex way that avoids the simplistic rhetoric of just war games. This may not make it good, but it does make it interesting and thus useful.