What is interesting about games?

I ask myself this question because after doing a lot of work (soon to be published!) on Portal I found myself in a bit of a lull when it comes to being reflective about my gaming experiences or doing games analysis. It might just be an understandable reaction to being done with an intensive project. It might also be a reflection of my gaming practices. I haven’t been playing much and when I have I’ve been doing LOTRO quests with my partner. This is a lot of fun, but I’ve always felt that I don’t really play MMO games “correctly”. I’m not really interested in making friends or playing with others, I’ve used LOTRO basically as a chance to role play with a few select friends. The MMO phenomenon is such that there is interest in research about these games, but I can’t really tie what researchers or librarians are interested in with the way I like to amuse myself in the game world. As a consequence, I haven’t really come across any new parallels between what instruction librarians and game developers do or found any new perspectives on how teachers can use gaming culture to connect with students.

I did have my students read Gerald Graff’s essay Hidden Intellectualism (versions of this essay that can be found in his books Clueless in Academe and They Say, I Say) and it reaffirmed my conviction that teachers who can get their gaming students to recognize the critical thinking that goes into their gameplay for what it is will have an great opportunity to transfer those skills to academic work. I think this is important, but there isn’t anything new about games in this particular line of thinking.

So maybe I need to look at another approach. I’ve been analyzing the structure of games and how successful tutorials are designed. I’ve avoided, up to now, looking at narrative or storytelling in games. However, with the games I have lined up to play next: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky, Fallout 3, and The Witcher: Enhanced Edition narrative, interaction, and storytelling/creating are some of the things these games do best. I’m just not certain how that ties in with library instruction.

Another thought is ethics in games. This is another subject I’ve shied away from partially because the public discourse on the subject is banal and partially because I’m having trouble articulating my ethical framework these days. Still, I was invited to a departmental party the other day and had a brief, but interesting conversation with a digital ethics instructor who wanted to use Manhunt 2 as his example of ethics in games. I really struggled to find a way to communicate why I could think of almost nothing interesting to say about that particular game and ethics. (The game simulates a snuff-film reality show.) I settled on explaining that it just isn’t a good game by any measure and he might want to look at a higher quality example of a game, such as Bioshock, when talking about ethics in games.

Thinking about this conversation, I realized that I’m not so much annoyed by the way we talk about gaming ethics as I’m annoyed by the way we talk about ethics in general. Listening to what a person or group has decided is good/bad is not interesting. Listing to how a person or group sets ethical priorities is interesting. Why is it that as a culture we don’t seem to be able to do more than express our indignation and outrage at either the deplorable actions portrayed in Grand Theft Auto IV and/or the censors who want to legislate a lowest-common-denominator groupthink by restricting games that don’t reinforce the values of the existing cultural hegemony? Surely we can do better.

What do you all, my valued readers, think? What is interesting about games? I’m not so much asking what makes you want to play a particular game, I’m asking what makes you want to talk or think about games.

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