The Loneliest Jukebox

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

PC Games

Over at the First Post, I'm quoted as being skeptical as to the merits of using online gaming to raise awareness. Quick as a flash, the creators of one such game email me to say:

"I just read an online article in First Post, where you comment on social impact games and describe them as desperate attempts to reach homebodies who might not come across traditional campaigning materials. While that may be what the games attempt to do, imo there's nothing desperate about it. If a group of college students can reach hundreds of thousands of people and raise awareness on political issues at virtually no cost, just by publishing their own games on the internet, I would consider it clever and interesting, rather than desperate. If you think I'm wrong, please explain why. Or was the word desperate aimed at the idea of changing the world? Well, we are changing the world, perhaps not much, but still more than we could have hoped to change it through any other media or effort. Besides, everybody plays online games these days, not just homebodies. Well, I hope that's a few things for you to consider before dismissing the potential of social impact games entirely.
(Frederik Hermund & 3rd World Farmer Team Copenhagen, Denmark)

The full quote I gave to my interviewer was as follows:

The point with these games is that they are taking a punt on finding new ways to prick people's consciences around the usual liberal icons. If it was a flyer, a half page ad in the Guardian etc then the outcomes would be probably the same as with this game - some players might be inclined to adopt the point of view expressed. This is consistent with the argument I endlessly trot out that games/media have cognitive effects - i.e. they can probably enter the thinking of those coming into contact with them - but not behavioural effects. They can't make us act againt our will. So when the usual test on violent game players show raised heart rates etc is suggests that physical changes are taking place following the cognitive effect of the game. The press-worthy conclusion drawn from such research is that real life violence would follow. But the problem with this 'behaviourist' argument is that real life violence cannot be predicted by the lab results, because real life kicks in: conscience, opportunity, real dangers to potential assailants etc all act as restraints outside the lab.
I would say that the cognitive ambitions of the games mentioned - turning kid into campaigners - are doomed because the format's audience are not the logical firt port of call for this kind of politics. It seems like a desparate attempt to reach homebodies who might not come across the more traditional campaigning materials. Those playing these games are unlikely to get off the couch; even if these games outperform Halo etc, which I doubt, it makes them no more likely to do public spirited things, just more gaming. Incidentally, there is a great spoof of all this in Chris Bachelder's novel US! Songs and Stories, which includes a (fake) report from a games company on the beta version of a socialy conscious game.

And that's where this exchange stands at the time of writing: some grumbling on both sides about the merits of form over content and whether the word desperate is the right one.


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