Last night, the 10th annual Games for Change conference wound to a close with two keynote speeches discussing how games affect us mentally and emotionally.
In his talk, game designer and academic Eric Zimmerman proposed that there is a problem in the way our field handles educational games and games about social change. As we move into what Zimmerman calls a "ludic century" — an era of spontaneous playfulness and playful technologies — he believes there needs to be a drastic shift in how we think about these types of games.
"We make games and integrate them into our lives," he said. "I think it's possible we're mistreating them, and not treating them with respect."
Zimmerman called attention to the fact that many research studies done on video games often debate their merit as educational tools. One study Zimmerman highlighted sought to determine if what games taught could be more economically learned using different methods, questioning the medium's ability to carry and translate content.
"This is how top researchers are representing games and how they are being represented to the larger educational community," Zimmerman said. "This is a problem."
"We are in danger of instrumentalizing games, of turning something rich and complex and ineffable into a tool for a blunt utilitarian purpose."
Zimmerman argued that we don't look for the same kind of world-changing effects from documentary films or books, and we don't discuss "bookification" or the merit of books as educational tools. He argued that video games do not deserve this kind of scrutiny, and holding them to these higher standards is "like saying a medical simulation for training doctors should also cure cancer."
"We are in danger of instrumentalizing games, of turning something rich and complex and ineffable into a tool for a blunt utilitarian purpose," he said. "Why should games only be valuable for what they can do outside of themselves?"
Zimmerman argued that games could become an important educational tool, and we as a community need to broaden our ideas on their role in our society. He said that because gameplay "at its best is messy, complex, conversational and wonderful," this makes the outcome something unpredictable — and this unpredictability sparks mistrust in some people. Games, Zimmerman believes, will eventually become the model by which we evaluate and understand our culture.
"Gamifying" systems for educational purposes is also being done incorrectly, he said. Rather than use the superficial aspects of games, such as awarding points and separating parts into levels, educators should be thinking about what will makes players engage with the game and each other — essentially, what will make them spontaneously want to play.
Zimmerman believes that games can help us create and understand meaning in the many systems our lives follow. These systems include the way we socialize and communicate with each other, as well as the digital systems we encounter every day. Playing a game is about "[tinkering] in a mechanical way with the inputs and outputs of a system." Games can serve as individual "labs" for familiarizing ourselves with these systems — like the way building, planting and hunting in Minecraft isn't quite the real thing — but we can't learn them unless we play them. Zimmerman used Minecraft as his example, noting that Mojang's title as a popular tool in the classroom. Games can teach the literacy of a system, but the human element of play is the variable that ultimately makes it educational, he said.
Zimmerman stated that understanding these things about education and games will be "what it will take to be literate and successful in the future, and games are the cultural form, in my mind more than any other cultural form, that engenders these literacies."
"This is a challenge for all of us. Are we thinking about our work as profoundly as we could be?"
He concluded his argument by saying we need to trust games more, and that the most succesful games should be capable of those uncertain outcomes that make us nervous. Games shouldn't be set it up to get a specific set of answers the creator wants to see.
"I'm not trying to pull games away from social change, I'm trying to rescue them, to midwife them into a more interesting space," Zimmerman said. "This is a challenge for all of us. Are we thinking about our work as profoundly as we could be?
"Games are the cultural form of our ludic century, they are going to roll forward and go ahead no matter what we do, and we don't want to miss the boat," he added. "We have an opportunity to define games and rethink what learning is in [this] ludic century."
Brenda Romero, industry veteran and game designer in residence at the University of California at Santa Cruz, gave the final talk of the conference, in which she discussed the power games have to move us emotionally.
Romero told an anecdote of her time playing Sid Meier's Civilization Revolution, in which she watched her in-game military wipe out an entire group of people. In the game, players can step into the shoes of a number of historical figures — she chose Ghandi. One day, the in-game Japanese civilization sent spaceships into space, and seeing them as a threat, Romero decided to destroy them.
"This was not a game for change, but its effect was nontheless profoundingly impactful."
She said for a full 20 seconds, the game made her watch the missile launch, track its flight across the world and ultimately wipe out an entire race of people. After those 20 seconds, the Japanese were removed from her game and her Ghandi was again the one on top.
"I felt horrible," she said, describing the way watching the nuke made her feel. "[The game] allowed me to be a monster.
"This was not a game for change, but its effect was nontheless profoundingly impactful."
She added that she can no longer player Civilization Revolution without remembering her actions, and can no longer enjoy dominating other in-game cultures.
"All because of the way Sid Meier orchestrated that nuke."
Romero said that when we create game spaces, we set up a system through which players will experience something — and in some cases, that "something" is a strong emotional response. Designers can set up a game so players have a specific experience, Romero said, but what they ultimately draw from it depends on them. She used id Software's 1992 first-person shooter Wolfenstein 3D as an example, a game her husband John Romero designed.
Romero said that feedback for the title was not what the development team expected, noting that many comments were about its connection to World War II and the ability to gun down Nazis.
"'This game is going to be great, it's the ultimate Jewish kid revenge shooter,'" she recalled hearing. "'Thank you so much, I needed to blow away those Nazis.' The game wasn't designed for this outcome, but [some gamers] had this whole other experience."
"[With games] we get ourselves in a variety of ways into these boxes that we don't even know we're standing in."
Romero also recalled an afternoon spent playing Jason Rohrer's Gravitation, a minimalistic game about a father putting off playing with his child. At the time Romero's own six-year-old daughter was trying to get her attention, asking her to play ball with her. Romero kept putting her off, until finally she made the connection between the game and her real-life experience.
"It hit me 10 times harder than it probably should have," Romero said. "[With games] we get ourselves in a variety of ways into these boxes that we don't even know we're standing in.
"It's not games that need to change," she continued, "we need to change the way we look at things. There's a zillion different ways we can look at stuff, and we need to look at things from a perspective that is not our own. We need to see the world as others might see it, and make games out of things we normally wouldn't make games out of."
Romero said games have what she calls the Ghost Recon Effect. While playing 2001 tactical shooter Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon, Romero began dreaming up scenarios and ideas the development team could have been working with, little emotional bits and connections to the game that Romero thought were brilliant.
"The game wasn't doing many of the things I thought it was, and I liked the version in my head better."
"I had all these ideas about what the game designer and AI programmer were doing to make the game the best shooter I had ever played, I loved it," she said. "Then I met (designer Brian Upton) and we had this long talk, and most of what I thought [was happening] was in my head. The game wasn't doing many of the things I thought it was, and I liked the version in my head better."
Romero felt that the beauty of Ghost Recon's AI and design allowed for the emergent behavior she picked up on, which she believed was designed into the game. The game had given her strong emotional sentiments, even if that was not the designer's initial intention.
"Sometimes we don't need to be so direct, sometimes we don't need to be so in your face," Romero said of designing games. "The most powerful examples of gameplay that has changed me the most are precisely because I didn't see them coming."
Every topic can be turned into a game, Romero said, and every game can in some way affect change. People don't need to change, but the games themselves should be more aware of that emotional power.
"It caught me vulnerable," Romero said of her Civilization Revolution experience, noting that it's these experiences we should chase after. "It's a fabulous cliff to fall off of."