Growing Up On Games - Complications Ensue
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Saturday, April 03, 2010

Lisa was a TV kid. She watched tons of TV when she was a teenager. She says up to twelve hours a day in the summer. I spent a great deal of my teenage years playing wargames -- military simulations with dozens or hundreds of little chips representing units, and rulebooks that went to twenty pages in six point type. Oh, and I read a ton of science fiction.

I wonder how those experiences shaped the way we think.

My stepson watches very little TV; just a few shows he likes to watch with us as a family. He spends as much of his free time as we'll allow playing games. He is a voracious consumer of games.

I wonder how the game playing will shape him.

I have to think that watching a ton of TV, even bad TV, gives you some insight into how people's stories turn out. You start seeing patterns in how people behave. You learn to interpret what people are saying. That's something that Lisa's childhood watching TV must have given her.

I've written elsewhere about how computer programming gave me the habit of writing my screenplays in a very top-down way, structuring the story, then the acts, then the beats, and only then writing pages. I wonder if wargaming contributed too. I think I have a visual sense of story. I'm looking for a story's weaknesses. I try to shore them up, the way a general might shore up his defensive line. When I figure out a solution for a story structure problem, I can feel how it makes the whole thing stronger.

I must have learned something from playing all those wargames.

What is Hunter getting out of playing games? Back in my day you couldn't do much more than increase your thumb-eye coordination. But games have advanced immeasurably.

You're not going to learn the same skills as you do watching TV or reading novels. You're certainly not going to learn how to tell the difference between what a girl is saying and what she means from playing MASS EFFECT 2. NPC's in videogames still tend to tell the unvarnished truth, or failing that, a baldfaced lie. A bit of truth and a bit of lie? Maybe in the next generation. They still hire one actor to voice a character and another to do his gestures, so how much subtlety can you communicate? They still haven't got the mouths to sync up with the dialog convincingly.

But you will learn something about the cost of love playing HEAVY RAIN. Or PASSAGE. You get to test your moral impulses in FALLOUT 3. Yes, at a very simplistic level, but if you keep doing it, you learn something about morality, just as Lisa learned something about human character even watching prime time TV in the late 70's.

You learn (or so I read) dark things about society and the ends justifying the means from PATHOLOGIC. You learn weird things about fate and free will from BIOSHOCK, notwithstanding what Ubisoft ├╝berdesigner Clint Hocking calls its "ludonarrative dissonance."

These days kids don't seem to go out and play in the neighborhood. The boys play video games alone, and then they get together and play video games. An entire generation is going to grow up having learned everything they can learn from WORLD OF WARCRAFT and HALO and ELDER SCROLLS and various other games of the year.

As a parent, I worry about the bad lessons of games. Games make things too safe. Life will not tell you that you have picked up eight of the ten mithril hockey pucks hidden in this dungeon, or that your health bar is getting low. Life does not come with a walkthrough. Life cannot be reloaded from a save game.

But that is the point of games, after all. They're a safe place to experiment. When we watch Buffy beat the crap out of a demon, we're only worried to the extent we choose to get emotionally involved, and we can turn her off at any time, and anyway, she has core cast glow and can only be killed in a season finale. The point of reading a novel or watching TV is to see someone else go through stuff that could potentially kill us. The point of wrassling with your best friend is that he is not really trying to permanently damage you.

I wonder about the valuable lessons of games. I wonder what skills Hunter, and the other kids his age, who are spending fifteen or twenty or thirty hours a week gaming, will come out of childhood with.

He must be learning something. He can kick my ass in a wargame.

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8 Comments:

This theme of games as valuable individually is zoomed up a level in this TED talk. She talks about the 4 things that gamers are great at and how the skills of Gamers might be harnessed to save this world too.
http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world.html

By Blogger John, at 4:39 PM  

"They still hire one actor to voice a character and another to do his gestures, so how much subtlety can you communicate?"

Just to play with fire --

-- I dunno, you tell me.

How much subtlety do Pixar movies convey?

Or how about hand drawn Disney movies?

I get the point you are driving at. But be careful when you can drive a truck through that hole in logic.

Animation has been done with separate voice talent and separate "mannerism" talent for decades to quite great effect.

I don't see why that would be a limiting factor for video games.

The limiting factor, imo, has more to do with the medium of video games itself. For the most part, they are not a storytelling medium. They can be used to tell a story, but it is not a crucial part of the experience. Gameplay is.

By Blogger James, at 8:15 PM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Blogger Simi, at 8:43 PM  

from Baby Bones

I learned finer points about Risk and Monopoly by playing them on my pod against AIs than I did by playing them with my friends. It took about three days of playing against AIs for me to realize that I should skip my turn at the beginning of Risk if no opportunity presents itself and my neighbors are reinforced. For instance, I used to gamble on 4 against 2 or even 3 against 2. But after being punished by AIs, these days, I just collect my armies and wait for turn two.

In Monopoly, since it's a slow game to play with friends, I did not to realize how easy it is to land in Jail and how that makes the orange and red color groups the most landed on, and hence, the most profitable.

By Blogger yyyyyyyyy, at 9:31 PM  

When I was in Florida I woke up a couple of days to the sound of kids playing in the street. It was lovely and even more so for the fact that it's something that I -- condo dweller, 9th floor, downtown -- rarely get to hear.

Is it that rare for children to just play outside? That would depress me.

By Blogger DMc, at 12:19 PM  

If I'm learning about life from tv and videogames then something has gone wrong.

I'm thankful I spent most of my childhood days outside with my friends.

By Blogger chris, at 4:25 AM  

I spent most of my childhood reading books, plus playing RPGs and computer games. Granted, nowhere near as complex in the same ways as the present computer games, but the InfoCom games were pretty complex things in their own right.

Games teach a lot of lessons. They're very good at learning how to be goal-focused, but they're also great for experimenting with the limits of a system. Yeah, computer games are limited by their systems, but so is life: if I played soccer outside I could only go certain places, could get hit by a car if I ran into the street, was limited by parental constraints to some extent, etc . . .. I don't see a lot wrong with growing up on computer games. Human beings are going to be mediated by computers to one extent or another for the rest of our existence anyway. The computers are now, essentially, parts of us.

Still I'd like to make an argument that every kid should be encouraged to try out tabletop RPGs: there's no better space for interaction with a system that can be made to appear limitless, and for collaboration in a collectively imagined project. Also, because there's possibly no better way to note the different assumptions upon which every system is built, and how they can be changed - and therefore the system redeveloped as well.

By Blogger Rich Baldwin, at 12:12 PM  

When people talk about violent games I've often thought 'keep violence in games' -- better than violence in the flesh.

I think computer games just like physical games teach a lot. There's hand eye coordination, puzzle solving, and checking for snipers but also in the MMPORPG team building, delegation etc.

My only problem is they're so addictive!

By Blogger Hepworks, at 12:33 PM  

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