The Academic Game(r)

This week, Gamasutra ran a blog post about gaming and academia by Rami Ismail. In it, Ismail talks about an encounter he had with an academic at IndieCade East:

Last week, I gave a talk at the first ever New York City IndieCade East. Completely unaware of the expertise level of the audience, I decided to try a talk I’ve wanted to give for a while. Besides at venues filled with peers, I often speak at art- or culture-related events with audiences that have little pre-existing knowledge of the medium. This specific talk (which has gone through an absurd amount of iterations before I felt comfortable giving any version of it) is an entry-level explanation of the ideas and core principles of player agency – without using the words player agency….

After the talk was over there was a short slot for questions – which one person happily did. This person grabbed the microphone and carefully cleared their throat. This was an academic that ‘couldn’t fail to notice my stance on education’ and pointed out that I might’ve missed a tremendous wealth of theoretical knowledge about my chosen profession. The question that followed this quite frankly eye-opening rant was: ‘Do you know what player agency is?’

Ismail says that “this rubbed me the wrong way,” because he had spent a lot of time trying to distill the term “player agency” for his audience and the academic in question had not recognized that clearly he understood the concept. While I would humbly suggest that this particular question could have been solved by Ismail beginning with the phrase, “Developers like to use the term ‘player agency,’ which is a really complex idea that I’m going to attempt to describe as we go,” that’s not really the point of his piece. (Although I’m a big fan of both using and explaining terms like “player agency.”)

The point is that there are two essential schools of thought, Ismail says, about education and game development. One of them – held by Ismail – is that you don’t need formal education to design games. The other – obviously held by the academic – is that education is essential. I’m going to say that educationis vital, but that the means of acquiring that education can be either academic or practical. Ismail gained his education practically – as he says, by creating games and struggling in the industry:

I learned how to make videogames by tinkering around with game creation since I was six years old. Somehow, I learned running a company by selling computers at an electronics store; by having a game design cloned and dealing with the supportive yet rough media fallout after that; by realizing I had undersold a game during negotiations because the other party instantly agreed to my opening bid; by having our accountant mail us about a few missing forms.

This is a completely valid education, as far as I’m concerned. There’s absolutely no reason why Ismail’s education is any less valid than someone who has a degree in game design. However, I think that practically educated designers like Ismail are going to become less and less common, just as practically educated filmmakers, novelists, and playwrights are far less common than they used to be – now, they are all expected to have college degrees, where decades ago, they weren’t.So while a degree in game design might now be more rare than not, and while developers might in fact still sneer a bit at someone with such a degree, within ten or twenty years, developers will be expected to hold them. (Side note – I’m not saying this is the way it should be, but that this is the way it almost certainly will be.)

But one thing about Ismail’s point doesn’t account for is that not all participants in the industry are developers, and that there is validity to academic training for those of us who aren’t creators or publishers or programmers. Those of us who are academic gamers – the theorists, the critics, the analysts. And that leads me to the flip side of Ismail’s argument – which is to say that academics shouldn’t be discounted from contributing to the evolution of the industry, either. Ismail focuses only on academics who are developers – those who make “serious games,” social games, and experimental games.

But just as theory and criticism have come to shape the way films and literature are made, so, too, will they influence and shape even triple-A game titles… and some of them already are. Bioware was founded by academics whose primary field was not gaming. Academia has a lot to offer the games industry, if the industry can stop thinking in dichotomous terms of “us” the developers who make the games and innovate, and “them” the academics who tell us that we’re uneducated. But the academics also need to stop acting with the sense that their extensive years of higher education somehow make them better than “uneducated” developers who have similar years of practical experience in the industry. In short, we need to learn from and with each other instead of each side assuming that the other doesn’t “understand” and is therefore inferior.

Ultimately, it comes down to the same core problem that the gaming community is finding in the gender divide: us versus them. Perhaps this is more of a tendency in the gaming community because games are by their nature competitive, and an us-versus-them mentality is a part of that competition. Perhaps it is because the industry has long been dominated by a homogeneous population of young, white males. Whatever the reason, though, the industry as a whole will benefit (as in genetics) from heterogeneity, and all sides need to learn to play nicely with one another.

TLF: I’m a Feminist Gamer…

So yesterday this post of mine went up over at The Learned Fangirl: “I’m a Feminist Gamer and I’m Over Anita Sarkeesian.” Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter project and the backlash that she received for it were hot topics on the internet and this blog for a while, and at first I was a fan of hers. I thought it was great that she was doing and saying the things that she was because they needed to be said. I’m still glad she did – and those things still need to be said, discussed, and considered in the gaming industry and community.

But, as I explain at TLF, I’m getting to be a bit done with a lot of where the conversation has (not) gone. Rehashing wrongs committed against women and minority populations in gaming communities, while perhaps therapeutic for those involved and thus valuable, is not the conversation that the industry at large needs to be having. I’m also dubious about the kind of knee-jerk, boiled-down feminism that Sarkeesian’s tweets and posts often seem to evince. I’m hoping she does more with her series than the kind of simplified analysis I’ve seen so far, but I’m not holding my breath.

Rescue Me!

Today’s classroom game brought to you by my Critical Thinking and Methods of Inquiry class, with whom I will be conducting more trials of games in the classroom. Last week we played a disaster-simulation game with two decks of cards as a means of discussing how human error can impact the success or failure of a system. I found it on a classroom game wiki here.

The game plays as follows. One group – the larger group – plays the role of the victims, the other, the rescuers. With some experimentation, we learned that two or three rescuers out of twenty is about the right ratio for a good, high-stress game situation. The victim group is each dealt a card. They can keep the card or just remember it. They then go stand in the middle of the room. Every 30 seconds or so, I flip over a different card from the victim deck and call out the suit on the card. Victims matching that suit have to sit (if standing) or “die” (if sitting). Victims can be rescued while sitting or standing.

The rescuers have their own deck of cards. They have to match the number (but not the suit) of the victims. They can carry three cards at a time. They can ask about those numbers only. The victims can only answer “yes” or “no.” Once a rescuer has used a card, it is discarded. They may also choose to discard cards. Discarded cards cannot be brought back into play.

The goal, of course, is to rescue all the victims. You can put a time limit on it, if you wish. If you have more than one group, the goal can be altered so that each group’s goal is to rescue more victims than the others. We went through the game two or three times per class.

The first time, the rescuers are not given the opportunity to consult about their strategy. The second (or third) time, they can.

Interestingly, we discovered that the rescuers who didn’t consult were actually overall more successful than their thoughtful friends. Why? Systems theory. People make mistakes. They don’t think of potential consequences. They forget rules. For instance, one of our rescuer groups flipped through their deck until they each had different numbers, then rushed about trying to save victims. The problem with this strategy is that they were discarding duplicate numbers… but some of the victims had duplicates (because there are four of each number in the deck). This meant that the rescuers actually cycled through their deck before they successfully managed to rescue all the victims.

We did learn, though, that a triage-style approach seemed to work best – aim for the people sitting on the floor first, then go to those who are standing. But it was also important that the rescuers not focus only on the sitters… because of the chance that I would seat and then kill the other victims (or that they would miss those numbers, like the over-planning rescuers) before they got there.

We also discovered that chance plays a huge role in success or failure. One group lost because the first two cards I flipped were clubs, so all the victims with clubs “died” almost instantly. No matter how quickly the rescuers had worked, they would not have been able to save those victims. Success and failure don’t always rely on the human factor – or on leadership. In a couple of instances, the rescuers had a clear leader. In one of them (the one with the most thought-out plan), this was actually a bad thing. In the other, the rescuers were successful because their leader was making good snap decisions instead of adhering to a flawed plan.

There was very little that was terribly shocking about the process, although I was a little surprised to note that – in this case, anyway – instinct proved better than forethought. Since we only played through five times, though, I imagine that might be a bit misleading.

But the part my students liked the best was tweaking the game itself. They wanted to try it with more frequent “kill” cards, with less time, with fewer rescuers. In fact, every modification they made was to make the game harder, not easier. And that told me something very important about games… and about learning. Students – and, I think, most people – actually want to be challenged. We might not say so, we might not even think so, but ultimately we thrive under challenging conditions. We do our best work when it matters, not when we have all the time in the world and no consequences.

This isn’t a new revelation. Jane McGonigal makes the same argument in Reality is Broken. Our lives, as they exist day-to-day, are often mundane and monotonous. They aren’t interesting, they don’t challenge us, and the work we do doesn’t matter in a real, tangible, visible way. In games, choices matter, and we can see our progress clearly in the advancement of the game – or we can see why we aren’t progressing, make the necessary corrections, and then succeed. It’s one of the reasons that gamification has become increasingly popular – because it shows us that we aren’t just beating our heads against the proverbial walls, that what we do matters (even if only in achievement points), and it makes us feel good about overcoming a challenge, however small. Because the little things matter.

Speaking Out

So I’ve been swamped with personal and work-related business and haven’t posted here in a little bit… but also because I had a piece out for consideration with the “real media,” and wanted to hold off on repeating myself too much more until I knew whether it would be appearing in public or not.

It is. The Christian Science Monitor picked it up and has posted it today: “Stop blaming video games for America’s gun violence.” (Their title, not mine. I like cute titles. News sites do not. It’s a genre thing.) It’s a discussion that’s got a lot of attention today: Daniel Greenberg has a piece in The Atlantic offering support for the same position, a Louisville news site, on the other hand, attempts to leave the proverbial door open on that question, and over on DiabloInc, a poster asks fellow players if they view gaming as catharsis or “anger management.”

So now I sit back and hope that the internet is nicer to me than they were to Anita Sarkeesian. I have the feeling that most of them are going to be on my side (at least the ones that went after Sarkeesian will be), but there’s always a sense of trepidation when you broadcast yourself on public channels as opposed to these small, semi-private ones.

The whole experience has been interesting. I post here, and get a few friends to like it or share it,  and I post over at The Learned Fangirl from time to time, but even though they certainly have a broader reader-base than my little blog does, neither venue is anything like the CSM. So this is a little scary for me. I’m talking, loudly and on top of a very real media soapbox, about something highly controversial that not even my mother would agree with (no, really, my mother thinks I’m wrong – I wasn’t allowed videogames growing up, and especially not ones that included guns). I’m pretty sure I’m in the right here, but that doesn’t mean there might not be repercussions. And repercussions can be scary.

So I’m hoping that the internet is kinder to me than it has been to a lot of people. I’m hoping it will be reasonable (“hoping,” not “counting on”), and I’m hoping that tonight’s State of the Union will be similarly reasonable. I’m hoping that we aren’t entering a new 1980s-era age of paranoia and implicit censorship. I’m hoping that we’re able, as a society, to recognize the value in dissent of all kinds, in free speech, but also temper that with the acknowledgment that we need to base our treasured opinions in study and fact rather than paranoia and knee-jerk reactions.