Thursday, June 8

Is the Violence in Computer Games Realistic?

I was at a private conference in Washington DC about a month ago on simulation technology. The idea came up, again, that violence in computer games:

  • encourages violence in our children, and even
  • teaches them how to be violent.

Both issues, funnily enough, rest on how realistic computer games are today.

The first, about encouraging kids towards violence, is obviously a classic argument that has also been applied to television, movies, and rock and roll.

As far back as Freud, the question of does something release violence urges safety or build them, has been debated. But, if you take out the realism issue, the same questions could also apply to chess. Chess is a very violent game. Castles are destroyed. Knights, kings and queens are slaughtered, just in a highly abstracted environment. Backgammon ever more so. Since no parents are picketing chess clubs, let's assume that computer games are suspect because they are realistic, and Chess is safe because it is not realistic.

The second issue, do computer games teach bad behavior, should be a very relevant one for all of us in the formal learning biz.

So again, are violent computer games realistic enough to be educational?

There are at least three levels of realism.

First, does the game catch and spread all of the necessary steps and feedback? It is one thing to steal a car in Grand Theft Auto. You walk over to the car, click on it, and you are in. If a police officer was around, you may get a "star" with police cars temporarily chase you. Compare that to real-life. I don't have to be graphic here - I can let you all imagine what the reality is like. The most realistic "shooters" with locational damage (the game knows if you shot a leg versus a head) is nothing like shooting in real life. Even technically, how to load a weapon, how to clean it, the feel of a well oiled chamber, the smell of gunpowder, using one's voice to intimidate marks, the echo of a gun shot, running down the street (including stamina), are all absurdly abstracted or not included at all.

By the way, Thomas Claburn, Editor-at-Large of InformationWeek, said it more powerfully. "A realistic depiction of modern warfare in a game would look like a computer crash. You'd be playing the game and the next minute, without warning, the game would be over and your character would be dead. Perhaps for good measure, the game would be deleted too. It would seem like a random act and that kind of thing doesn't fit into the heroic personal narrative of the first-person shooter."

Second, does the game catch and spread a situational awareness? The way that an experienced criminal sees and filters the world is different then how you and I see it. Identifying safe and lucrative "marks," awareness of police patrols, awareness of alternative escape routes, awareness of civilians, including those who might get in the way, is critical to the learning.

Third, does the game catch and spread the mental state? Yes, it introduces the ideas, and certainly glorifies it. But WILL Interactive's CEO Sloane said it well. “The reality has to reflect the learners’ emotions and beliefs as well as their knowledge and skills.” Let's again return to Grand Theft Auto, and their San Andreas chapter. Does the game nurture a belief that no matter what you do, you will be dead before you are thirty years old? Does it nurture a belief that what you own is not safe, or that people will hurt you unless you are tougher than they are? Do you feel that you are in the minority, and that you are hated by the majority? Do you believe that you have no safety net? Talk of simulations aside, there is probably no better content creator than Fyodor Dostoevsky at catching and spreading at least one mental state, paranoia.

These three issues, realism in doing, situational awareness, and mental states, are just some of the issues in this debate that get left off the table from most commentators.

The implications are huge, and go well beyond this debate. During the last fifteen years or so, we all got good at digitizing information. Scanners, digital cameras, word processors, spreadsheet, OCR, web pages, Google, are all impressive tools and models.

From the work I have seen and done, however, I can say that the next great challenge, surprisingly possible, is digitizing wisdom. That is the true issue here, not the red herring of computer games and violence.

All of my Simword entries are codifying what many people are discovering. We are further along than anyone realizes.


Peter Shea said...

I have not looked at any research concerning the question as to whether highly-detailed violent simulation games promote actual violence. However, I am *inclined* to think that it is only likely in the case of a minority of people who have a predisposition to violence and a weak sense of the barrier between real and simulated activity.

Peter Isackson said...

Are you sure you don't mean Kafka, rather than Dostoevsky? While Fyodor did a virtuoso job representing a lot of extreme states (political and philosophical fanaticism were among his better ones), pure paranoia wasn't his area of specialization.

What bothers me in this debate is the earnestness of both sides. The violence in the games undoubtedly reflects a deeply violent strain in our culture (perhaps all cultures) and inevitably contributes to both perpetuating and sublimating it. So both sides are right. But the really interesting phenomenon is its marketability. It's by far the easiest way to spin money, especially since pornography is still effectively ostracized. And we all know that if there is money to be made, within the limits of legality, it will be made and ain't nothin' gonna stop it. The same is also true outside the limits of legality, but the business plans and marketing campaigns are rarely an object of mission statements and philosophical debates.

As for digitizing wisdom, I'd be interested in knowing the profiles of the marketing team that will be defining what wisdom is and which wisdom they'll be putting in a can. I'm not saying it can't be done, but it might just be that what went in looking to its makers like spiffy wisdom came out looking like a tattered wet rag. Or perhaps we're just talking about an e-book of the Brothers Karamazov.