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June 12, 2005

Discussion: Network


When I watched William Holden walk out on Faye Dunaway, dismissing her character in Network as being raised by television and therefore like television, both in attractiveness and in faults, I had to stop and think a little bit about what it might mean to be raised by videogames¹.

Other than pundits calling our entertainment murder simulators, and politicians using it for a hot-button topic of interest to parents, I don't hear a lot of folks entering into reasonable discussions on the topic².

Games have been with us for a long time; videogames, obviously, less so. I read recently that baseball may be a lot older than we think it to be (indeed, dating back to 14th century France), and I'm aware of reading some evolutionary theory research years ago that suggests that play was part of what enabled our evolutionary ancestors to improve their chances of survival.

In other words, play might just have helped make us human.

Television and books and movies and other forms of entertainment (and yes, even enrichment) lack direct interactivity. Absolutely, we bring something to the experience -- our own experiences mash up together with the author/actors/director/what-have-you, and we make judgements and interpret the material based on all of that. But only games allow us to engage in "do-this, that-happens, do-that, this-other-happens" in a way that allows us to take part in directing the experience.

I've questioned before whether we can match in depth what other media can provide, based on the need for our audience to bring that to us. But aside from that concern, I start to wonder if playing more games could actually make us more human, not less, not more cut-off from others, but actually learning better skills and socialization.

Socialization? In a videogame? Absolutely. I watch my sons play Mario Kart, and I see them learning how to have fun even when the contest is unbalanced -- Jordan, who has not had nearly as much success in contests since the first time, nonetheless seems to have a blast playing. In the bomb battles, he often races to see how fast he can pile up 5 bombs; in the balloon battles, he's still having fun, even trash-talking his brother. (This is a kid who is four, and yet the other night told me over a rollicking game of Trouble that "Daddy, you're going to pay, my friend." That "my friend" just cracked me up.)

Another area that I see a lot of socialization between them is in negotiation and persuasion. Each has the modes and characters he prefers; naturally, these don't always intersect. Luc will try to use persuasion to get the mode he wants to play, often making concessions -- "okay, let's play bomb battle for three games and then we can switch to balloon battle for three" -- and this is really great to see. When it becomes intractable, as it will with the under-7 set, there's an external authority who can be called on to help arbitrate a settlement that's fair to both parties.

Finally, though Kart promotes competition, it can also promote teamwork. Recently I got a third controller so the three of us could battle together, and naturally, it was easy for me to defeat the kids. They could tell if I was letting them win, so instead, I opted for another tactic: I drove like crazy, and only throttled back my game a little bit, and told them that the only way to take me down was to work together. Pretty soon, they were working together and cheering one another on whenever they could take a piece of me -- enough so that I could throttle my game back even further and let them think they were beating me hands-down³, just by working together.

Internet play gets tricky -- I don't currently connect my consoles to the Internet, and even if I did, I wouldn't let the kids play online. Anonymous play tends to bring out the worst in people -- the language you hear in these games is extraordinarily vulgar, and it'll be a long time before I'm interested in letting my kids play in that environment; indeed, it's a significant turn-off for me, too. That said, I'd also love to see more negotiation in the hands of the players; one thing that was great about the sandlot baseball games was that kids who couldn't get along with others could be easily and effectively shunned out of play. There's a fair amount of that available in the PC shooters I've played online, with the ability to vote off players and automatically rebalance teams and things like that, but not all that much in the console world as yet. These are the sorts of things that should make the transition from the couch to the online world.

Finally, part of what makes games great is that games are a safe arena in which we can make meaningful choices and fail, seeing the results. We can experiment in a way that can be difficult or dangerous in life. We can experience things that we couldn't otherwise experience. In doing these things, I think we open up for ourselves the possibility that we can make meaningful choices in life -- after all, we've trained ourselves to do so.

A pastime that teaches our kids socialization and helps them feel freer to make meaningful choices? Sign me up.

¹It's a good movie, by the way, and not at all dated. I expected it to be, and was pleasantly surprised. It's still quite funny and really topical, especially with the recent development of "reality TV".
²Though I was heartened by my father's response, after I wrote an email out to my family about how I felt about my profession. (It was after Columbine, and I wanted to talk a little bit about my feelings about the issue after much was made in the national media about the Doom "connection.") He said that in his view, "if it walks like a duck, and it talks like a duck, it's probably a duck" -- i.e. that ascribing some sort of causal power to something that walked and talked like a game was probably a little off-base.
³A note to friends with whom I've played Mario Kart before, don't think I've lost my edge. I can still blow the doors off of you. Often I give the kids a better shot at me by playing one-handed :)

Posted by Brett Douville at June 12, 2005 02:35 PM