As President Obama recognized in his Open Government Directive, transparency is only the first step towards a more vibrant democracy. The bigger problem has always been fostering widespread participation. After all, one of the most vexing problems facing today’s government – regulatory capture of an agency by special interests – flourishes despite, or perhaps even because of, the openness of the administrative state. The rulemaking process is open to the citizenry, but the public just doesn’t care – at least not to the degree of special interests.
The response from civic society is to proliferate an alphabet soup of their own special interest groups, from the AARP to the NRA. These organizations serve two vital functions: (1) developing expertise and (2) aggregating collective interest, primarily through membership dues (money) as a proxy.
We’ve reached the limits of this corporate, civil-society-as-special-interest, system. New, digitally networked communities suggest a more fluid and inclusive model of public participation. And, I argue, video games are worth studying for their ability to help us overcome the twin problems of expertise and collective action.
A lot of popular “genre” fiction is laid out as a puzzle, each with different rules to resolve the puzzle. Mysteries are the most obvious example, but so too are romance, science fiction, and even nonfiction (Malcolm Gladwell is particularly fond of setting up his books and book chapters as puzzles).
Video games, too, are often puzzles, each also falling into particular genres — the platformer, the RTS, the tycoon game. The game engine reinforces the genre by defining what puzzles are possible; the genius of Portal was to discover that the physics engine of the FPS could be used to create new puzzles. But while we’ve seen increasing sophistication and complexity in physics-based puzzles, we’re not seeing quite the same diversity in what I call “social physics engine.”
Not that games are totally lacking in social physics. Fable 2 simply refines the kind of interaction found in Harvest Moon and other “village” games. (Let’s not get into dating games here!). And everyone knows about the best-selling franchise of all time, The Sims. But while making friends and influencing people can be challenging in this genre, there’s nothing all that puzzling about it. Your average pulp romance novel has more suspense built around its “social physics” than these game titles.
I would like to imagine one day having a game built around social dynamics (whether with AI or real people) with the same engaged immersion as Portal succeeded with physics.
According to the New York Times, the redesigned Honda Insight offers a built-in ecology game:
Honda has loaded it with an array of gauges and displays intended to coach drivers to be more economical. For instance, the speedometer’s background color changes from blue to green as one’s driving becomes “more environmentally responsible.” Readouts reward the frugal driver with an “eco score”; if you excel, you win a digital trophy surrounded by a wreath.
The author and his colleagues all found that they beat the EPA measures, probably because of the electronic coaching. How’s that for a “game for change” that might actually really change the world? Just keep your eyes on the road and watch out for cyclists, Insight drivers!
Randy Smith’s talk last night, Games are Art (and what to do about it), at Postmortem triggered a few thoughts I wanted to throw out there briefly. Here’s the first one:
In exploring the nature of art and different art forms, Randy looked to McCloud’s Understanding Comics to identify “closure” (the interstitial space between frames) as a unique feature of the comic medium. He then posed the question of what made video games unique. It struck me that what each medium can be defined by what each one leaves out; for example, comic books’ closures leave out what is between the frames – that is for the reader to fill in. Performance media cannot convey inner lives the way literature can (Wonder Years style voiceovers notwithstanding); it’s for the actors to interpret that inner life and for the audience to infer it from their performances. Literature, for its part, leaves to the imagination how its characters look or sound, which generates that little bit of shock when a book is translated to film. (Harry Potter provides a great example: the movies’ cast probably overrides the books’ illustrations probably overrides Rowling’s text).
So my question is: what do video games leave out for the player to fill in? Or better: what is best for video games to leave out?
Having so recently finished Fallout 3 (review coming soon!), I found myself contrasting images from today’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial with that same location in the virtual, post-apocalyptic Washington DC portrayed in Fallout. The game had generated some minor controversy when its marketers plastered the real Metro Center subway station with ads that included an image of a bombed-out Capitol Building. (Metro Center appears in the game as well).
Update: Here are contrasting images related to yesterday’s Inauguration:
The Fallout series satirizes the Cold War and in particular the aesthetics and politics of the 1950s, as seen through the lens of the Regan era (it was inspired by the 1988 title, Wasteland). And it’s cynical in a late Cold War, 99 Luftbalons kind of way, depicting both government and society as dysfunctional, greedy, and selfishly tribal. This was politics à la mode, but the hundreds of thousands gathered today around the Reflecting Pool attest to a new zeitgeist, one that makes the old cynicism seem out of place.
Recently I’ve taken an interest in turning real world actions into gameplay, using MyBO as an example. While other games we’ve discussed have focused on “moral learning,” this class of games instead aims to shape or nudge behavior through game-like features.
Well, I’m now working on one such game that would support civic activism, particularly on location-based issues. It emerged out of a campaign to turn Boston into a “Fair Trade City” by convincing local stores and institutions to offer Fair Trade products like coffee, chocolate, and bananas. Because the campaign uses teams to build public support and to persuade stores, it seemed natural to frame the campaign as a game in which the rules scaffold valuable actions. For example, teams win points for identifying stores that already carry Fair Trade and for persuading new stores; however, it costs points to “claim” a store for persuasion, which they can also accumulate by signing on supporters. (Essentially, we want to model the idea of gathering up enough supporters to “attack”
Despite the fact that the software is only 40% complete, participants seem really motivated by it. We’re now seeking funding to launch the project, and would really appreciate any suggestions or feedback you might have on the concept. Our Knight Foundation application is publicly available for comment, and it can use your ideas. Or feel free to contact me directly. I’ll try to post more about the game design and how it intertwines with the real-world goals of the campaign.
Intriguing quote in recent Escapist review of Multiwinia:
In some crucial ways, Multiwinia’s sound design establishes a stronger emotional connection with the on-screen carnage than some gory AAA first-person shooters. Perhaps simplicity breeds empathy, but in any case I felt more guilty sending mobs of rudimentary sprites into the teeth of rapid-fire gun turrets than I ever have realistically gibbing an opponent’s face with a flak cannon.
Are we supposed to feel empathy for casualties in FPS’s? And is sound design effective in Multiwinia because of novelty or because of something more primal than visuals?
by David Nieborg (email@example.com)
Does Fable 2 live up to its promises? That depends on the player. Those willing to play the game several times will find a well-designed, deeply engrossing, morally challenging game. Conversely, the casual gamer will see ‘just’ see a well-designed action game. The game’s biggest problem though, is its lack of immediate feedback. Every ingame action – being good, evil or anything in between – does lead to a reaction, but it is not always clear which reaction is the result of a particular decision made by the player.
I gave a talk yesterday morning on video games, morals, and ethics in Doris Rusch’s class at MIT:
It featured minimal graphics, no sound effects, and deeply flawed gameplay. Yet one of the most important game titles of 2008 was played by thousands and helped change the face of American politics. I’m writing about My.BarackObama.com.
Game designer and scholar Ian Bogost considered it a washout election cycle for political games. McCain had his “Pork Invaders” arcade gimmick, and Obama bought ads in Xbox Live (largely an indulgence). But I would argue that 2008 represents a watershed moment for video games, a moment when the medium showed that it can, indeed, change the world. My.BarackObama.com (“MyBO”) didn’t just communicate ideas. It encouraged people to go and do something.