September 4, 2006

With(in) reason: Videogaming for Fun

I am a "grandfather." At least, if not in gender or age, then in the traditionalist view I currently hold toward videogames. I felt as if the author of A Theory of Fun for Game Design was speaking directly to me as I read the final chapters of his book. I felt as if I were a close-minded wretch, bent on discrediting a budding artform at its inception.

It's true, though. I was offering the antithesis to all of his arguments. I had the Columbine shooting scenario behind me (or at least I thought I did). I had the media behind me. I had the parents behind me. I had psychology behind me (again, wrong).

And then Koster started talking about giving gaming a chance amid the human context.

"Games deserve respect. We as creators must respect them, and do right by their potential. And the rest of the world must respect them and grant them the scope to become what they can and must" (216).

And then he found my really weak spot: reason. I was holding unreasonable standards and vendettas against videogames. For shame.

Though Koster's speech all sounds a little Spidermanesque, it is true. As in any artform, there are certain lines that may be drawn, but only through stepping beyond can we know where they exist and if they should exist.

Bad things do happen; they come with the territory. I guess even crossing the prarie included losing an oxen or two. As grievous as the events of Columbine were, the human context unfortunately isn't a perfect backdrop for any artform to develop.

I don't believe in making videogames into the black cat of every tragedy, but I will remain wary. Since gaming is in its relative infancy in contrast to, say, portraiture, study of the supposed tie to the common theme of violence in videogames should continue.

However, it was refreshing to read Koster's resolve to turn from the Dark Side: "I am willing to choose which side of human nature I want to foster (presumeably the 'good side')" (206). Impressions often perpetuated about videogame developers include anything from horny teenagers to pervy middle-aged pocket-protector carriers. My view of the avid gamer is even worse (i.e. classmates showing up to class late and/or bleary-eyed from staying up until 4 a.m. to finish a game--I admire perseverance, but not stupidity).

Koster, though, sounds like he is trying to make a difference in the world. Heck, he even sounds human:

"In the end, if I can say...that one person out there learned to be a better leader, a better parent, a better co-worker; learned a new skill that kept them their job, a new skill that helped them advance the state of the art in their chosen field, a new skill that made their world grow a little...Then I will know that my work is valuable." (198).

He wants the world to advance, rather than rip it to shreds and then rape it. In my book, that's better than my previous view of video game developers.

I guess this brings me to one aspect of gaming that stumps me: ratings. It's all well and good that videogames develop; but how are they developing? Who are the gatekeepers to stop (if they exist) horny teenagers and pervy middle-age crackpots from screwing up the youth of the world? Where are the lines being drawn for the gaming public?

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) cites "many content areas, including but not limited to violence, sex, language, and substance abuse" as criteria for their rating games. Bravo public relations team at the ESRB--just enough vagueness to keep the public "informed" and the ESRB out of the courtroom.

I guess, if I were to debate or write a research paper, I'd like to know a little more about that.

However, Koster, in his upbeat opus, seems to want to educate more than entertain. I'm guessing, though, that the education he describes includes a little more than Barney and Baby Bop dynamics.

Perhaps Koster is speaking concerning education in simulation situations, such as for the military. I was surprised to see how game situations fared when pitted against a traditional exam.

But what about other elements of an effective education experience in a game? It can't just be based on how well soldiers fought in contrast to how well they performed in a simulated game experience. What about plot--How important is it? Graphics? Weapons? What are the criterion for gaming excellence? Does anyone really know? What is the lexicon for assessing a game (There really isn't one)?

And then I think back to Seton Hill's literary magazine's scoring sheet. Subjective and quantitative methods are used to challenge a piece's claim of worth. These standards have been achieved by years and years of study and are continually refined and sometimes revolutionized.

Though I have not played many games, I find taste, as Koster also says an important aspect of worth. But am I being too naive in that area, as well? I don't know. Perhaps tastelessness does have its place.

Case in point: Doesn't Titus Andronicus or The Color Purple have as much to say about human frailty and injustice as The Godfather for Xbox? Maybe. Probably.

There's much to learn. Especially for one who was just weaned off of GameBoy.

Posted by Amanda Cochran at September 4, 2006 9:04 PM | TrackBack

Interesting side note... a young man who was paralyzed during the Columbine assault recently played a game that re-creates the scenario, and he is not at all offended by the concept.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at September 5, 2006 12:07 AM

Doesn't that literary magazine have a name?
I guess if our class lined up on a scale of gamer to non-gamer (designer to grandfather), I would only be about a half step in front of you. We're sharing a lot of the same reactions to this book, Amanda, and I'm glad that you're on my plane of thought. It's hard to pick up this other stuff sometimes--the jargon, the vicarious idea of seeing where our classmates are "coming from" when they explain things, trying to understand why someone would want to play certain kinds of games... all that is Greek to me.

Thanks for communicating some of what I've felt, too.

Posted by: Karissa at September 5, 2006 10:42 AM

Okay...sheesh. Eye Contact. I didn't include it in the sentence because the diction was getting clunky as it is, without another clause to include the name. :-)

I'm glad we share the same sentiments. At the last class meeting, I felt out of the loop when we talked about specific games. At least now we can share some dialogue.

Posted by: Amanda at September 5, 2006 10:51 AM

I would argue that many of Shakespeare's plays are more violent and sexually charged than the majority of videogames out there... it's like Koster said, violence and sex are in every form of entertainment out there (although sometimes these terms are softened).

Ratings systems are good, and yet always somehow flawed, which is why they need to have standard definitions, but also some subjectivity to them. The MPAA may have some standards as to how to decide if a movie is R or PG, but ultimately they look at the film on the whole and make a subjective decision. The same must be treated for games in order to get the most out of the rating system.

Posted by: Mike Rubino at September 5, 2006 12:57 PM


I touched upon our class discussion in my first entry on Koster's book. I was wondering if you were in agreement with anything I have to say, having just read your outlook on games, children, and violence. Nothing hostile, just curious!

I just commented on Karissa's entry about a similar topic: don't feel like a grandfather! I can understand why you do, but don't let video games intimidate you or anything of the sorts like I used to when PlayStation emerged. I thought N64 was as far as I'd go, but I was wrong. I don't play video games daily or even weekly most times, but I feel playing games opens up a different part of my brain. It's interactive puzzle solving.

I was thinking of you in class while reading Koster's book, hoping it would give you a new outlook on gaming, which it appears it did. It's good you can admit you don't know much about games, because you can only go up from there! Just have fun with it, it is after all, only a game. =)

Posted by: stormy at September 5, 2006 12:58 PM

Amanda, I guess I am just old. I really don't "get" video games. Maybe I need to read more about them or play them more... I've gotten as far as Nintendo and Game Boy and then - I imagined I outgrew video games. A pac man game here or there is OK.

Craig plays them, and the 'professionals' at work play them as well. I guess to me it seems like a total waste of time... Remember, I admit I'm not an expert at all.

My question is, how does one benefit from playing video games?? and who really has the time to play video games?? There is ALWAYS something to do: people to see and interact with, books that need read ;), volunteer work to be done, etc...

I don't know Amanda... Video Games... I really don't see how playing a game (unless its a simulation) can help someone,

" be a better leader, a better parent, a better co-worker; a new skill that kept them their job, a new skill that helped them advance the state of the art in their chosen field, a new skill that made their world grow a little"

The whole concept is just not clicking in my brain, but it did pique my interest. Awesome entry!

Posted by: Amy Collins at September 5, 2006 7:24 PM

I know, Amy, I'm trying to figure that all out myself. When I have some kind of answers for myself and for you, I'll blog them. :-)

Posted by: Amanda at September 6, 2006 8:24 AM
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