Socially Responsible Video Games

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Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

Video games are frequently violent, sexually explicit and exploitive and commercialistic. Whether their use leads inexorably to social exclusion or anti-social behavior and attitudes, the fact that their use occupies the minds of millions of people for billions of hours in a given year might make anybody question whether this is wise.


Video games draw people in but people don't get much in return. Is it possible that this medium can be re-engineered to good purpose? Gamers and game designers should explore these possibilities as should policy-makers, NGOs, and other people interested in new educational possibilities.


The idea of using computer games for socially responsible purposes has some intriguing arguments in its favor. One is that people are already spending enormous amounts of time doing mindless virtual driving (at least they're not wasting gas!) and shooting virtual villains, etc. If they're going to spend that much of their time gaming why not have them do something of value? (or so that argument goes.) On the other hand, it's not clear that it would work. Perhaps shooting is more fun than learning for some (or many or most?) people (but then according to the Harper's discussants, you can always trick them by giving them points or the right to use the virtual laser guns only after they did the "educational" thing, like adding the numbers or spelling the word.) But it's not obvious that even if people like playing an educational or socially responsible game that it would have any positive lasting effects.

Models and simulations provide ways for people to explore situations that can't be experienced directly — like the future. At the same time we must acknowledge that these tools aren't as compelling as they could be. Well-designed interactive games have the potential to be educational in that people learn about the world as well as compelling — they thrust the gamer into the scenario.

Certain types of video games are, on some level, not unlike simulations in which the computer extrapolates certain plausible outputs — both expected and unexpected — based on user selections or decisions. Simulations, however, are "serious" while games by their very nature are frivolous — or so it would seem.

What, in theory, could socially responsible video games achieve? One possibility is that they could improve cognitive skills including memorization of spelling and multiplication tables, as well as deeper skills such as analysis, interpretation, or evaluation. Another possibility is that one could learn a general feel or understanding from the games; just as people get some type of general knowledge from visiting foreign countries. One could, for example, get an impression of what it would be like to, say, deliver relief food to refugees in a remote war zone.

A video game, like a movie, book, or, even, a story told aloud, is not "real." It's a creation of a parallel artificial world, or a world "once removed" from "reality." In the early 1960s Yale psychology professor Stanley Millgram conducted a bold experiment that demonstrated (or was widely perceived as having demonstrated) how people were naturally inclined to follow orders from perceived authority figures, however illegitimate and immoral the orders might be. In those experiments, a "doctor" with official-looking garb tells the subject (misleadingly) that he or she are going to be involved in a memory experiment. In the course of this experiment, the subject will push buttons that purportedly deliver increasingly powerful electric jolts to an unseen person in the next room, a confederate who doesn't seem to be able to master the memorization of a few words at a level that sufficiently pleases the experimenter. After the hapless person with the poor memory cries out in [feigned] pain, the real subject understandably balks at delivering more pain to the person in the next room. After the authority figure explains that they "must continue" with the experiment, the vast majority of the subjects elected to continue their regiment of electrical shocks to the unseen victim. A notable exception to this excursion into a morally dubious zone were people who had spent time in German concentration camps during World War II. Many of them simply refused to deliver the punishment.

One plausible explanation is that the survivors who had actually witnessed situations in which blind obeisance to power led to barbarity, learned about its pitfalls, while those who had not been in such a situation had not. This suggests that video games could provide a type of rehearsal for situations that might arise in the future, serving much the same role as it is believed that play does for children.

It is the possibility that video games could provide meaningful instruction that inspired Paul Rogat Loeb to propose a video game based on former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth" movie that explores the looming prospect of global warming and massive climate change: "The game could build on Gore’s existing movie, slide show, and website, adapting whatever elements were useful, but also making the process more interactive, more engaging for an audience for whom games are a prime language. Why not put people in the role of climate scientists assessing the evidence, governmental and corporate decision makers, citizens trying to keep our society from driving off a cliff? Why not let them try out different ways of acting? (Loeb, 2006).

Video games could (at least theoretically) help society learn how to deal with various problems that people might encounter: emergencies, stolen elections, loss of civil liberties, etc, The fact is that our globalized, mediated, interconnected world thrusts a multitude of issues into our face that reveal our impotence: although they demand a response, individually we have nothing in our experience that helps us truly grapple with it ‐ let alone determine what that should be done about it.

Several video games have been released, and several more are in planning, that are intended to teach people about real-world issues in ways that television new reports and formal education are unlikely to emulate. One game, "Food Force" developed by the United Nations World Food Program, puts players in the middle of a dangerous food relief mission on Sheylan, a fictional island in the Indian Ocean suffering from drought and civil war. Players airdrop food, drive down mine-infested roads, buy and distribute food and help rebuild. Surprisingly, the game has been downloaded by over three million of people and is second in the number of free downloads only to "America's Army," another "serious game," this one a recruiting tool for the US Army (Rosenberg, 2006).

There are several new games with socially responsible orientations. One is called "A Force More Powerful" and designed to teach non-violent strategy. Others are based on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (PeaceMaker), genocide in Darfur, and Adventure Ecology in which two kids, Dash and Bay fight eco-threats and villains like Agent Waste and Professor Ignorance and the environment is represented as a "a highly complex and interdependent system in which every life-form, air molecule and pebble plays a part" (Snoonian, 2006).

While video games are often damned because of their total disconnect from the "real world," this separation may also have its virtues. According to Raph Koster (Wasik, 2006), there is a " magic circle" surrounding games and "it has to be a circle games of no consequence." Formal education, on the other hand, generally does not have a "magic circle of no consequence." In other words, failures — both small and large — at school have consequences that vary from minor annoyances and embarrassment to not being able to attend college or find meaningful employment after high school.


Will Wright, the designer of SimCity and other simulation games, commented on the goals he has for Spore, a new video game now in development: "I want people to be able to step back five steps, five really big steps. To think about life itself and its potential-scale impact. I want the gamers to have this awesome perspective handed to them in a game. And then let them decide how to interpret it" (Johnson, 2006). While we can't know how valid this perspective is and how his new game will promote those ways of thinking, it's clear that it represents a step up in relation to the majority of the other games that people play.

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Video games can be violent, sexually explicit, exploitive, and commercialistic. Whether or not they lead to anti-social behavior and attitudes, the idea presents intriguing possibilities. Ideally they could help teach people about real-world issues in compelling ways. And models and simulations provide ways for people to explore situations that can't be experienced directly — like the future.

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