One of the things I’m most fascinated by is the concept that videogames are not merely a form of mindless entertainment, but that they can be important tools to further learning and improve society. Wired’s Clive Thompson wrote an excellent piece a while ago [Why we Need More Torture in Videogames] on the intersection of videogames and education that was prompted by a torture sequence added to an expansion pack for World of Warcraft; “Wrath of the Lich King.”
Here’s an excerpt that distills his thesis:
“Consider the popular television series 24. The sheer metric tonnage of torture rose to an almost self-parodic level in the last few seasons of the show; barely an episode went by without someone being shocked, injected, waterboarded or just plain ol’ beaten senseless. Yet 24 has never seriously shown any repercussions of that torture.
For example, a CTU agent in a Season 3 episode is mistakenly accused of being a traitor, then tortured with a stun gun. When the mistake is cleared up, what happens? She stands up, straightens her clothes, goes back to her desk … and demands a raise to ensure her silence. Brassy!
And a total, cynical fantasy. Psychologists know that torture causes, among other horrid things, lasting mental-health problems. But 24‘s frantically violent fairy tales are typical of what passes for mass-cultural debate about torture. We’re not encouraged to think about what happens next, so we don’t. It is a massive failure of the public imagination.
Which is why we need more torture in videogames.
Games are excellent vehicles for helping people inhabit complex, difficult situations. They’re also extremely good at illustrating consequences: If you do X, then Z and L will happen; if you do Y instead, then C and Q result.”
As we watch the steady dumbing-down of the for-profit news media (the result of its efforts to retain its dwindling audiences by appealing to our prurient interests with car chases and lurid crime details) and audiences fragment and narrow – I worry greatly about the ability of our society to function with a public that is illiterate about so many concepts and so much information that is essential to participatory government.
At some point, people need to “take their medicine” and encounter information they wouldn’t necessarily seek out voluntarily. My mom used to put nutmeg in our pancakes and shred zucchini into pasta sauce; as a result we got the nutritional benefit without even noticing.
In a similar way, my hope is that these sorts of philosophical discussions can take place in the sphere of video games where the interest/attention level is very high; it would be great to see a movement rise among game developers and programmers to feel an obligation to include content and themes that is philosophically-challenging or relevant to current events.