Dan Perkel's Stuff on the Web

Category: newmedia (page 2 of 2)

Games: What do “We” create?

Thanks to unmediated.org and Emily at Smart Mobs, I was turned on to the current issue of Wired and its focus on video games. Will Wright, creator of the Sims and the soon-to-be-released Spore, guest edits parts of the issue and provides a compelling article/editorial that highlights aspects of video games that, he argues, deserve more attention.

Of course, this piece is not, and can not be, and in-depth analysis of all of the themes that Wright touches on momentarily before jumping to the next theme; after all, it’s a brief thought piece for a publication that reaches a wide audience. Therefore, while I take a critical perspective on the article, I am aware that I am most likely not Wright’s primary audience (as an graduate student who has seen many of these themes before) and that Wright, I am sure, has a lot more he could have said on each of these themes.

Near the beginning, he addresses a relationship between play and games that is often difficult to nail down. When researching what kids and teenagers do with technology outside of classrooms, relating these activities to “play” is not only helpful, but is often “accurate,” in the sense that people, young and old, do play with ideas, artifacts, each other, and their environments. But, making the jump from play to “games” has been something that I have struggled with. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, has shaped much of my thinking, but the conversation about what “is” or “is not” a game has not gone away. He captures how kids develop games from play in a way that I have not seen expressed quite so nicely or succinctly:

As we play, we learn. And as we grow, our play gets more complicated. We add rules and goals. The result is something we call games.

Wright’s definition seems to be this: games = play + “rules and goals.” And the agency seems to be in the hands of the game creators: “we add rules and goals.” This idea of “we” is interesting, because it can be read to be a group of individual kids who make up these rules and goals for themselves or it can be thought up as groups of kids, siblings, or families who somehow collaborate (consciously or unconsciously) to make up these rules, or perhaps it can be thought of as “society” as a whole.

As I think about kids growing older, I wonder if we start to give up some of this agency. Do we stop making up games for ourselves and start playing within the rules and goals established by others? I loved playing soccer as a kid, but that is/was a game that I had very little to say with respect to the goals, rules, or how I was supposed to play. But, what about an arguably more complex game, such as how to learn how to get into relationships. Right away, I can hear people argue “dating” is not really a “game.” But, it has goals, it has rules, and there certainly is (or can be) a lot of play involved. But, we don’t all agree on the rules or the goals (often with disastrous consequences, but sometimes surprisingly nice ones). Who creates these rules? Do we passively inherit them from our older siblings, from the media, from our cultures? Or do we pick and choose what we like and recreate this game by a modified set of rules each time? Where does the “agency” lie (if anywhere)?

Wright argues that today’s video games, at least the ones that do in fact take advantage of our “second processor…the player’s imagination,” players can use their own creativity to change and modify the game worlds in which they play. These types of games harness player creativity in a variety of ways, ranging from letting players build new levels, letting them add new characters, allowing them to choose their own roles, and so forth.

Wait. Re-read the previous sentence. Note that I have fallen into a trap that Wright does repeatedly throughout his article. Like Wright, I have made “games” the subject of the sentence. (Honestly, I didn’t do it on purpose as a rhetorical device.) In Wright’s article: “games include,” “games will start,” “games have the potential,” “games entices,” and it gets a bit more scary near the end of the essay. Sometimes, this language is necessary and useful. However, I think it should be used carefully. People build games, so every time one sees games as a subject, it may be helpful to think “the people who build games.” In his defense, Wright does mention “game designers” a few times. The point here, though, is that even though these newer forms of games increase the creative possibilities for players (I did it again!), in many cases someone else, usually a large number of people, have encoded the goals, rules, and structure for all of this game play, creativity, and “self-expression.” Not everything is in the hands of the player. I don’t think that our newfound agency within a game world is all an illusion, but I don’t think we necessarily making up our own goals and rules, our own games, as we may have done as kids.

As I alluded to earlier, Wright ends his essay on a scary note for me:

Soon games will start to build simple models of us, the players. They will learn what we like to do, what we’re good at, what interests and challenges us. They will observe us. They will record the decisions we make, consider how we solve problems, and evaluate how skilled we are in various circumstances. Over time, these games will become able to modify themselves to better “fit” each individual. They will adjust their difficulty on the fly, bring in new content, and create story lines. Much of this original material will be created by other players, and the system will move it to those it determines will enjoy it most.

This morning, a friend of mine and I were discussing if the notion of “technological determinism,” the idea that technology is inevitably moving forward in a certain direction and that technology impacts society as if technology were a force outside of society that “impacts” it without the society having much to say or do about it. She was wondering if the whole concept was something that social scientists have made up to bash down, a straw man of sorts. When I read Will Wright’s last paragraph, I realized that technological determinism is alive and well (and actually I think it has its utility as a way of thinking about to study the interplay between us and our tools, but that’s for another essay). Even more troubling to me than the determinism in this last paragraph, though, is how much it seems to contrast with the one I quoted earlier, the one I liked so much:

As we play, we learn. And as we grow, our play gets more complicated. We add rules and goals. The result is something we call games.

As little kids, “we” create games out of our own play. As we grow older, we play the games that “game designers” create (including video games). In the future, whose games will we play?

Cut and paste literacy

In my last rambling post on thinking about the potential learning that might go on when kids get a hold of HTML in MySpace, I mentioned a possible objection to notions of “learning” when equated with “cutting and pasting.” Namely, what is learned from cutting and pasting? Isn’t it the equivalent of copying another kid’s math homework?

A few days after writing, I was in my first day of class called “Literacies: Old and New” and this idea came up again in a different context. Professor Andrea DiSessa was showing us work done by middle schoolers using his Boxer software (online description not where it used to be… sorry for no link) and mentioned how kids were able to copy and paste Boxer scripts from a shared library of Boxer scripts and that this helped the cutter/paster build more complex projects. He also talked about the satisfaction kids had when walking through their scripts with less experienced kids, which was often followed by enthusiastic idea exchanges. DiSessa posed the question to us: can one claim that this is some new sort of “cut and paste literacy?” And, if so, how might it relate to textual literacy, where quoting is encouraged, but “copying and pasting” is the equivalent of plagiarism? I think that his point went way beyond making sure to attribute source code to original authors.

Two colleagues of mine found this interesting and mentioned having explicitly heard the term “cut and paste literacy” or “copy and paste literacy” or something like that before. I did a quick search and found a few potentially interesting links:

A 21st Century Challenge: Preparing ‘Cut and Paste’ Students to be ‘Information Literate’ Citizens, by Paula Murphy of the Teaching, Learning, and technology Center at UC, published online in 2002.
Educating the Cut-and-Paste Generation.(teaching information literacy) published by HighBeam Research (warning: I have no idea who this group is and didn’t want to pay for the article or deal with the trial version…).
Cut, Paste, Publish: The Production and Consumption of Zines by Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear in 2001.

    I have not read these pieces thoroughly (or at all, in the case of the second one). My point here is to just give some evidence that this is not something “new” (as in just thought about for the first time in 2006), and that there is probably a lot more literature out there to go through, in both academic journals, popular press, and other venue.
    To end on an ironic note, while cutting and pasting these links and titles, I realized that I may be helping boost their ranking on search engines, even though I haven’t read them. If I hadn’t realized this, would I have been demonstrating an “illiterate” or “non-literate” practice associated with cutting and pasting? And how that I have decided to leave the links in, even though I still haven’t read them, what am I demonstrating?

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