Futuresonic 09 – Why we Must use Games for Good

I was just on a panel presentation at Futuresonic’s Social Technology Summit in Manchester. The slides were a bit bare of text and we were short of time, so here’s everything I meant to say.

Our panel was tasked with answering the question: “How can companies, creative producers and developers prepare for a digital economy?”

My answer is – with video games.

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This talk is about games in two ways. First, it’s about games as content – new things we can do in digital media, that we couldn’t do before the digital era. Games  should be a major component of that.

It’s also about games as content management. In the era of the fat data pipe – ubiquitous 100mbps connections, or fiber optic direct to your home – there will be a LOT of data floating around. I polled the room – of about 100 people in the audience, about 20 were tweeting, blogging, or taking digital pictures that they intended to post online. That’s a lot of information. And massively multiplayer games have some lessons for managing that information.

But first, games as content.

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Here’s a story:  a kid from Halland province in Sweden buys a copy of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion set for World of Warcraft. He’s really excited. He takes it home, installs the module, starts playing with his friends. He starts on Saturday morning. Sun goes up, sun goes down, he’s still playing. Parents go to bed. Still playing. All through the night. Sun comes up on Sunday. He’s still going. He goes for a good bit of Sunday, as well, until finally he collapses from exhaustion on Sunday afternoon.

This is an important story, and not because of the obvious question of what the hell this kid’s parents were doing letting their son play non-stop for over 20 hours.

The point is that we have here a medium so powerful, so compelling, that people will forget to eat or sleep for using it.

Like any medium, it can be adapted to communicate factual understanding as well as entertainment.

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This is why games are valuable to journalists – because games are fundamentally educational. In fact, I would say categorically that there is no game that is not educational. Better minds than mine have bent themselves towards explaining this – I heartily recommend Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design if you’re interested, or the first half of this presentation.

The short version is that games are challenge structures, which require skills to complete successfully. The process of playing a game is working out which skills you need to apply, and then developing them. So fun in video games is essentially skill-building.

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On a hind-brain, survival intelligence level, we like games because they give us a dopamine rush. I’m no neuroscientist, but the basics as I understand them are that every time you satisfy a craving and get something you want, your brain releases a bit of dopamine. It’s what makes you feel satisfied.

Games do the same thing. Solving a game challenge makes you feel good, on a dopamine level.

So does scoring a hit of crack cocaine. That’s why well-designed games can be so powerful.

See why I think we should be using this communications medium for good things?

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Here’s an example of how you could do it. Imagine this. You’re a taxi driver in Baghdad, 2005. The city is fragmenting into a patchwork of rival ethnic militias. You need to make ends meet, but the city’s functional geography changes drastically depending on whether you’re Sunni or Shia, Kurd or Christian. What’s a safe area? What’s dangerous? Well, reading about ethnic strife might not give you a great feeling for the reality, but trying to work your way through it might. So in the game you pick your sect, and see how your experience of the city changes depending on it. You could even pipe real-time news into the game to make the neighborhood alignment consistent with up-to-the minute reality. We pitched this concept at the BBC back in 2006, when Baghdad was still really hot.

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Baghdad Taxi Driver didin’t make it very far, but here’s one that did – Six Days in Fallujah. I’ve described it in detail elsewhere. Unfortunately it was canceled by Konami after an outcry by veterans’ groups in the US and the UK. (Atomic, the developer, is still working on it though, so we might yet get to play it.)

I’m the first to agree that a real battle in a real war like this is a sensitive issue. But I agree with Matt Peckham: games deserve a chance to deal with issues like this. Why are veterans’ groups cool with something like Generation Kill, but not with a game on the same topic?

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If any of you reading this is an Iraq vet, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. I enjoyed Generation Kill thoroughly – largely because it felt extremely honest and authentic. I thought the series presented US Marines in a very fair, balanced, and very human light. I see no a priori reason we couldn’t do this in a video game.

Some guys are already going for it, in true indie developer style: the guys  at Insurgency.

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Again, I’ve written about this one elsewhere. It’s a mod of the Half-Life 2 engine, set in contemporary Iraq. The bit I find really cool about it is that it’s made entirely by veterans, volunteering their time. No accusations of distortion apply here: the guys making this thing are the ones who lived through the real version.

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Now, a lot of people tell me that no matter how authentic or sophisticated these games are, they’re still fighting games, and that’s a bit limiting.

I agree. But there are a lot of other kinds of games out there. And the popularity of fighting games today is a historical artefact we’ll soon outpace. It’s down to the limitations of technology, and it will change soon.

If you think about it, what our game technology has been getting better and better at since the early 90’s is 3D modeling, physics and rendering. Game tech has gotten really, really good at creating fantasy 3D worlds that look and move just like the real thing. So it’s no big surprise that the top-selling genres of today are racing, fighting and sports games. They’re all genres that depend entirely on physics for gameplay. If we’re racing, and my vehicle’s rendered form passes a given point before yours does, I win. It’s simple. If we’re fighting, and the vector of your bullets intersects with the wireframe of my avatar, you win. Simple. Ditto with sports; ball wireframe, net wireframe . . . that’s all there is to it.

In the 70’s, when all computers could do was text, you got Collosal Cave Adventure. It’s what computers were good at then. As computers get better at more than graphics – like talking, for instance – I’ll bet we’ll see more interesting game types emerge.

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If you want to get a look at the ur-version of what those game types might be, check out Façade by Andrew Stern and Michael Mateas. This is a game where you use free-language text to converse with two old friends at a dinner party. You arrive in the middle of an argument, and the rest is open to you. What will you say? You can steer the evening to several different endings, depending on which conversational tack you take. It’s well worth a play. (Procedural Arts, the company Stern and Mateas founded, is working on more games of this type – I’m looking forward to it.)

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All the games I’ve mentioned so far are quite complex, but you don’t need a several-hundred meg download to make a good, thought-provoking game. Here’s a great example:

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Budget Hero by American Public Media is a great way of exploring a complex issue like a national budget. It’s something of vital importance in a democracy – but very difficult to explain properly in text or video. Play with the data, though, and you begin to understand how things really work. Budget Hero has real data plugged into the backend. That’s why the ‘I.O.U.’ debt-servicing column is so huge now if you go play. What this system does is allow you to implement the fiscal policy changes you’d like to see in an accurate model of the real world. Go ahead and repeal the Bush tax cuts, for instance, or cut welfare spending. You can see how the system reacts, and get a real understanding of how interrelated factors affect tax and budget issues.

And it’s FUN. Well, way more fun than a budget report, anyhow.

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Here’s another great example of making boring (but important) things fun through gaming. Sim City is fundamentally a game about three things:

  1. Municipal tax policy
  2. Infrastructure networks
  3. Urban zoning laws

To the vast majority of people, these are not fun things. But playing the game makes you learn about them (see gaining skills, above) – and the game series has sold 46 million copies to date. Players play this game for dozens, even hundreds, of hours.

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Still in the simple vein, games like Today I Die and Passage are showing us that games are capable of emotional sophistication and delivering subtle, poetic messages. If you haven’t played either of these, do yourself a favour and have a go now. They’re only a few minutes long to play through. Seriously, try them – they’re really good.

And when I say ‘good’ it’s as in ‘good art’.

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And then we have Alternate Reality Games, which use the fabric of the web, the real world, and the player base itself as their play space. They’re simple in that they don’t usually use any special technology, but they’re very complex in the way they’re played – too complex to describe fully in this presentation. However, they do hold some interesting rules for social media management – which is the second point I want to make.

Games as Content Management

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The lessons learned from managing massively multiplayer social media games like ARGs can help us make better social media journalism. (I’ve explored this point in greater detail in Five Lessons ARGs Can Teach Journalism.)

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Publishing and broadcasting are dead.

Well, maybe not dead, but definitively mutated. Broadcasters used to be the biggest predators on the block; now they’re viruses, they’re everywhere. Anyone can publish, anyone can broadcast.

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That’s Bill Clinton giving a talk in that picture. I once counted over 40 cameras pointed at him in this one shot. How many of those people will post their pictures online? How many will blog about it? Some. And some of what they have to say will be newsworthy. This is a system with intrinsically different grammar from the old one. As a journalist, you used to have scarce information and a silent public, soaking up your findings like dry soil. Now you’ve got a teeming jungle of signals, each more viral than the last.

This is a bit of a problem for an industry like mine that is based almost entirely on finding scarce information and distributing it. Our scarcity has dried up.

Now the task is being a curator, a sense-maker. But how do you tell a story in a social media world, where everyone can talk to everyone else?

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ARGs like I Love Bees, World Without Oil, Perplex City and the forthcoming Smokescreen from Channel 4 are showing us how to do this.

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ARG design is showing us how journalists can be a little like Game Masters from table-top role playing games, maneuvering the pubic interactively and iteratively through a landscape of information and helping them discover the truth for themselves. The same skills and principles that make for good ARG design help create communities for networked social media journalism:

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For way more explanation on this than I had time to say in the session, see Five Lessons ARGs Can Teach Journalism. This kind of networked journalism is already happening all around the world. Jeff Jarvis and Charlie Beckett are two people worth looking up if you’d like to know more. There are even some examples showing up in the staid old BBC:

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The BBC’s coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks last year was essentially a liveblog of the event, pulling in tweets, blog posts, and other information from people on the scene, sometimes with better information than the Beeb’s own correspondents.

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BBC Panorama’s twitter feed is one of a few that various parts of the corporation have set up. The move towards social media is starting. Where will it all go? I don’t know – yet – but we’ll soon see.

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(This is the metaphor I don’t have time for.)

This is a zoom lens. It was invented by Thomas Rudolphus Dalmeyer in 1891 . It’s common tech now, but it was a big deal in the early days of film.

The idea behind the zoom lens was that, as a director, you could save money during a shoot by changing the zoom on a lens, instead of taking one lens off and putting another one on. That takes time, and it’s cumbersome and expensive to have to carry around a lot of lenses. With the zoom lens, it’s simpler. You film your wide shot, cut, zoom in, reframe, roll, and shoot the close-up.

It was a while before the first actual zoom shot was ever filmed. (That is, actually rolling and exposing frames, while zooming the lens.) But when it did, someone realized you could use this. A shot zooming in conveyed emphasis, surprise, intensity visually. It was a new storytelling element made possible by a new bit of tech.

Right now we’re at a stage with digital journalism pretty close to the discovery of the zoom shot. We’re where radio news was in the 20’s, or TV news in the 50’s.

The first radio news was a guy reading out the paper. No special writing style, no field recorded audio. Just a guy with received pronunciation, reading out well-written sentences. Often they were complex sentences  with sub-clauses, because no one had even thought of a special writing style for the radio yet.

When the first TV news came along, they simply filmed the radio announcer. (So you could see the great big cigarette drooping from his mouth.) No edited pieces from tape, no live pieces from locations.

It took a while for each medium to attain maturity and to fully exploit its native advantages. Magnetic tape made it possible for radio to record ambient sound and and splice it together. Lighter TV cameras made it possible to go out and film real things happening and broadcast live.

Each medium attained fullness and a native storytelling grammar.

Right now, this is where we are with digital journalism and video games. We’re not quite at the beginning; we’ve seen where the future lies. It lies where social media and gaming meet.

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Check out these books if you’d like to get a taste of the sort of future I’m thinking of: Halting State by Charles Stross, and Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge.

It’s an exciting place.

Building it will be a lot of fun.

5 thoughts on “Futuresonic 09 – Why we Must use Games for Good

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