Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Ben and James on What Gaming Does To You

Ben Lehmann writes:

Playing games effects our lives. Some people come out of it with positive effect. Others come out of it with negative effect[...]

It is possible to design a toxic game -- one which is fun and happy making but causes its players to withdraw from society, to reject productive lifestyles, and to shy from normal social interaction. Frankly, I think such games already exist, although you might be surprised about my opinions on what is what, there.
He's commenting on this post by james_west (not to be confused with James V. West), which is about the different directions people he knows who game have gone.

The main thing I wanted to post here was one thing where I believe gaming can actually mess with people: to the degree that games try to represent reality with their rules ("simulationism"), they provide a set of assumptions about reality which people (especially young people who are still coming to understand the world around them) may swallow without questioning them.

I don't mean believing that real life is like silly genre conventions -- that there is real fireball-casting magic, or stuff like that -- but more like the basic assumptions about the structure of reality or what is meaningful and relevant about people, life, and stories.

One thing I can think of off the top of my head is the notion that being "skilled" at something is an unambiguous good; that there is really such a thing as objective "competence" which is a scalar quantity (or a bunch of related scalar quantities).

Reading the "mindfulness" books by Ellen Langer, especially The Power of Mindful Learning, exploded this myth in my head and it was hugely powerful for me. And I realized the myth had been implanted by games as well as the culture at large.

One way games can avoid giving people inaccurate representations of the world which they unconsciously assimilate is by disclaiming to represent the world at all -- which is something that Narrativist and Gamist designs are more ready to do.

I have seen a more or less Simulationist game which subverts this assumption: Mike Holmes and JB Bell's Synthesis. In Synthesis, you may have 3 dice in "Classical Guitar," which will let you play Classical Guitar well, but those 3 dice could be used against you if you were doing something which classical guitar training might interfere with, like playing punk rock guitar.

Skill is only ever skill in doing things a particular way, and learning is only ever learning a particular way of understanding things, and either can bite you in the ass and keep you from doing or looking at things a different and possibly more useful (in some contexts) way.

So that's one thing that gaming can do that will hurt you: it can impress upon you limited and limiting ways of looking at the world, and it is likeliest to do so in the areas where it seems to be representing things which are most mundane and "realistic."

There are other things I might add to the discussion, like questioning James West's assumptions about the relative value of different kinds of jobs, assumptions that he himself warns may seem "elitist and egotistical," so it might not be fair to him to criticize them. But the big thing that hit me when I read all this was "yeah, I am personally familiar with detrimental effects of games on your way of dealing with the world, though it's nothing to do with what james is talking about and I don't know if it has anything to do with what Ben is talking about due to lack of details provided."

I don't know that I wouldn't have picked up the same detrimental assumptions without games, but games definitely reinforced them, specifically the "simulating" aspect of rules.

UPDATE: John Kim's response, linked also in the comments below, mentions his concerns about "nature vs nurture" assumptions promulgated unconsciously by role-playing games, which he's written up in an essay. Note that this is exactly the same kind of issue which I've complained about; it's not necessarily something about RPGs per se but something about particular simulationist rules patterns which are widespread (but need not be universal) in RPGs, which subtly or not-so-subtly imply something an obvious truth about the "real world" which might usefully be questioned.


Ed H said...

Mental note made. :)

Paul Czege said...

Hey Ed,

I'd love to hear your thoughts about why being skilled at something isn't unambiguously good.


Anonymous said...

yea, i mean cmon!!!
gaming is ludicrously FUN!!!

go home!!

-hahaha u fail at life
"i like cheese and cereal"


Ed H said...

Paul -- the best thing I can do on short notice is say "read The Power of Mindful Learning by Ellen Langer." Not everyone might agree with her conclusions but I found them convincing and the resulting rethinking of how life and the universe works was very salutary for me. :)

It's nothing too complex, though -- just the notion that skill is always ever only "skill at doing a certain sort of thing in a certain way," and there may arise contexts where it would be better to do that sort of thing a different way, and that is much less likely to occur to you if you have a lot of skill in doing it a particular way. You may even have a hard time unlearning habits you learned one way.

Look at a really skilled C programmer just getting started writing Perl. It'll be shit Perl, I guarantee it. Cause the habits learned in C are totally inappropriate for Perl. I'm sure the reverse is true.

Skill at something always means doing it in a way which is really useful for one purpose in one context -- but there may always be other purposes and other contexts.

And "ignorance" and "incompetence" can be valuable! Because they can allow you to accidentally invent new ways of doing things, because you're too ignorant to know the "right" ways of doing them, or too incapable to do them that way.

Ed H said...

What's that "grassyopper" and "moomoo" stuff? I don't get it.

jhkim said...

I posted some thoughts on the toppic on my own
RPG Blog
. Basically, I feel differently about RPGs messing with people. RPGs can and should "mess with" people. That's "having meaning", and if used constructively it is a good thing.

All pictures of the world are inaccurate, and if anything I feel that RPG ones are potentially more thought-provoking than the ones from television and other media.