As a writer and former devotee of fantastical works of fiction i have an uncomfortable relationship with the entertainment diaspora of video games. I should say straight out that i am also an avid gamer. This is not the same thing as saying i truly like them. They are still mostly a distraction, a diversion, and sometimes a complete and total waste of time. What interests me most about them is their potential. Games, like most writers, would be graded with the dubious distinction in the classroom of ‘not living up to their potential’ – a remark i’ve heard many times on my own report cards from when i was a lad of 15 – lo these many decades ago.
The trouble with video games is that they are not literature. Literature aims at explaining ourselves to ourselves, deepening the experience of our reality through identification with others. Games, on the other hand, accidentally stumble into a strange form of education. Well, some of them anyway. Most of them only educate you on the best way to dispatch zombies. But see i’m one of those management RPG gamers. I love The Sims, Civilization, the Total War epics, etc. Anything where you build empires and attempt to maintain and grow them is my thing. The war and killing stuff – ehn. You could leave that out of them and i would still be a pretty happy world builder.
Literature, you see, often stumbles into the human psyche, telling us a lot about ourselves and how we view the world and overcome our own foibles on a very personal level. Games, because they aren’t literature and generally aren’t written by those with a literary mind, don’t do this much. Sure there are the story games that come pretty close: Red Dead Redemption, the Grand Theft Auto series, etc. But for the most part they fall short because they are predicated on adversarial relationships of a violent (and entertaining) nature. Connection and real interest in the characters is often wanting – in the extreme. Therefore, truly interesting connection with the story isn’t really possible. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe reading, because it’s such a personal journey of the mind, can’t and shouldn’t be supplanted by games, but for an avid reader and a middling gamer i could use a little more.
Which finally brings me to the subject at hand. One thing i have noticed that games do very well is provide an opportunity to grasp difficult concepts in an informal and entertaining manner. The empire building games i love have really sparked my imagination and made me wish that even those games could do it better. Empire: Total War can be interesting in a way that a lecture on Napoleon and the age of Empires couldn’t. (unless you’re me of course) And the game itself is just deep enough to make it desirable to want to learn more. Age of Empires can teach about resource management and sustainability if you let it, and who could forget about trying to problem solve your way through the traffic snarls of SimCity?
I don’t believe that the designers of these games attempted much more than trying to make a lucrative game that would be widely engaging enough to make oodles of dough. That said they somehow stumbled into a way to teach real lessons about real things.
Lately i have been playing a lot of World of Warcraft. True to form i don’t just play. Well… I do – while i’m playing it, but whenever i log off i am flooded by the sociological, anthropological, and theoretical. I’m taken in by where it COULD take me if it were more developed and more focused and less bent on rampant entertainment. What i have learned, so far, about World of Warcraft is that it is a crash course on capitalistic entrepreneurism. Every character created and every player behind those characters, want what we all want – to acquire stuff, to be legendary, to be heroes. But within the world of Azeroth the primary means of this legendary status seems to be capitalistic. You buy your way to the top, by making things and selling them on the market – often attempting to manipulate the market in your favor.
The game itself, in terms of the stories it tells, has quite a bit of morality to it. Every race of characters has a story and it’s easy to sympathize, but the primary means of moving through the story eventually becomes economical. I don’t think of this necessarily as a bad thing. I mean, it’s a game and it’s always important to remember that (as some occasionally seem to forget) The fact remains, however, that there is more that games COULD do, if the writers were there to work on them. The stories COULD become a great means of interacting with a world that is more or less in your control, and the morality and ethics of the training that is possible if the world were well written could be an invaluable resource to a world that is getting smaller and smaller with each passing day and each bit of information shot across the world. Can you imagine, for instance, a conservative christian playing as a Paladin banding unwittingly with a conservative muslim to save a virtual home from a raging force? It’s these possibilities that could be better explored and i hope will be.
We’ve only scratched the surface of what video games are capable of but i think, in a way, these educational moments will have to remain accidental and not heavy handed. Technology seems to have thrown open the doors on the possible and shown where it crosses with the intentional and the accidental. We’ve concocted an entirely new realm (sometimes literally) where people learn quickly how to adapt the new tools at their hands and put them to a qualitative purpose. I’d like to think the best of this technology. In the past few weeks we’ve seen how it has started literally changing the world we live in. For a while now i’ve been saying the days of ‘Wars for Regime Change’ can finally be put behind us once we start securing the right of people to information. Instead of dropping bombs, drop servers, bandwith, tweets. Yeah. I know that’s a little fantastical and delusional but we have yet to fully discover just how delusional that is – particularly when the power of thought expressed, shared, and evading dictatorial repression has just moved two mountains in the past month.
So what can Games teach us? What can we learn about ourselves? What can we learn about others? Perhaps it will take a virtual world to teach us the value of the real one? Perhaps it will take Orcs and Taurens and Gnomes and Elves to teach us the absurdity of racial divides within ourselves? Who knows. Right now i can honestly say that Warcraft alone is fully capable of teaching us the intricacies of markets in a way the stock ticker on TV never could. I don’t know if thats a good thing or not but it’s more than i had before – particularly in regards to a subject i could have cared less about a month ago.
Now if you’ll pardon me i have to go check on how the Mageweave Cloth market is doing today and i’ve heard there’s a run on Iron Bars which i just happen to have on inventory.