It’s January 7 when I am writing this, about 3 PM Eastern. 24 hours ago the US Capitol building was stormed by rioters. I am sitting down to write a column on games research and games studies. But, I just can’t write the column I had planned to write. Too much is happening in my mind and heart right now.
Games Research Isn’t Enough
Dr. Ty Hollett (Penn State) is fond of saying “STEM won’t save us.” It’s a simple, but strangely accurate condemnation of the state of education funding and research in the United States. The mindset that informs this little quote is one that is perhaps a bit bitter, but still holds out hope. STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math), he argues, is the focus of education, because these skills are the ones employers value. On the surface, this makes sense. People want jobs. But, the deeper narrative implies that the job market defines what we teach our children, which determines who they grow into. And that’s a dark path.
Why is this relevant to games research?
Well, the narrative of modern games research (especially games for learning) is one that echoes the STEM mindset. As researchers, educators, and designers we (myself included) are often in a position to inform or determine how we deploy or employ games. Too often, that results in a top-down mindset; one which starts with what we want to do with a game rather than what is needed.
We can’t allow ourselves to walk down that road. The number of applications for games and simulations excite me to the core. I look around and see how they could be applied to encourage environmentalism or address racial inequity. But, as Ian Bogost and Benjamin Stokes would probably remind us, a persuasive game is separated from a manipulative game only by whose thinking informs its design.
As games and simulations scholars, designers, or educators we need to consider exactly why it is we are doing what we are doing. Perhaps more to the point, we should ask ourselves for whom we do it. Is it for students, for ourselves, for the sake of science? We need to constantly remind ourselves that games research has power.
Many of us were drawn to this line of thinking because we have a love of games. And, as has been shown time and time again by both research and the market, games can be used for good or evil. They can be used to educate or provide expanded perspective. But, they can also be used to manipulate opinions, take advantage of addictive behavior patterns, or reinforce unhealthy stereotypes.
Cultures not Clicks
Over recent years, scholarship around games and simulations has increasingly highlighted that cultures in games matter. From James Paul Gee to Elizabeth Hayes and from Ian Bogost to Benjamin Stokes, their voices unite in the argument that the player must be the focus, not the game itself. These foundational scholars in the field espouse the importance of the Metagame (or the big G Game), or culture that surrounds the game.
Yesterday, we saw the result of what happens when we ignore the community around a message. We saw exactly how the meta-culture can grow beyond the original culture into its own beast.
I certainly will not argue that games have the power to incite a riot. Nor do I seek to imply that the scholarship and design around modern games is currently pursuing some evil, manipulative agenda. Rather, I want to take a moment to remind myself that the reason games matter is because gamers matter. From time to time, we must remind ourselves that we cannot focus too narrowly on our own goals, lest we lose sight of how our actions affect the people around us.
The games we build and the way we use them influence cultures. And those cultures impact the lives of people far beyond the scope any one game could ever achieve by itself (by design or mistake).
Where is this going?
So what is the take away?
Our research must look beyond the immediate impact of games. We must continue to expand how we conceptualize the role of games and simulations and how they influence our cultures in increasingly complex ways. And above all, we have to craft our research and practice through rich investigation of the cultures we work with in order to empower them, not manipulate them. Because…as yesterday showed us, manipulation has a price.