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Thu, 01 Nov 2007

The Education of Games

Teach Those Who Can't

Anyone who has ever wasted a significant amount of time on the Internet - and this being the games industry, it's a safe bet that most if not all of our readers are well within that demographic - has probably encountered a simple quiz called the Political Compass.

It's a popular web application which poses a number of key political statements, and asks you to mark whether you agree or disagree with them. Your answers are then plotted on a two-axis graph, which in theory tells you whether you're more Mahatma Ghandi or Margaret Thatcher in your thinking.

One aspect of the quiz which has struck me on a number of occasions is the following, presumably contentious, statement: "There is now a worrying fusion of information and entertainment."

The statement is presumably there because it represents a point on which opinions diverge significantly - but from the point of view of those embroiled with the videogames industry and its products, it's tough to see how anyone could see the union of information and entertainment as a negative, worrying thing.

However, that proposition came back to me upon reading comments from esteemed film producer and politician Lord Puttnam to the Virtual Worlds Forum this week. Speaking about the potential for developers to successfully lobby the government for state aid, Puttnam highlighted educational and cultural value as being key to this campaign.

"Build education capacity into the function of your games and you might get state aids," he told the Forum. "Otherwise you don't stand a snowball's chance in hell."

His comments aren't hugely controversial, for the most part. After all, one of the key things which has separated television and film (both relatively heavily state-aided) from videogames over the years is the fact that Westminster is sold on the concept that TV and movies can be educational. The debate over the cultural value of those media is long-over; art, expression and common sense won a resounding victory.

Videogames are still halfway through that struggle - if even that. The medium is still fighting a rearguard action against ill-informed, sensationalist attempts to turn it into a scapegoat for crime and violence. That's a battle which will probably only be won when Rupert Murdoch finally bites the bullet and buys a game publisher, a move which will undoubtedly silence the shrill hackery of outlets such as Sky News, Fox News and The Sun on this topic.

Only once that particular battle has been consigned to the graveyard of history will the industry be able to start the process of convincing government - and, indeed, society at large - of the educational and cultural value of its products.

That process in itself may be a slow one. This goes back to the Political Compass statement I mentioned earlier; the idea that the fusion of information and entertainment is seen as "worrying" by many people. Indeed, I'd go somewhat further than that - I believe that there are a great many people who simply don't believe that information (and by extension, education) and entertainment make for good bedfellows at all.

Much of this is down to a simple misunderstanding. To address Lord Puttnam's comments directly, I'd argue that many virtual worlds and massively multiplayer environments are actually very educational - just not in a straightforward manner which is easily presented to committees of people who have never experienced this kind of environment.

Be it a world overtly focused on creativity and commerce like Second Life, or one ostensibly focused on role-playing and combat like World of Warcraft, virtual worlds offer their players an opportunity to interact socially and commercially in a relatively safe, enclosed space.

These worlds feature intricate economic models in which players buy, sell and trade, where markets fluctuate and investment values can fall as well as rise.

They demand that players develop and demonstrate the ability to interact socially to accomplish goals with large groups of others, building the kind of diplomacy, leadership and teamwork skills that corporations pour countless millions into paintball venues to nurture later in life.

As virtual worlds develop and evolve, they will continue to add vastly more such opportunities to the mix. Worlds set in historical environments will educate users as they play; worlds with more advanced economic models will allow people to experiment with businesses and entrepreneurial ventures in a low-risk environment.

We will even see worlds with advanced enough content tools to allow creators to build art of many different forms in virtual environments.

None of this is blue-sky, far-future thinking. All of these things exist in forms that are far from rudimentary already, and will continue to evolve at a rapid pace in the coming years. Will this be recognised as educational, though? Will the immense cultural and social value of such progress be identified by those who make such judgements on behalf of the nation's purse-string holders?

Perhaps they will - but I confess to a degree of pessimism here. The breakneck pace of progress has smashed information, education and entertainment together, and the shape of things to come is only now emerging from the wreckage - held together with high technology, networked environments and advanced interactivity.

Given how long it has taken to convince the world that comparatively simple, linear gaming experiences are not a tool of Satan, can we really expect that virtual, networked worlds will be embraced with open arms without a massive fuss?

In other words, I think Lord Puttnam's comments, perhaps, make more sense the other way around. MMOG and virtual world creators should not be scrambling to make their games more "educational"; they are doing a fine job of that already, without even knowing it. However, they should not count too heavily on the idea of state support, either.

The state is a conservative and slow-moving beast - the job the market faces is not to make their products more educational or culturally valuable, but to demonstrate that value to people to whom these ideas might as well be in a science fiction novel.

I feel fairly strongly that the idea of state aid for a sector such as this is a bit of a white elephant. Cutting edge online and games technology is a front that moves far faster than the public sector can keep up; the focus now, as ever, must be on the pace of progress, rather than on trying to bring the mandarins of Westminster along for the ride.

(Gamesindustry.biz)

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