stock picture of men lookin' angry while doing a game
stock picture of men lookin’ angry while doing a game

I’m in the process of putting together a sort of bid to get a gamedev club at a local youth club. I already work there – and have done, on and off – doing songwriting (i.e. rap) and music-tech workshops. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve become re-interested in making games. Through my own research, and my time working in schools, I’ve found that it’s something a lot of teenagers want to do. And I’ve met a lot of IT teachers who are really supportive and try to dedicate lessons to app development, or using tools like Scratch etc. But I’m not sure how conducive the project-directed school environment is to the sort of learning that happens when you make a game. You set your own initial task and these problems emerge from them and, let’s face it, you need a lot of time to just follow it yourself.

But a project like this isn’t going to get support just as a sort of informal tech workshop. There has to be some other social substance to it (as there always has been with our songwriting work). So I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics and games, some of the ethical issues that arise from gaming with young people (violence, representation etc.) and how to engage young people with these issues. I’m really not interested in indoctrinating them in a particular way of viewing things, just getting them to think critically and for themselves about the sort of assumptions that are usually built into the games we play. So the idea is, maybe, to make sure that the young designers are encouraged to think about “consequences” as a key idea. Even if they want to make a game almost entirely about blowing people up – fine – but I want to see some active consideration of  negative consequences.

There were a number of papers from VG6 that got me thinking about this. Lindsey Joyce discussed how explicit morality systems are clumsy, and remove player agency by removing the need to think – a great criticism. What I really liked about Lindsey’s paper was that ultimately it was focussed on the fact that these sort of systems make for crappy player experiences (rather than the more divisive notion that morality systems “teach” players different things). – I’d love to get kids designing the simple karma systems we’re used to in RPGs, and then to later move on to critique (with the eventual aim, perhaps, of realizing that social reality is just too complex to model that way!) Catherine Bouko and Julian Alvarez from Belgium discussed serious gaming. Toward the end of the presentation, Julian was talking about a case study where the StarCraft 2 editor was used by young people, but they had to create a scenario involving messages of pacifism. This fascinates me, because violence is so enmeshed in the game mechanics (one could even argue that the violence in strategy games is even more distant, sterilized, dehumanizing than in ego-shooters). Julian inferred that the participants – despite favouring games with violence – were drawn in by the challenge of subverting this expectation of games.

Then there was Misha Myers’ account of designing educational games in India. One of the motives here was to attempt to increase empathy among young urban players for agricultural workers (which was difficult to achieve). This got me thinking about whether empathy can actually be fostered in games which are also fun, or whether this is inherently unachievable (I’m thinking of Dys4ia, which is about fostering frustration through deliberately unwinnable minigames). In terms of procedural rhetoric, if we design games involving socio-economics, which give players enough agency for the game to feel fair and fun (i.e. more based on judgement and skill than on luck) then aren’t we reinforcing the neo-liberal idea that poor people are poor because they tried and failed? (This privileging of individual agency over social structure is called an “epistemological fallacy” by some sociologists).

Dudey McWhiteBro from Silent Hill: Downpour, having what I like to think of as a "moral derp"
Dudey McWhiteBro from Silent Hill: Downpour, having what I like to think of as a “moral derp”

So here’s the angle that I’m taking in my proposal: For young people, making games provides a number of opportunities for social and emotional development, because game-design can be used to:

  • present and test models of existing real world systems (e.g. of morality and/or crime and punishment)
  • present and test models of alternative/speculative versions of these (e.g. “what do you think should happen to that thief?”)
  • present branching narratives which deal heavily with consequence
  • present opportunities for considering audiences, and the motivations of others (e.g. “but why might a player want to kill the prince?”)

As someone interested in sociology, I can’t help but think of the relationship between player agency in games and the agency of actual social agents. I’m less interested in how games’ teach/influence/affect peoples’ attitudes (the jury is still out on that) but, as a youth worker, hobbyist developer and researcher, I’m interesting in how critiquing game structures and systems might throw light on how they (in)accurately model real social systems.

[If you have any cool ideas feel free to throw them my way and I will merciless pillage them for my own ends]