Laboratories and real worlds: Games and positivism
The debate at Terra Nova is taking a turn that exposes one of the problems I have with a lot of game scholarship. Edward Castranova states, in a reply within the "fascism is fun" thread:
Alek: "But I am really scared by the idea, that studying an artificial social reality, with it's basic assumptions - an ontology of sorts - so different from real world societies, might give a simple answer to a question that social sciences are meticulously researching in these - allow me to say this - more real societies."
I guess, contra Alek and Nick and a few others, that I'd prefer not to allow you to say this. I believe the essential forces of economics emerge whenever humans interact under conditions of scarcity and specialization of resources. The essential forces of sociology emerge whenever individuals sort themselves into groups. The essential forces of politics emerge whenever the structure of resources and groups create collective interests, issues that everyone cares about but that need to be resolved by the community as a whole, through designated leaders.
With this, as I understand Edward Castranova, he claims that games can give directly relevant information about human interaction, and act as a testing ground for theories, to see how they work in society, and he considers the more cautionary voices to be dismissing games as a field for learning about human interaction. This is a positivistic view on games, where games are treated like the laboratories of the behaviourists. Castranova does not appear to be aware of the failure of the skinner box or the staged experiments on human violence and media influence (Noble 1975) as he argues for his view of the general validity of the forces of economics:
But the claim that generalizing is impossible, or only allowable for trivial aspects of behavior ("when thrown together into community, people argue"), goes much too far, I think. It's very easy to dismiss the goings-on in a virtual world as a tempest in a teapot, or as 'just a game,' or 'virtual and hence not real.' I mean, what makes political engagement 'real'? Surely the touchstone cannot be the realness of the objects in question; people have had bitter politics over lots of intangible things, from flag colors to communion wafers.
My stance on this is that we can learn a lot about human behaviour from computer games. But what we learn is about human behaviour in this given context. Humans behave differently in different situations, and we are intelligent enough to realize that being part of a research project, for instance, is a different situation from our every day life. This is one of the main sources of errors for researchers who work with human beings and the human condition. It is one of the reasons why so many people have spent so much time and resources trying to answer the question: "are the media dangerous?" If we agree with Edward Castranova, that behaviour in games tells us how people will behave in the flesh world given a similar situation, then please, PLEASE forbid Grand Theft Auto and all other games that promote violent, aggressive, destructive behaviour!
Human beings are too complex for human behaviour to be understood through the limited study of behaviour in games. That does not mean that we cannot learn significant things about the games, or that games are not important. Try to tell athletes, sports fans or just amateur players of sports that playing their particular game: football, volleyball, handball, is not important! Try to interrupt a game of chess between two dedicated players! Try to crash a LARP, fool around, break it up, and see how understanding the players will be! Games carry immense significance, have a symbolic power and yes, economical power, but this meaning is not directly transferable to any other arena.
This is why I think games - also computer games - need to be studied: Because we don't really understand their significance. We know they are important to human beings, we know they generate activity, creativity and even conserve sanity, they build understanding and social skills, they promote understanding, cooperation and healthy competitiveness, but we don't really know why, how, where, when. There is no such thing in my book as "just a game". But that is also why I don't think they are just an other part of the same trivial everyday behaviour mode.