Monday, October 11, 2004

Serious Games = Military Games

The category "things I know nothing about" is big enough to fill the worlds largest libraries, and max out the internet storage capacity. So it's not news that I am finding new and interesting things to learn. Some of these things I expect to find at the Serious Games Summit next week.

The first thing I didn't know was that "serious games" are so dominated by the military. If you choose a track on the summit, your options are "military" or "education". If you choose "education" there are four sessions. If you choose "military" there are 31. I was aware that the military used games for education and development, I was not aware that they had been doing it for such a long time. It is however interesting to see what they define as "military". Let's look at the keynote speakers.

The first keynote speaker, Jim Dunnigan, runs his own gaming company started in a New York basement, and develops wargames - for the civilian market. He lectures to the military, and is an analyst of military strategy with a background which includes a period in Korea.

Second keynote is by Dr. Johnny L. Wilson, and is also considered part of the military track. Dr. Wilson is an author of High Score!: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games, and speaks of how games impact perception.

Looking at the military track with new eyes, I find that it could easily have been dramatically reduced. How about this description:

It is thought by some that providing deep insight into complex subject matter, simulating interpersonal relationships and providing an interactive environment offers great opportunity to shape the logic that drives various behaviors. While there is much debate regarding games’ ability to cause behavior, there is no doubt that games have the potential to provide the learning that underpin people's attitudes about a variety of subjects.

This is the description of a military track session: How can games shape future behaviors? Of course, I haven't read the manuscript, it may be that everything they talk about is how to use games in order to make game-players into better soldiers and more efficient weapons. The three available bios of the presenters indicate a more diverse presentation that that.

So why is the military track so overwhelming? Is this an economical decision: If it is interesting to the military there is a huge potential market and it's easy to get support for the conference? Is it a political decision: The US is at war, and only an effort that can aid the military is worth supporting? Or is it a pedagogic decision: the scholars and educators are able to search through the material and find what is interestign even if it says "military track", while those who are interested in a military need to have it spelled out if it might be interesting to them?

Looking at the four "education" tracks offers a fourth explanation: Serious games are aimed at the military, and not at education. The Education track contains a funding and research roundtable, a roundtable for game developers to discuss how to attract more projects, a military roundtable (!) and one - 1 - lecture discussing how serious games can reshape education.

It is all about catering to the military, because yes, that is the big market. From the description of the military roundtable:
The military market for games is the leader in the serious games field. This roundtable is meant to allow for some freewheeling discussion about how this field of military simulation development will progress. Attendees are asked to outline the current problems, needs, and key resources that people interested in this market should know more about.

Why am I surprised at all? I guess I come from the land of innocence. The first game I studied academically was a game to teach young men about sex: sexually transferable diseases, safe sex, nice sex and some hints about how to treat girls. The work I have been doing since has been flavoured by an interest in how games can be a tool of development, freedom of choice and a way to liberate the learning potential of those who may not respond to standard procedures. Going to the Serious Games Summit makes me feel a little like Pippin returning to Bree. I don't think I will be able to find and uproot this Saruman. That, I suspect, will be up to the American voters.


dov said...

As a maker of both military and sex-ed games, I can testify that the former has almost all the advantages.

Sure, the military budgets are far larger. That's nice. But also: military management is more professional, military decisionmaking process is more transparent, military politics is far less virulent.

It might dismay you to work on games whose subject is the application of lethal force. Sure. (Nevermind that this is the subject of most entertainment games.)

But remember: The purpose of games is to substitute for consequential behavior, whether sloppy sex or sloppy assualts.

Games afford military strategists the opportunity to practise and to prove concepts without the tragic costs of trial and error on the battlefield. (That's why they invented chess.) Easy to justify the cost of developing a game when it has such stark alternatives!

(Anyway I hope to meet you at the conference, Torill.)

Two postscripts:

1: This same organization ran a Games for Health conference last month. It was 100% Sex Ed games and the like. That drew down the non-military participation at this conference.

2: Johnny Wilson is not a defense industry expert. He is a a widely respected critic of commercial entertainment games.

Torill said...

Hello dov, nice to hear that the organisation looks at more than the military, and the sex-ed game I looked at back in the nineties (feels like a lot more than 9 years) was hampered by exactly the kind of problems you describe.

I think my main problem with this being so focused on the military is with the media-effect discussion on games, the "games are dangerous" debate. One of the major arguments for a restriction on games is that the military use games in training soldiers. The logic of media panics delivers the next argument: Since soldiers are supposed to kill, games creates killers. And yes, I have used the same argument about chess and other strategy games in that debate.

But I still think some of the different lectures and presentations looks like they are mislabeled. Most of the educational sessions could have had other labels, as could several of the military track sessions. I have looked at the content of the lectures, and I am not worried about having registered to a conference I shouldn't be at. I think the program looks very interesting and not particularly aggressive. This is why it is so odd to call it all "military".

And if I didn't manage to clarify here, I'll try to do it in Washington!