Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Games and public relations

Most of my readers know I play games, write about them and talk about them. Some know about the blogs too. Well, the meta-part, not just the blogging. And then there's the group that mainly knows me as the teacher, occasionally leader, of a public information/public relations education.

I have been working with this side of communication since 1991, and it's how I entered into studying games. The original study I did of games was the study of one called "Det store manndomsspranget" - the great leap to manhood. This game was finished in 1998, and was just about to be published when it was said to be stopped by the the government which - at the time - had a christian people's party representative as the prime minister: Kjell Bondevik. Even before it was published, the game was critizised for the extreme effect it would have on young people.

The game was designed to teach young boys about relations to others, with and without sex. Mainly it rewarded communication, willingness to wait until both parties were ready, acceptance of alternative sexualities and different cultures. The critics claimed it would make young boys want to try out sex. Also it would lead to negative feelings about monogamy, and encourage polygamy and homosexuality. As you understand, an extremely dangerous game. If you would like to test your personal integrity and are willing to risk ending up polyamorous, gay and obsessed with sex, in 2001 the game was available from Helsedirektoratet, in Norwegian, of course.

My own work with this game was to analyse and discuss its potential as a persuasive game. Since it was created by the Norwegian board of Health in order to educate and persuade boys about/into safer and generally more well considered sex, it was a very interesting experiment for me to write about. I was in general working a lot on health campaigns and information concerning gender, sexuality, abuse, pregnancies and abortion, using several large Norwegian campaigns as examples for my students. Most of the different aspects of these campaigns were however targeting girls. Girls are a lot easier to find, if you want to communicate with them strategically. They read magazines, they watch certain programs, they surround themselves with certain objects, such as school journals. Boys at the age of 13-17 are however much harder to reach. At this age they disappear into their own interests, and very little can pull them back out of it.

What I wanted to learn was if a game could do it. Could I expect a game to be a sufficiently strong medium that boys would be able to take their learning experiences from the game world to the real world?

My conclusion after watching the game, playing it, testing it on a few choice subjects, discussing it against theories of the formation of ideas and attitudes and in general using what tools I had short of a very big and long experiment, was that no. At least not this game.

What happens with games, even extremely pedagogic, educational games such as The Great Leap to Manhood, is that when you start playing, you enter into a play sphere. It's more fun to see what kind of responses you can get out of the game (if I put the avatar's hand under the girl's skirt, will she slap him?), than to try and respond politically correctly. This could then encourage non-monogamous experiments in the game space (can the avatar manage to date both the girls?) Would this endanger the Norwegian core family? Hardly - the game was a point-and-click adventure which at no point let you forget that this was exactly that, a game.

I was thinking about this work now, because I was shelfing, unread, Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games. Spillets leser - leserens spill was in many ways before it's time, and it was looking at connections between games and persuasion which is frequently overlooked.

First of all, as public relations research shows us, it's not easy to create attitude change. It happens slowly, and the media have a limited influence on our attitudes and values.

Second, coming from reader-response theory, which I run into only rarely these days, the analysis of The Great Leap addresses a theory which originally was abandoned due to the fact that "interactivity" in Iser's sense and "interactivity" in the game sense is not the same. Today it might be the time to go back to those topics and question the theories of the active reader more closely. What kind of reading IS gaming?

Third, boys know the difference between playing in order to satisfy the teacher, and playing to satisfy their own curiosity. The issues of oppositional readings must be huge with pedagogical, or "serious" games. Now, there might be a lot of research on this which I have just ignored as I haven't really followed the "serious" scene that closely, but so far I have seen very little on this.

Still, today I find myself thinking that going from Public Relations to games was not such a long step after all. The theories I have explored, the problems I have written about and the topics I teach have changed, but it's still all about how people behave while they communicate. I may straddle a gap, but it's not as wide as it looks.

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