Thursday, April 1, 2010

videogames 'n' social theory

I've always wondered how the things we become obsessed with as children tell us something about who we become later in life. I'm not talking about the kind of things everyone gets into -- everyone has a Lincoln Logs phase of their childhood where they become obsessed with building structures. Most people go through a phase related to playing the role of some adult figure -- like a Daddy in a game of "House," or picking a favorite player to model in the neighborhood basketball game.

What I'm talking about is a bit more subtle. When most people think about videogames, right off the bat they think of some nerdy kid who, for whatever reasons (possibly related to his social situation), has chosen to spend hours in front of a TV or monitor, rotting his brain by playing vulgar games where the goal is to kill some monsters or make it to the end of some pointless level to save a princess. Analysis by these people might get a little more sophisticated when one realizes that these kids are actually pretty smart in terms of their ability to recognize behavioral patterns to go on that "death raid" in a multiplayer game, or their ability to connect hand to eye in a way that requires quick reflexes. Videogames, might just be a good outlet for these otherwise-social outcasts. Indeed, success at videogames may predict certain quality traits that will be extremely useful later in life when it comes to solving problems quickly on the spot.

But no, sorry, this isn't what I'm thinking about either. Granted videogames may be signals of some particular highly-desired qualities of a person. But what if beliefs are molded and shaped in these games? What if fundamental aspects of one's character --such as personal characteristics or political views -- could be shaped in those formative years of adolescence through certain types of videogames?

My analysis goes deeper than simply drawing a correspondence between the levels of fitness required to play a particular videogame on the one hand and the keys to success in certain life situations on the other. It requires looking at the architecture of the game itself -- what kinds of worlds are these videogames presenting to the gamer? Their interpersonal relationships, governance structure, politics, and more informal institutions among groups? I argue that adolescents who play these games take more out of the game than abilities. They also -- most of the time subliminally (a key point) -- come to understand human interaction and politics and other matters of any good social theory in a very significant way.

Consider a classic RPG such as Final Fantasy VII (FFVII). Aside from requiring the player to think strategically in battles and character development (through experimenting with different party formations, materia combinations in weapons, etc.), FFVII is really its own world. Cloud, the main character, is working in the beginning for a Revolutionary group aimed at overthrowing a powerful corporation that essentially controls the city in which you begin the game. In the end, of course, this powerful corporation turns out to be influenced by some evil force above and beyond any realistic powers, but along the way the player is treated to several important facts about the world that one may not notice on the first (or second, or third, ... ) playthrough.

Most villages are governed on a local level. The corporation-governance certainly exists as a shadow over much of the world, but day-to-day life is not affected much. In some of these RPG's, the political entity may send in troops to the villages, and these are actively visible in the towns -- either disturbing the local pub (I just wanna rest for 50 gil a night!), or having more serious effects that I won't mention here. The point is that if you analyze the most important parts of these worlds, all of these different relationships between the characters, along with how the towns are run, how the economy operates, all of these things become an important part of the game. And what I am arguing is that people who become obsessed with games like this (not just casual gamers) in their adolescence are playing them at least partly because it appeals to some inner-political understandings they are beginning to develop.

World of Warcraft is another popular game that I would argue exhibits themes that might appeal to, say, libertarian or communist views, as long as these players are actively obsessed with the game in a seemingly-unnatural way. An example of what I am not talking about is a game like Civilization -- yes it appeals to the budding social engineers out there but that is too obvious of a connection. Looking at the type of city one would design in a game like this is another obvious connection to make. What I'm talking about is different. It suggests we analyze the actual structure of the game world itself.

I do believe, too, that this kind of analysis can be applied (again, in a nuanced way) to more "shallow" games as well, such as Mario or Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure. I wish not to elaborate but feel free to bring up a question in the comments section if you want me to go into detail.

I've always felt like our childhood obsessions mean much more than an initial consideration may suggest. And, this argument is mostly a common opinion with regard to, say, mathematicians obsessed with numbers as children, or economists obsessed with Isaac Asimov novels (here or here). It's time we took videogames much more seriously as agents of social and political thought.

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