Thursday, August 11, 2011

or maybe because they love their land, no matter how polluted it gets

Robert Vienneau replies to my linking to a strategy videogames wikipedia article with some interesting research on the intersection of games and decision theory. Interesting stuff: I believe that people's performance in games can definitely shed light on understanding individual behavior in complex social phenomena of the "real world". But as I have argued on other occasions, I think that the actual structure of a gaming world, and the method of gamer interaction with that structure, can also be highly productive for teaching about social theory (and, as a corollary, reproducing certain political ideas).

What I'm thinking about is more abstract than saying "well, this is how people react in games to different stimuli... let's extrapolate what that tells us about economic theory!". What I'm going for is more along the lines of, "the worlds that are represented in these games are composed of certain institutions and ideas, which become socially and politically meaningful to the gamer who takes part in those worlds".

Consider the following situation which takes place in the first part of the classic RPG, Final Fantasy VII for the Sony Playstation.

Premise: A giant corporation with strong ties to a large city, Midgar, has endeavored on an environmentally damaging policy of extracting an energy source from the planet which also serves as the people's source of livelihood. To extract the energy, they have built 8 reactors in a circular fashion around the city. The city itself is composed of two tiers: an upper and lower "crust".

On the lower crust you have the slums. Then, you have a pie-like "disc" structure that separates this lower crust from the upper-area, where the corporation runs its day-to day options. (Needless to say, there are strong connections between the corporation and the city government.)

A picture of Midgar:

(click to enlarge. original link. the "slums" are located below the 8 panels you see represented in the image, where the main reactor sits in the center and serves as the corporation's HQ as well.)

Enter Barret and Cloud, who are having a conversation about the layout of the city and the problems with the corporation. Barret is part of a grassroots "terrorist" organization attempting to blow up the reactors in the name of a kind of environmental justice. Cloud has joined the group for the first mission (from which they are coming back after a successful attack on one of the reactors). The following dialogue takes place:
"The upper world... a city on a plate..."
"It's 'cuz of that &^#$# 'pizza', that people underneath are
"And the city below is full of polluted air."
"On topa that, the Reactor keeps drainin' up all the energy."

"Then why doesn't everyone move onto the plate?"

"Dunno. Probably 'cuz they ain't got no money. Or, maybe..."
"'Cuz they love their land, no matter how polluted it gets."

"I know... no one lives in the slums because they want to."
"It's like this train. It can't run anywhere except where its
rails take it."
(script thanks to this link.)

(screenshots thanks to this youtube video)

Really remarkable. I remember when I first read those lines, they really hit me like a brick. They still do, in fact. And the game is full of these types of themes and quotes, demonstrating how gaming worlds themselves can introduce the player to social nuances that many people would only consider possible to be fully expressed in a novel or some academic treatise.

Numerous other examples can be found, if you look closely: from the historically (politically, socially, culturally...) engrossing worlds of the Assassin's Creed series to the best Japanese RPGs out there, there is a lot to be learned from taking these games seriously as expressing real social themes on a surprisingly deep level.

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