Why Debates About Video Games Aren't Really About Video Games

After the Supreme Court announced its decision regarding a California law that would have imposed state limitations on children's access to certain video games, a deluge of reactions flooded the Internet. A Google News search shows the variety of opinions, which range from celebration of video games' affirmed first amendment rights to lamentations of the victory of violence and gore.

Shortly after that decision, I encountered the general public's attitudes toward games as speech, thanks to two reactions (one positive, one negative) to my ongoing work on newsgames.

The positive response is a lengthy article by Laura Bennett in Independence Day weekend's Boston Globe. It offers a detailed overview of the concept of newsgames (mostly drawn from our book on the subject), along with discussion of a number of examples. It also covers Jane McGonigal's approach to "urgently optimistic" game design, along with mentions of related projects from Jim Gee, ImpactGames, and others, not to mention a brief overview of the history of games with political themes, stretching back to the 1980s. When it comes to mainstream newspaper coverage, it doesn't get much better than this.

Why Debates About Video Games Aren't Really About Video Games

Then there's the counterpoint, "Temecula resident" Phil Strickland's opinion column in the North County Times, a paper serving communities north of San Diego. Strickland begins by arguing that the Supreme Court's decision is largely irrelevant given that the "really vile stuff" is available online for free anyway. His vile examples? Not the corporate-sponsored infantile gross-out games that Joel Bakan also lamented in the New York Times, but my "vast wasteland" of newsgames! Here's citizen Strickland discussing newsgames in general and two of my games in particular:

Consider "newsgaming"—a dalliance that easily could become obsession that allows us to create a world based on our preferred version of current affairs.

Among games developed recently to deliver the news are two by the New York Times, one to illustrate the difficulty of preventing food-borne disease and an immigration game in which players compete to award green cards under the proposed 2007 McCain/Kennedy bill.

Almost sounds innocent. Almost.

As most everyone knows but too often chooses to ignore, this New Media has no accountability—talk about the truth never catching up with the error. The fiction now is forever.

It's easy to dismiss Strickland as a random crackpot whose opinion and impact matters little... [but] Strickland's not the exception, he's the rule.

There are many responses I could offer to Strickland: that the McCain/Kennedy bill itself was co-sponsored by two very high-profile senators from both parties. That the game was a faithful simulation of the letter of the law, drawn from its very pages, which offered infinitely more detail about the proposed points-based green card award system than traditional news reports did (most just copied one-liners from Kennedy's press release). That the accountability of "traditional" news media is just about as bad as it's ever been across the political spectrum. That none of the games we discuss in the book or anywhere else "allow us to create a world based on our preferred version of current affairs." That in fact Strickland himself is creating a world based on his preferred version of the subject, one that's clearly not informed by having read our book or played any of my games.

It's easy to dismiss Strickland as a random crackpot whose opinion and impact matters little, certainly less than the respected voice of the Boston Globe. You may wonder why I'd even bother responding, since doing so only draws attention to a position that would otherwise have evaporated.

But before you do, I'd encourage you to go peruse those Google News results I linked above. Strickland's not the exception, he's the rule. The Boston Globe is the exception-not just because Bennett offers a more positive view of the topic, but because she actually researched it before drawing conclusions, and because those conclusions were tempered by the many challenges inherent both to newsgames and to journalism writ large.

The debate about newsgames' value as speech turns out not to be a conflict between support and detraction but rather a conflict between the games themselves and the games as cogs in someone's favorite discourse machine.

Why Debates About Video Games Aren't Really About Video Games

Just a month before the highest court gave its official opinion of games, a very public statement of support for them came from the executive branch of government. At the Games for Change festival in New York City, Al Gore gave a keynote about games' potential to improve society. His primary influences, he explained, were Zynga's Mark Pincus and former EA executive Bing Gordon, figures known primarily for being brazen, uncompromising businessmen rather than political or creative visionaries.

This site's Stephen Totilo excoriated Gore for even agreeing to speak about games without knowing much about them-apparently Gore admitted during the speech that he hadn't played a game since Pong. Totilo groups Gore with other video game defenders who haven't actually played games, including Justice Antonin Scalia, whose opinion in the recent Supreme Court decision had been held up with impulsive schoolgirl glee by video game supporters.

Those who understand games well, Totilo argues, are more measured and skeptical about their power to "change the world." Not dubious, not unbelieving, mind you-just skeptical. Making games is hard. Making games that help citizens make decisions about their communities is harder. Few truly excellent examples yet exist.

In a brief reply on Twitter, Games for Change co-president Asi Burak retorted, "C'mon, Al Gore really needs to play games in order to understand their power and how they could expand as a medium?" He's got a point: the purpose of Gore's keynote wasn't practical—a practical speech would have seen the Vice President explain the details of his own climate change activism, drawing general lessons for using popular media to advocate for political and social positions.

Instead, Gore's paean was rhetorical. Just like the Supreme Court decision performs an act of legitimization upon video games, so does Gore's keynote: Important Figure Lauds Video games. Whether or not he's made or even played those games isn't really important in terms of realizing that goal. It's social engineering, putting games in good company. The rest, the argument goes, will take care of itself.

Bennett's thoughtful article on Newsgames in the Boston Globe and Strickland's impromptu opinion are different in content, but identical in kind. Similarly, Scalia's and Gore's validation of games are identical in kind to, say, Leland Yee's and Joe Lieberman's condemnation of them.

Put differently: the content of the messages we hear from Gore, Yee and others is less important than their function: to position video games as an instrument within a chosen context. For Gore and Games for Change, that context is political aspirationalism. For Yee it's family values. For Scalia its constitutional security. For Temecula resident Strickland it's civic performance. Just as the economist Robin Hanson has argued that politics isn't about policy, so video game debates aren't about playing games.

Another example: when the Obama administration launched the "Apps for Healthy Kids" contest last year, their purpose was technologism, an effort to make the administration seem interested in youth and high-tech. Whether or not any of the "apps" were any good didn't matter (hint: they weren't). All that mattered was that the administration appear hip and current—and to some extent it worked.

Likewise, when game developers and game industry lobbyists wax romantic about their Supreme Court "victory," they miss the point: the decision has less to do with video games than it does with the sanctity of the first amendment. The Justices' opinions about games only motivated them to determine if certain specimens warranted exception. Meanwhile, as I've argued before, most developers don't care to take advantage of this opportunity to speak to say much worth protecting anyway. CEOs make comical public statements and then retreat to their glass offices, grateful that the next me-too shooter remains commercially viable and, fate willing, badass besides.

Diversity is the best way out of this mire. But not just a diversity of players—also a diversity of games put to a diversity of uses.

For those of us who actually play and critique video games, it's time we learn a lesson: most, perhaps all of the debates about games' benefits or dangers are really not about games at all. It doesn't matter whether those debates seem to support games or revile them; by and large, they are not taken up for that purpose, but for some different, primary one. Games are being used as instruments in public debate rather than as mechanisms through which players can participate in a variety of activities—including reflecting on the very debates they now serve as puppets.

Diversity is the best way out of this mire. But not just a diversity of players—also a diversity of games put to a diversity of uses. The more games that exist, and the more contexts in which they exist, then the less individual examples will seem like outliers—whether those examples deal with virtual slaughter or with immigration legislation. The subjects and themes and audiences of games should be no less of a concern than the contexts and purposes to which they are put. Not just adolescent fantasy and political activism, but everything in between.

It's not enough to hope that games might be redeemed as fine art or to be played by people of all ages and backgrounds. Instead, video games' cultural future depends on a rich, diverse, magical ecosystem of weird games of all shapes, sizes, and purposes helping multitudes of people pursue a variety of goals and passions. It's not that games need to "rise to the level" of books and films and the like, but that they need to spread like those media into all the nooks and crannies of human activity. The more deliberately creators populate such an ecosystem, the harder it will become for games to become pawns in the debates of others.

Ian Bogost is Professor of Digital Media at Georgia Tech and an award-winning game designer. His latest book, How to Do Things with Videogames, will be available this month..