Playing with Our Heads

On a Monday evening in fall 2005 in the Crystal Gateway Marriott
a few blocks from the Pentagon, a group of academics, journalists,
and software developers gathered to play with the U.S. military’s
newest toys. In one corner of the hotel’s ballroom, two men climbed
into something resembling a jeep. One clutched a pistol and
positioned himself behind the steering wheel, while the other
manned the vehicle’s turret. In front of them, a huge,
three-paneled television displayed moving images of an urban combat
zone. Nearby, another man shot invisible infrared beams from his
rifle at a video-screen target. In the middle of the room a player
knelt, lifted a large, bazooka-like device to his shoulder, and
began launching imaginary antitank missiles.

The reception was hosted by the Army Game Project, best known
for creating America’s Army, the official video game of the U.S.
Army, and was intended to demonstrate how the military’s use of
video games has changed in just a few years. America’s Army was
released in 2002 as a recruiting tool. But the game has evolved
beyond mere propaganda for the PlayStation crowd into a training
platform for the modern soldier.

If you have absorbed the familiar critique of video games as a
mindless, dehumanizing pastime for a nihilistic Columbine
generation, the affinity between gaming and soldiering may seem
nightmarishly logical. And some members of today’s military do view
video games as a means of honing fighting skills. The director of
the technology division at Quantico Marine Base told the
Washington Post in February of 2005 that today’s young
recruits, the majority of whom are experienced video-game players,
‘probably feel less inhibited, down in their primal level, pointing
their weapons at somebody.’

To view video games merely as mock battlegrounds, however, is to
ignore the many pacific uses to which they are being put. The U.S.
military itself is developing games that ‘train soldiers, in
effect, how not to shoot,’ according to the New York Times
(Aug. 22, 2004). Rather than use video games to turn
out mindless killers, the armed forces are fashioning games that
impart specific skills, such as parachuting and critical thinking.
Even games that teach weapons handling, like those displayed at the
Marriott, don’t reward indiscriminate slaughter-the
shoot-first-ask-questions-later bluster that hard-core gamers
deride as ‘button mashing.’ Players of America’s Army participate
in small units with other players connected via the Internet to
foster teamwork and leadership.

Nor is the U.S. military alone in recognizing the training
potential of video games. The Army’s display was only one exhibit
at the Serious Games Summit, ‘serious’ being the industry’s label
for games that are designed to do more than entertain. Games have
been devised to train emergency first-responders, to recreate
ancient civilizations, to promote world peace. The Swedish National
Defence College has developed a game to teach United Nations
peacekeepers how to interact with and pacify civilian populations
without killing them. Food Force, an America’s Army imitator,
educates players about how the U.N. World Food Program fights
global hunger. A group of Carnegie Mellon University students,
among them a former Israeli intelligence officer, is developing
PeaceMaker, a game in which players take the role of either the
Israeli prime minister or the Palestinian president and work within
political constraints toward a two-state solution to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The very phrase ‘serious games,’ however, suggests that
unserious games may well be the societal blight that many believe
them to be. It’s easier to vilify games such as those in the Grand
Theft Auto series, in which the player’s goal is to rise to power
in various criminal organizations by carjacking vehicles and
killing their owners with a variety of weapons, including a
baseball bat, a Molotov cocktail, and an AK-47. But Grand Theft
Auto and its sequels are popular not just because of their
transgressive content, but also because they are designed to allow
players to roam freely across a gigantic three-dimensional
cityscape. (With their combination of technical accomplishment and
controversial subject matter, the Grand Theft Auto titles might be
the video-game analogues of movies such as Bonnie and
and, more recently, Pulp Fiction.)

As far back as 1982, when video games consisted of simple fare
like Space Invaders-a two-dimensional arcade game-a rabbi warned on
The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour about their dehumanizing
effects: ‘When children spend hours in front of a screen playing
some of these games that are inherently violent, they will tend to
look at people as they look at these little blips on the screen
that must be zapped-that must be killed before they are killed. And
it is my concern that 10, 20 years down the line we’re going to see
a group of children who then become adults who don’t view people as
human beings, but rather view them as other blips to be
destroyed-as things.’

Those who assume that video-game players are a
bloodthirsty lot might be surprised to learn that of the 10
best-selling games for the PlayStation and Xbox consoles in 2005,
not one was a shoot-’em-up. Six of the most popular games were
sports titles-including Madden NFL, a cultural juggernaut among
athletes and young men-and the other four were Star Wars
games. The bestselling PC game in 2005 was World of Warcraft, a
multiplayer swords-and-sorcery game that millions of subscribers
pay a monthly fee to play. World of Warcraft is the latest and most
popular in the genre of massively multiplayer online role-playing
games, commonly called ‘virtual worlds.’ In these games, thousands
of players can interact with each other by connecting
simultaneously over the Internet. (There’s a debate among
specialists whether some of these worlds, such as Second Life,
which offers its ‘residents’ no competitions or quests, even
qualify as games.)

Despite their popularity, video games remain, in the opinion of
many (particularly those who don’t play them), brainless or, worse,
brain-destroying candy. But for as long as critics have decried
video games as the latest permutation in a long line of nefarious,
dehumanizing technologies, others have offered a competing, more
optimistic vision of their role in shaping American society.
Opposite the rabbi on that MacNeil/Lehrer broadcast a
quarter-century ago was Paul Trachtman, an editor for
Smithsonian magazine, who argued that video games provide
a form of mental exercise. Ignore the dubious content, the ‘surface
or the imagery or the story line,’ he suggested, and you will see
that games teach not merely how best to go about ‘zapping a ship or
a monster.’ Underneath the juvenilia is ‘a test of your facility
for understanding the logic design that the programmer wrote into
the game.’ Games, in short, are teachers. And electronic games are
uniquely suited to training individuals how to navigate our modern
information society.

As the gaming generation has matured, it has advanced this idea
with increasing vigor. In 2005 Steven Johnson published
Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is
Actually Making Us Smarter
(Riverhead), which included a brief
for an idea that has been gaining currency among academics and game
developers: All video games, even the ones that allow you to kill
prostitutes, are a form of education, or at least edutainment.
Games can do more than make you a better soldier, or improve your
hand-eye coordination or your spatial orientation skills. They can
make you more intelligent.

On one level, this argument isn’t very surprising. Games of all
kinds are a part of almost every human society, and they have long
been used to inculcate the next generation with desirable virtues
and skills. We enroll our kids in Little League not only so they
will have a good time, but also to teach them about sportsmanship,
teamwork, and the importance of practice and hard work. The Dutch
historian Johan Huizinga argued in Homo Ludens, his 1938
book on game studies, that the concept of ‘play’ should be
considered a ‘third function’ for humanity, one that is ‘just as
important as reasoning and making.’

In the case of video games, even their critics acknowledge that
they are instructing our children. The critics just don’t like the
form and the sometimes violent and sexually explicit content of the
instruction, which they believe teaches children aggressive
behaviors. Yet if such games are nothing more than ‘murder
simulators,’ as one critic has called them, why is it-as gaming
enthusiasts never tire of pointing out-that the murder rate has
declined in recent years, when there are more video games, and more
violent ones, than ever? Why do IQ scores continue their slight but
perceptible rise if an entire generation of children, the oldest of
whom are now in their 30s, stunted its development with electronic
pap? The important thing to find out about video games isn’t
whether they are teachers. ‘The question is,’ as game designer Raph
Koster writes in A Theory of Fun for Game Design
(Paraglyph, 2004), ‘what do they teach?’

As was true of games before the digital age,
there’s a remarkable array of video games. Chess and bowling aren’t
very similar, but we intuitively understand that both are games.
Likewise, video games encompass everything from simple online
puzzles to simulated football games and professional wrestling
matches to the ‘God game,’ in which the player adopts an omniscient
view to influence the development of entire societies. In The Sims,
the best-selling PC game of all time, players control the lives of
individual humans as they go about their mundane lives. (It may
sound unappealing, but The Sims comes from a long tradition. It is,
in effect, another way to play house.) New genres frequently
emerge. A ‘music’ genre has arisen in response to the popularity of
Dance Dance Revolution, a game in which players must move their
feet in time to music on different areas of a dance pad.

Exactly what is new about video games, other than their
electronic nature, can be difficult to pin down. In the 21st
century, almost all children’s toys have an electronic component,
but that doesn’t make them all video games. In The Ultimate
History of Video Games
(Three Rivers, 2001), game journalist
Steven Kent cites pinball as a mechanical ancestor of today’s
digital games. Pinball created a panic in some quarters-no pun
intended-as a new and dangerous influence on society. Foreshadowing
the antics of today’s antigaming politicians was New York mayor
Fiorello LaGuardia, who smashed pinball machines with a
sledgehammer and banned them from his city in 1942, a prohibition
that was not lifted until the 1970s. (To be fair to LaGuardia,
governments have long perceived societal threats from new games. In
the 1400s Scotland banned golf, now its proud national pastime,
because too many young men were neglecting archery to practice
their swings.)

Nowadays you can play pinball on your PC, as every Windows XP
machine comes packaged with a video-game version. The difference
between this digital pinball and its mechanical predecessor is, at
root, aesthetic. The rules of the game are the same, just as the
rules and gameplay of computer solitaire and chess are identical to
those of their analog forebears. (Beyond the translation of playing
cards and chess pieces into pixels, there are some key differences,
of course. For one thing, the computer doesn’t let you cheat-or, in
pinball, ’tilt.’) Jesper Juul, a Danish video-game theorist,
defines games such as pinball, solitaire, and chess as ’emergence’
games, by which he means that the gameplay emerges from a
relatively simple set of rules. Football and basketball-whether
they are played online or off-are also emergence games, as are
backgammon, Othello, and board games such as Risk and Monopoly. All
those games can now be played using computers, but that doesn’t
make them new.

The first game that diverged from this 5,000-year-old emergence
model was a 1976 computer game called Adventure that combined the
elements of narrative with gameplay. Adventure was essentially an
interactive text, somewhat similar to the books in the Choose
Your Own Adventure
series. While reading the story, the player
typed in commands to tell the character what to do and to learn
what happened next. Juul calls Adventure the first ‘progression’
game, a new model that inspired most of today’s video games, from
Grand Theft Auto to Halo.

Nongamers who watch their slack-jawed,
twitchy-thumbed children and conclude that they are brain dead are
making the mistake of observing the spectator rather than the game
itself. Research has shown that playing video games can help people
improve their ability to manipulate spatial information, and that
as little as 10 hours of play can improve a person’s ability to
process visual information. But focusing on how video games improve
coordination and memory misses the point. In Wired (April
2006), well-known game designer Will Wright compares this mistake
to studying film by watching the audience rather than what’s on the
screen: ‘You would conclude that movies induce lethargy and junk
food binges. That may be true, but you’re missing the big

Wright proposes that video games teach ‘the essence of the
scientific method,’ that ‘through trial and error, players build a
model of the underlying game.’ To succeed, a player must establish
a hypothesis about some aspect of the game, test it, and evaluate
the results of the experiment. The organizer of a playground game
explains the rules in advance, but a video game often hides its
rules, revealing them only as the player figures out how to unlock
the game’s secrets. And when that happens, a game player can
experience an ecstatic Archimedes moment.

Perhaps most important of all, the game adapts itself to the
player’s ability. ‘The secret of a video game as a teaching machine
isn’t its immersive 3-D graphics, but its underlying architecture,’
writes James Paul Gee, an education professor at the University of
Wisconsin, Madison, in Wired (May 2003). Gee, author of
What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), explains that ‘each level
dances around the outer limits of the player’s abilities, seeking
at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive
science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle,
which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and
frustration-a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs.’ It
is in that spirit that Atari founder Nolan Bushnell has said, in a
statement that probably best distills the gamer ethos, ‘The way to
have an interesting life is to stay on the steep part of the
learning curve.’

Despite the omnipresence of video games, most people who don’t
play them still fundamentally misunderstand them. Nongamers often
assume that video games, like so many electronic media, are
designed to deliver instant electronic gratification. The opposite
is the case, Johnson insists in Everything Bad Is Good for
. The best video games are brilliantly designed puzzles.
The Grand Theft Auto titles can take as long as 60 hours to
complete. Finishing them requires discipline, problem solving,
decision making, and repeated trial and error.

In a May 7, 2006, New York Times column, David Brooks
suggested that delayed gratification is the key to success in
school, work, and life, and that it is a learned trait. If that’s
true, and if the mental gymnasium of video games teaches delayed
gratification, then gamers should be, on average, more successful
than nongamers. No researcher has proffered that comprehensive a
thesis yet, but the authors of Got Game: How the Gamer
Generation Is Reshaping Business Forever
(Harvard Business
School) suggest that gamers do come out ahead in the world of
business. John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade surveyed 2,500 Americans,
mostly business professionals, and came to the provocative
conclusion that having played video games as a teenager explains
the entire generation gap between those under 34 years of age and
those older (the book was published in 2004, so presumably the
benchmark is now 37).

Beck and Wade argue that the gamers somehow intuitively acquired
traits that many more-senior managers took years to develop and
that their nongaming contemporaries still lack. According to their
survey, video-game players are more likely than nongamers to
consider themselves knowledgeable, even expert, in their fields.
They are more likely to want pay for performance in the workplace
rather than a flat scale. They are more likely to describe
themselves as sociable. They’re mildly bossy. Among these traits,
perhaps the most important is that gamers, who are well acquainted
with the reset button, understand that repeated failure is the road
to success.

The very purpose of every game is to become boring, as the
player develops successful strategies to defeat it, the game
designer Raph Koster observes. The best video games are designed to
assist players in figuring out those strategies. The video games
that are the most like the real world are often the least fun to
play, because they don’t do a good job of communicating to the
player what is important and what isn’t-which paths should be taken
and which can be safely ignored, which items need to be collected
and which can be safely left behind. But the real world doesn’t
come with big blue arrows pointing toward the next door you need to
open. The real world doesn’t always let you hit the reset button
and start over. In the real world, there isn’t always a way to

As games become better at adapting to the talent and skill
levels of their players, more video games will be decoding the
players as much as players are decoding the games. ‘Soon games will
start to build simple models of us, the players,’ Wright predicts.
‘They will learn what we like to do, what we’re good at, what
interests and challenges us. They will observe us. They will record
the decisions we make, consider how we solve problems, and evaluate
how skilled we are in various circumstances. Over time, these games
will become able to modify themselves to better ‘fit’ each

It feels preposterous and yet believable to suggest that the
adaptive nature of video games might be one reason for the rise of
the Organization Kid, a term coined by David Brooks when he visited
with Princeton students for a 2001 Atlantic Monthly story.
‘They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb
it,’ Brooks wrote of the respectful, deferential students he met. A
Princeton sociology professor Brooks interviewed could have been
describing ideal soldiers when he said of his students, ‘They’re
eager to please, eager to jump through whatever hoops the faculty
puts in front of them, eager to conform.’ Brooks summarized the
love-the-power worldview of the Organization Kid like this: ‘There
is a fundamental order to the universe, and it works. If you play
by its rules and defer to its requirements, you will lead a pretty
fantastic life.’ That’s a winner’s ideology: Follow orders, and
you’ll be just fine.

Whether you find the content of video games inoffensive or
grotesque, their structure teaches players that the best course of
action is always to accept the system and work to succeed within
it. ‘Games do not permit innovation,’ Koster writes. ‘They present
a pattern. Innovating out of a pattern is by definition outside the
magic circle. You don’t get to change the physics of a game.’ Nor,
when a computer is the referee, do you get to challenge the rules
or to argue about their merits. That isn’t to say that there aren’t
ways to innovate from within the system. Gamers are famous for
coming up with creative approaches to the problems a game presents.
But devising a new, unexpected strategy to succeed under the
existing rules isn’t the same thing as proposing new rules, new
systems, or new patterns.

Our video-game brains, trained on success machines, may be
undergoing a Mr. Universe workout, one that leaves us stronger but
less flexible. So don’t worry that video games are teaching us to
be killers. Worry instead that they’re teaching us to salute.

Chris Suellentrop ( writes an online column
for the
New York Times. Reprinted from the Wilson
Quarterly (Summer 2006), a thought-leader publication and
winner of the 2006 Utne Independent Press Award for General
Excellence. Subscriptions: $24/yr. from Box 420406, Palm Coast, FL

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