Games and play are old concepts that have been around since the beginning of recorded history. Archaeologists have found game pieces among the artifacts of ancient civilizations, and stadiums are prominent pieces of ancient architecture. Historically, games have fulfilled a role as entertainment, and they continue to do so in the modern era. However, people are now recognizing the power of games to transcend entertainment and communicate ideas. As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. Game creators have a duty to ensure that the messages embedded within games are doing more good than harm. Game players have an equally important responsibility to recognize those messages and consider if they are worth embracing. Certainly we can continue to play games for entertainment, but whether we realize it or not, we are also learning things as we play. The things we learn help to determine which values we carry forward into a society where games play a prominent role.

OregonTrailScreenshot

Games have been used to educate since the dawn of the home-computing era.

As a society, people are constantly looking for ways to share ideas more effectively. Educators look for ways to make the learning process more appealing, and companies are constantly seeking better ways to engage their customers. History is filled with examples of early attempts to harness the power of play for purposes that extend beyond entertainment. A classic example is the Oregon Trail educational game developed at the dawn of the home-computing era, even before computers became commonplace in school or in the home. [1] An enterprising educator wanted to find a way to present the educational content in a more compelling way, proving that those with an idea will always find a way to use cutting edge technology to share it.

America's Army

The U.S. Army uses a game to promote its own agenda and values.

In addition to education, games have been used to sell things and advertise for political causes. As an example, the U.S. Army discovered that the America’s Army game could be used as a powerful tool for recruitment and retention, delivering a healthy dose of pro-American propaganda reinforced through carefully crafted gameplay mechanics. [2] Now the Chinese now have a similarly propaganda-laced first-person shooter that they hope to use for military recruiting and retention purposes. However, in the case of the Chinese game, the opposition consists of American forces, in appearance if not in name. [3] The game mechanics and player interactions may be similar, but the values and messaging are very different. Messages in games reflect the values of the game creators, sometimes by accident, but often by intent. Advertising games are easy to spot, and games with an agenda are often heavy-handed about their delivery. Players can tell when there is a message being communicated. Similarly, players are also able to cognitively separate fact from fiction. Just because a game has a message doesn’t mean that all players are listening to it.

IBM CityOne

IBM CityOne turns a city-building game into a training tool.

Whether or not players are receptive to the messages that games communicate, repetition can build habits, both good and bad. Much like any sort of practice drill, the skills learned through gameplay can carry over to the real thing. Many training games are based on this principle and rely on it. For example, flight simulators are used to train pilots long before they ever sit down in a cockpit. Games are in some ways the ultimate form of practice, allowing players to learn from errors without the catastrophic outcomes associated with those missteps. Similarly, companies like Coca Cola and IBM have embraced games as tools for corporate leadership training. [4] The opportunity to practice skills in a safe environment makes games an ideal framework. Those games are designed specifically for training, but the same principles also carry over to the games we play for fun.

Grand Theft Auto V

Grand Theft Auto V is about crime, but what does it say about gender?

The Grand Theft Auto series of games inevitably comes up in any discussion of game values. I don’t think there is really a serious risk that players will somehow come away from the experience thinking that it’s socially acceptable to commit crimes and break the law. At that level, it’s very easy to distinguish between fiction and reality. However, there are other much more subtle messages that come along with the obvious ones. Games can reinforce social stereotypes and norms, including perceptions of affluence, beauty, or power. The player may recognize that it’s socially unacceptable to break the law, but the game may also be reinforcing beliefs about the role of women in society, or how to react to different situations. [5] This is the true power of games, and why it’s important to think about all of the messages that are being communicated through our experiences in these virtual world.

Games are crafted experiences, able to harness the power of immersion to draw players into a compelling experience. Traditionally the focus of these games has been to provide entertainment, but increasingly games are also being used to communicate ideas. In some cases, games are being used to teach content, as in the case of Oregon Trail. In other cases, games are used to teach skills, such as flying a plane or managing a team of employees. Games are also being used to communicate beliefs, perhaps whether to treat the U.S. Army as an ally or an adversary.  In those cases the messages are overt, but even entertainment games contain messages about the things we value as a society. As we move towards a future where games are used to communicate, it’s important to consider what exactly games are saying and whether those ideas are part of the future we want to build.

[1] Oregon Trail: How three Minnesotans forged its path

[2] More than a Game: the Defense Department and the First Person Shooter

[3] Gamers Target U.S. Troops in Chinese Military ‘Shooter’

[4] IBM CityOne Game – Your mission: Solve a city’s critical problems with technology

[5] The Heist: How Grand Theft Auto V gets away with murder

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