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Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Meta-trip To Video Game Land

When beginning a metacognitive journey one should be at least as diligent as the mapping application on a mobile phone and ask whether to use one’s present location as a reference – or not.

The first and most important recognition (cool! re-cognition!) is the fluidity of meaning associated with words.  Every word is a potential point of bifurcation in a journey of understanding, but some words just jump out and slap you as you read (and think).  In those cases you are presented with two options: attempt to discover the active field of meaning intended, expected or that limits the producer of the words; or to, more or less rigidly, apply your own field of meaning and see how the conceptual structure develops within your limits of present understanding.

I have just read a rather astounding interview article that offers most forms of opportunity to practice these skills: it is called ‘Can Computer Games Save Us All? New Research Shows How Gaming Can Help Cure Our Social Ills.’

Terrance McNally interviews game designer Jane McGonigal.  Applying my mapping tool, I find that my present location is quite far from the destination that the article is describing; the road is both long and with unmapped regions.  Though I am willing to be shown the way, in fact, I lack confidence that such a place exists at all.

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Let us begin with this simple assertion: that experience – and the form of experience – matters in the subsequent behavior of a person.  A person whose experience is primarily associated with hunting and gathering essential food and material with the assistance and company of intimate, life-long associates will be different in important ways from a person whose experience is more fragmented into a wide variety of ways to obtain essential needs and whose associations are also highly varied in form.

In other words, it is axiomatic that people who do not spent 20 to 40 hours a week playing video games will have a different experience of life than someone who does.  The question should be: “How are these experiences different?” and not only: “Are there bad consequences associated with, especially violent, video games?”

A second axiom can be called forth: as an evolved organism, humans have, albeit of considerable latitude, consistent traits that define expected patterns of species’ behavior.  In other, somewhat less academic sounding, words: “Does a bear shit in the woods?” Well yes, unless it is taught to ride a bicycle and use a toilet – we’ll not get into the hazards associated with claws and toilet paper.  The problem for humans is that most of us have been taught to ‘ride a bicycle!’  All of our many forms of bicycle riding cloud our perception and understanding of ourselves as a bear in the woods.

And so, just what sort of bicycle riding is video gaming?

Academic research is its own form of bicycle riding, but that is the importance of metacognitive practice – to remain aware of the bicycle we are on as we roll around in our cognitive space.  One of the first and most important of metacognitive recognitions is that we habituate very quickly to consistent and common practices; this is one of those ‘expected patterns of species’ behavior’ and a damned useful one until it isn’t; and it isn’t when habituation prevents us from realizing what is most important in a question.

Social scientists are wary of ‘big picture’ questions; they are extremely difficult to research well, often requiring expensive, large, longitudinal correlative studies.  Most real social questions have political and economic implications, and thus those same dangers.  It is easier, safer and more rewarding to pick narrowly defined questions that can be studied with reasonable budgets in reasonable amounts of time.  This doesn’t mean that ‘big picture’ questions don’t get attention, only that they must be sewn together from often ill-fitting pieces cut out for other purposes.

With these thoughts as background, let us begin.  First the title of the interview article, ‘Can Computer Games Save Us All? New Research Shows How Gaming Can Help Cure Our Social Ills.’  The words themselves DEMAND attention: “save us all”, “new research”, “cure our social ills.”

I’ve seen the TED Talk by Ms. McGonigal, and I have to say that it looks like a propaganda piece conflating the fact that spending many hours a week doing anything will have powerful consequences, the supposition that ‘socially positive’ experiences can (and should) be designed into video games and that if everyone played such games for something like a full-time job, the world would be a better place.

Before getting into the research, what is my present location on the cognitive map?  First and foremost I don’t assume that all experiences are essentially neutral accept for duration; I think there are great differences between hiking for 3 hours in the desert and 3 hours playing a video game based on desert warfare.  I think that 20 hours a week spent working with 2 or 3 other people on a farm producing much of one’s own food would have dramatically different consequences for a person’s general thought process and sense of self compared to 20 hours a week spent sitting at a computer ‘earning’ the money to buy that same food (this is not to ignore potential differences in food quality, but that is not the subject).  I do assume that how, and with whom, one spends one’s time is vital to what a person ‘is.’ I also predict that there can be little objection to these views since I am only assuming that the different conditions of life would produce differences in experience and self-expression.

I further have a few expectations for the people around me, expectations that may or may not relate to the above assumptions.  And that is key, what experiences do the people around you need to have so that they meet your expectations, and what experiences do you need to have so your expectations are reasonable in light of what humans are.

Now we can talk about video games and how they might fit into the human experience.

The research is largely uninforming regards the questions that I have, primarily are video games in general good for our lives or not?  (if you think such a question inappropriate, remember that we arrogantly ask and answer that kind of question for other species all the time.)  Research questions are more like: do specific types of violence (or helping behaviors) increase or decrease in relation to specific amounts and types of video game playing? 

And the results are in for that one: specific types of violence increase and helping behavior decreases with increasing amounts of exposure to violent video games (An update on the effects of playing violent video games, Craig A. Anderson, Journal of Adolescence 27 (2004) 113–122).  The effect is stronger than a number of health relationships for which, we as a society, have taken serious action.  But like so many of the forms of experience in which we engage today, there is vast infrastructure and wealth associated with their continued delivery.

But Ms. McGonigal’s message, a message I have largely rejected above, contains another much deeper aspect; it is made of two parts.  First the trivial, though powerful: the digital world is here to stay and will develop more and more powerful forms.  The second is the one: that digital experience, understanding and daily practice will both enhance our human understanding and change who and what we are – that games are just the weak secondhand smoke of the deep full-lunged drag on the digital universe.

I can see that I’m going to have hit the ‘locate’ feature on my metacognitive mapping application, though I am certain that I will not be in Ms. McGonigal’s town; I will be some place other than where I think I am right now.

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