Should People Who Talk About Games… Actually Try Playing Them?

Should People Who Talk About Games… Actually Try Playing Them?

I have not confirmed this, but I believe that you would not be allowed to keynote a climate change conference if you hadn’t sweated in the past 25 years.

But a couple of weeks ago, former Vice President Al Gore keynoted the Games For Change conference – a conference about the potential for video games to improve society – and confessed in that keynote that he hadn’t played a video game in earnest since Pong.

Oh, he name-checked Zynga boss Mark Pincus in his keynote and shared game design wisdom he cribbed from his friend and former Electronic Arts chief Bing Gordon. He even declared video games the “new normal” for millions of people. But apparently if you used to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency, you can be pals with titans of the gaming industry without being compelled to play their stuff.

Such is the state of video game’s defenders, a new crew that also includes conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, author of the recent decision that affirmed that video games should enjoy the same Free Speech rights as books, music and other species of speech. These folks are unafraid of video games. They believe games have rights.

But they also don’t seem to play video games or know video games as well as the people who attack them. I’m worried that, well, they just don’t get it.

In the last two weeks, I’ve attended the Games For Change conference in New York City and reported on the Supreme Court’s landmark video game decision. I’ve witnessed two weeks of video games enjoying the kind of support by old people in politics that suggests a medium has transcended its feared counter-culture status and become part of the establishment.

As I’ve listened to speeches, taken notes, and transcribed chunks of Supreme Court opinion, I’ve found myself shaking my head at the great new defenders of video games and nodding with the critics.

Scalia and Gore’s problem – if it’s fair to call it that – is that neither sounds like a gamer. It’s no prerequisite that one plays video games to find them worthy of Free Speech. You also don’t need to read poetry or be a bigot to appreciate the First Amendment. But it certainly helps to know what you’re talking about – and maybe even to have touched it.

The annual Games For Change conference, which I’ve attended most years since 2006, is a well-intentioned gathering of people who want to make games that, rather than simply obliterate virtual worlds help improve the real one. Gore keynoted this year. Former Supreme Cout Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has in the past. Unfortunately, this is a movement that, despite years of enthusiasm, has produced very few good games, let alone great ones. That hasn’t ebbed enthusiasm. The conference continues to attract well-intentioned non-gamer keynoters and well-intentioned activists who yearn to figure out how to make video games that will propel their cause and change minds.

Five years ago, Raph Koster, a Games for Change keynoter who does play and make video games, gracefully delivered the awkward message that the games-for-change of 2006 weren’t very entertaining. The problem might be the premise, he suggested: “It’s almost like if you were a paper-airplane maker and somebody came up to you and said, ‘You know, paper airplanes, it seems like all the kids are into them at school these days. So we really want to make paper airplanes about Darfur.'”

The guy who understood video games was the skeptic, a pattern you too might pick up on here.

In 2011, such was the progress in the movement post-Koster that Gore felt the need to encourage aspiring makers of games for change to make their games both attractive and fun. Crediting Bing Gordon with such wisdom, Gore said, “One of the first rules of any visual medium is the quality of the visuals. It sounds obvious, but the landing screen is extremely important and the visual needs to match the type of app or site or game that you are about to play. How many times have you heard about the Sims’ cool graphics or how inviting Farmville is. The GUI interface simply has to feel totally intuitive and again help the person using it feel a sense of smartness and mastery because it’s fun and has to set the expectations for what is next.”

Good advice, but, well, isn’t that weird? The non-gaming former VP of the United States, channeling the former head of EA, to suggest better graphical user interfaces (Gore hadn’t bothered to unpack that GUI acronym). The non-gaming guy seemed to not be getting it, or to be getting it on a shallow aphoristic level.

We can excuse our former Vice Presidents as a political variation of a celebrity endorser. Al Gore gets to keynote Games For Change for the same reason baseball players get to promote odor eaters. They pitchmen may not use the product; but it sure is nice to imagine that they would. But Gore isn’t alone, nor is Scalia, who in his Supreme Court ruling [PDF]that helped strike down California’s attempt to block minors from buying violent video games said, reading the great book “is unquestionably more cultured and intellectually edifying than playing Mortal Kombat.”I must confess that I’ve never read The Divine Comedy, but I am going to guess that Justice Scalia has played little – possibly none of – the world’s most notorious spine-ripping fighting game. [1]

Once we were awash in video game haters who didn’t appear to have played video games recently or at all. Today I keep witnessing this new breed of video game booster, people who don’t vilify video games but celebrate them or attest to their normality, without having played them. What damage can these people do with all their good intentions and lack of awareness of what makes a good video game? What hazards and bad taste might they welcome as they fail to recognise what’s bad or troubling about games?

At a Games For Change demo showcase one day later, a parade of well-meaning people who were creating games about human trafficking, immigration law and the empowerment of young women were told, live on stage, by a three-person panel consisting of two actual game designers, that they should consider radical overhauls of their games. I wasn’t surprised. None of their games had looked fun or deeply playable. The immigration one, for example, was a Half-Life 2 mod that required 30-minute rounds. These demo games seemed more like Koster’s paper airplanes.

More informed people than Gore did present at Games For Change. Gabe Newell, one of the world’s foremost thinkers and architects of video games delivered a smart, savvy speech about the efficacy of commercial and non-commercial games to teach and empower. Some of the people at demo night did present games that might, well, be games worth playing. The prevailing mood that I picked up, however, was one of newcomers exploring a thing they don’t yet grasp.

In November, during oral arguments for the Supreme Court video game case, Justice Elena Kagan asked a reasonable question about Mortal Kombat. She did seem to get it. (Scalia, chiming in, simply seemed to be a good sport.)

Here is an excerpt, as the Justices quizzed an attorney representing the state of California, which was trying to make the sale of ultra-violent video games to minors illegal:

Justice Kagan to California’s Zackery Morazzini: You think Mortal Kombat is prohibited by this statute?

Morazzini: I believe it’s a candidate, Your honour, but I haven’t played the game and been exposed to it sufficiently to judge for myself.

Kagan: It’s a candidate, meaning, yes, a reasonable jury could find that Mortal Kombat, which is an iconic game, which I am sure half of the clerks who work for us spend considerable amounts of time in their adolescence playing.

Scalia: I don’t know what she’s talking about.

Morazzini: Justice Kagan, by candidate, I meant that the video game industry should look at it, should take a long look at it. But I don’t know off the top of my head. I’m willing to state right here in open court that the video game Postal II, yes, would be covered by this act. I’m willing to guess that games we describe in our brief such as MadWorld would be covered by the act.

Note the quip from Scalia and the comfort Justice Kagan, at least, seems to take with her belief that people she knows have played video games. Our Justices don’t sound like gamers, though they do sound like people who have crossed paths with them – or crossed paths with people who have crossed paths with them, perhaps.

In the Court’s decision Scalia dismisses the state of California’s concern that, in his words, “video games video games present special problems because they are ‘interactive’, in that the player participates in the violent action on screen and determines its outcome.”

A person who has played Mortal Kombat and never ripped someone’s spine out in real life – nor even kicked someone! – might nod along with Scalia. Video games aren’t so interactive that they inspire copycat behaviour, the gamer might argue. But, in his next line, Scalia contextualises games’ interactivity as follows: “The latter feature is nothing new: Since at least the publication of ‘The Adventures of You: Sugarcane Island’ in 1969, young readers of choose-your-own adventure stories have been able to make decisions that determine the plot by following instructions about which page to turn to. As for the argument that video games enable participation in the violent action, that seems to us more a matter of degree than of kind.” Scalia cites another judge in arguing that the best literature feels interactive.

Remember, Scalia, who downplays gaming’s exceptional, unique qualities, is on the side of gaming in this paradigm. Justice Samuel Alito, who sided with the gaming industry against California because of problems he had with California’s proposed law is far more sceptical of video games. He’s the one, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, who, despite ruling against California, believes a law against violent video games could be crafted and might need to be. On Scalia’s dismissal that the interactivity of games is a special thing, he writes:

“Only an extraordinarily imaginative reader who reads a description of a killing in a literary work will experience that event as vividly as he might if he played the role of the killer in a video game. To take an example, think of a person who reads the passage in Crime and Punishment in which Raskolnikov kills the old pawn broker with an axe. Compare that reader with a video-game player who creates an avatar that bears his own image; who sees a realistic image of the victim and the scene of the killing in high definition and in three dimensions; who is forced to decide whether or not to kill the victim and decides to do so; who then pretends to grasp an axe, to raise it above the head of the victim, and then to bring it down; who hears the thud of the axe hitting her head and her cry of pain; who sees her split skull and feels the sensation of blood on his face and hands. For most people, the two experiences will not be the same.”

Will the players of violent video games disagree with Alito that a murder executed by a gamer in a video game is more vivid than the murder a reader reads about in a book? Will they not see in Alito, who, remember, sided with the gaming industry, a distinction between books and games that feels real?

In his gaming-sceptical opinion, Alito was the one citing motion controls and force feedback as gaming technologies that will further emphasise video games’ distinction from other forms of entertainment. And then we get to Justice Stephen Breyer, one of two on the Court who sided with the Supreme Court. He is the one who drops in a link showing how parental controls on a gaming console can be bypassed.

The video game haters, it seemed, did their homework.

I get a lot of my national news from the PBS NewsHour, whose co-anchor, Gwen Ifill, sighed in disgust when, during the program’s segment on the Supreme Court decision, she was told about the violent video game content that would remain legal for kids to buy. Yet neither she nor the program’s Supreme Court expert, the National Law Journal’s Marcia Coyle, went down the path of suggesting that maybe the Supreme Court’s decision was off. Credit that to the NewsHour’s approach to opinion-light journalism but also to the fact that neither Ifill nor Coyle betrayed much familiarity with video games. On the other hand, the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart mocked the Court’s decision, echoing dissenter Breyer that there was a double-standard in making it legal for a kid to buy a Mortal Kombat that is full of bloody limb-ripping, so long as it doesn’t show any nipple (the Court allows States ti ban the sale of sexual content to kids). Stewart does admit to playing video games. I’ve seen him talk on his show about staying up late playing video games. He gets it, and he’s the one who is alarmed—either about under-legislating violent video games or over-legislating sexual content, it’s not clear. Again, it’s the skeptics who seem like they’re the most in the know.

There was a time when the loudest critics of video games were clearly people who did not play games. For those who love video games, the reflex was callous but simple: wait for those old, clueless people to die and let their ignorance be replaced with people who play and don’t fear video games. They saw a temporary threat. Games would be misunderstood only briefly, until those who played took over the world. I never liked that theory and assumed that games would continue to be alien to a great number of people. Video games require time to play. They require skills and continued attention. There would always be people, young and old, who lacked such resources to dedicate to video games. There would always be, I imagined, non-gamers. I still believe that.

I’m struck, however, by the emergence of this new group: the non-gamer gaming defenders. Where will they lead and mis-lead games? Where will the vice presidents who don’t play games bring the medium? How will the Supreme Court justices who see games as marginally different than Choose Your Own Adventures books speak to gaming’s greatness?

What will we do when the people who pay close attention notice there are things unsavoury about video games, while the people who don’t play, keep on telling us how wonderful games are?

[1]I can confirm, however, that reading Moby-Dick is unquestionably more cultured and intellectually edifying than playing Killzone 3, OK?


  • “I have not confirmed this, but I believe that you would not be allowed to keynote a climate change conference if you hadn’t sweated in the past 25 years.”

    Depends on the point of the conference. For a climate change denialist conference, no experience is necessary.

    • I love the slimy way you try to lump us in with holocaust denialists. Climate Change occurs every 3 months or so, you know, when it gets hotter or colder when the SEASONS change? Your theories on the planet getting warmer, or colder, or its getting warmer BECAUSE it’s colder (?) because of a harmless gas (which, funnily enough, the plants NEED to grow), is laughable in its own right.

      Try educating yourself, before you embarrass yourself. 😉

      • And yes, they are theories, because unlike your green movement god, creator of the internet, Al Gore believes. The science is not settled, at all.

          • Also I lol’d at the website you failed at linking at. For one, it’s CO2, as in one carbon (C) and 2 oxygen (O) atoms, not C02.

            For two, plant growth outside of hydroponics is limited by available nitrogen, sunlight, and water, not CO2 concentration.

            But of course, we couldn’t expect someone who takes an uninformed position to be informed.

          • Ummm… evolution and relativity ARE theories.

            “Theory” doesn’t mean an arbitrary speculation. Calling something a “theory” isn’t a term of abuse.

            I think the best person to quote on this is Francis Collins (evolutionary biologist, theistic evolutionist and evangelical Christian) – “theories explain facts.”

            A theory is essentially a tentative explanation of the empirical evidence.

            And in that, relativity IS a theory which explains a lot of the empirical facts we witness in astrophysics. Just as evolution is a theory which explains a lot of the empirical facts we witness in biology.

            The “Intelligent Design” people do indeed misuse the term “theory” but there’s a difference between treating a theory as an arbitrary speculation (which is what the ID people do) and treating a theory as a tentative explanation and thus one which can be revised and recontextualized in the light of new evidence.

            Most skepticism about Anthropogenic Global Warming isn’t directed to AGW itself per se. Its usually related to a whole lot of interrelated political, economic and philosophical issues that have been package-dealt with Anthropogenic Global Warming. When there is skepticism about the science, it tends to be about matters of degree (i.e. how much AGW is present) or matters of scientific methodology (i.e. whether or not some scientists have massaged the statistics in order to exaggerate the degree of AGW).

            I think you’re attempting to imply that people who disagree (to any extent) with the ‘mainstream’ view of the AGW issue (a view one might snarkily refer to as the “Gore-thodox” view of the issue, including Gore’s philosophical and political stances on it) is no different to a proponent of Intelligent Design. Quite honestly, that is a very offensive smear that only does a disservice to your own argument.

            If you value the integrity of your own argument, then defend it empirically and be polite to your interlocutors.

          • @ studiode – For what it’s worth, I agree with everything you just wrote (except the second-last paragraph). But I guess I don’t have the patience to write a long, properly though out response to a post that is so incredibly wrong.

        • You also might want to learn something about the difference between climate and weather, for starters.

          Or the greenhouse effect, or blackbody physics, or the warming effects of dipolar molecules, or paleoclimatology.

          You know. Actual science. Carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas, nor is it the most potent – but it is decreasing the proportion of re-radiated heat out into space consistent with every scientific theory of the last two hundred years.

          Science is never settled, but to deny the existence of the greenhouse effect is to deny physics and chemistry. It’s ridiculous.

  • I happen to agree with the view that the interactivity in Choose Your Own Adventure is only different to that in an adventure game by way of degree. I remember advanced versions by Steve Jackson – adventure novels that involved character stats and dice rolls as well as decision-making by the reader/player.

    • Ah Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston books, I think I had almost all of them. Why they hell haven’t they been recreated as ebooks? There should be an app for those.

      • If you’re after fighting fantasy type books and have an iOS device then check out Gamebook Adventures by Tin Man Games. Those styles of ebooks are out there, they just need more exposure.

  • The reason Gore and others feel confident paying extensive lip service to something they know nothing about is because they have that rare mental disorder (often genetic, see Bush Family) of being politicians.

    As politicians they feel completely at home standing up and speaking at length on subjects they have no experience, and often no knowledge at all about. All in the hopes of drawing the attention and adoration of an imaginary entity they call the ‘demographic’. Yesterday it was health, obesity and alternative energy, today it’s video games, tomorrow it’ll be something else. I just tune it out.

  • It frightens me that lawmakers anywhere, be it here in Australia, California or anywhere in the world, would approach such a scenario in a similar fashion that I might’ve a high school essay a number of years ago. A quick Google search here, a bit of paraphrasing there… Get my point?

  • I can honestly say reading The Old Man and the Sea, Lord of the Flies and the Animorphs series had a greater effect on my behaviour and the way I live than playing Doom or Mortal Kombat.

    That said, I read prolifically, watch films and tv, and listen to music as well as playing video games, so they aren’t my sole influence.

    But most people use video games as an escape, not inspiration.

    They sometimes have a message, but it’s more about doing what we normally couldn’t.

  • This is a good read and entirely true.

    Without actually playing games, both sides are ill-equipped to argue for or against games.

    Since I do play games, I have a stance but I am not entirely For or Against.

    I believe that games should be allowed to be made and sold and given as much creative freedom as any other media. But I sure as hell won’t be letting my kids play Mortal Kombat 9 (if I had kids) regardless of what studies say about correlation between violence and games.

    Maybe that is the problem with these debates. Its always extreme ends of the spectrum. Video games are always seen as either Good or Bad. Maybe we should just accept that some games will have positive affects on society and some will have negative.

    And then we can focus not on the games but on how to keep the more “controversial” games away from kids. For a start maybe educate parents on how to read classification stickers? Or stricter punishment for retailers who sell these games to minors?

  • “Will the players of violent video games disagree with Alito that a murder executed by a gamer in a video game is more vivid than the murder a reader reads about in a book? Will they not see in Alito, who, remember, sided with the gaming industry, a distinction between books and games that feels real?”

    This is an interesting one, really. Roberts example is completely overblown in modern context (‘feels the sensation of blood on his face and hands’? really?) though, I suppose, not completely impossible in the future. In the current situation, I do find literature considerably more impacting, textual depictions of murder more upsetting because it requires me and gives me time to imagine, thereby making the characters more ‘real’ to me. There’s also far less that can highlight the unreality of the situations; with games there are all sorts of artificial limitations. On screen, they’re almost never ‘people’; there’s too much distance. In books they are. That may change in the future, but for now it holds true.

  • Comparing classical works to Mortal Kombat is like comparing any one of a number of deep rich and thought provoking RPG’s to an airplane magazine. Its a shitty example either way, deliberately taken to an extreme to prove a faulty premise. That games can be works of Art and enrich our lives isn’t to say that every game ever will. Just like not every book read or movie watched is likely to do so. Sometimes they’re just pure entertainment.

    Also more on topic, you can’t really understand something you’ve never done. Even well meaning supporters should really experience what they’re talking about if they hope to gain insight as to why gamers feel their media deserves the same rights and attributes of any other.

    There was a time when people actually believed that books were going to send our kids crazy from reading all the time. That’s why we have school holidays. Because at the time, literacy and the ability to read was just becoming a social norm. In a century or two these arguments against games will seem just antiquated. Call it societal growing pains if you will. 😉

  • Great article, I’m struck by the existence of a group that, far from being hysterical or hyperbolic because they’ve never played games, are actually arguably too idealistic because they’ve never played those same games.

    It’s almost a buzzword, like social media or online engagement. NGOs who are incredibly well meaning want to engage young people with a game that ends up being relatively unplayable.

    A handful I can remember are about Darfur and food aid relief, which – while incredibly educational – didn’t strike me as particularly ‘fun’, or even a ‘game’.

  • I’ve always been suss of Al Gore, since The Inconvenient Truth.

    Its the one documentary that I know of thats been pulled from MVGroup (who share documentaries for educational purposes via file sharing) cos of ‘copyright infringement’.

    MVGroup may have been infringing, but it seems that Gore and his phonies were more concerned about making money off the doco, instead of getting the message out to everyone.

  • I wrote an article about violent video games a while back. I’ve found myself in this same situation: Where a bunch of non-gaming civil libertarians are protecting my right to play these games, and I’m starting to get worried about the impact of games and how to classify them — but not in the way most people think of classification (for example, should WoW have to carry some sort of addiction warning?)

  • I wouldn’t believe anything from Al Gore (some say he is the third antichrist), it has been proven that his Global Warming THEORY is nothing but distorted and manipulated data.

    Over 33,000 scientist are sueing Gore for this.
    His hockey stick formula has been proven to be false, any data etered will end up in that shape.

    He has his company set up to collect carbon tax, it is nothing but a scam.
    Check out

    As far as gaming goes he shouldn’t get involved he has no clue about gaming.
    What the hell does he want, all games to be pokemon and smurf games?

    Why does he not tell Hollywood that they can only make G rated comedies?

    That guy has no clue, and should crawl under a rock.

    We have freedom of speech and CHOICE, I choose not to pay attention to Al Gores exadurated self serving drivel.

  • Unrelated to the article topic but THANK CHRIST this guy never became president.
    I hope history is much kinder to George Bush. I didn’t agree with much of his views, but at least the guy believed in something, not like the left wing ‘appeal to the green movement’ Democrats.

  • “Compare that reader with a video-game player who creates an avatar that bears his own image; who sees a realistic image of the victim and the scene of the killing in high definition and in three dimensions; who is forced to decide whether or not to kill the victim and decides to do so; who then pretends to grasp an axe, to raise it above the head of the victim, and then to bring it down; who hears the thud of the axe hitting her head and her cry of pain; who sees her split skull and feels the sensation of blood on his face and hands. For most people, the two experiences will not be the same.”

    What game is this? Is this a new Kinect game?… Actually sounds more like someone playing a ‘Crime & Punishment’ simulation on the Holodeck, to me. 😛

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