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