Notes From My Lecture at WPI

by Darius Kazemi on November 24, 2009

in philosophy,speaking

I gave a lecture yesterday at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, my alma mater. The class I spoke to was IMGD 2001, Philosophy and Ethics of Computer Games. A little bit of background on that: during my senior year in college, WPI was still putting together its undergraduate video game development major. I took on a thesis project for Prof. John Sanbonmatsu where I essentially wrote a grab-bag paper on video games and critical theory. As John educated me in critical theory, I educated John in video games. The end result was not just my paper, but a framework which John applied to creating the IMGD 2001 class.

I bring up that background to highlight what a joy it is to speak to this particular class. I try to be a guest speaker every time it’s run.

Someone mentioned to me that I should probably try and post what I lectured about on my blog. So this is my attempt to cover some of my points. It was a pretty fragmented lecture, and I was responding in part to some of their reading (Marcuse on aggression in technological societies).

My Lecture

I framed my lecture by showing two videos: real footage of AC-130 combat from Afghanistan, and the AC-130 footage from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. I didn’t really comment on the footage except to remind them that in the real footage they are watching human beings die on camera. It is difficult to interpret the real footage as anything but a video game. Again, this was really just to set a mood and perhaps shock them into paying attention.

I wanted to show them that professional game developers do think about the philosophical issues that they cover in John’s class. My first stop was Clint Hocking’s blog. I told them to read his lecture transcripts, particularly the ones about intentional play, improvisational play, and the exploration of the self through systems.

I then went into a discussion of Far Cry 2 versus Halo (or most other FPS games). The basic argument I covered was that FC2 promotes improvisational play, whereas Halo promotes the play of dominance. Because of its game systems, in Halo you can find a dominant strategy and become a godlike slayer of baddies.  Halo is a game where you dominate the system. FC2 is a game where the system dominates you. Plans often do not work out as you expect. The game is often brutally difficult, but gives you a wide array of tools with which to mitigate that difficulty.  But the important thing is that the system dominates the player, and the best you can do is survive long enough to meet the end conditions of the game and “win.” Some gamers take FC2′s stance towards improvisation without domination as literally offensive: people claim that the game’s endlessly respawning enemy encampments never let you feel like you’ve “cleaned out” an area. You’re never safe. Ever.

I think this is fundamentally a good thing for a game system to present a player. By giving us a system that is stacked against us, where we need to be clever given our limited resources to survive, I feel like FC2 is doing a service by training our brains to perhaps be more receptive to those kinds of situations in the real world.

A feeling of progression is perhaps a way of forgetting about death for a while.

This led into a discussion of Ben Abraham’s FC2 permanent death experiment, and then the concept of permadeath in general, and discussing reasons why gamers might be as opposed to permadeath in games as they are. It was particularly interesting in light of the Marcuse essay they’d been assigned. Playing games and getting a feeling of progression is perhaps a way of forgetting about death for a while — the institution of permadeath flies in the face of forgetting the inevitable.

Progression-as-soma led to examining Facebook games. Farmville and Mafia Wars were brought up as prime examples of “spreadsheet games” that are about a feeling of progress towards who-knows-what… and not much more than that. Which then prompted me to bring up Jonathan Blow’s 2007 MIGS keynote, which is centered around this assertion/question:

When millions of people buy our game, we are pumping a (mental) substance into the (mental) environment.
This is a public mental health issue.
We have the power to shape humanity. How will we use it?

When millions of people buy our game, we are pumping a (mental) substance into the (mental) environment.

This is a public mental health issue.

We have the power to shape humanity. How will we use it?

Other things were discussed in the 90 minutes I had to speak. The last half hour was Q&A. I spoke a little bit about what it’s like to work for a big game company, and the amount of creative freedom you have (or more accurately, do not have). I talked a little bit about Auntie Pixelante’s dissatisfaction with the Guildhall at SMU. I also discussed the indie game scene.

“Good games are made by interesting people.”

Probably the best question came from a student in the back, who said:

No offense to the professor, but in my other classes it seems like they’re encouraging us to make video games, and they talk about how video games are good things. This class is the opposite. It’s depressing, it’s almost like you don’t want us to make games at all. What’s the point of taking a class like this if what I want to do is make games?

My response came surprisingly easily:

If you look at the people who are at the vanguard of the game industry, the people who are pushing the form and helping video games become better than they ever have been, most of those people are reflective about the process of making games. The best game developers are the ones  who think about this stuff. So the answer is simple: if you want to make the best games in the world, you need to actively think about exactly the sorts of issues that are brought up in this class.

After class, I met with some of the IMGD faculty, one of whom is (I say with no small amount of pride) Brian Moriarty. I mentioned this last question/answer exchange to him and his response was: “Well, yes. Good games are made by interesting people.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

{ 1 comment }

Patrick November 24, 2009 at 10:04 pm

After watching the AC 130 my impression is that we finally have conclusive proof of violence causing videogames.

Regarding Farmville, it is on one hand a startling benchmark for how games can be truly mass market, but on the other it is indeed a simple design that transparently (if you have the right eyes) pulls basic levers of dopamine full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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