« An Investigative Jour… | Home | The Happy Ending Sing… »

Two Anecdotes on Video Games

On Friday, I (Eric C) am writing about video games, failure, and the Western world’s demand for a happy ending, but in researching that post, I came up with two, quick side-thoughts I have to get out.

The first comes from the episode on gaming from To The Best of Our Knowledge, one of my favorite weekend public radio shows. In the last segment, Douglas Rushkoff makes a rather bold claim: America is running out of programmers. His proof? “I went down to Shreveport, Louisiana to meet with the general who was then in charge of the Air Force Cyber Command, and he said he was getting a ton of recruits joining the Air Force who are more than happy to fly drones and operate tanks from 6,000 miles away...but finding very, very few if any kids enlisting who understood how to program any of these things. He had plenty of operators...but he didn’t have anyone who could go in and program how these drones actually work.”

Right. First, this is an anecdote. I haven’t read Rushkoff’s book, so I sincerely hope he uses statistics to prove this assertion. This is a classic logical fallacy, assuming that a study group represents the larger whole. Enlisted Air Force troops do not represent America as a whole. Further, since when did the Air Force have programmers joining in droves?

This also points to a larger problem with the Air Force (and Army and Navy). What problem? Attracting top flight technical and professional talent.

Look at the statistics. Computer scientists and computer programmers make a starting salary of $61,000 out of college.

The starting salary of the Air Force? $14,400 with housing and medical.

That’s why the Air Force, not America, isn’t attracting top-flight programmers. This is a problem, but a different one than the one Rushkoff asserts.

Eric C’s second thought:

People are really optimistic about how video games will improve the world. I’m not.

I could quote a lot of people on this notion--Ian Bogost and persuasive games, for example--but I’ll go with Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World. In this TED speech, she makes the case that if we can convince gamers to solve the world’s problems, we can save the world.

I’d hate to consider myself jaded, but I just don’t see it. People won’t use gaming to make the world better. They’ll use games to entertain themselves. About the best we can hope for is that they’ll use games to push ideology, or distract themselves. In other words, they’ll continue being human. Take Twitter for example. A lot of people are convinced Twitter will “save the world”. But this conversation from an On The Media segment on Twitter makes my case:

Lee Ferreira: Millions of people are dying from a disease that I think 20 dollars could save their lives. So, why do people care more and tweet more about Justin Bieber than malaria? I don't know.

(Bob Garfield asks her what her most recent tweet was about.)

“We were just at lunch. We went for sushi, so I just tweeted that out.”

Gaming won’t save the world, and neither will Twitter.

three comments

I’d say, if anything, gaming just isolates people from the real world. How many kids spend countless hours in front of a tv or computer screen blasting away at goodness knows what without having any clue as to what is going on around them?

And don’t even get me started on Twitter…

The skepticism is well founded. There’s little to suggest video games will help make the world better. The only examples in favor I can think of are educational games that are designed solely to assist kids in learning. Number Muncher comes to mind. While not a substitute for actually education, it worked well as a supplement.

Will makes a great point that I want to expand. It’s not just kids. World of Warcraft should be the example here as the most affluent. People use it as an escape from life and find their social connection in strictly online communication. I’ve seen the polar ends of the effects of MMORPG games. One friend isolated himself so much that he alienated his friends, dropped out of college and effectively disappeared. Another friend was so elite at the game, the in game moderators offered him a job that he happily accepted.

I think a large problem is also that the more impressionable tend to get their education or learn values from this type of media. We emulate our heroes and if our hero is a foul mothered mass-murdering space marine trapped on a prison planet, what personality quirks and values are we gleaning?

I agree with you, at least from my own experience. Gaming is a form of entertainment and escape; the idea that no single decision in-game will affect the course of our lives. But what happens when we forget the mechanisms of the game, yet can’t live without it? I see the potential for this medium more likely used as a tool to control before some utilitarian agenda would ever take hold.

Games are simply fantasy when we wish to escape reality and accountability. Real choices have real consequences – decisions that escape simulation. Like you said, it takes away our humanity.