Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Vampire or Teacher?

Roger S. Gottlieb

Nick, one of the most brilliant students I’ve ever had, told me his career goal: “I want to create politically progressive video games.” “Oh well,” I said to him, “small market, but very little competition.” In my own mind, however, there was a good deal more doubt about the whole project.

As someone who has read, written, edited, reviewed, and bought too many books, I have a large amount of skepticism about deep learning of any kind taking place on computers. If it’s just reading text on a screen, then there’s little difference from regular old books other than greater energy consumption and eye strain. If it’s the idea that books are somehow obsolete, and that the discipline of gaining knowledge through reading can be replaced by the Web or games, well, I’ll believe it when I see it.

I say this, let me be clear, as someone who uses the web extensively and has played more than a few video games himself (and not the wholesome ones, either). I like my computer, and I like to play games. (There is a no doubt immoral thrill about going online and beating some no doubt younger people at a game like Halo and then letting them know they’ve just lost to a 60 year old man.)

But I also like sweets, and eat more than I should. So the fact that I enjoy computer games doesn’t make them good or good for me. Indeed, as a friend of mine once said, computers are a bit like vampires. They are compelling, charismatic, sexy—but soon after you start to make love to them you realize they are actually sucking your blood. Indeed, who reading this is not familiar with sitting down to a computer “for just a few minutes” and later realizing with a start that a sequence of email, web surfing, a game, or just messing around has lasted hours? A slightly confused, slightly guilty feeling of lost time arises, along with a combination of fatigue, anxiety (there’s so much out there, did I miss something good?) and a hard to describe unnatural ‘electrified’ sensation, like your brain was plugged into something it shouldn’t. It may well be that the very neurological experience of screens, quick mouse clicks, instantaneous changes, and an endless beckoning world of possible stimulus is not good for our brains or bodies. As for the content: a near infinite mall raising consumerism to dizzying heights, a trillion websites and blogs of uninformed raucous opinion, and games many of which submerge players in virtual mayhem and slaughter.

On the other hand, it can’t be denied that the Web puts at our disposal an incredible range of useful information, from explanations of legal and medical matters that we’d otherwise have to pay a small fortune for to samplings of obscure world music CDs. From a political point of view, the propaganda and organizing power of the web has proven to be surprisingly powerful. Yet this very power contains its own dangers. For instance, wireless email means that there is virtually no place and certainly no time when we can’t be “at work.” How great is that? The beckoning convenience returns to a vampire face as we start to see that with all these breathtaking technological advances, people have never been so tired, as if some hidden force were draining our energy. Like books in print (which, the bards quite properly warned, would cripple people’s memories), the internal combustion engine, and antibiotics, the jury is likely to be out on computers, the web, and games for some time.

Further: for all its convenience, we can still wonder if there is anything really different that is really of value. The mass of information is not fundamentally new, just an enormous number books, magazines, catalogs and advertisements on a screen. The shoot-em-up games and pornographic webcams are new, but can we say they are great contributions to human culture? For me these contradictory reflections get turned in a positive direction when I consider the recent appearance of two potent, highly original and really quite wonderful computer games: A Force More Powerful and Journey to the Wild Divine. These two games refute any supposition that video games are by their nature anti-social, dopey, or engrossingly escapist; or that computers cannot teach the kind of things Tikkun readers believe are important.

Journey to the Wild Divine is perhaps the more revolutionary of the two, since it integrates some radically new technology into the computer experience. Plastic clips fit over the three middle fingers of one hand, connect to wires that plug into a USB port and measure your heart rate and skin conductivity—physiological signs of excitement, anxiety, or relaxation. Through the course of the game, critical encounters or transitions require that you exert conscious control over these processes—calming your mind, slowing your heart rate, or raising your level of energy. The goal of Journey is not blowing up the aliens or ruling the galaxy, but spiritual development, of which this kind of mental awareness and self-control is an essential part. In between keeping balloons from falling or focusing a bow and arrow by managing your mind, there are little talks from guru types—about mastering time, understanding consciousness, and coping with desire. All this takes place in a visual environment which is long on New Age eye candy and enhanced by some occasionally very good New Age music. Perhaps most important: when you move in this game you move slowly: indicate the direction you want to go and after a pronounced pause you glide off. Between the movement and the meditations, it is the only computer game I’ve ever played that leaves me feeling calmer and more relaxed after I play it than before.

A Force More Powerful (many will recognize the title from a PBS series and book) has a more conventional form: a turn-based strategy game like the simulations in which people build cities or manage empires. The distinctive difference here is the goal, since the game is centered on 10 increasingly complicated political contexts in which the player seeks to create positive, progressive, nonviolent social change. If the language element in Journey pretty minimal, at times Force reads a bit like a political science textbook, since in every context there are multiple locations (urban, rural, capital, provinces) and political agents (union leaders, peasant groups, legislators, police chiefs, journalists, students), each with their own political agenda, beliefs and level of commitment. Goals range from bringing about elections by mobilizing popular support against a dictatorship to achieving women’s rights, and are all based in recognizable political settings from the last 40 years of world history. Someone might say that nothing in these games can’t be gotten better (and cheaper, since Journey retails for well over $100) from books. In some ways this is true, but in some ways it isn’t. Journey’s biofeedback technology can’t be found in any book on meditation, and no history of political struggle allows readers to direct the action themselves. If there is a danger that, the medium being the message, games necessarily have the negative consequence of tying us further into the machine world and away from the real one, this is clearly true of print as well. People have kept their noses in books while the world goes to hell, and even if computers are more captivating, the danger is much the same. Few people would toss out books because bookworms can be selfish or apolitical—and this should well extend to computers as well.

In the end, then, Nick was right—creating positive video games is possible; and I was wrong in saying there won’t be a market or in doubting that computers can be part of the revolution. I can’t imagine a course on progressive political movements that wouldn’t benefit from Force—supplemented by history and theory from books, even as it would supplement them. And if Journey is a bit too pricey, and too easily mastered, for purchase by some individuals, I can’t imagine a school from K-12 that couldn’t use it to teach students what they won’t be learning in the rest of their classes. Whether they come from books, lectures, TV, movie or, yes, the computer, what better subjects to teach our students of all ages than the beginnings of meditation and strategies of nonviolence? The point is the message, not the method.

Roger S. Gottlieb is Professor of Philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Two of his recent books are
Joining Hands: Politics and Religion Together for Social Change and A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and our Planet’s Future.