A goat called Poonikings runs through a green pasture. A dozen gray buildings prevent the goat from moving freely. Suddenly, the goat runs into a building and immediately explodes into small pieces. The goat, however, is not real. No, it is the protagonist of Slippery Slope (2016), a videogame recently developed by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The game is a part of the ‘Don’t Be a Puppet Initiative’, an online program to educate youth about the potential dangers of extremism. This contribution serves as an overview of both the supporters and the opponents of initiatives like Slippery Slope. (Featured Image © Wikimedia Commons).
Serious(ly)? Games you Say?
Slippery Slope’s gameplay is rather simple: the player controlling the goat must reach six finish lines, while avoiding the gray buildings. Whenever you reach a finish line, anti-extremist rhetoric pops up on the screen to teach you about the potential danger of extremism. In doing so, the FBI hopes to encourage teens to use scepticism and critical thinking towards radical rhetoric.
Leaving my personal thoughts on the game aside, the sheer fact that the FBI creates such games proves that modern societies are shifting towards accepting the educational dimension of this medium.¹ More specifically, they utilize videogames to potentially counter radicalization both nationally and globally. Slippery Slope is exemplary for the transformation within the gaming industry. More and more institutions from all over the world use videogames for purposes other than entertainment. From rehabilitation, education to military training, videogames are incorporated in several aspects of modern societies. Games used in those settings are often referred to as Serious Games.
The Military Were the Earliest Serious Gamers
Institutional use of videogames is no anomaly if we look at the history of the medium. The developers of the first game were employed by the military, although no academic consensus exists on which game was developed first. William Higginbotham, developed a rudimentary game called Pong around 1958, and Steve Russel is believed to have designed Spacewar in 1961.²
Both were researchers from different universities, working on supercomputers to prepare for a nuclear war with the Soviet-Union. Together with prominent technological enterprises like IBM, General Electric and Bell Telephone, the Defence Department financed ‘The Defence Advanced Research Project Agency’ (DARPA).³ DARPA was an umbrella organization which conducted research in preparation for the nuclear apocalypse. To keep a long story short: videogames were basically the result of small projects that engineers worked on during their free time, whilst operating high-end computers during the Cold War.
Decades later, videogame company Atari commercialized the medium by developing the first gaming console. Videogames began to invade households, and within a decade, Atari became the fastest growing company in the United States.4 It is interesting to note that, during the first years of the new videogame industry, the Pentagon financed various projects.5
The end of the Cold War together with the growth of the industry, brought about some transformations within the army. According to academics, the Federal Acquisition Act of 1994 fundamentally changed the industry.6 From then on, military governmental enterprises needed to operate according to market principles, and slowly became commercial enterprises themselves. This recipe was devised as an answer to the need for budget cuts within the Department of Defence. To guarantee their survival, military enterprises looked for new customers whom they found in the commercial entertainment videogame industry.
Military enterprises looked for new customers whom they found in the commercial entertainment videogame industry.
The result of this transformation was a co-dependent relationship between the industries: military enterprises developed technologies which they shared with the videogame industry, which in return rotated their products back to the military industry.7
Around the millennium, more and more scholars opposed this relationship, arguing the potential dangers of the military-entertainment-complex.8 This new critical perspective was not bound to the academic sphere: military officials too were sceptical towards this new collaboration.9
More importantly, however, was that the critics did not intend to censure or abolish videogames, nor did they oppose the educational potential of the medium. On the contrary, they advocated that videogames should serve purposes other than military training.
In 2011, Jane McGonigal published her first book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make us Better and How they Can Change the World, in which she advocates to play more games on a global scale to solve real world problems like climate change, refugee crisis or armed conflicts.10 At first sight this might sound counterintuitive, yet, during her TED-talk in 2015 she tried to convinced people otherwise.
Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken makes clear that humanity is growing towards a gaming society.11 Globally, we now play three billion hours of videogames per week. We witness a massive human engagement towards virtual worlds specifically designed to entertain us.
We witness a massive human engagement towards virtual worlds specifically designed to entertain us.
Take WoWWiki for example, as one of the many fascinating results that derives from this human effort towards games. WoWWiki is the second largest Wikipedia, designed specifically for and by online gamers. It contains over 145.336 articles, describing in detail every aspect of the online virtual game, World of Warcraft (2004). Imagine for a second this free labour was directed at solving real world problems.
Gaming-guru Jane argues, in line with the critical school, that games have far more to offer than sophisticated entertainment. “The work in gaming worlds”, she says, “often feels more meaningful than the work in reality”.12 In the most popular gaming worlds, every in-game character trusts the player with a dangerous quest in conjunction with his level, often rewarding players for their behaviour. Those stimuli are, according to her, absent in real-life.
The work in gaming worlds often feels more meaningful than the work in reality.
She believes that those game elements change peoples’ behaviour which in turn can create big changes in the real world. Games are obstacles, or challenges, that we volunteer to tackle to achieve a positive stress she calls “gamefulness” or in game language an “epic win”.13
Games and More Gaming
Jane is neither the first nor the only game designer trying to change the world. In 2003, Ian Bogost, co-founder of the independent studio Persuasive Games and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, pioneered with The Howard Dean for Iowa Game the first official videogame for a U.S. presidential candidate.14
However, what distinguished Jane from previous game developers is that the world listened to her. Consider the fact that the World Bank engaged McGonigal to direct the game Evoke (2010). Evoke combines different gaming aspects as well as social media enabling youth to connect all over the world to solve problems like hunger, poverty, disease, climate change, healthcare, education, sustainability and human rights. This game initially emerged from academic discussions in Africa looking for tools to encourage students to engage in communities and develop solutions to local development challenges.
In 2010, the United States Department of Technology announced a new contest called Apps for Healthy Kids which would award cash prizes for games that enforced kids to make better nutrition choices and be more physically active. Given that a few years ago modern societies were still condemning videogames, this example proves the shift towards the acceptance of the medium.
Closer to home, in the nearby future, the Belgian government will release My2050, a videogame that allows players to build their own scenario for a carbon-free society in 2050. This initiative forms part of the international negotiations strategies led by the United Nations, during which Belgium committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 80% to 95% in 2050 in comparison to the 1990 output.
Can Videogames Solve International Conflicts?
Initiatives like Apps for Healthy Kids, Don’t be a Puppet and My2050 raised red flags with sceptics. According to them, those games are above all political. They argue that those games give the impression of having simple solutions to complex problems, which actually demand more means and resources.15 They remember us wisely that, when playing games, the players ought to remember who set up the rules of the game and why.
For instance, Pick Chow (2011) or Work it Off! (2010), both results of the Apps for Healthy Kids initiative, lack underlying structures which explains that nutrition is the result of an intertwining relationship between politics and economy.
Contrary to Jane, Ian Bogost does not believe that games can change people’s behaviour. “Games”, according to him, “can only teach values and standards”. 16 “They promise a magic dream world in which cute carrots somehow eradicate a century of politics and economics through the sheer sexiness of a shiny device”, as Ian Bogost puts it.17
Serious games promise a magic dream world in which cute carrots somehow eradicate a century of politics and economics through the sheer sexiness of a shiny device.
Slippery Slope too has been criticized, namely for being too paternalistic.18 Exploding goats simply have a limited effect in the way that a player experiences radicalization when considering the complex relationships between secularization, religion, war and cultural differences.
Although there is no academic consensus on whether games can change human behaviour, academics do agree on the expressive and educational power of the medium.19 This power derives from its interactive design, and the art of designing games is hard and complex. After all, every game produces its own narrative and will never be an accurate simulation of the real world.