TEDxMelbourne – The Need for Games Literacy

This is the slides and a transcript of the talk I gave at the TEDxMelbourne event at the State Library of Victoria on July 19, 2011.

If you’re anything like me, the two words games and literacy don’t really belong together. In my head they feel a little bit like 2 magnets vibrating as they try to repel each other, and I suspect it’s the same for many of you.

What I want to talk to you about this evening is not only how they do go together, but why it’s important that they do, as well as taking a look at the innovations that have made that necessary.

I’ve been playing games for almost my entire life and there’s an obvious level of technological innovation there. In my lifetime, I’ve gone from playing pong on a black and white TV to the PlayStation 3s and Xbox 360s with motion control and hi-definition displays and gaming hardware that fits in my pocket that is more powerful than the hardware that took men to the moon. By the time I retire, we’ll have gone through another 5 or 6 generations of console hardware. Pong to PlayStation3 all over again only this time, starting from the Playstation3.

Alongside those really clear technological innovations, I’m also aware of the wider cultural change that videogames have ushered in. I’ve gone from being the only person in a class full of about 50 computer science students to working with teams of hundreds of people. They’ve gone from a garage industry to a multi-billion dollar one, and one of the dominant cultural and entertainment forms on the planet.

And on top of all that, I guess what I think you’d call a fairly recent innovation is that increasingly we hear that they can be used to save the world or make us happier or make us more productive if we can just find a way to make everything more like a game.

And all of these changes have happened in an incredibly short period of time. Pong home consoles were released in 1975, 2 years before I was born. The PlayStation3 was released in 2006. All that separates them is 31 years. To put that in perspective, the second world war ended in 1945. The release of Pong is closer to that than it is to today.

And it’s exciting inside that whirlwind of ideas, the technology, the emerging culture, the idea that maybe games aren’t a social ill but a social good, but over the years I’ve become far more interested in looking at how these innovations provide a lens to answer the question – what can videogames teach us about what it means to be human?

This graph brings together research from the Australia Council, Screen Australia, and the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association and shows percentage of population who engage with each art-form. You can see how close games are to cinema there. And this research is a few years out of date so it’s likely games have exceeded film. 68% of the Australian population plays videogames – 14 million people…

And like I said before, this has happened in only a few decades. 31 years between Pong and the PlayStation3. A single generation. If you grew up with videogames, they’ve changed dramatically in that time. Even for someone like me who works in the sector – both industrially and artistically – I struggle. So, if you’ve been doing something else with your life, perhaps something that you consider more meaningful, then it’s obviously hard to keep up with the rapid innovations in technology, in art, in culture, in society, until eventually you’re standing in your own area of expertise in a world that isn’t connected to gaming and telling those who play to get off your lawn.

And there must be a reason for this engagement. Something in the form and the content that engages with people in ways that the critics can’t appreciate, and figuring out what that reason might be is about exploring what a games literacy might look like.

Because as games become more and more pervasive in our entertainment, our businesses, and our lives, that literacy will become increasingly essential, not only in rebutting those critics, but also in asking whether or not this pervasiveness is in fact a good thing.

Literacy covers two components – one that connects to something innate in us as humans, and another that reveals the systems we’ve constructed around that innate understanding.

In our written literacy, the innate characteristics are the particular rhythms of structure and story, of how words sound against each other, of our need to communicate something of what’s in our heads. At the systemic level we’ve created letters and words, classes of words like nouns and verbs, a grammar for how those classes interact with each other – all in service of amplifying our ability to communicate rhythm and sounds and communication.

And videogames are the same. Far from being indicators of the downfall of civilisation, we could just as easily look at them as examples of what is good about being human. And from that we can create a better understanding of the structures we have built, that we are building, and that we might need to build in the future.

They tell us that play is just as much a part of our makeup as telling stories. If stories are how we communicate about how the world works, then play is how we actually figure out how it works. From a kid playing with a box to someone on a quest in World of Warcraft, there is a common thread of experimentation and exploration – and that thread extends out into our lives. Every one of us is constantly trying, failing, learning, and that is the very essence of play, and is what we’ve been doing since the very dawn of our species. We might have given it different names, but that doesn’t change what it is.

They tell us that we like to make things out of what has come before. Videogames are an evolution of games. Just as opera was an evolution of theatre and music; film was an evolution of photography and theatre; videogames are something new built out of existing systems and structures. People are always solving problems or looking at the world in a slightly different way, jamming together what might appear disparate, or which might not work, but they try it anyway – playing almost – to create something new.

They tell us that, where possible, we invariably build tools to communicate experiences, to create art, to entertain, to explore the world, to amplify our ability to interact with the world just as the printing press amplified our ability to create books or a hammer amplifies our ability to produce force. And the effort that videogames amplify is our ability to imagine systems, modeling them, running simulations, experimenting within their confines – which reflects what our brain is designed to do. It constantly creates models to imagine the outcomes of a race or a conversation or asking the girl you’ve had a crush on out. We create art as imperfect models of those imaginings. And we build tools and technology to amplify that art.

They tell us that we will always innovate. That progress is inevitable. Again, 30 years between Pong and Playstation3. No time at all. Sure there are economic pressures in there, but at the essential end, at the creative end, people are endlessly pushing to try and find new genres, new tools, new ways of expressing sentiments that are as old as humanity in new ways for new generations.

They tell us that continuous communicative experiences are important to us. There’s something addictive about losing ourselves in a book or a film or a game and feeling the emotional communicative power, reacting and responding in real-time to a conversation between author and audience, entering that receptive flow-state in which so much art and experience resides. Contrast to the staccato experience of games like chess or monopoly or hungry, hungry, hippos, and you can start to see why videogames have become so popular in such a short period of time – and why it becomes easier to dismiss people who say videogames are just extensionsof board games. They aren’t. They’re something new, something continuous, something communicative.

And they tell us that we want to share our thoughts of how the world works with the tools that we have. Videogames are fictional, are rhetorical, are metaphorical, are persuasive and expressive. They are all of the things that other art-forms are and they are just as communicative. From Portal to Assassin’s Creed, or Red Dead Redemption to the Marriage, or World of goo to Braid, there are people behind these games, with thoughts with feelings, with ideas.

This is only a fraction of the innate elements of our literacy. We could be here all day exploring and dissecting, but there isn’t enough time.

So, what of the amplifying structures of that literacy? The grammar of videogames.

Here we butt into the problem of that 30 year gap. The youth of the form. Those structures are still evolving. Our best and brightest designers are still learning – which becomes a little bit worrisome when we start to see these structures bleed out of videogames and into our real world.

Because in the same way a printing press can produce works of staggering beauty, it can also produce propaganda. In the same way a film can transport us, it can also convince us of things that may not be true. In the same way games engage us in new ways, they can instil in us behaviours that might not be in our best interests. There are more game designers than at any other point in human history. More people thinking about games and about play than at any other point. That’s exciting. But inevitably, some of those are just going to want to make money, or market a product, or push some political agenda.

And it’s only our level of literacy that works to inoculate us against that. The stronger our understanding of how stories work, of how films work, of how games work, the more easily we can see through to the heart of what they’re attempting.

When someone says ‘let’s gamify our wallets,’ we’d be able to say – is that a good idea? Do I need to add an extra abstract system on top of a whole bunch of already abstracted systems? Why would they want us to do that anyway?

When someone says that they want to gameify our workplace to make us more productive, what’s that actually about? Sure there are parallels with levels and job titles and xp and amount of money, but those systems exist already. Why would be build a game layer on top of that? And is it about making the workplace better, or about getting more work out of people.

When companies design loyalty systems that exploit psychological conditions to cause people to take action for a brand against their own best interest, going so far as destroying relationships; When the same structures are used by magazines to get more college girls competing for photo-spreads, by beer companies to buy more beer, or by gambling companies to drop more and more money, we need to stop and ask ourselves – are these things making us more or less human?

The only thing that lets us combat these things – and they are happening right now – is improved literacy.

So here’s the good thing.

We already have at least half of the understanding of what it looks like – because we’re all individuals, we’re all human, and we all have that innate piece of literacy inside of us.

What we’re perhaps missing is the language of that amplification layer. But luckily it doesn’t take much for us to find that

I recently ran a project with the Department of Education here about teaching teachers games literacy with the aim of helping their kids to create games. One of the first things we did was to sit down and play some board games because their rules are exposed and you can far more easily see how they’re connected to each other – and also because the barrier to entry is lower than handing someone an xbox controller and saying ‘play.’

We had a range of games – from something pretty easy like Zombies!! To a game about industrial era Lancashire that the group playing barely managed to set-up let alone play.

And, I’ll be honest, there was some resistance to this at first. They couldn’t see what it had to do with videogames, how they might use this in the classroom, why they were wasting their time with this exercise.

Luckily, they didn’t lynch me, and over the next few hours of play, they came up with the most incredible reflections of what the emotional experience of the game was, what did and didn’t work for them, how the rules interacted with each other, and how those rules drew out certain responses from them. Some of the games were fun, and others weren’t, but in the end, everybody in that room could talk coherently and intelligently about how the games worked.

And from that grounding and just a little bit of reflection and coaching, we designed some games. Simple ones at first involving playing cards and tiny rule sets, but building up to a pretty complex plan for a digital game including the characters, the level designs, the player actions, and the rules.

And then, we brought their students in and together we broke games down, discussed how they worked, designed some, and pitched completely new ones. And by the end of it, both students and teachers had the start of a common language about risk and reward, about gameplay actions, about characters and space, about verbs and nouns, and about how the games they liked work and how the ones they were creating were going to work – all told to each other in the beginnings of their new systemic understanding of games literacy that built on what they already had but perhaps just needed permission to talk about.

And that’s where I want to leave you this evening: play games, think about them, and perhaps most importantly, talk about them – how they make you feel, what they’re saying, what they mean to you, and why they matter.

Because they do. And will continue to do so. And because they might help to teach us a little bit about what makes us human. And because they might help us fight against those who would make us less than that.

Thank you.



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