Applied Game Theory, R.I.P.2: Role-Play and Race

Yesterday, I took a few moments to acknowledge the passing of “Applied Game Theory,” the column which Kurt Squire and I wrote for Computer Games Magazine for the better part of five years. The column now has no home because the magazine has stopped publication. If any magazine editors out there are looking for columnists, we are all ears.

The goal of the column, not unlike the goal of this blog, was to bridge between academic research on games and other media and a general public which is grappling with trying to make sense of this emerging medium. We weren’t games reviewers in any traditional sense. We were taking what we knew as academics — Kurt as someone in the field of Education, I as a media scholar — and using it to address topical concerns impacting game design, the games industry, and games culture more generally.

Some months, the ideas in the column originate with Kurt and got tweeked by me. Some months, fewer in fact, the ideas originated with me and got some assistance from Kurt. We brought different kinds of expertise and experience to the table. As a rule, the more detailed they were in discussing individual game titles, the more likely they were to originate with Kurt. While I play games from time to time, he grew up with games and remains a serious gamer. I am much more of a casual games guy who has a strong intellectual interest in what’s happening in the medium. All told, it has been one of the most successful intellectual and creative collaborations of my career to date and I am sad to see this chapter of my work coming to an end.

Yesterday, I shared a few pieces we wrote about aesthetic issues around games. Today, I wanted to push a bit deeper into the public policy debates around games. The first is a piece mostly written by me which deals with the debates about role play and its ties back to a larger history of anxiety about theatricality. The second piece reports on some research Kurt Squire and some collaborators at University of Wisconsin-Madison have been doing, examining how players of Grand Theft Auto think about race and violence.

Performance Anxiety

Is Pokemon part of a “secret Satanic war against the youth of America?” A segment of concerned conservative Christians believes so. As youth minister Phil Armes warns, “While our children play his ‘games,’ Satan and his host of hell are playing for keeps.” Role-playing games, they warn, can lead to demonic possession and promote, take your pick,

secular humanism, globalization, Neo-Paganism or New Age Philosophies.

To be sure, most Christians wouldn’t consider role-playing games to be the devil’s work. There are other groups, such as the Christian Gamer’s Guild, which embraces role-playing as a form of fellowship. There has been a movement to develop alternative, spiritually uplifting, Biblically-grounded games and several mainstream ministries have developed sites that rate games so parents can choose which ones are consistent with their own values.

Yet, it is too easy to make fun of such views as wacky extremism. Strip aside the Satan talk and the underlying logic of their arguments differs very little from the critique of role-playing offered by more mainstream reform groups. Games, the argument goes, are not simply bad because they express bad ideas; these reformers see the very act of role-playing as dangerous, because it blurs the line between fantasy and reality.

Consider some of the following claims made against Pokemon:

“Not only does this repetitive practice blur the line between reality and fantasy…the child learns to accept unthinkable behavior as normal.”

“In order to master this game you need to take on characteristics of what you are playing.”

These arguments have a long, long history.

Theater Historian Jonas Barish documented the persistence of what he called “the anti-theatrical prejudice” from its early roots in the writings of Plato through to its absorption into Christianity at the hands of St. Augustine and down to the present day. Plato argued that actors were professional liars who, over time, came to believe their own lies. After decades of playing debased and amoral characters, they lost moral judgment. Actors were often associated with madness, delusion, and drunkenness. Theater was equally dangerous to spectators. The theater stirred up our emotions in response to imaginary events and thus dulled our sensitivities to things that really mattered. The exaggerated emotions of the stage were more memorable and seductive than the events of the mundane world. Shakespeare had to struggle against these fears (and the reform movements they inspired) in Elizabethan England just as Rockstar Games has to confront them today.

With games, the line between player and spectator blurs. The reformers warn that games are more harmful than television because kids enact anti-social behavior rather than simply witnessing it.

Then as now, defenders of the theater question whether role-playing constitutes deception, since consumers and performers develop a basic competency in distinguishing between representations and reality. The ancient Greeks did not respond emotionally to the spectacle of Oedipus gouging out his eyes the same way that they would have react to a similar event in the agora. Through exploring these alternative realities, spectators learned to reflect more deeply on their own experiences and values. Aristotle knew that rule-breaking (in theater) was actually a powerful means of rule-enforcement, reaffirming social norms by representing their transgression.

The anti-theater argument depends on obscuring such distinctions. Earlier reformers debated whether actresses committed adultery when they kissed (or even spoke words of love) on stage. Yet, the use of avatars in games represents one more line of separation between reality

and play-acting. No one actually kisses (or hits); they simply press a button. Yet, the question persists. Do pretend actions have real consequences?

Consider the slips between fantasy and reality which occurs in this statement by anti-game activist David Grossman: “When I played caps with Billy when I was a kid, I said, ‘Bang, Bang, I gotcha.’ Billy said, “No, you didn’t.” So I smacked him with my cap gun. He cried. I got in big trouble….I learned that Billy is real and that when I hurt Billy I am going to get in trouble. Now, I play the video game, and I blow Billy’s stinkin’ head off thousands of times. Do I get in trouble? No, I get points for it.”

Isn’t blowing off Billy’s head in a game more like saying “Bang, Bang, I gotcha” than like clubbing him? And wouldn’t the kid get in trouble — not score points — if he actually decapitated his friend? Play, reality — no difference.

Like their ancient counterparts, these modern critics either do not grasp or intentionally misrepresent the nature of role-playing. Some things never change.


What GTA: San Andreas Players Have to Teach Us about Race & Violence

Over the past few years, most politicians, pundits, and critics have addressed the Grand Theft Auto series. Whether its Hillary using GTA: San Andreas to lay claim to family values or free speech advocates (ourselves included) criticizing Rockstar’s handling of the Hot Coffee incident, everyone seems to have an opinion about GTA.

The only group who hasn’t been asked their opinions are the kids themselves. As Henry Jenkins notes in The Children’s Culture Reader, every major policy debate gets fought over the bodies of children but rarely are children’s own perspectives taken into account. In fact, the use of medical metaphors to talk about cultural contagion means that consumers are the last person you’d consult to find out what’s making them sick.

But, if we read media in terms of the rational choices consumers make and the meanings they produce (rather than the involuntary effects), we might ask very different questions. What do gamers think about the racial images in GTA? Are kids who play GTA

concerned that it could lead to violence in their schoolyards?

Over the past year, Kurt Squire and Ben Devane have been interviewing teenage GTA players about their game play. The findings they’re uncovering show that kids are much more sophisticated consumers of media than the media effects crowd would have you believe. All of the kids interviewed had some concerns about others playing GTA. None were concerned that anyone they knew would be violent after playing it, but they were concerned though that “crazy” people would play it. Some felt that non-gaming adults might play it and not understand that it’s just a game; others noted that their younger

siblings often re-enact themes from media in their play ­ which isn’t so much dangerous but annoying when you’re babysitting them.

When explaining these concerns, different groups of GTA players showed different interpretations of the game. The low income African-American students were more concerned about violence out in their neighborhoods than in the game. Parents we interviewed agreed. Would you rather your kid join a gang in GTA or in real life?

In fact, these kids were a little offended that white researchers would focus on gaming violence rather than the real violence surrounding them. The ethnically-based turf-related warfare of the

GTA series was to them “kind of realistic” ­ and this includes the cops. As one put it, “As a black man, you don’t want to be driving in the wrong neighborhood, you know.?” These same kids were concerned that white kids might also think that it’s easy to leave the ghetto:

“The most unrealistic part of the game is that as a black man, you can’t just up and buy a house.”

Another group (white, experienced gamers, working class) saw the game primarily as a competitive space. These kids were particularly interested in why the game didn’t cause more violence, and they cited and rejected most every hypothesis in the research literature (although they still believed that “an obsessed crazy person” maybe shouldn’t be playing). What these kids really wanted to talk about however was GTA’s social commentary ­ particularly the talk radio. (They’re just like parents, always bagging on the Internet).

These gamers were a little bothered by racial stereotypes (e.g. “I mean, does every game about blacks have to have a skinny, pot smoking dude, and a fat guy who likes chicken”), but saw it as little more than a reflection of earlier media. As such, racial representations are basically gangsta genre mechanics that communicate to the player which areas are dangerous and which are safe. This “seeing the graphics as window dressing” is similar to the view in Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun and probably reflects their orientation as competitive gamers.

In short we interpret media in relation to our lived experience. Among these participants, kids on the margins of society but still within the dominant race / class (white, struggling in school, working class) enjoyed the satire of GTA and were concerned about stereotypical representations of race. Players from marginalized groups (African-American, working poor) used the game to discuss the institutional racism in urban areas. If you put these two critiques

together, you have the two sides to what scholars have called critical race theory; theory that addresses both racial representations and institutionalized racism.

These kids, like most we talk with have sophisticated views of media. Rather than banning access to media, imagine if we encouraged honest discussion about race, violence, and media. We’re not arguing that every kid should play GTA. However, creating forums

where kids like these could discuss their experiences and interpretations of media and violence might do a lot more to address these very real problems than simply pretending that they do not

exist.