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The Unexamined Game Is Not Worth Playing?

(A republication of my original article at PlayThePast )

Of course the unexamined game can be well worth playing if the goal is simply to enjoy and recreate—though I’d wager that many players reflect actively on their experiences in games. Enjoyment should always be a primary purpose of games. When the focus shifts to simulation games and the formal study of the past, however, there is little point to the unexamined game.

Two not particularly difficult paradoxes that are interesting in their ramifications for simulation games and learning, set the stage for this post.

1. “Though it is not an entirely historical game overall, the game does convey a sense of the Court atmosphere at Versailles.  However,  Courtisans of Versailles is ultimately better suited for the purpose of entertainment than that of education.” (please note that writer accurately noted the game title–the game was translated from the French into English as the Courtisans of Versailles, complete with the misspelling and the association with prostitution). This was the thesis recently advanced by a student tasked with critiquing a simulation game in a senior elective on simulations and the French Revolution. The paper was masterfully written, praising the game for promoting rivalries and antagonistic behavior between players that reflected some of what the evidence about court life at turn of the 17th century Versailles suggests. More space was devoted to taking the game to task for its simplifications involving how court influence was acquired, maintained, and quantified.  One might suppose that, as the teacher who assigned the simulation game, I would be troubled by the student’s indictment of the game. Quite the contrary.  Finding the student in the commons, I praised the paper and noted the irony that, in arguing so effectively that the game is “better suited for the purpose of entertainment than that of education,” the student simply proved that the game was perfectly suited to the purpose of education. The student smiled and nodded.

2. On a recent episode of the podcast, Three Moves Ahead, from the strategy games blog Flash of Steel, the question of the day was raised by a listener’s post: “Is there something inherently tasteless in wargames?” Host Troy Goodfellow broadened this into the more meaningful topic of discussion, “What are the ethics of wargames?” The discussion was a fascinating and substantive one that provides provocative thought for any interested in how games represent reality and the ethical issues of simplification ( link to the podcast). One of the major issues was whether the level of abstraction in large scale war-games, operational and strategic wargames ranging from the classic hex and counter games of Avalon Hill to Civilization and Defcon was inherently immoral insofar as these depictions, in their abstraction, do not offer any significant treatment of the human costs of war—death, destruction, misery, and suffering. So, for example, one can detonate a nuclear warhead in an enemy city in Civ without any real appreciation of the human consequences. Similarly one can occupy a city with a division in an operational wargame, but since the city is represented by a hex on the map and the division by a counter, there is no representation of the potential horrors that historically have arisen when enemy forces occupying a captured city. There were many valid points made and it is certainly a fascinating question that should be pursued: is there something inherently immoral or amoral about strategy games—first person shooters are a different matter and not the focus of the podcast—that focus on historical conflicts but do so at a high enough level of abstraction that the human costs of war are ignored. The conversants were all clearly interested in the issue, had an outstanding command of the topic, and were aware of the simplifications of the genre and the ethical problems that could pose. I was struck at one particular point toward the end of the podcast when the following point was raised during a long dissection of the authorial intention in Defcon (and I apologize for not knowing the names of the speakers): (52:01)

  • Speaker 1: The great thing about any sort of creative work is that you can take away many meanings. I can be repelled by Defcon, and I am. I can also take a really dark unholy satisfaction in it … I can take the satisfaction of  watching that one nuke that the other guy isn’t in a position to block go arcing across the globe to wipe out like 25 million people in Moscow, and there’s nothing he can do about it and you hit it and you see 25 million people erased because you time [that nuclear strike] perfectly. You are, like, the nuke launcher king. Yes that’s repulsive …
  • Speaker 2: (interrupts) Good God we’re all going to Hell [brief laughter from the panel]
  • Speaker 1: But I’m also absolutely thrilled. And I don’t think those [feelings] have to be exclusive.

I am confident that the second speaker was not staking a metaphysical claim, but simply commenting on the apparent immorality of feeling the pride of a victorious gamer when the success is tied up in an act that, in the real world would be horrific beyond comprehension. But here’s the point that came to mind, so similar in its nature to my response to the student’s paper. The very fact that these people were concerned about the ethical ramifications of these games enough to think about them as they played, raise the question for the podcast, discuss the issues in detail, express some moral ambivalence, and note the great glossing over of human suffering means that for these players, playing wargames was not an immoral act.

Socrates, if Plato is to be believed, when convicted of corrupting youth and teaching that the gods were false asserted that he would, if exiled, simply go to another city and continue to engage in his dialectic with anyone who would pause long enough to engage. He could not remain silent for he claimed, “to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to humanity, and that the unexamined life is not worth living.” (Apology 38a; Fowler trans. Perseus Site http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Plat.+Apol.+38a&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0169. I opted for “humanity” rather than “man”for ἀνθρώπῳ) What I assume he meant, or at least what his words have meant to me is that to be a lifelong learner/ educated human being/ seeker of truth/ philosopher (pick your preferred term) is predicated on the drive to explore and examine, to question and challenge all components of the human experience. To live life without doing so is certainly possible, but the hallmark of the critical approach to anything is to slow down, examine and question. When we do, we engage in meaningful intellectual activity that will, in the long run certainly and often enough in the short run, broaden our capacity to analyze, our ability to understand, in short our intellectual selves.

Using simulation games effectively for the pursuit of forming, challenging, and understanding interpretations of the past (and present for that matter), must follow the dictates set out by Socrates. Clearly this dictate was followed practiced by my student when he wrote and the hosts of Three Moves Ahead that day. Simulation games are models, and representations, of no particular value for deep learning unless they are reflected upon, dissected and analyzed. In a very real sense, this is the primary goal of teachers, to get their students to pause, analyze, use, and reflect what they would otherwise have happily scanned and passed by.  Teachers of English literature ask students to make margin notes, follow themes, have discussions about character and plot and write papers about the works they read. Science teachers encourage students to ask why some people lose their hearing and others do not, why objects thrown up in the air come down the way they do, etc. Film study classes explore the meaning in a director’s choice of set pieces.

What are the implications of this idea, that from the perspective of teaching and learning about the past, the unexamined simulation game is not worth playing? Three immediately come to mind:

  1. The educator using simulation games must slow students down. The purpose of using simulation games, after all, should not be primarily to enjoy the game or somehow extract learning from the game independent of any formal reflective experience. My most avid game players would far rather play a game at home than for my class knowing that I will ask them to observe, note, predict, and critique based on what they experience in the game. But it is exactly those activities that make the simulation game a valid tool, just as they make works of popular fiction and cinema valid for use in learning.
  2. If analysis and critique, problem solving and skill building, are the most important goals, it matters less whether teachers use simulation games that are more or less accurate, so long as they provide the necessary support, structure, access to evidence, and guidance to allow students to critique simulations. While it is certainly far from the case that all games are inherently valuable for the purposes of formally studying the past, it is also not the case that the current crop of commercial historical simulation games is categorically too flawed to be used in the class. There is little reason to suppose that formally trashing a flawed game model is inherently less valuable from an intellectual perspective than validating a plausible one. If we want our students to think and challenge, we cannot only present them with valid models. I suggested in my last post that a perfectly valid model of the past is not a useful concept anyway. Even if it were, if students know they will only receive valid models, won’t  that just reinforce the role of the teacher as sole figure of authority and knowledge and their own roles as the recipients of knowledge rather than active meaning makers?
  3. This suggestion that education requires reflection and perhaps even social reflection simply reinforces the critical importance of the teacher as guide in any serious use of simulation games. Some have, mistakenly in my mind, suggested that games can teach effectively without teachers or with minimal teacher interaction. Perhaps they can teach some things, but even in Socrates’ day, the importance of a teacher willing to challenge, ask questions, demand evidence, guide lines of inquiry and promote examination was well known. The teacher need not—I suggest should not—be seen as the source of all knowledge, but they must be seen as a highly competent guide. After all, Socrates, again if Plato is to be believed, said he was wise only insofar as he knew he knew nothing. Yet somehow through the modeling of techniques of inquiry this knower of nothing helped spawn the foundations of modern logic and reasoning. A teacher skilled in the methods of inquiry and the rules of evidence for the discipline, as well as in the ways humans learn, will always be a critical asset to foundational learning with simulation games or without—the figure that can help learners pause to examine what would ordinarily have been left undisturbed.

– Jeremiah McCall

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