Serious Games and the Video Games and Human Values Initiative

Despite the growing use of the term “serious game,” and the related but in important ways distinct term introduced by Ian Bogost, “persuasive game,” there’s still very little consensus about what a serious game actually is. On the other hand, a very important first step has been taken at the Serious Games Initiative itself, with the posting of the draft slides Ben Sawyer’s and Peter Smith’s (of that initiative) “Serious Games Taxonomy.” In this attempt to open a discussion of where the games and values conversation at the Video Games and Human Values Initiative (VGHVI) might take up the particular set of issues that have to do with serious and/or persuasive games, I’m going to use as a working definition of the Serious Games Movement “efforts to promote the use of games for ends that those making the efforts consider serious.” To round off that thought, I’ll quote the Serious Games Initiative’s own tag, “The Serious Games Initiative is focused on uses for games in exploring management and leadership challenges facing the public sector. Part of its overall charter is to help forge productive links between the electronic game industry and projects involving the use of games in education, training, health, and public policy.”

“Seriousness” is a cultural value. On important occasions, we all act on the assumption that to be serious is a good thing. The question of the relationship between games and seriousness is therefore a games and values question. “Persuasiveness,” too, is closely—perhaps even more closely—tied to questions of values, because persuasion itself works by lining certains propositions up with audience’s values in such a way as to shape those values favorably toward those propositions. At least on the face of it, VGHVI should be talking about these efforts.

As usual, I turn to Plato’s ideas about mimesis (let’s just use “representation” as a rough and ready translation; “imitation,” though standard, is pretty clearly wrong), set within their cultural context of classical Athens, to help me sort through my understanding of how I see both my own individual efforts in my developing scholarship about games and classics and our community-building and teaching efforts at VGHVI relating to the efforts of the several groups and interests that fall conveniently, if a bit untidily, under the heading of the Serious Games Movement.

My first thought is that Plato would have loved serious games, as long as he was the CEO of the publishing company. They would have corresponded very well indeed to the educational poiesis (a term which covers everything we think of as “art”) he envisions being created for the citizens of his two utopian poleis (city-states), that of Republic and that of Laws. For Plato, all mimesis was to be tightly controlled in order that it further the goals of philosophy, through the intermediate step of further the goals of the philosophically-arranged state.

Plato, of course, seems at least for the sake of his characters’ arguments to be intent on making sure that serious games be the only games played in his ideal polis. He states this bargaining position very elgantly in his old age, thus:

<blockquote> And, if any of the serious poets, as they are termed, who write tragedy, come to us and say-"O strangers, may we go to your city and country or may we not, and shall we bring with us our poetry-what is your will about these matters?"-how shall we answer the divine men? I think that our answer should be as follows:-Best of strangers, we will say to them, we also according to our ability are tragic poets, and our tragedy is the best and noblest; for our whole state is an imitation of the best and noblest life, which we affirm to be indeed the very truth of tragedy. You are poets and we are poets, both makers of the same strains, rivals and antagonists in the noblest of dramas, which true law can alone perfect, as our hope is. Do not then suppose that we shall all in a moment allow you to erect your stage in the agora, or introduce the fair voices of your actors, speaking above our own, and permit you to harangue our women and children, and the common people, about our institutions, in language other than our own, and very often the opposite of our own. For a state would be mad which gave you this licence, until the magistrates had determined whether your poetry might be recited, and was fit for publication or not. Wherefore, O ye sons and scions of the softer Muses, first of all show your songs to the magistrates, and let them compare them with our own, and if they are the same or better we will give you a chorus; but if not, then, my friends, we cannot.</blockquote>

If we substitute “games” for “tragedy,” in the above, I think we get the picture: only serious games need apply, since only serious games accord with the constitution of the ideal state. Plato’s view of the danger of mimesis survives today in the shrill voices decrying the games kids tend to like playing the most. Is that what the Serious Games Movement is up to, as well?

No, of course not. While I think, as I will explore below, that we may be forgiven for the impression that the people working on serious games would rather we played their serious games than the games we imagine they would at the very least call “less serious” or “less persuasive of pressing concerns,” I don’t think we have any reason to accuse them of endorsing that impression. That is, it’s of the nature of what they’re doing that they seem to us to be devaluing Halo, GTA, and World of Warcraft (to pick a troika of games that it would be hard to see the Serious Games Movement publicly embracing as part of their movement). It’s not the movement’s fault if their efforts make us think we’re being accused of doing something wrong when we like those games. The practitioners of the art of the serious game, that is, are not doing the full Plato and trying to throw Homer out of the polis. They’re hopeful, as far as I can tell, that we’ll play their games in addition to Halo.

A case in point is the work of Ian Bogost who, so far as I can tell, assiduously avoids differentiating between games by calling some serious and others not. In his quickly-becoming-classic Persuasive Games, he studies Grand Theft Auto III alongside games that persuade players about issues that tend to be characterized as more serious (politics especially). Bogost, as far as I can tell, would never say that one game is more serious than another, nor that one game is more persuasive than another. Indeed, I suspect that, if asked for his consent in the matter, he would only allow himself to be included in the Serious Games Movement with a caveat or two.

To that extent, I don’t think what we’re doing at VGHVI has any role to play in the Serious Games Movement other than to talk about the cultural potential of the games that emerge from it, as a classicist might talk about the cultural ramifications of any literature that produced along Plato’s lines, with the very important understanding that games coming out of the Serious Games Initiative, or Bogost’s own studio, Persuasive Games, are not inherently any more serious than Halo and World of Warcraft. Plato’s dialogues, which we can very fruitfully describe as his own serious mimesis, his own serious games, coexisted with the Athenian tragedy he would refuse to allow in his ideal state. When we study tragedy and philosophy today, our judgments as to which is “best and noblest” is considered something to talk about over coffee, not in reasoned discussion, and Plato’s judgment of the superiority of his own work is recognized as blinkered and bigoted.

There remains, that is, a question of definition that may prove to be crucial, even if in the end the problem is only semantic. I think as an interdisciplinary effort, we need to request—even if we know at the outset that such a request is absolutely futile—that they change the name of their movement, because the word “serious” is too important a word to cede. It would be as if Plato, instead of just creating a charming bit in Laws about the way he conceives his work’s relationship to tragedy, insisted throughout every one of his dialogues that in fact what he was creating was serious tragedy, and not philosophy.

Now “games” is up for grabs. Indeed, I’m hopeful that someday we’ll call the art form something else, like “interactive story.” But people generally agree about “serious,” and for the Serious Games Movement to continue to use the word does in fact deny that Halo and World of Warcraft are serious matters. And we at VGHVI must insist, I believe, on exactly that. The request to change the name is therefore in the end more about VGHVI than it is about the Serious Games Movement. In fact, by making the request I think we sharpen our focus with respect to what it is we’re talking about here, and so it’s my intention to continue to make it, not stridently but firmly, whenever I get the opportunity.

For this reason I believe the semantic disagreement is of some moment. We need all games to be taken seriously, just as I think Bogost would say that all games are persuasive. When some of us are calling certain games serious, that discursive practice plays directly into the hands of the cultural forces that seek to ensure that Halo, GTA, and World of Warcraft are never taken seriously, and that their players continue to look on what they do in those games as fundamentally unrelated to “more valuable” cultural activity, a cultural disposition that is precisely what VGHVI is committed to changing, across all the disciplines of its members.

I therefore propose that the position of the VGHVI be something like the following:

We salute those who call themselves the Serious Games Movement. We thank them heartily for their efforts to demonstrate that video games can have important effects on society and its practices, and in particular that video games can shape and evoke human values, and we congratulate them on their successes in those efforts.

We nevertheless hope that they might consider changing their movement’s name, in the interest of furthering those efforts, or, better, cease their attempts to group games under prescriptive qualitative or quasi-qualitative headings at all, and instead use descriptive adjectives like “didactic,” “political,” “health-related,” and the like.