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  • A Look at Serious Games

    [07.22.10]
    - Liam Morrow

  • Culture and Games

    Video games are cultural texts, representations of the context in which they were created and therefore reflect the ideologies of that culture. Game design comes from a relationship between games and larger contexts within which they exist. Games can enact a set of attitudes and beliefs while engaging in principals and behaviours of particular subcultures. As we play games, we are presented with simulated worlds which embody particular values and practices allowing us to inhabit worlds and roles which otherwise would have been inaccessible (Salen & Zimmerman, 2003).

    As games allow us to inhabit the roles of characters that exist in completely different social groups, we are forced to think and interpret values from a culture different from our own. As these values may not align to our own we must therefore construe situations the game presents us in a completely different way than we would in the real world. Good video games have an influential way of making us deliberately aware of assumed cultural models and reflectively acknowledge how they diverge from our own. One way games do this is by presenting us with moral choices which can have adverse affects on how the game is played. As children experience these moral choices they learn to handle cultural relativity; that is dealing with different social groups and learn the values and ideologies of different cultures (Gee, 2003).

    Grand Theft Auto (GTA) is a series of games which explores urban culture and reflects on the values and ideologies of the criminal underworld. One important element of this culture the game emulates is dominant ideologies and ideas of race towards the sanctioning of state violence. Key gameplay features illustrate the relationship between lower class communities and violence while demonstrating the absence of the state protecting and serving these social groups. Throughout the game players can slaughter rival gang members in the presence of police usually without consequence while harming the innocent brings police swiftly and with force.

    The medical system too shows social bias. Injured citizens receive quick ambulance response and can be resurrected while paramedics ignore wounded 'gangsters' completely (Leonard, 2006). This representation of criminality and its response by the state allows us to explore urban culture and better understand this social group typically perceived to be outcasts by society. The game's political dialogue satires this mistreatment while also raising questions on whether this neglect worsens their situation. By examining GTA we see how games become a learning tool by allowing us to experience these new cultures, values and ideologies which are significantly different to our own. While GTA certainly is not primarily designed for education, it engages and influences our everyday lives as we gain an understanding of the world from a completely different perspective.

    Imagination and Games

     Video games are a form of play. When we play games we become intensely and passionately involved with the content they offer. This is because video games are interactive and adaptive and constantly proves instant feedback in response to what we do. Because of this games allow us to experience what they offer in any way we desire, sparking our creative juices (Prensky, 2001). Civilisation is such a game which allows players to experience the fantasy of building and ruling an entire nation in any fashion they wish. Games being interactive in nature remove the clumsy limitations of regular toys by allowing us to experience these journeys whichever way we desire. As players have the freedom to play games however they wish games promote creativity and imagination (Dare, 2004).

    End-user development (modding, map creation) promotes creativity as it encourages exploration outside the boundaries of the original game. Games often include tools which allow the player to modify the way the game is played (such as altering the affects of gravity) providing the opportunity to experiment with new modes of play. Imaginative players are reflectively aware of the games features and possible modifications to the way the game is played which leads to results often more exciting than the original game.

    A 'total conversion mod' is a modification which replaces core aspects of the original game's gameplay and can even involve creating a new game in a completely different genre. Counter Strike is an example of a total conversion mod which allows hobbyists to generate their own content allowing them to engage in complete creative design as there are few restrictions on what can be created (Wright, Boria, & Breidenbach, 2002). Game developers have acknowledged the creative advantages of game modifications with many companies releasing tool kits which help make modifications to the game.

    Garry's Mod is a physics-based game which allows players to build and manipulate props in any way they desire. As with SimCity the game is without objectives and goals and instead encourages players to explore the game as they wish. The game permits players to experiment with endless opportunities allowing them to creatively build content only bounded by their imagination. Garry's Mod has a large community where enthusiasts can share their creations with other people.

    One such creation is the popular addon 'Wiremod'. Wiremod contains objects and components that increase functionality to existing contraptions and objects built within the game allowing players to create intuitive new things not possible before. Through end-user development games promote creativity as they encourage exploration outside the boundaries of the original game. By giving the user creative freedom to explore the game however they wish, games act as a learning tool to develop player's imagination skills despite education not being its primary design purpose.

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