In search of a game’s True Meaning ™…

As with the ongoing ‚Killerspiel‘ debate in Germany, public and politicians are in search of The Meaning of a game. Though it’s understandable that there’s concern over violent, pornographic or propagandistic content, few seem to understand that games can also be created as toys.
To quote Marvin Minsky in his ‚Society of Mind‘,

„A thing with just one meaning has scarcely any meaning at all.“

Games can take the form of paths, labyrinths, and landscapes, and the latter ones are difficult or even impossible to fathom. If seen from a literary point of view, I’d even deny a linear game to be ‚understood‘ in its ‚entirety‘, just by being played from a narrow social, temporal and mental vantage point.

I’m often asking myself, whether this is political actionism, populism, wishful thinking, technological and medial ignorance, or a mix of all these.

There seems to be a strong urge for a world which is deterministic, monocausal, where any one thing has one discrete meaning. Which fits nicely on the description of ‚digital‘, without the analog fuzz surrounding it.
Thus this drive is both very compatible with an information society, but also somehow incompatible with social, cultural, individual reality, diversity, and most of all ambiguity.

The targeting of games as a yet unsolved mystery how to categorize and handle them, is, from my point of view, just the tip of the iceberg.

„Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) on Tuesday reintroduced the Truth in Video Game Rating Act, first proposed last September. It calls for requiring video game rating organizations to play all games „in their entirety“ before issuing labels and prohibiting game developers from withholding any „hidden“ game content from raters. It would also punish ratings groups that „grossly mischaracterize“ any game’s content.“

Senator Sam Brownback’s statement is reported in this CNET-Article.

For balance, here’s an interesting interview with Molyneux by the german magazine ‚Der Spiegel‘. Molyneux is the creator of ‚Black & White‘ and ‚Fable‘, and he shares some thoughts about the difficult rating of games with inherent emergent gameplay. From the interview:

„Mit „Fable“ ist da etwas Fantastisches passiert: Ein Verantwortlicher in irgendeinem europäischen Land bekam ein Exemplar, um es hinsichtlich der Altersfreigabe zu bewerten, und es kam zurück als „moralisch wertvoll für alle Altersstufen“ – und ich dachte, das kann doch nicht sein, ich meine, sie hacken darin Leuten die Köpfe ab! Wir haben es noch mal hingeschickt und es stellte sich heraus, dass der Mann sich einfach wundervoll und gut benommen hatte im Spiel, er hatte diese schrecklichen Sachen einfach nie gesehen! Er hatte nur Leute gerettet und war nett gewesen!“

My translation:

„With ‚Fable‘ something fantastic happened: One administration official in some european country got one copy of the game to rate it, and it came back as „Of moral value for all ages“ – and I thought to myself, that couldn’t be, they’re chopping off people’s heads in the game! We sent it in again and it turned out that this man had played the game well behaved and good, he never came to see these gruesome things! He just saved people and was nice!“

Some games, as a Rorschach-inkblot-test, fulfill the same purpose as a mirror, reflecting hidden or open traits and wishes of the user.
What will happen to a user, be it child, adult, game-rater, or politician, who is not able to grasp the concept of a mirror – and encounters one?

Two points why this proposed law will miss its goal of ‚protecting‘ minors:

First, ‚The Sims‘ is still one of the most successful games of all times. But how would you react to the glee of a kid who ‚tortures‘ his little toy-beings by not only trying to ease their plights (the obvious goal of the game), but by creating a living hell for them, till they starve, burn, get elecrocuted, drown. And these are only the physical horrors…
In ‚The Sims‘, there’s no graphic blood-n-gore, and only pixelated nudity, but I think a repeated kind of ‚misuse‘ of Sims in this way by a kid would be much more disturbing than seeing the little gamer blasting his – or her – counterstrike opponents to smithereens.
I guess no rating comission would prohibit ‚The Sims‘ – despite its inherent chance of becoming a virtual torture chamber. Misuse of power is not as graphic as most people expect it to be.

And there’s a second take to the problem of rating a game in its ‚entirety‘, independent of the visual output of a game. The last line to decide wether something indecent or harmful to minors is inherent to a game are the human judges – and the cultural bias of the society they spring from.
Thus this proposed law will have no absolute effect, like a digital XOR whether a game will be allowable or not. It will merely reflect the subjective viewpoint of those who define what will be allowable.

Is ‚America’s Army‘ recommended for children of 13 and older because of the omission of realistic effects of bullet and blast wounds? Or should it be rated 18+ because of this misleading illusion of a ‚clean‘ battle with well defined enemies, tricking the kids to believe in ‚clean‘, clear cut wars?
I doubt that a Brownback-commission would rate ‚America’s Army‘ as ‚Adult‘, though for very different – sociocultural – reasons than ‚The Sims‘. Which of these two games is harmful? The one which can act as a mirror to a gamer’s sadistic or destructive impulses, or the one who pretend to mask these impulses with toned-down graphics, for a just cause? None of them shows overtly violent grahics.

A final word from LtCol. Wardynski, co-creator of AA:

„Those gamers aren‚Äôt driven from ‚ÄöAmerica‚Äôs Army‚Äô because of the
violence in Iraq, Wardynski said: ‚ÄöIt‚Äôs just a backdrop.‚Äô“