Torture! Good theme for a Serious Game?
Torture – a nice festive theme but bear with me, this is not a post about violence as such. A blog post by Clive Thompson demands provocatively Why We Need More Torture in Video Games – sit on the fence why don’t you Clive. Now Clive has not lost his mind in an Xmas fog, nor does he appear to be a sadist. Rather, he thinks entertainment based video games provide a powerful tool for experiencing and learning from complex and difficult situations. He rightly cites the convoluted debate that has accompanied torture and rendition practised under the banner of the War on Terror as evidence as an unresolved public debate; and examples of torture being used without restriction by CTU in the Series 24 as evidence of people not fully understanding the political, societal, moral and practical consequences of using and condoning torture. Can games be a medium through which to explore, experience, debate and learn about these consequences?
Pot and Kettle
Firstly we have to come clean – Its understating the case to say that video games on the whole have a poor reputation with policy makers. ThereÂ are a multitude of different public endeavours examining the links between video games and antisocial behaviour – particularly aggression. This is precisely because of the high levels of realitic human violence used in many games as actual gameplay mechanics and the fact that the player is rewarded for this. In the vast majority of cases this violence demands little reflection or pause to understand consequences.Â
Clive identifies some notable exceptions:
Several of the biggest recent games were praised precisely because the moral acts inside them had long-term consequences. In BioShock, you could either save or exploit the Little Sisters, and your actions produced very different endings to the game. In Fable, decisions made in the first 15 minutes of play (will you side with lawkeepers or cause mischief for personal gain?) change the moral tenor of your home town 15 years later. In Sid Meier’s Civlization: Revolution, as with most world-conquering strategy games, failing to make an alliance upfront can screw you down the line.
These examples are laudable but they are the exception to the rule. Other than through government intervention its not likely that the entertainment based video games industry will integrate moral consequence and reflection into mainstream games any time soon. Clives dream will remain just that.
But, I think Clive is right to promote video games and sims as media for this type of learning experience. The question bothering meÂ is how to do it? We often blithely talk about games offering this potential for immersion, suspension of disbelief and generating authentic behaviours. This level of experience would be necessary if players were truly going to reflect upon issues such as torture and their consequences. There are some examples of simulated experiences out there that may give us some pointers and have lessons for the design of Serious Games.
The Lucifer Effect
As luck would have it I am reading The Lucifer Effect by psychologist Phillip Zimbardo. The book identifies the factors – personal, situational and societal – that can drive otherwise good people to engage in evil or unspeakable acts.
I remember Zimbardos work vividly as an undergraduate in Psychology.Â His landmark work was the Stanford Prison experiment in which groups of highly educated and highly privileged American undergraduates took on the role of prisoners or prison guards in a controlled experiment. The study had to be abandoned after a few days as these otherwise respectable and educated ‘prison guards’ had used their annonimity, lack of clarity from higher management and absolute power to inflict torture and abuse on the dehumanised outgroup of ‘prisoners’.Â The results were a sensation and totally unexpected. The educated cream of a society under certain key conditions could behave unspeakably to other human beings. In interview debriefing the outcomes were as much as a surprise to the participants in the experiment both prisoners and guards. Many were traumatised by what had happened.
Coincidently I see the BBC are rerunning the Stanley Milgram experimentÂ for an upcomingÂ documentary. This famous experiment got subjects to believably administer high voltage electric shocks to people. Again, the outcomes were sensational and totally unexpected. Psychiatrists had predicted that 1% of subjects would administer lethal levels of electric shock as this was the perceived prevalance of sadist personality types in the US population. In reality, around 70% of subjects would administer this level of shock.
These experiments marked the high point for me for Social Psychology research – ground breaking results that had relevance for society; unexpected outcomes; and a design that fully immersed subjects in believable scenarios where they acted authentically. This last point was very powerful. The subjects completely suspended disbelief and engaged in the scenarios. Many were shocked by their behaviour afterwards. However, the difficult ethical questions around such designs and over the use of deception in experimental design meant that social psychology experiments never again hit these heights.
The best social experimentation now occurs outside of Social Psychology. The field of Behavioural Economics uses innovative experimental scenarios to provoke authentic human responses. Researchers like Dan Ariely at MIT illuminate human decision making and the myth of rationality under a myriad of different conditions – sexual excitement; cooperation; incentivisation; stress and social pressure.
Reality TV – I hear you groan – offers us more insights. Ranging from the highly contrived gameshow of Big Brother to the brutal reality of The Contender and authentic responses inÂ MTV Fear, The Apprentice, Wife Swap, The Joe Schmo Show and the unforgettable Space Cadets – were those people for real?
Derren BrownÂ goes where social psychology now fears to tread – borrowing many methods from social and cognitive psychology combined with magic illusion, suggestion, misdirection and showmanship to create highly believable scenarios in which people will perform authentic behaviours with behaviour changing results. This might be persuading ordinary mild mannered people to spontaneously undertake an armed robbery, an animal loving girl to kill a kitten, a grandmother to take on poker champions with confidence, and an ordinary Joe to outperform experts in a quiz competition.
While not advocating (publically at least) building mock jails and getting learners to inflict pain on each other for leadership training or health and safety training initiatives – I am intruiged to know what lessons we can takeÂ here for Serious Games design.
I have seen some excellent military Serous Games built by Qinetiq that generate immersion, authentic behaviours and deep learner reflection (brutally honest at times)Â using multiplayer methods. The particular example I am thinking of involves a real unit of players searching houses room to room. They are wired to microphones and any observer of these sessions would readily admit that these learners are highly immersed and believe in the scenario. In this example I think the real social pressure of playing with your colleagues adds alot to the focus and immersion. The game also involves real human enemies, highly realistic graphics and sound, provides many options for either success or failure and there are high consequences – in the game people will die and performance in highly transparent which has consequencesÂ in the highly competitive military enviornment.
What about in mainstream asynchronous training where learners may not be quite so motivated?
We use alot of design elements at Caspian to transform routine learning into an experience that learners will engage in – narrative, challenge, control, competition, safe failure and feedback. There are a few that I’d like to experiment with based upon the examples above:
- High consequences – this could interesting and challenging. Where a training initiative does not have high corporate consequences for a learner how to engender the real feeling of high consequences for actions in the game.
- Surprise – All of the successful examples above surprised participants. This is a terrific mechanism for reflection. I can see us embedding plots with twists and turns and Â challenging the stereotypes andÂ beliefs of the learner even in the most mundane content areas.
- Misdirection – Great if your looking for authentic behaviours. Focus the learner on one task to in order to observe secondary behaviours that result automatically and which are the real focus of the leanrning. That will be a fun design challenge.
- Social norms – In an asynchronous environment to provide learners with real time information on social norms to see how this influences their behaviour. This could be simple but effective such as providing learners with group performance stats at key decision points – “X% of people chose this option” etc – then observing how their actions and decisions were influenced later. More elaborate could be the generation of other human players that are really computer generated. Like the actors in the above examples, the learners believe that htey are interacting with, competing against or influencing real people.
We may not be covering torture any time soon but i’ll report back in 2009 on our quest to generate authentic behaviours in 2009.