Posts tagged with: video games

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

It took awhile, but after its release in 2005, the latest installment of the popular computer game Civilization IV was received warmly by many cultural commentators. Civilization IV, or CivIV for short, was hailed alternatively as “a video game for the ages,” and “a kind of social-sciences chessboard that blends history and logic into a game that demands a long, long attention span.” The basis for much of this regard among even conservatives as “crunchy” as Rod Dreher was a piece in the Weekly Standard, highlighting the background of the game’s founder, Sid Meier.

For the first time, religion plays an important part in the strategic gameplay. Victorino Matus sums it up this way,

Religion plays a major role in Civilization and can be more vital to victory than military prowess. Competing civilizations can send out missionaries, found a religion, create temples, cathedrals, and even launch crusades. Meier is quick to point out, however, that the role of religion is just another dimension to gameplay.

Indeed, while CivIV deserves praise for integrating non-material elements like religion and culture into the gameplay, in the end these pieces suffer the same fate as the rest of the game’s components. CivIV, ultimately, is less about the development of civilization than it is about the expansion of imperial tyranny.

“Genghis Khan, your people have vested absolute power in you…”

The game begins by the player being vested with “absolute power” over all aspects of the lives of the citizenry. Religion quickly becomes a means of social control. When your civilization founds a religion, you are able to build structures that have other important benefits attached to them. You can spread your religion to neighboring civilizations, expanding your influence. But it doesn’t matter which religion you prefer, as long as it keeps your people happy.

And happiness, by the way, is something that can be bought in this game. If your citizenry is a little restless, simply up the percentage of money spent each turn on “culture,” and watch the happy faces multiply. That’s the CivIV equivalent of Caesar holding gladiatorial games at the Colosseum to appease the populace.

There are consequences to which sort of economy, government, technology, and religion you choose. But in the end all these choices are yours, and you are free to use whichever combination you find to be most expedient. The variety of game-ending scenarios, including world domination, UN diplomacy, and space-race technology races (which may indeed teach us something we need to know), mean that you don’t have to simply hack and slash your way to victory. But make no mistake about it, you are out to conquer your opponents, by any means necessary.

You can choose to embrace different branches of technological innovation, including the compelling “Animal Husbandry.”

The popularity of the game, which has won numerous awards and spawned successful expansions, is well-deserved. It taps in to a fundamental human drive for dominance in a way that promotes critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.

The revisionist history that is possible to reenact with the game is one of its greatest attractions. While it may cause some cognitive dissonance to see Mohandas Ghandi order an nuclear ICBM attack on an opponent’s city, it is also reassuring to know that Genghis Khan can expand his empire by means of free trade and cultural suasion rather than force of arms (although in some cases “revisionist” history ends up corresponding better to reality than accepted theories).

“Soon my numberless minions shall destroy you all!”

The game’s interface is straightforward and intuitive. One drawback of the game’s emphasis on strategy over action is that the conflict sequences are repetitive and buggy. The graphics when units are in battle leave much to be desired.

These tactical criticisms aside, however, CivIV is a superb game. But the adeptness with which it meets the deepest human desires for power and control teaches us as much about ourselves as it does about the progressive unfolding of history.

This review has been cross-posted to

During a recent family trip to visit relatives, we settled down for a night of wholesome family entertainment to watch “Inside Man” (well, maybe not all that wholesome; it is a film about a bank robbery, after all). This post has almost nothing to do with the plot of the movie, so if you haven’t seen it, don’t fret. It is a film worth queuing on your Netflix, however, and I recommend it despite the fact that I don’t much care for Spike Lee films.

In any case, at one point in the film a young black kid is playing a video game on a portable game unit. We get a closeup of the game, wherein Matthew (played by Amir Ali Said), is controlling a car full of gang members about to do a drive-by shooting. As the car approaches the target, instructions flash prominently on the game screen, “Kill ‘dat [N-word]!!!” Matthew, good at following directions, manipulates a few buttons, thereby moving one of the gang members to shoot the mark in the head, thereby pasting “cherry pie” all over the outside of the building.

There’s an interesting conversation between Matthew and one of the bank robbers at this point in the movie, but I want to pass along what happened in the real world later. After the film ended, I asked our relatives if they knew what real video game Spike Lee was parodying. They answered negatively, and I said, “It’s the one the kids are playing in the next room.” Sure enough, some of our family’s kids, as well as some neighbors, were huddled around a console playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

This game was originally released with an ESRB rating of “M” for “Mature,” then was readjusted to “Adults Only,” after the political brouhaha, and then re-released as “M”. In any case, there is a great deal of violence in the game, and at least some of the children playing it in my family’s house were well under even the “M” age rating (17 years and older). The parents had no real knowledge about the content or the themes of the game.

This situation is no doubt repeated innumerable times all over the country on a daily basis. That’s why it’s nice to see some recognition in the debate about censorship of video games of the necessary role parents play. NPR’s Future Tense has noted the release of the 11th annual video game report card by the National Institute on Media and the Family.

According to the report card, the latest installment reflects a change in focus, in which the institute “acknowledge[s] the strides” taken by retailers and the video game industry. This year, the challenge is put forth to parents: “Simply put, parents need to step up to the plate and the experts need to conduct more and better research.”

Indeed, the report card grades “Parental Involvement,” as an “INCOMPLETE,” saying, “Parents could be, and should be, doing a lot better, but at least part of their failure can be attributed to the confusion created by the game makers.” The cacophony of voices clamoring for the authority to be passed on to some other institution makes the institute regard lack of parental involvement in the context of such extenuating circumstances. That’s why parents don’t get a failing grade this year.

All this finally reflects the truth of the matter, I think, that parents bear the primary and ultimate responsibility for the education and moral formation of their children. In this day and age, that education and formation is conducted within a world pervaded by use of technology. It’s our calling and challenge as parents to make sure that we use computers, video games, and other technologies prudently.

Don’t get caught slippin’: Know what your kids are playing.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Via International Civic Engagement:

Already available in English, Japanese, Italian and Polish, the game will now be accessible in French, Hungarian and Chinese by the end of next week, vastly increasing the forum for the UN World Food Programme’s (WFP) ‘Food Force’ – designed to teach youngsters about the problems of global hunger and what humanitarian organizations do to fight it.

The English, Japanese, Italian and Polish versions, which were launched over the past 18 months, have totalled over 4.5 million downloads to date, making Food Force a major success story in the educational gaming sector.

My review of the game is here, along with other PowerBlog commentary on socially active video games.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Today’s WaPo has a story about Incident Commander, “a training simulator that gives players a lead role in managing crisis situations such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters.”

In “A Computer Game for Real-Life Crises: Disaster Simulator’s Maker Gives It to Municipal Emergency Departments,” Mike Musgrove writes about the video game software, which was used by an Illinois paradmedic just days before he was called into duty following Hurricane Katrina.

According to Musgrove, “Yesterday, on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, game developer BreakAway Games Ltd. released the final version of Incident Commander free of charge to municipal emergency departments, part of an agreement with the Justice Department, which invested $350,000 in game development.” The game company itself devoted the remaining $1.5 million in money for the game’s development.

This is the latest installment of the trend toward the use of video games to increase skills in a variety of professions.

Blog author: jballor
Monday, July 24, 2006

An article in yesterday’s NYT, “Saving the World, One Video Game at a Time,” by Clive Thompson, gives a good overview of the current trend in the video game industry, especially by nonprofits and activist groups, to create “serious games,” a movement which “has some serious brain power behind it. It is a partnership between advocates and nonprofit groups that are searching for new ways to reach young people, and tech-savvy academics keen to explore video games’ educational potential.”

“What everyone’s realizing is that games are really good at illustrating complex situations,” said Suzanne Seggerman, one of the organizers of the third annual Games for Change conference in New York. “And we have so many world conflicts that are at a standstill. Why not try something new?”

One such game is Peacemaker, which is a political simulation based on the current situation in the Middle East. Another is the World Food Programme’s Food Force (which I review here).

Of course, serious simulations are nothing new in the gaming world, and even predate the advent of video media. An argument could be made, for example, that games like Axis & Allies and Risk, while focusing on military aspects, are in some sense serious (albeit limited) teachers about the realities of war policy and foreign affairs. And games like Shadow President, released in the early 1990s, are relatively complex and immersive political simulations.

A typical game of Risk in play. Many game elements such as the board, dice, units and cards are visible. (GNU Free Documentation License)

Related PowerBlog Items:

“Video Games Can Save Lives and More…”, Thursday, June 1, 2006.

“Speaking a Language They Can Understand”, Wednesday, February 15, 2006.

‘Your mind makes it real’, Tuesday, November 22, 2005.

“Vidiocy”, Thursday, August 11, 2005.

“Family Values and Grand Theft Auto”
, Wednesday, July 27, 2005.

“Game Review: Food Force”, Thursday, May 12, 2005.

Not directly, of course, but the implication of a recent story from NPR’s Future Tense is that video games have a positive stimulative effect on doctors who are about to perform surgery.

A new study is out, and according to FT, “Surgeons who played games for 20 minutes immediately prior to performing surgical drills were faster and made fewer errors.” The study focused on a particular type of surgery, specifically “laparoscopic” procedures. Again, from FT, “The results supported findings from a smaller study in 2003, which showed that doctors who grew up playing video games tended to be more efficient and less error-prone in laparoscopic training drills.” You can hear the story in RealMedia here.

The increase of dopamine associated with playing video games can help establish learning patterns. You heard it here first: students who play video games for 20 minutes immediately preceding quizzes, tests, midterms, and exams will perform better. Video games could “augment” educational achievement.

This latter claim would need to be studied and proven, of course. It seems to me that today’s youth already play significant amounts of video games. It may well be that long-term and extended durations of video game play might have adverse effects on learning patterns as wel. This means that we’d need to look for a mediating time frame, within which the brain is stimulated and activated but does not suffer from more adverse effects.

Maybe the circumscribed use of video games can be part of the solution to the problem Anthony Bradley identifies.

Update: “The Brain Workout: In praise of video games,” OpinionJournal, by Brian C. Anderson: “Video games can also exercise the brain in remarkable ways.”

Wired News passes along this article by Chris Kohler, “U.N. Game Wins Hearts and Minds.” The story gives a brief overview and history of the video game created by the United Nations World Food Programme, Food Force.

Kohler writes, “The United Nations created the game after witnessing the success of the U.S. Army’s recruitment game, America’s Army.” The game takes players through six stages of work to get desperately needed food and supplies to vulnerable and malnourished populations.

Justin Roche, the game’s project manager, points out that Food Force is a non-violent game that competes with first-person shooters like America’s Army. “We really are the antithesis of the plethora of violent games that dominate the market,” he said. “Not one shot is fired, yet we are competing for kids’ time often devoted to shoot’em-ups.”

The Washington Post published an article yesterday highlighting the usage of virtual combat games to train a generation of new soldiers (HT: Slashdot). “The technology in games has facilitated a revolution in the art of warfare,” says David Bartlett, the former chief of operations at the Defense Modeling and Simulation Office, a high-level office within the Defense Department and the focal point for computer-generated training at the Pentagon.

Roche also said of Food Force,”We have many e-mails from children, saying that they would like to come and work for us when they are older. It’s wonderful to think that our little game is having this kind of impact.”

Check out my review of Food Force here. I conclude that the game is good as far as it goes: “Larger structural issues about the WFP and the UN remain outside the scope of the game, but nevertheless are reflected in the game’s guiding ethos and makeup. We can only hope that the WFP’s stated commitment to the independence of those it helps is manifested by policies that actually give those in need economic freedom and the hope of development. Addressing the root causes of poverty can be the only real long-term solution to poverty, hunger, and the devastation brought about by natural disasters.”

Got bureaucrat?