Monday, 5 March 2007

Bonus Level - Games for appreciating other cultures

Gee's (2003) fascinating analysis of the *Under Ash* computer game, in which a Palestinian boy fights with Israeli soldiers and occupiers, got me thinking about the potential of VGs for giving players immersive experiences of cultures. While the notion of fighting against Israeli soldiers may be abhorrent to some (mainly Israelis), a relativist view would see it as no different to creating a game where an American soldier kills Arabs (of which Gee gives an extreme example of the game *Ethnic Cleansing*). What is interesting is that the very outcry for protection from kids playing games that go against the cultural standards, suggest the implication that playing such a game has the potential for significantly affecting a child's (or even and adult's) belief system. Which means that this tool is potentially powerful, but for both good and ill.

There is a fascinating documentary film *Judah and Mohammed*, which tracks a year in the life of two fifteen year old boys, one Israeli and one Palestinian. The film clearly highlights the entrenched cultural models that each child is growing up in, from the media they absorb, the conversations with their friends and family, and most alarmingly, the versions of history they are taught at school. In comparing their two lives, the viewer can't help but appreciate the deterministic fate that both boys are tied into, with each of their cultures so heavily imposed on them, and with the boys so determined to uphold their own cultural values. In spite of sharing similar interests and hobbies, the situation is such that the two boys could never be friends. A compromise between their two cultures seems even further away.

How could one of these diametrically opposed cultures ever reach a resolution? One way is to fight the other culture until one or the other gives in. A more diplomatic solution would be to try to understand where the other is coming from, recognise similar experiences and pastimes, and work to resolve differences with peaceful means. Media and literature have always been effective tools for supporting both war and peace. For war, propaganda through news reports, films etc is notoriously effective at imposing cultural values. Likewise for peace, objective and investigative news and films such as the one mentioned above, can highlight the misery of war, and the suffering it causes. With the rise of the internet and accessibility of digital media (see the Iraq war YouTube videos), information has become more readily available and this has in many respects been a force for peace. Governments are less able to hide behind disinformation (though some still do a good job of it), and activists are more able to communicate abuses of power. With this 'power of transparency' in mind, and following the success of his Shoah interviews, Stephen Spielberg's recent program involves giving video cameras to Israelis and Palestinians which will then be swapped later, as a way of helping the two cultures to appreciate their similarities, instead of focusing on their differences. IMHO this a very progressive and potentially beneficial approach to take (though of course this is just my cultural model speaking).

But as Gee mentions, 'interactive media like video games are a more powerful device than such passive media'. And this is where VGs could potentially come in use - as a means for appreciating the experiences of others, in an experiential, immersive environment, thus beginning to move people away from entrenched cultural models that demand the hating of another group of people, to a model that is more appreciative and less aggressive. As Gee writes, 'far more interactively than you could in any novel or movie, you would have experienced the 'other' from the inside'. So a game like Food Force, which I've mentioned in a previous posting, far from being an insensitive mockery of a serious issue like famine, is actually a very powerful way of encouraging 'players' to appreciate the experience of hungry people.

So in an ironic twist, the playing of violent video games might, if employed with ethical intentions, actually be a valuable force for peace. Gee suggests that 'if we are willing to take none but our own side, even in play, then violence would seem inevitable'. In homage to Kane's vision of a 'play ethic', VGs as diplomatic anti-propaganda will hopefully be something we see more of in the future.

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