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Games evangelists and naysayers

A new study suggests Tetris might help prevent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Not Tetris 2

(Correction: This article initially misquoted the “Play, don’t replay” webpage as saying “this simple trick” when in fact it says “this simple technique”. I apologise for this error.)

A few days ago, renowned game designer, author, and speaker Jane McGonigal launched a new project on her website called “Play, don’t replay! HELP PREVENT PTSD(Update: McGonigal has updated the wording of the website since this column was posted. The original can be found here. ) Its stated goal is to get trauma victims to play a pattern-matching videogame such as Tetris or Candy Crush Saga as soon as possible after the traumatising event to potentially prevent ongoing post-traumatic stress disorder.

The aim of the project is to have as many people as possible know about “this simple technique” so that they can pull it out themselves in case they suffer a traumatic event. Not because it works, mind, but because it might work, and McGonigal wants people to try it themselves and then provide feedback. She has asked her 59,000 twitter followers to share and retweet the project multiple times. There is an email address you can provide your results to once you try it out.

On the surface, the project is clearly well-intentioned. Who wouldn’t want to help prevent or ease the suffering of PTSD? However, in the tone of the post, the presentation of the science, and the demands for crowdsourcing test subjects, it is a shockingly irresponsible and unethical project. It is a project through which we can vividly see all the problems with what I’m going to call the “games evangelism industry”. This is an industry of individuals and organisations that has a self-aggrandising need to convince both others and itself that games are good and can fix problems and, to paraphrase the title of McGonigal’s own book, can save the world.

I’m going to look at the problems with this particular project in more detail then return to this idea of a games evangelism industry and why it deserves our scepticism.

First, the necessary caveats about the science that McGonigal is working from: I don’t doubt for a moment the integrity of the study (pdf) that McGonigal cites. There is little doubt that playing small games can be useful to distract people from various things. That such a technique might help ease PTSD is a commendable avenue of research.

However, to take one controlled test where forty participants watched a twelve-minute film and present this as definitive proof that this approach should be trialed by everyone in the uncontrolled real world is an unethical way to conduct research. Of course, the writers of the study don’t make such claims. They, of course, note that further research is required and that maybe this technique could be employed by emergency services responding in the early post-trauma period. McGonigal, however, doesn’t share their restraint. She wants everyone doing this right away. She wants a #Kony2012-esque social media campaign to get 100,000 people to read her blog post. She thinks it irresponsible to sit around and wait for definitive results. She even goes so far as to label those that voice valid concerns about the project as “games naysayers” and compares them to climate change deniers.

The project is an unethical way to both present findings and to gather research data. Further, it trivialises the realities of PTSD. McGonigal runs with the study’s wording of Tetris as a potential “vaccine”. But you wouldn’t take a potential vaccine for any disease and distribute it to everyone after a single clinical trial. Why should PTSD be treated with any less seriousness? Responding to a comment on the post questioning the approach, McGonigal cites her own suffering of flashbacks and nightmares after a traumatic experience to demonstrate her good intentions (intentions which I do not doubt for a moment that she has). Yet, she wants everyone to try this because it might work. She doesn’t stop to think that one test on forty people in a controlled environment is not enough to rule out that sticking Tetris or Candy Crush Saga under the nose of someone who has just had a traumatic experience could potentially be harmful for some people (especially considering Candy Crush Saga is not even mentioned in the study itself!).

Further, and crucially, in her desire to implement this project in the real world, she makes no attempt to compare or contrast this method of battling PTSD with existing methods. It doesn’t matter. The point is that it proves games can be used for good.

In this project we see one of the most vivid examples of the games evangelism industry where it is more important for games to be seen as good than to critically ask what might be good about them and whether something that isn’t games might be better. I don’t use the word “industry” lightly. People like McGonigal and organisations like Games for Change, despite being a non-profit organisation, directly benefit from advancing the notion that games are useful tools for social change. They provide a veneer of respectability for a far broader (and lucrative) “gamification” industry where expertise quickly translates into speaking events, consultancy roles, and book deals. The games evangelists tap into a growing enthusiasm around games and create a need for a particular type of games expert that they themselves are then perfectly positioned to fill. All while the “social change” games they advocate just as often merely reinstates the status quo than actually challenge it.

Which isn’t to say games can’t facilitate positive social change. Of course they can! But the priority quickly shifts from actually making games that do this (which have existed for a very long time), to clutching at any argument that might further prove how games are useful and how these people and organisations are necessary. To the games evangelists, games become hammers and all the world starts to look like a nail.

And, of course, you can’t disagree with them. What? Do you want PTSD victims to suffer? Why don’t you want to make the world a safer place? Why are you being so negative about this? Do you hate games and play? What is wrong with you? Games evangelists trade in inspiration; to question their ideas is to questions their inspiration. In McGonigal’s own terms, anyone who dares disagree with the uncritically optimistic outlook of games evangelists is a “Games Naysayer” and any criticism of their projects, like that presented here, is negated. After all, she’s just trying to help.

It is tempting to want to believe games are fundamentally positive things. Especially, of course, if your livelihood is dependent on games in one form or another. The various responses to McGonigal’s post on twitter highlight this thirst to believe that games are good. It’s intoxicating. After decades of the mainstream media and our parents alike telling us that games are bad, developers and players alike want to believe that, after all this time, this hobby that we’ve devoted ourselves to is good.

But just as films can be works of art, Nazi propaganda, or both, games are never ever only one thing. They are no less capable of being “bad” as they are of being “good”. Or, even, they don’t have to be “bad”, but maybe, just maybe, in any given situation there might be something else that is better. That McGonigal’s latest project doesn’t even attempt to compare Tetris to pre-existing methods of treating PTSD reveals that the highest priority is highlighting the significance of games is a much higher priority than actually helping anyone.

Uncritical evangelism is unhelpful, and it only benefits those who are evangelising. “Play, don’t Replay!” is, on the surface, a grassroots online activity to raise awareness. I don’t doubt that this is exactly what McGonigal, with the best of intentions, sees it as. But it is also a means to crowdsource research via the free labour of trauma sufferers while drastically overstating the results of a single study in order to advance a personal agenda. Like any project, it demands scepticism and criticism; its positive intentions don’t exempt it. But dare ask a question about the methods or the science of the project and, no, you are merely a games naysayer.

Almost as a counterweight to the lawmakers and media personalities that use a single clinical trial to prove games are fundamentally evil, the evangelists use a single clinical trial to prove that games are fundamentally benevolent. “Play, don’t Replay!” is just another example of games evangelists twisting a study into a nail to advance their own hammer under the guise of saving the world, and it’s something that people should be cynical about.

If being a games naysayer means thinking critically about the place of games in society and not overreaching the findings of individual studies, I for one will gladly be a games naysayer.

(My thanks to Mary Hamilton and Dan Golding for providing feedback on a previous draft of this column. My thanks, too, to the various people I’ve had conversations with about this project over the past few days that have helped to shape the arguments I make here. That said, the views shared in this column reflect mine alone.)

Game cultures

Lost Level’s organisers hold up the vague ‘plan’ of talks for the afternoon.

According to a press release sent out by the Game Developers Conference (GDC) at the end of last week, over 24,000 people attended the conference this year. One of the most interesting things about GDC is how it distills the entire, global games industry down to about three city blocks of downtown San Francisco. In this concentrated area, every aspect of what we call the games industry is represented (some better than others, of course), and not just the parts we want to admit exist.

There are the independent developers in their hoodies and brightly coloured dresses, and there are the slightly more formally dressed developers from blockbuster studios. There’s the few industry legends wandering the halls, such as John Romero, father of the first-person shooter, playing DOOM deathmatches against anyone who challenges him. These are the “creative” people of the industry, the ones that critics like myself are most interested in.

But they represent just one aspect of the industry. In another wing of the conference hall, people in suits are discussing strategies to monetize free-to-play games. Down on the expo floor, you are just as likely to see a display of the newest pokie machines or advertising-enabling middleware as you are an exciting new game. GDC is where you get to see the games industry in its entirety: warts and all—not just the parts you want to see.

Except, it’s not quite “all” of the industry. Or, at least, if it is the entire “industry”, it is still not a complete picture of everyone who is contributing to this thing we call “videogames”. No, to see that required that attendees took a break from the conference halls after lunch on Thursday of the week-long conference to see what was happening in a nearby park.

Deirdra Kiai jamming with friends at Lost Levels.

See, GDC might have had 24,000 attendees, but it draws even more people into its orbit who don’t actually attend the conference: people who want to be around to hang out with attendees but aren’t going to spend the $2000 required to actually attend the conference. These are the independent creators and students and critics who spend the days hanging out in the park or around the conference hall just to see their friends that, for one week, are all in the same city. Sometimes they might borrow a friend’s pass to see one panel or check out the expo hall. For the most part, though, they just hang out.

Except, that is, on Thursday afternoon. For the second year in a row, the Thursday afternoon of GDC has seen this crowd of people in the park grow into the Lost Levels “unconference”. Organised by a group of young indie developers (including Melbourne’s own Harry Lee who co-directed the Freeplay Independent Games festival last year), Lost Levels is entirely free, open to everyone, and gives anyone the chance to spend five minutes giving a talk about anything they want.

Often these talks will be about games in some way, but no talk gets rejected from Lost Levels and people can submit anything they want. No shortage of students tried to cram their grand theories about Games And Poetry into a five minute talk. Critic and developer Liz Ryerson recited her powerful FUCK MARIO. Developer of IGF finalist Dominique Pamplemousse, Deirdra Kiai just jammed out for a while. And, stealing the show, Naomi Clark’s performative piece with Ric Chivo was perhaps the most visible depiction of the tensions between what was happening in the park and what was happening across the road in the conference centre.

Game designer Michael Brough holding forth during Lost Levels.

There’s no sound systems or printed itineraries or stages. Just three vague areas where people are going to start yelling about whatever they are yelling about after the last person ends. It’s practically impossible to actually plan what talks you want to see; you just have to wander up to a mob and hope you are seeing something decent (and that the person presenting is loud enough for you to hear them!).

The whole ordeal is a chaotic whirlwind. It makes some attendees grumpy—especially those who have wandered across from the GDC halls to see what everyone on twitter is going on about. It seems unprofessional and unorganised. Except, that’s kind of the whole point of it. In some ways, the individual talks of Lost Levels don’t matter (even if it is very important that it provides a space for such talks).

Rather, the point is just the sheer energy of it all. All these young, bright minds running around in the park in the sunshine. All the bemused and confused suits who were sitting in the park for lunch who aren’t quite sure what is happening.

I don’t want to make cliche claims about Lost Levels being “cooler” than GDC or anything like that. But it is exciting that it exists. It is exciting that videogames have matured to a degree that they have a counter culture that is increasingly impossible to ignore. It is exciting that I can think of as many games that I loved from the past year that came out of that park than out of the nearby conference centre.

Videogames are a lot of things, and Lost Levels represents that just as well as the expo floors and lecture theatres of GDC.

Games criticism as its own thing

The Critical Proximity games criticism conference in San Francisco. Leo Burke

I am currently in San Francisco to attend the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC). It’s the biggest event in the games industry, depending on what measuring stick you use. E3 in Los Angeles is the capital consumer trade-show where new games are shown to the press and the public.

The various Penny Arcade Expos are where a particular “gamer” community comes together to play games. But GDC is where tens of thousands of the industry’s developers and publishers mingle and discuss craft and share knowledge (and countless entrepreneurs try to sell middleware). Indie developers in hoodies rub shoulders with social media monetization experts in suits.

It’s a Mecca, of sorts, as everyone in the industry comes to San Francisco for the week because, simply, everyone comes to San Francisco for the week. It’s not rare to stumble upon someone in town for GDC who does not even have a pass for the conference. They are here to network and see their friends and attend the parties and other events held during the week.

Where the industry is, the press is. E3 is where journalists will see the new games, but GDC is where we get direct and intimate access to a range of developers without a PR handler lurking in the background. There is no shortage of press here – a reasonable number of whom are reporting simply to get access to the press pass over the expensive all access pass; writing a few articles seems like a better deal than forking out $2000 for an all-access pass.

So GDC is as important for many writers as it is for the developers it was initially for. Yet, the writers – the journalists and the critics – often feel like outsiders. There are no panels for our craft. We’re just kind of here, on the sideline, observing these developers. It’s something that has bothered me in recent years. As much as I enjoy GDC, I want to talk about our own craft, too.

This year, my wishes were answered. Not by GDC, but by a new conference, Critical Proximity, largely the brainchild of critic Zoya Street, appeared the Sunday before GDC to talk specifically about the craft of games criticism. In hindsight, it was the obvious solution that was just waiting for someone to actually do it: instead of waiting for GDC to accept talks on games criticism, we should have our own conference for our own craft.

And it was excellent. People spoke about craft, about community, about curation, about how to actually make money from your writing. There were discussions of the importance of writing in conversation with other critics by Zoya Street; discussions of “community” and the social activism aspect of criticism by Samantha Allen.

Zolani Stewart and Kris Ligman confronted the related issues of a normative canon and curation respectively. Academics discussed the issues with academic criticism; mainstream journalists discussed the challenges of writing criticism for mainstream audiences. A whole range of experiences and perspectives proved, above all else, that “criticism” is a broad term that covers a vast swathe of writers and intents, and that that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

It was a wonderful celebration of writing-about-games as not just the peripheral thing that happens “around” the industry and culture of games, but an industry and culture in its own right, with its own people and crafts and concerns. It was great to have a day that focused on us and what we do, before a week of being at the margins, just quietly observing.

The entire conference was streamed live on the website, and every presentation should be available for everyone to watch. Slides, too, are available to download from the site for most talks. If you are interested in the craft of writing about games, I definitely recommend a look.