Thursday, October 16, 2014

Go dig up the solution to world peace in a video game environment

Phil Vischer and a few of his friends
A few years ago, I worked on a tech project for a firm that wanted to provide good clean entertainment to kids over the web.

Their idea was to focus on the Bible. They had good credentials: the key content producer was Phil Vischer, creator of Veggie Tales.

I thought the Jelly Telly team had zeroed in on a worthy challenge: how might it be possible to utilize the affordances of an engaging web environment -- collaboration, gaming, entertaining content -- to involve kids . . . and to do it in an alternative way? They had a worldview they wanted to emphasize and in their view it was orthogonal to (and possibly at odds with) the mainstream.

What intrigued me was that so much of what kids found entertaining on computers involved conflict and/or acquisition. So for me, "alternative" meant something that didn't appeal to "first person shooter" psychology. How might it be possible for people to interact on the web in way that didn't look like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty?

My antenna were further tweaked when I started to do a bit of research into trends in game development during the past decade. I was chagrined to find that it has been the U.S. military that has seen the potential in video games and has invested in figuring out how to put them to use for its own purposes.

A game called Activism . . .

In the years since my brief stint on that project, I've focused most of my attention on social media and writing, and I'm not directly involved in application development any more. But from time to time the question would come back to mind: what do kids want?

Creative resistance: Tapestry depicting drone victims
In particular, I often thought of this when I participated in meetings of various antiwar and other activist groups, and we lamented the lack of involvement of "young people." Inevitably some wise person would remark that if we hoped for young people to be involved, we should look for and embrace ideas and leadership from young people, doing activism in ways that appeals to their sensibilities. And my imagination would turn to a game for teens, one perhaps called Activism . . . !

I've begun paying more and more attention to creative resistance and art-as-activism, and begun to understand some of the ways that alternative worldviews are expressing themselves in the way young activists do their work and live their lives.

There is so much to see. But somehow the game connection kept eluding me . . . .  Moreover, I was becoming more and more aware that the intimate relationship between the military, suppliers of drones and other weapons systems, and games like Call of Duty was becoming more and more problematic.

Finally, I was visiting friends in Washington, D.C., a few months ago and found myself talking to their brilliant and boundlessly energetic teenage son. Hearing that he spent a lot of time playing computer games, I offered up my one stock observation on the topic: "Isn't it too bad that the ones that people find the most fun are all 'first person shooters' ?" I lamented. "It's all Grand Theft Auto, isn't it?"

"Do you know about Minecraft?" he asked, wide-eyed.

Mining for a heart of gold

We trooped down to the computer in the basement and, for the next hour, Jack showed me the world of Minecraft.

One of the many "worlds"created by Minecraft users
"Several islands connected to create a huge world called World of Keralis.
In this world we can find all necessities, such as airports, harbours
including several realistically created ships and many different types of
buildings. We have got villas, skyscrapers, warehouses – anything you can
find in a real life city."

This is what, in my old person way, I took away from that tutorial:

* Minecraft is an environment in which people create lots of different "worlds."

* There is a significant opportunity to enjoy building, and to build very intricate constructions.

* People interact with each other in Minecraft by joining the servers that host specific worlds/environments.

* A lot of Minecraft worlds/environments are devoted to fantasy gaming of the kind that involves lots of battles, powers, points, etc.; but there is also a lot that is just about building stuff and appreciating what others have built.

In other words: not your father's video game. (For further explanation, see "A Parent's Guide to Minecraft")

Got to get ourselves back to the garden . . . 

Minecraft landscape wallpaper by Haven
I am just at the beginning of my efforts to learn about Minecraft, and explore its possibilities. So far, I've learned several interesting things:

(1) Minecraft does, indeed, have an entire mode of use designed as "peaceful." (See "I play Minecraft on Peaceful mode")

(2) Minecraft has already, indeed, spawned a dazzling array of inventive "worlds. (See, for instance, "11 Family-Friendly Minecraft Servers Where Your Kid Can Play Safely Online" and "50 Most Realistic Minecraft Creations")

(3) Other people are also figuring out that Minecraft is a good environment in which to encourage young people to solve problems creatively. (See "MineCraft in the Classroom?")

(4) Microsoft just bought Minecraft. (See "Why is Microsoft buying Minecraft?")

(5) Minecraft isn't the only possible platform for exploring alternative forms of collaboration virtually - just the best. (See "50 Non-Violent Video Games That Don't Suck")

So now I'm asking myself this question: what are the 2 or 3 -- or 5, or 10 -- biggest lessons about "collaborating in peaceful mode" that we might be able to witness if we were to seek the answers in Minecraft worlds?

If we expect world peace to be accomplished, we should probably look for it to be done by young people, and we should look for clues to how it will happen in environments like Minecraft.

9 More Ideas You Won't Hear

at Chicago Ideas Week . . .

Related posts

This exchange has always stuck with me, because once you peel away the hopeless competitiveness and lack of compassion of these two characters, you are left with a grain of truth: if you want to succeed, you need to go where the conversation is taking place. The question for us: are we willing to check our egos at the door and get busy talking to people?

(See Antiwar Agitation in 2014: Less Mercutio, More Larry Levy )

Leveling Up is the creative work that demonstrates just how thoroughly America's new ways of warfare have become intertwined with the other dominant strands in our culture.

(See Level Up, Step Up, Grow Up, Man Up . . . Wake Up)

A big Hollywood production of Ender's Game is scheduled for release on November 1. It's a perfect opportunity for us to ask: Are we happy seeing our schools turned into "Battle Schools"?

(See "Ender's Game" and the Militarization of Youth: Can We Talk About This? )


It's a pitch-perfect antiwar tale -- timeless.  You can read about it on the Michael Sporn Animation blog, and watch it in two parts on Youtube. I don't know what part of "The Hat" I like best: the totally convincing dialogue (spoken by Dizzy Gillespie and Dudley Moore)? the original soundtrack they created?  the mythic arc of the story? the exquisite drawings? Where are we going to get more of this kind of work to power the movement to abolish war?

(See Antiwar Animation: A Lost Art? )

I believe when Jesus broke the bread and poured the wine and said "Remember me this way," he was much more interested in encouraging us to keep having conversations -- conversations that really matter -- with others . . . and finding ways to be in relationship with our neighbors  . . . all the while reminding us "never underestimate the power of food"  . . .

(See Get Outside Your Comfort Zone and Have A Conversation Today (Welcome to the Ministry))

Other related links

October 28, 2014 - "It’s Game Over for ‘Gamers’" by Anita Aarkeesian in The New York Times: "The time for invisible boundaries that guard the “purity” of gaming as a niche subculture is over. The violent macho power fantasy will no longer define what gaming is all about."

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