One of my professors, Kurt Squire, started his class by relating a story that he had about a game that he played often back in the 80s. The game was Sid Meier’s Pirates. His story was that he played the game so often that when he got to this section of history class in his school, he didn’t quite understand why it seemed that he knew all about the history of pirates in the carribean and few others in his class did. Now I’m sure this little tale was a little bit of an exaturation. I am sure he full well knew that he knew this stuff because of the game, but it is still a very unique story on how we do learn from games, whether we mean to or not.
He used this as a way to start his course on learning in games. The premise seems to mostly be about how to teach in games. Mainly, how can we create a better learning environment for students through games. Now, I’d like to say I’m not entirely caring about the games for learning initiative. It is interesting, but it is not for me. I’d rather just play games for fun, that’s just me. However, this example that Squire put forward did give me some thought as to what is the responsibility of the game developers for honesty in games?
This seems like an irrelevant question, but it has serious ramifications. What if Meier decided not to research the history of the Carribean during the time frame that he wanted his game to be in and just made up everything in the name of being “fun.” Poor Mr. Squire would have walked into that class with all sorts of wrong information on the Carribean due to his playing that game, and what worse is he might have thought that the information was so correct that he may have even argued with the professor over the validity of the game. Thankfully, Meier did his homework and the game is fairly accurate, though likely not without its inconsistancies (by this article i do not intend that people be 100% correct, even historians debate certain points on history).
Even though I have little interest in learning through games, I do fully admit that games offer a deep sense of learning whether intentional or not. The sad fact is, is that through every piece of art, be they painting, literature, or film. People learn things. And people take these things that they learn as literal truths. How much do you think that William Shakespeare has changed the shape of the way people think of Anthony & Cleopatra due to a play, and one that was likely only loosely based on reality (like all Shakespeare’s plays were, he knew of historical events, but wasn’t worried about being accurate….. still to this day, many people think his historic plays are historically accurate).
This fact offers us, as the developers, a lot of power. And as we know from Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility. So what is this responsibility we have? Do we have a responsibility to be accurate about our games? Do we have a responsibility to have a real disclaimer to warn consumers if we are not? Or at the very least do we have a responsibility to be accurate in historical games that give the user a sense of being a historical game?
I am sure many in the industry would say that in fact, we do not have this responsibility. Many would even say that if Shakespeare wasn’t worried about it, why should they. And they do have a point to a certain degree. On the other hand, perhaps Shakespeare had this same responsibility and failed to live up to it. The cost of this was many misinformed people, moreso of that day than today, but many of the myths that he created still persist. Do not forget, that in Shakespeare’s time, most everyone was illiterate and thus the main sources of education to those people came from the church and plays. If you think about it, this isn’t entirely off from where things are today. As kids pay less and less attention in class, they turn to television and video games more and more for their education. As a child of the 80s, I can with all honesty say that yes, my education was formed probably just as much by television as it was by school.
This is not to say that we should take this all the way. I don’t think that Super Mario Bros. is in need of a disclaimer warning that not everything that occurs in it is true. There are some games in which are so blatantly fictional that this is not a problem. But what about a game like Grand Theft Auto, a game which is incredibly fictional but is close enough to the truth that a person could very easily think this is how things operate in some parts of the world and decides that it is ok to DO these things. Now this is not to say that even this always works. There will always be people who believe everything they see. I am sure there are people who think that there is a plumber out there named Mario who saves princesses by jumping on mushrooms and that this isn’t abnormal for a plumber’s job. However, this is true in every industry. There are actually people who think that “The Young & The Restless” is a documentary about real people.
So what can we do in the industry if we are making a game that is close to reality? First of all, we need to research what we make. I know many designers actually do, Will Wright for instance is known for reading books to get his inspiration on games (those factual types of books, not those fictional ones). So we should read books on the subject that we are making games on. If you are making a game that is based on recent history, like one of the many WW2 games coming out, try to talk to someone who lived in the battle you are trying to duplicate. Hell if you are making the next GTA, talk to a frickin gang member for a change if you have to. But research, and if you know something isn’t right, make sure you inform the consumer that what you are creating isn’t entirely factual. And not in the EULA which I’m sure has all that in it, but an actual disclaimer that the consumer has a chance at reading.