Notes from Andrea Conover
Frank Lantz | NYU Game Center
Frank began the talk by commenting that this material was speculative and a little bit weird, so there would be time for Q&A at the end.
The big question: Do games have a significant impact on how we think?
Frank began by addressing neurological research on the effects of gaming and noted that it is almost entirely low-level empirical exploration of perception, reflexes, peripheral vision, problem-solving, and other mechanical processes in the brain. However, the larger-scale emergent effects on the way gamers interpret and interact with the world remain unexamined.
There are two main approaches to answering this question in the gaming industry: Jane McGonigal and Eric Zimmerman
Jane McGonigal argues that games make us smarter and happier, as well as facilitating social interaction and helping us recover from trauma.
Eric Zimmerman argues that the question is inappropriate: other forms of art like painting or novels don’t need to justify themselves. Paradoxically, Eric does agree that gaming has an extremely positive effect on players.
However, negative effects have been noted recently:
Zimbardo recently wrote a book arguing that games’ emotionally impactful and hyper-sensitizing effects without proper contextualization with real world stimuli was dangerous to players, particularly young men.
The relationship between Gamergate and the alt-right demonstrated the strident anti-intellectualism, extreme hostility, delusional paranoia, sadism, and mob mentality that can be incited in a worst-case example of how games can negatively facilitate if not outright influence players.
Frank acknowledged this connection could be an accident of history, but argued that, with the legacy of our industry on the line, we can’t take that chance.
So if games can implement positive change in the way people think, how? For some time, the gaming industry has argued that one of the main positive effects of gameplay is systems literacy. If this is true, what is it about games that enables this new way of thinking?
Frank used the example of a knot. Two cables in close proximity often knot, but it is rarely known why or how this occurs. In thinking about this process, Frank illustrated multiple possible configurations of the two cables as nodes, while the connections represented the path between each arrangement. Two cables in a confined space randomly go through various configurations, and knots develop when an arrangement can be drifted into but not out of. This example demonstrates two concepts relating games and systems literacy.
Randomness: Probability theory originated from dice and card playing mathematicians attempting to win more often. Modern probabilistic thinking is one example of gamer thinking.
State Machines (as a simple example of computational thinking): Digital games have long existed as the “PR of computers, inc.” as many games were developed to demonstrate computers’ abilities.
Is this really a question about how computers and software affect our thinking? It seems to be more about anxiety surrounding logic, systems, and modernity at large than video games as a distinct, problematic occurrence.
To explain this leap in logic, Frank returned to neuroscience, arguing that written literacy, as old a phenomenon as it is, is so new to human history that our brains essentially hack the areas of our brain that process spoken language to learn to read. Perhaps we are centuries into a process of developing new literacies. Millennia-old debates surrounding the evils of written literacy (such as those posed by Plato) are surprisingly reminiscent of the modern debates about systems literacy.
Either way, Frank noted, “we can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” so we might as well use it to further positive change.
Frank turned to Kegan’s Stages of Development, which can be used to represent individual people or societies at large. This 5-stage schema proposes that people go through five stages of personal development:
The first two stages primarily apply to children, while communal mentalities are often associated with adolescence and pre-Industrialized communities. Systematic individuals often adhere strictly to rules and systems, and the post-Enlightenment modern mentality is viewed as quintessentially systematic.
Fluid mentalities, therefore, subordinate systems to the process of meaning-making. Rationality is treated as a powerful but not all-applicable tool for understanding life. It is not a rejection of rationality, but rather a meta-rationality that sets it within a larger context of lived experience.
Stage 4 can fail people by being too hard to reach, but also by being too brittle (in the face of the realization that no one system is sufficient), working too well (devolving into an eternal pattern of circular self-justification), or leading people to bail out of personal development between stage 4 and stage 5 into nihilism.
Games provide a unique opportunity to influence the development of individuals and society. No game claims to be the ultimate explanation for the world. Games embody logic but don’t contain it. (Chess is an eminently logical game, but it would be illogical to spend your entire life playing chess.) Games exist outside ordinary life but also teach us about it.
Therefore, Frank concluded, “This is OUR problem. We have a duty and responsibility to participate in the evolution of society” and “build a bridge to meta-rationality.”