Good afternoon. My name is Garrison LeMasters, and I'm a Visiting Assistant Professor on the faculty of the Program in Communication, Culture, and Technology at Georgetown University. I'm grateful for the opportunity to speak with you today.
As has been amply and ably demonstrated this morning, the use of games and gaming technologies for training, for education, for policy-making, for research and for and outcomes-forecasting is clearly an idea of some significant mass. Over the past decade or so, it is an idea that has generated a lot of press, some useful research, and more than a few market-ready terms like "gamification" and "funware."
I completely agree that there are interesting conversations to have about "the benefits of digital games beyond entertainment," and that it's worth exploring "the practical use of games," I worry that this represents a markedly limited way of thinking about the intersection of games, technology, and institutions like the Department of State.
Indeed, in extremis, I worry that it points to a fundamental impoverishment of human freedom.
Let me begin by acknowledging that — beyond even those affinities Special Representative Pandith noted this morning — it is worth pointing out that sophisticated, "serious" games and play have long been important to the work of diplomacy and statecraft: Role-playing, for example, is a staple of the diplomat's toolkit. So is the generation of "as-if" scenarios; the plotting of alternative histories; the use of minimax-style decision-making is literally derived from Game Theory. Indeed, the philosophy of "play" is the basis for the utopian fantasies that make diplomacy a meaningful activity in the first place. Fantasies that allow us to ask: How else might our world appear?
So then let me then echo Ben Sawyer in observing that "All games are serious," and substitute "serious issues" for serious games. For brevity's sake, I want to point to three serious issues that loom at the intersection of games and the business of the Department of State: Sovereignty, governance, and playbour, and then make a more general comment about serious games and human freedom.
A decade ago, Ted Castronova identified Norrath as having a GNP per capita somewhere between that of Russia and Bulgaria, higher than that of China and India, and noted that a unit of EverQuest currency was worth more than the Yen or Lira. Given the inevitable rise in the populations of places like Azeroth and Norrath, and their booming economic footprint, for how long will the terrestrial nation-state remain our de facto unit of political sovereignty? I have a complex basis for this question that involves Plato, poetry, and the invention of the alphabet, but let me elide that in favor of a few observations. Go to Google, and type in the letters "AZER," and what do you see? The first suggestion is Azerbaijan, a Republic in Caucus mountains of Eurasia. The second suggestion is Azeroth, which is of course the world of world of warcraft. Ted Castronova has done a good job of discussing this from a public policy perspective in his book Exodus to the Virtual World. But I think that you saw it this morning in the opening talk of Arjun Sethi, who repeatedly suggested that national boundaries were largely banal, and instead built products that addressed linguistic, cultural, and social affinities.
Which leads to my next issue.
Who's in charge here? What are the models of governance that we should adopt in these virtual worlds? How should real states treat virtual states? How should virtual states treat real states? A number of today's presenters, for example, lauded the ability of games to argue and persuade, and to foment positive social change, but they did so while making clear arguments that few would find objectionable: Save electricity, save the world, oppose totalitarianism. But what happens when virtual states go rogue? I think that the recent antics of Anonymous are useful here.
My third issue:
How shall we think about the rapidly developing phenomenon of "liminal ICT work" or playbour (a portmanteau of "play" and "labor")?
While, admittedly, early reportage on the practice of gold-farming was probably more a function of Western anxiety about Chinese economic growth than it was a careful survey of reality, a number of reputable scholars, including Richard Heeks, Vili Lehdonvirta, and organizations like the WorldBank, have recently contributed to a more robust picture of "liminal ICT work."
According to Lehdonvirta's recent Knowledge Map of the Virtual Economy, "An estimated 100,000 young, low-skilled workers in China, VietNam, and throughout the East, earn their primary income by harvesting virtual resources" from Azeroth's fertile lands.
Gross revenues of the gold-farming services industry were pegged at approximately $3.0 billion in 2009, most of which, according to the World Bank, was captured in the developing countries where these services originated.
It gets more complicated when we dig deeper: On Wednesday, for example, Britain's Guardian newspaper raised the specter of coerced playbour in Chinese prison camps.
Which brings me to my final issue, which is largely philosophical:
As others have suggested, "serious games" are nothing new. But what does that mean, really? In earlier cultures, in better times, games were instruments of knowledge production and management. Think of tarot cards and yarrow stalks. The gods themselves played games, not to entertain themselves, but, in Heidegger's phrase, to world the world.
Our renewed interest in games restores some of that luster, but it does so with an instrumentalist twist: In the era of serious games, our play has a purpose. Learning, social change, emancipation, profit.
I would suggest that, much like the relegation of games to pure entertainment, this is an impoverishment of the form.
Ideally, every game is an instantiation of human freedom. There is a deep, resonant power in our shared willingness to put aside every law of the universe, all of the interpersonal pressures of class and society and gender, all of the constraints of mortality and being, and share an unnecessary game of checkers.
We may certainly think of an online game about geopolitics of the second world war as an attractive alternative to a dry lecture, but for the student, who cannot choose not to play the game, there is only more work. We may think of the DoD's deployment of a virtual Iraq for acculturation as an improvement on previous methods of instruction, but we would do well to remember that it is not a game, because the soldier cannot choose.
Serious games certainly look like games, and certainly draw upon the complex mechanics and proceduralism of games and the rhetoric of play, but they are, finally, instrumental. Intentional. Political. Which is not suggest that they are not worth pursuing, but to suggest instead that even as we prepare to face down virtual nations, and slap tariffs on Real Money Transfer, and involve the US in three-way negotiations with China and the Dwarves of Iron Forge, we recognize the richer human experience of a disinterested game of checkers.