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September 12

Play is one of the earliest and most important activities of mammals; helping adolescents learn the skills they need to survive. Games take the free play of the animal kingdom and apply rules and constraints, which have the ability to teach and develop the values and beliefs of a culture. The chess queen developed as a dominant piece during a period of strong European matriarchs. Monopoly is an altered version of The Landlord Game–a model of the Marxist critique of property. Today, some videogame designers are creating tools for critical play.

The Values At Play project is a collaboration between Hunter College’s Tiltfactor Lab and New York University. The project began as an investigation into how values are, and could be intentionally embedded in the design of technology. Studying values in video games, it became clear that the project’s title is more accurate than it was even intended. Wheelchair access ramps at a library embody the value of equality by facilitating equal access. For decades, military aircraft cockpits were designed for pilots over six feet tall, inherently discriminating against most women and shorter men. Games, however, don’t hold values like a vessel. Games put values at play. While games rules manifest the values of the game designers, players interact with those rules in unpredictable ways that prevent didactism.

Gonzolo Frasca is a game designer who wrote the influential manifesto “Videogames of the Oppressed” adopting Agusto Boal’s principles from “Theater of the Oppressed” to videogame design. One of the best applications of his theories is “September 12“–a game that critiques US millitarism as a solution to terrorism. In the game (it’s a simulation really) the player looks down on a bustling cartoon Middle Eastern market full or terrorists and civilians. The cursor is a bomb sight and all the player can do is aim and fire. There is no way to kill terrorists without killing civilians, and every terrorist and civilian killed is replaced with another terrorist. The game is unwinnable–that’s the point.

I work with high school students using serious games to explore global issues. While having the class play September 12 I was shocked to hear one student call out, “I beat it!” Incredulously, I asked, “How?” and Daniel explained that he simply didn’t shoot anybody. No one looked threatening so he didn’t drop the bombs. He had beaten the unwinnable scenerio by changing the rules (not unlike Captain Kirk in “Kobayashi Maru“). In the real world war games and game theory political economies run on rules designed to keep oligarchs in power. What would the world look like with more games that encourage players to rewrite the rules?

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