Today Ian Bogost’s essay about political games was published on Kotaku. In it, he critiques the White House’s endorsement of using games as media to change people’s minds about issues — especially because there’s no evidence of follow-up that, say, helps the least advantaged economically find and afford healthier, more wholesome foods. Then, he levels his sights against the games industry for not demanding more of these educational games. We would “demand more of Valve or EA Sports or Blizzard,” he writes, pointing out that “games can do more” and that we should expect as much out of them, even though developing a good game takes more time and money than the government apparently is willing to invest in the medium.

I fully agree that this gesture from the Obama administration is just patting the medium on the head. I fully agree that games can do more. But as the chatter about serious games has heated up — in the industry, in government, in academia, and elsewhere — the critical eye to which we should turn our assumptions about the gamic medium has not surfaced in much (ahem) seriousness. I’ve been having a good conversation with the people behind the gleefully irreverent game/parody INVOKE, which is, of course, a reference to Jane McGonigal’s current project EVOKE, about this very issue. Before we can make serious games that really change the world we live in, we should think about how serious we are about serious games.

Look at it this way: video games are inextricably tied to the military-industrial complex. Not only were the first games developed in academic labs doing military research, this year’s Serious Games Summit at the GDC was sponsored by the Training and Simulation Journal, which is, uh, a defense industry journal. I’m not crazy, right? We should be a little concerned, right? (If you’re not, go look at TSJ’s website and tell me what you see.)

Video games are also inextricably tied to late capitalist modes of consumption and individuation. While this issue deserves more exploration to really illustrate my point, consider that in the video game the individual is allowed to be whatever ze wants to be, and if that particular persona is not interesting any longer, ze can opt to change games. And, as technology improves, mainstream titles have begun to feature more and more options to change your character — from the purely aesthetic to changes influenced by the player’s own moral choices throughout the game.

In the end, the crux of my issue is this: games as a medium may not be as progressively inclined as many in the serious games community would like to think they are. In fact, they spring directly from an institution that progressives tend to rail against. So why are we complaining about the government’s failure to invest the time, effort, and money necessary to develop great serious games, and not examining our own ideological assumptions as game developers and critics? Why are we relying entirely on the form? Or even in the case of McGonigal’s now-recognizable ARG form, why our derivative forms are so imbued with those old forms?

I know you may be thinking, of course we would want to use video games for change because the kids love ’em! But what I’m saying is not that we shouldn’t make video games (or other games that rely on contemporary technology) with an eye toward progressive goals, but that in doing so we must be more critical about the form, where it comes from, and what that means for our design practice.

I think Bogost scratches at the surface of this in his essay, but why stop at giving GDC attendees a hard time about their fawning over Michelle Obama? Why not call the entire institution (and it is an institution) of the “games industry” into question? Why not question the particular ways in which video games reconfigure the way we interact with one another? How about the way in which we structure, understand, and speak about space? And don’t forget that gamic ideologies of spatial organization are rooted, of course, in military discourses.

These are complex issues, and there will be no clear solutions. But the only way we can move forward — and counter the very crucial but somewhat half-baked games sponsored by the federal government — is to examine our discipline. (After all, why are the coolest games sponsored by the federal government military games?)

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