About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Video games come to the rescue, or do they?

Most intellectuals snub video games as a waste of time at best, and as a clear and present danger to young people's minds at worst. Recently, however, the video games world has yielded a few interesting surprises worth pondering. Not only has there been research showing (perhaps not surprisingly) that video games actually improve some mental skills (not just reaction times, but also the ability to focus and keep track of complex scenarios), now an article in the New York Times presents the rather novel idea of educational political games.

Yup, you read correctly. Big guns such as the MacArthur Foundation, the University of Wisconsin, and even the United Nations are exploring the possibility of employing sophisticated video games that simulate geopolitical scenarios to teach people about the real life situations that inspired the games. For example, you can be either a Palestinian or an Israeli leader trying to solve the Middle East crisis in the game “Peacemaker” (hey, has anybody sent a copy to Condi before her useless trip to the region?). If you play “Food Force,” on the other hand, you'll learn how difficult it can be to bring aid to displaced populations, while “A Force More Powerful” aims at showing the effectiveness of non-violent forms of resistance.

The idea behind these attempts is that many people who might play these games (Food Force has been downloaded four million times from the UN web site) are unlikely to read an article or op-ed piece about them. Moreover, while reading an article engages you only in a rather passive way, playing the game will force you to use brain power to try to “win,” and in the process – it is hoped – learn valuable lessons about how complex these issues really are.

There is, of course, little research at the moment to show that the approach works, and there are obvious problems, such as the fact that the games embed certain assumptions about the situations being simulated, assumptions that may reflect particular political or ideological agendas, rather than the reality on the ground. There is also the perennial “moral” problem: is it ok to “play” at killing Israeli and Palestinians on a computer screen?

Both problems are, I think, not limited to this novel use of video games. Ideological assumptions and agendas lie beneath any article, op-ed piece, or book written on politically and ideologically charged issues. Heck, even while reading this blog you better be aware of my liberal-progressive leanings (I hope that doesn't come as a shock, because otherwise you weren't paying attention). As for playing a game with serious issues, wouldn't the same criticism extend to, say, writing a play, or making a movie, or writing a novel, or even painting the Guernica?

So go ahead, read, play, and think. They ain't mutually exclusive activities after all.


  1. I used to practice my Spanish by turning on the Spanish language mode on the SNES version of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego.

  2. A few years ago, one of my kids was playing a game centered on military conflicts. I noticed that he lost, and I asked him what happened. He replied that he had spent too much money on assault weapons, and not enough on fortifications. He was only about 12.

  3. Whatever you do in life, that's always a learning experience... Until you die. :-)


  4. 4 million downloads - hard to think that 4 million people look at a UN website let alone see it as a source for video games. I suspect this is 4 million school children doing famine projects who found something more exciting than research to do. But I guess if it gets them interested it's worked.


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