Do video games have a responsibilty to educate?

Way back in 1922, when television was a brand new invention, the fresh British Broadcasting Corporation or BBC as we know it, decided its mission would be to  ‘inform, educate and entertain’ . Granted, the world was a different place and the power of the media was only just beginning to be realised but it was the spirit of modernity and a desire to use technology for the greater good that forced the BBC to put such a maxim in place. They felt that it was part of their job, with such massive power, to try and teach people something good.

If only modern video games felt like they had to do the same.

Serious films and books have always needed to ask bigger questions than just their story, and have challenged the status quo or tried to understand or change people’s belief systems. Cinema continues to confront racism, sexism and notions of what is right and wrong. Could you imagine video games doing this? Why not? How does Halo 2 stand up to a film like Schindler’s List?

Today, video games outsell movies and that includes trips to the cinema – click here for the Telepgraph article. That means that sales of titles for the playstation, Wii and the Xbox 360 might be becoming the most powerful cultural phenomenon on the planet, especially for those under thirty. As one of my young gamer students said  – ‘I don’t watch films.. because I’m not in control of the action’.

Part of the problem is that video games aren’t taken seriously enough by the media or by the general public. Some people just don’t admit to liking video games because they might be geeky or in some way childish – not at all serious and highbrow like books or cinema. Why not?

Truth is, games do already educate us and our children in more ways than we might imagine. Mark Prensky, James Paul Gee and other academics claim that playing computer games help people to learn. I know the ancient peoples of the world from playing Civilization and learned about ancient Japan through ‘Total War. but in a similar way I know lots of irrelevant stuff from playing games, like the fact that you need a silver weapon to fight a ghost in Oblivion. What if video games had tried to teach me something that might be helpful?

Video games do have a responsibilty to their players and they ought to be able to challenge opinions as well as reflex action. This is changing though games like  Heavy Rain, it’s is an emotional thriller that sees players take part in a story as they have never done before – and is getting closer to the cinematic experience. However, it doesn’t go far enough.

Here are the video games I’d like to see. Bringing up a teenage boy in a north London estate – when he gets arrested the game ends and then the sequel, bringing up a teenage kid in a South African township – only this time the game ends when he dies. How about a third person adventure where you play a busy doctor in an NHS hospital dealing with patients and getting points when they live or die, and then the sequel, exactly the same – but in India. Here’s a good one, a sort of Grand Theft Auto style game but set in Iran and rather than mafia style activities you get  involved distributing illegal rock and roll music and pro democracy leaflets while avoiding the religious police. Prison guard in Congo?  Prison guard in Guantanamo Bay?

Truth is, gamers probably don’t want to have to be faced with these kinds of difficult decisions. The beauty of a film or a book is that you don’t have to choose what happens or decide if it’s right or wrong to do something, it just happens and you don’t have to be part of it. There’s a big difference in watching a character shoot another character and you actually having to shoot someone in a video game.

At the end of one of the first Spiderman movie, Spidey repeats the line his uncle told him earlier on in the film – ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ If only it were true in the video game industry.

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