The Difficult Quest for Entertainment that Teaches

I’m all for positive values in entertainment, but at the extremes of this effort we usually find cheesy Christian movies, moralistic TV programming, stupid PBS specials, and embarrassing digital media.  Now, at the “Games for Change” conference, video games are suffering as well.  There’s no question that violent, sexually oriented video games are a terrible waste of technology, but at the same time, I’m not sure “social change” video games will really make the world a better place.  Take for instance a few sample of the kinds of games this conference is promoting.  The Weekly Standard described them like this:

There’s Ayiti: The Cost of Life, where you control a rural Haitian family and decide to either send your kids to school or put them to work. No matter what you do, you run out of money and everyone gets sick. There’s 3rd World Farmer, where you plant crops and raise livestock, only to see them wiped out by disease and fires at the end of every turn.

Then there’s iCivics, a website full of videogames to teach people about government.  iCivics began with a judicial branch game, Argument Wars, in which players fight Supreme Court cases by choosing arguments in front of a stern, futuristic-looking judge. In Executive Command, you’re a president who chooses a broad goal for his term, and then has to manage various crises while still pursuing his agenda. Oddly enough, though you can choose “deficit reduction” as your primary goal, the game offers no opportunities to cut spending and penalizes you if you refuse to raise taxes.

Obviously, I’m not against serious efforts to clean up entertainment.  But ultimately the key to entertainment is that the consumer wants to do it. You can’t shove education or ideology down someone’s throat just by dressing it up as a movie or game.

Jonathan Last, the writer of The Weekly Standard article had perhaps the best description of the whole enterprise in his final section:

“The entire Games for Change concept is of a piece with the central conceit of the Internet: that you can change the world without having to actually do anything.

Want to change America? Download the Obama app. Want to fight the Iranian mullahs? Turn your Twitter icon green. Want to bring human rights to oppressed peoples? Play a video game about it. Because what matters isn’t fighting autocrats or feeding the hungry or improving the conditions of Haitian farmers. What matters is knowing that you care about such things.

Games for Change isn’t really about the dissidents, the starving, or the wretched: Like the Internet itself, it’s all about you.”

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