The question of violence in FPS games and what this means in a learning (and wider) context often lurks at the fringes of any thinking I do about the First Person Learner genre.
The software package that I’m using – FPS Creator – is designed to facilitate the creation of shooter games, pure and simple. I’m using this package because it’s cheap and accessible and there is a reasonably large community of users from whom I can draw resources in the form of models, scripts and knowledge. It is also a very easy package to use and it allows me to avoid getting bogged down in what I perceive to be the complexities of other game development tools. (I don’t know for sure, I haven’t used them but I suspect they don’t come with such a vast library of pre-made resources and actions.)
The nature of the tool then makes it very easy to create games that involve running around shooting opponents as well as completing simple find-a-key type missions and more challenging to incorporate more complex gaming elements (such as having conversations and more complex problem solving).
One of the key elements of the First Person Perspective family of games for me is the extra layer of immersion in the game that comes from experiencing it more like we experience day to day life – through our own eyes rather than as a sort of puppeteer, pulling the strings of a third person perspective character. The things that we do and see on the screen become more immediate and more personally felt. I believe that this extra layer of connection to the activities can make the learning experience a richer one and thus more memorable. We have more of an emotional response and it is the things that we care more about that have the most meaning to us.
This is also why, I suspect, the issue of violence in games tends to be at its most controversial when FPS games are involved. Even when the anti-violence campaigners haven’t actually played any of the games, they seem to recognise the heightened emotional involvement that the first person perspective brings.
The actual research on causal relationships between games and aggression is still inconclusive and it is highly simplistic to think that aggressive behaviour might only stem from one source rather than be the result of a range of societal factors however I know that I have certainly felt heightened emotions while playing FPS games. This has included heart pounding adrenaline fueled excitement and genuine (albeit illogical) fear. Whether this has also sparked aggressive behaviour in me I can’t really say – I’m generally fairly laid back – I rather doubt it but I wouldn’t 100% rule it out.
Much of the controversy about the content of games centers around what is perceived to be overly explicit violence – that’s to say more explicit than the real-life image quality of film and tv violence. The interactivity is a large source of this concern but neglects to give players credit for their own abilities to separate reality and play. While the realism of games increases daily, it is still confined to what is referred to as “uncanny valley”, a state where the closer graphics get to reality, the more jarringly unnatural they feel.
Controversies have also arisen (briefly) about the encouragement of “anti-social/illegal” behaviour in games – which tend to be just the latest in an intergenerational series of moral panics – as well as (much less frequently) the occasional presence of sex. (The hidden “Hot Coffee” content in GTA:San Andreas). Personally I find it interesting to observe that in our society something as humourously blocky and unrealistic as a bad sex simulation can arouse so much more ire and civic concern than the most explicit excesses of graphic gore. Perhaps this comes about from the fact that it’s perfectly acceptable in “polite” society for people to talk at length and in graphic detail about injuries they have suffered but only the scantest mentions of making sweet love are (generally) tolerated. Anyway, that’s a side issue really.
My concerns about including violence in games designed for education aren’t necessarily that they are going to warp the fragile minds of the people playing them as much as they might turn some people off the game altogether or that the concerned parents brigade will make a hullabaloo, in spite of the fact that their children are in fact enjoying their learning experience for a change. (Who the games are made for is in some ways a moot point, working in adult education as I am, however there are still some 16-18 year olds who come into the mix from time to time)
Educationally, FPS games (with the shooting elements intact) have pretty well exclusively been used for military training (and recruitment – America’s Army) – which makes a certain amount of sense. What I want to know is, can they be used for other training/teaching purposes without diluting the knowledge you are trying to get across?
If I put my learners in a maze with zombies behind the doors which represent answers to question, is it a reward to fight the zombies for a right answer or a “punishment” for a wrong answer? (This is a very behaviourist approach I know but still valid for some content). What if the learner is rewarded with better weapons or more ammunition for right answers or smart decisions? If the learner already wants to play this game where they can roam around shooting bad guys (or hell, OHS hazards in the workplace) then is it wrong to let them and embed a layer of learning on top of that?
Isn’t half the battle getting their attention?