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The Dialogue Tree

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The Trap of Indoctrination in Gaming

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April 17th, 2011 at 5:23 am

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The committee’s been out of session lately. Unlike some almost government shut downs, this wasn’t due to a bunch of politicians arguing over partisan issues, but rather events far more mundane: I got sick. The most common thing the world really. But then I got hooked on something far more sinister during my recovery.

No, not morphine. Something far worse: BioWare games.

Getting through Dragon Age 2 for my review took some time. In fact it took 2 full weeks of almost non-stop playing in any spare moment I had to get it finished. No big surprise there, RPGs tend to be long affairs. Unfortunately as I finished the game and sent in the review, my body was hit with a strain of influenza so bad I was starting to worry that I would soon dream about Mother Abigail.

M-O-O-N. That spells a Stephen King reference.

So, sick as a dog and stuck at home, I decided to kill time by burning through some other BioWare RPGs, namely Mass Effect 1 and 2. So though my body eventually fought off the disease that kept me couch and bed bound, I found myself unable to stop playing through Commander Shepard’s tales of inter-galactic peril.

I beat ME, then it’s sequel with my imported character . . . then did it all over again. On both games. This meant clocking in roughly fifty hours for each playthrough . . . so yeah, there’s a period of roughly 200 hours of my life that are just gone. Poof! I left them in Citadel space somewhere.

I won’t bore you with a “survivor’s tale” of how I managed to overcome my “crippling addiction” that “destroyed my life”. Far more troubled writers than myself have spun that yarn before me, and unlike some Oprah guests, are usually telling the truth about it. Besides, it’s not like this is even a surprising event really, video games can be addictive, occasionally dangerous things. Not to be too cynical, but with the speed the internet age moves, this type of story seems “a tale as old as time”.

No wait, that was Beauty and the Beast. Belle eventually left the prince by the way. He neglected her in favor of World of Warcraft.

So what changed? And why does this matter? Do I even have a point? Or is this all just a bunch of overblown nonsense to a threat that doesn’t actually exist?

The answer key: I’m getting to that. Probably not. Hopefully? Most definitely.

Two things occurred. First, I received an email about my Dragon Age 2 review. Some fine soul disagreed with my assessment, wanting to know how I could have given such a positive review to a game that is, “objectively bad to anyone being honest with themselves” ? Though usually I wouldn’t give stuff like this too much of my attention, I was still reeling from space-age fever dreams. As a result this polite hostility actually got me to think about it, since it only took a tiny bit of research to realize that the rest of the internet seemed to agree with him.

While I know “thinking” is just another in the long list of things I probably shouldn’t let myself do (in between starting fires on the lawn and eating only cheez-whiz for a week straight), the question of why my mostly positive opinion of the game clashed with many others bounced off an idea that comes from a plot point during the gameplay of BioWare’s other game franchise, the one I was currently waist deep in the middle of.

During Mass Effect the main antagonist, an alien cyborg dragon-man named Saren, is able to (through means that are spoilertastic for those who haven’t played it) convince practically anyone to follow him in an apparent crusade to wipe out all life in the universe. Obviously this is the type of goal only a small handful of nutballs would ever agree to, but somehow Saren is able to worm his way into the minds of the hundreds of followers actually required to pull this off. The characters in the game don’t like to call it mind control, because that would make it silly. Rather it’s called “indoctrination”, which is apparently the “serious” way of saying the same damn thing.

It was when these two ideas collided in my addled brain pan that it hit me:I’ve been indoctrinated by the very game using indoctrination as a plot device!

Is Saren here actually powerful enough to break the fourth wall?

Alright, that might be a bit alarmist. No, a video game wasn’t actually controlling my mind, but it definitely felt like it was. During this time, had you asked me what my opinion of Mass Effect was (my review of it if you will) it would be enormously positive. Not that this isn’t without cause of course. Both Mass Effect 1 and 2 are pretty universally acknowledged to be some of the best bits of science fiction currently available in any medium. Hell, there are already a few tie-in novels and comic books for the series, and there’s the just announced movie in the works.

(Of course video game films don’t have a great track record, so I don’t think anyone’s holding their breath over it, but it definitely means this series is growing in the world’s collective imagination)

So getting addicted to a good series of games, while definitely not healthy, can’t necessarily be a problem- right?

I suppose not, but here’s the thing: a smaller form of this type of indoctrination occurs with every game. Don’t worry, I’ll explain how in a moment. But more importantly if this is the case, can any review of any game truly be objective?

Despite the fact that I usually pride myself on keeping a distance with the games I review, I’m starting to think the answer is no. Especially in games that are particularly long.

And long games are all these Canadians ever make.

Unlike any other medium in the history of human entertainment video games are unique in that they involve a rather hefty ( hefty hefty!) amount of involved learning in order to get through them. This is no surprise for anyone in the industry. In fact, many developers actively try to turn games into digital skinner boxes in order to keep players actively involved.

Even in games that aren’t actively trying to manipulate you into addiction, you still have to learn the game’s rules in order to play. In the case of the complicated, massive RPG adventures like Dragon Age, you have to learn almost a countless number of rules.

You have to learn the character class you play, which entails learning their strengths and weaknesses, and what options you have to build your character and the areas you should prioritize to make them stronger. Then there are rules for items, for weapons and for armor. There are rules governing money, of upgrading items with runes, of finding resource points, of scripting your AI companions, of general battle tactics, of timing in combat, of romance reactions, of . . . well the list of goes on and on and on, ad nauseam.

Now, the developers of such games have gotten quite good at making us learn these rules without us ever even realizing it. This is mostly because well . . . games are fun. So we want to learn the rules in order to participate in the fun, and developers do their best to sneak them in so we don’t even think about them too much.

As the military knows, if you drill enough rules into a person’s brain they eventually lose perspective and become easily suggestible to any other ideas you have to offer. Most of the time this is exactly what turns people into the effective unified fighting force we need them to be.

Although, as illustrated in Full Metal Jacket, sometimes it doesn’t quite work out the way we’d like it to.

So the theory is, basically, “In order to play a game, you have to learn its rules. But the more rules you learn, the more difficult it becomes to maintain objectivity and distance to the material. Therefore, if a game is particularly long, it may be impossible to maintain objectivity at all.”

For the most part, this is just a sort of acceptable hazard of being a gamer. But when reflecting on that email, it hit me. Maybe this is why the vast majority of video game reviews skew towards the positive?

Seriously, look at the average review scores from most video game critics on exclusively gaming publications; they’re usually average out in the 70% range or above. Due to this, most folks think a 70% rating on a game is a rather negative score, because they don’t often dip below this margin. 70%! To paraphrase something Calvin once said to Miss Wormwood, “How is 70% average? If everything in the world worked 70% of the time, we’d be living in a utopian society!”

Before he began urinating on everything, Waterson’s kid creation was actually quite the observant tyke, wasn’t he?

Hell, even when game reviewers try and to be fair and present multiple viewpoints, it often seems like they’re drinking from the same kool-aid. The most notorious example probably being Game Informer’s “Second Opinion” reviews which are almost always deviate less than a single point, or are even exactly the same as the original reviewer’s score. That’s not a second opinion, that’s a reinforcement of the first one!

Since there’s no way publishers can be buying the reviews of every gaming journalist out there, this “indoctrination effect” may actually be the reason (at least in part) so many game reviewers usually seem like they’re little more than corporate shills. Even if a reviewer is aware of this danger though, they still may fall into its trap. Speaking as someone whose been in this field for a little while now, I think we may fall prey to it for actually trying to do our jobs properly and maintain some professionalism.

After all, you wouldn’t want to read a film review if you knew the critic writing it walked out of the movie half way through right? Nor would you trust a restaurant review from someone who only sampled the bread sticks. Well we game reviewers know this, and speaking for myself at least, make sure we at least “finish” the games we’re reviewing. Or at least as much as we’re capable of, since some games don’t really have an “ending”.

Actually, I hear the plot twist at the end of Tetris is quite mind-blowing.

Thinking back to my time with Dragon Age, it seems a distinct possibility that I had fallen into this very trap. At first, my opinion of the game was actually pretty negative. I found the opening ludicrous, character animations stiff and unresponsive, and the combat kind of boring. But since I had a job to do and integrity to maintain, I made the choice to see it through till the end.

While a poor opening sequence in a movie only gives the audience about an hour or so to turn itself around, this was a long, plodding RPG, so it had another eighty to try and change my mind. Eighty. A much longer time to change an opinion, and plenty of time to slowly massage someone’s thought patterns.

Reading my review again, I definitely concluded that the game did turn itself around from this poor opening act. But was I just adapting to the mechanics and slowly becoming indoctrinated to its world, or was it actually improving as it went along?

I may never truly know. But I honestly don’t think I was swayed by the siren song of subtle mind control. Partially because most of the time, I’m a rather stubborn guy. But mostly because I actually did make a point in my original piece to highlight many glaring flaws the game has that even some other reviewers are apparently overlooking (such as the issues with it’s narrative structure). I never said the game was perfect in the least. Even looking back on it with all a new perspective in tow, the most I might alter on the review is the actual score, which I might lower half a star. Not because my viewpoint on the game has truly changed, but in re-reading it, the score doesn’t quite match the body of text that follows it.

That’s it.

Guh? Really? After all that build up, the most I can admit to is a tiny difference in a rating?

Yes. Sorry to burst your bubble “guy who emailed me to tell me I had no idea what I was talking about”, but though I freely admit to losing my head for a while to Mass Effect, Mass Effect is not Dragon Age 2 (despite what some folks are claiming online). Besides, though I might have spent far too many hours getting to know all of the nooks and crannies of Kirkwall, I also did the one thing that helps diffuse the effects of indoctrination. I waited for a bit before writing about it, trying to turn mere contemplation into something more akin to hindsight.

Hindsight isn’t just 20/20, he’s also a snappy dresser!

Though I know for some reviewers publication deadlines and the always present desire to beat out the competition probably prevent this sort of waiting from occurring too often, it’s something that needs to be done from time to time. Especially if the game is long. It’s the little bit of deprogramming that’s necessary to form as objective an opinion manageable, and something I’m now doubly sure I abide by. So even if true impartiality may be impossible, I’m going to try to be as damn close as I can manage.

As for myself, this whole “addicted to BioWare” thing has definitely been a learning experience. It’s not something that happens to me often actually. I think the last time it did was with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess when the Wii launched back in 2006. So maybe videogame addiction really IS a disease in that either your immune system must be weakened (which in my case was a literal thing) or it has to be a particularly virulent strain of game (see every MMO and/or Pokemon game) in order to catch it?

At the very least, now that I’m “healed”, I shouldn’t have to worry about this happening again for another half a decade or so; there’s no more Mass Effect for me to actually play! I mean, it’s not like there’s another installment looming over the horiz. . .

*Ahem!*

Aw dammit all to hell!

  • http://risenenigma.tumblr.com someguyinal

    I’ve noticed this and I can really place a lot of the blame on schools’ grading systems. 59 and below is considered failing and a lot of people subconsciously give that the equivalent of a 0, since they are both F. 60s are not failing, 70s are not failing, but not passing, and B’s and A’s are pretty good and great. I think that people are grading with a similar mindset in reviews, leaving out 0-59 most of the time.

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