The computer game with a conscience

26 May 2008

There is no reason to be concerned about computer games, claims Espen Andersen, Associate Professor at the BI Norwegian School of Management.

Screenshot of Age of Conan (Funcom) game

"Funcom, an inconspicuous but highly influential company in Norway, is currently releasing the Age of Conan game. The game represents an investment of more than 100 million kroner and is therefore one of the largest gambles within entertainment in Norway.

Like the market dominating World of Warcraft (with 10 million users), Age of Conan is a game in which the users create the content. The participants play with and against other participants in a parallel universe, where they are represented by figures (avatars) that gradually pick up qualities and weapons as users spend time and money.

Make or break

The months ahead will be make or break for Funcom, who have developed the game: Can they attract a critical mass of users? Will the users find the game deep and broad enough to interest both those who play intensively (and thereby develop the game) or who play less (but in the short term constitute greater incomes).

I don’t play online games even if happen to visit them. Games of this type are either something one does properly (and then I’m quite sure that they can be fun to fight, even for older people) or not at all. Just giving it a go will result in you literally hitting walls and running into bushes, never managing to pick up an overall view and skills, and remaining merely a number in the large number of users all games companies advertise.

Creating concerns

But then I’m not in the target group. The core of gamers is made up of young, primarily male, users who spend a great deal of time on Age of Conan and other games. This creates concerns amongst those people whose work it is to worry. (The fact that girls spend a great deal of time on Facebook and sometimes Second Life doesn’t seem to worry people quite as much.)

The games are violent, they argue. The participants get little sleep; some skip school for a year due to play and this can’t possibly be good. (The financial and moral insanity that result from dependency creating gambling games such as Keno, Lotto and betting, which are released free on the national TV channel NRK, are never mentioned in this connection.)

I am not so concerned and wish Funcom success. Young boys (and girls) need something in which to get caught up and an outlet for excess energy. Since school offers little to stretch them, sports are reserved for people who dedicate their entire lives to them, and spiritual and intellectual options such as churches, organizations and libraries either act like broiler rooms or are about to disappear, why not enter the gaming world?

Play as a learning arena

One learns strategies, collaboration, planning, tactics and even contributes to society, since this sport chiefly involves sitting still and thus doesn’t lead to an increase in CO2 production…

In the longer term, the games can actually be a good training arena for the use of what Clay Shirky calls cognitive surplus:

The utilization of something interactively, which previously had always been used in passive entertainment. Wikipedia has taken around 100 million hours to build up (including all comments, amendments and languages). This is just as much time as the USA’s population spends each weekend watching TV adverts.

In other words, the concerned elder generation is sitting in a glasshouse. Older people who complain that the young play too much should turn off the TV and do something useful – why not write an article or two for the Norwegian edition of Wikipedia?

Then they will be able to talk to young people based on experience of social platforms, and in addition do something useful for society since Wikipedia is now the de facto school syllabus and, to an ever-greater degree, the basis of knowledge upon which your children will build their future. Or maybe you can dive into the Age of Conan instead, and chase your children back to their homework from an angle they didn’t expect?

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