Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Computer Games

The main title immediately caught my eye: “The Hyperaddictive, Time-Sucking,
Relationship-Busting, Mind-Crushing Power and Allure of Silly Digital Games”
but the alternate title, “Just One More Game ...Angry Birds, Farmville and Other
Hyperaddictive ‘Stupid Games’ clinched the deal. I had to read the article in
the April 4, 2012 edition of the New York Times Magazine by Sam Anderson.

I was hooked because I’ve always had this love/fear relationship with games and
especially computer games. The attraction came from the addiction and so did the fear.
In 1982 I presented a paper at the National Education Computer Conference in Kansas
City entitled, “A Call for the Study of Computer Games” in which I attempted to make a
positive case for them (they improve eye-hand coordination thus improving the chances
of your son growing up to be a fighter pilot) and to try to categorize them according to
their structure (learning games for teaching reading or math, board games like chess and
checkers, adventure games like Dungeons and Dragons, etc.) Nowadays, there are games
and simulations that are smarter, faster and prettier.

Back then, the most interesting and exciting computer games existed in video arcades
in malls. I fed many a quarter into single-purpose computing machines that allowed
me to play Space Invaders and Asteroids (Pac Man never grabbed me). As computer
technology improved and become less costly, these and newer games migrated to
personal computers made by IBM, Radio Shack, Apple and Microsoft Corporations. By
this time I was wary of seductive power of computer games. As a graduate student in the
mid seventies at the University of Massachusetts, I designed and developed a Computer
Managed Instruction system pretentiously named “ACCOLADE” --- an acronym for: An
Alternative Curriculum for Computer Literacy Development. Definitions of “computer
literacy” can range from: “the ability to tell a computer from a horse” to “highly
developed skills in the art of programming plus broad and deep knowledge in the areas of
history, applications, social issues, hardware and software”. I chose the latter.

After a hard day of building and testing ACCOLADE, I relaxed by using my state-of-the-
art Plato computer (it had a pixel resolution of 512 by 512 ) to play one of the very first
games on a very early version of the Internet --- only about a dozen nodes. “Empire”
was a graphical multi-user game with a simple premise: Conquer the Universe. You
joined a team of geographically distributed users (aptly named Terrans, Klingons, etc)
and with combined recourses (spaceships loaded with armies and various weapons)
attempted to accomplish the goal of Universal Domination. When this was achieved by
one of the teams, the game was reset and another 24 hours of play began. As a newbie, as
soon as I entered the game I was quickly dispatched by a seasoned player so it was not
much fun. In desperation, I sent out a message to all players, “New player needs help,
please be gentle”. Almost immediately I got a response, “I can help” and they proceeded

to put me in “tractor orbit” and tow me around under their protection while I was taught
basic survival strategies ( like reallocating some of my energy from defensive shields to
photon torpedoes instead of the laser canons). After a bit, I messaged back to
mentor, “Ok I think I’m ready to fly on my own – thanks very much for the help”. I got
the reply, “No problems, by the way how old are you?”. Surprised, I answered “I’m 36”.
“YIIIIKES!!!”, was the reply. “What’s the problem?” says I. “I’m 12” says my instructor.
It was my turn to say “YIIIIKES”.

I learned that while there are many ways computers waste our time and even act as
dehumanizing agents, they still have the power to promote egalitarian values. By masking
cues such as sex, age (and smell), they allow us to interact as equals. In fact from that
point on, our conversation changed as my teacher realized I was an adult and I that he
was a child --- it shouldn’t have but it did. Just another instance of technology acting like
a double-edged sword.

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