A recent story on NPR (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125588087) casually mixes gaming, simulation and computer programming, as if they were all one in the same. Typical is this quote from a student studying “gaming,” “As soon as I got into computing, I just fell in love with it. I really love the logic behind it. I love the sort of building-something-out-of-nothing sense that you get from it.” Notice he said “computing,” and not “gaming.” Even if that’s what he meant, the two are clearly the same to him.
According to the NPR story, students at Georgia Tech are learning how to design games by studying previous game systems. Game like Go (2,500 years old), Mahjong (2,000 years old) or Chess (1,500 years)? How about those Johnny-come-lately games like Monopoly (100 years)? Nope. The grand-daddy game to be studied…Atari (for those too young to remember, that would be Pong, 1972).
To be fair, Pong was a phenomenon in its day. But why? To understand that, hopefully these degree programs include elements fundamental to game design – any game, not just computer games – why people play games, the nature of competition vs. cooperation, the concept of flow, the psychology of decision-making under stress, reward and penalty, etc. That part apparently isn’t nearly as exciting as virtual reality, augmented environments and iPhone apps. But without those fundamentals, what you get is a computer game programmer, not necessarily a game designer. There’s a reason those previously mentioned games have survived for hundreds or thousands of years, whereas the drawer under the family gaming console is littered with forgotten game cartridges from last year.
My issue with this story can be summed up by changing the title to this post to “War Gaming and Models & Simulation – It’s All the Same Thing, Right?” In other words, the tendency to see technology as the ends rather than a means to an end. Not that gaming is the ends, either. Gaming, using a board and tokens, playing cards, computer, ball and bat, or just our imaginations can be a powerful learning and discovery tool. At the Naval War College, gaming is used to examine a wide range of pol-mil problems: deterrence, cyber-threats, irregular warfare, conventional conflict, counter-proliferation, future maritime strategy…all with technology no more complex than desktop computers running Microsoft Office.
By focusing on the latest technology, we tend to overlook the most powerful gaming system that’s been around for millions of years – the human mind.