Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Technology of the Kill

I like the theoretical argument that computer games, like MMOG’s such as World of Warcraft (WoW) can be good for learning, and Thomas and Brown marshal a lot of different theoretical strands from across different disciplines to show that “good” learning goes on in games that involve social cooperation and specific tasks. The problem is (like most theory) the data is taken from one context and assumed to apply to another area.

I may like the idea these complex computer games teach skills, but I am not convinced that this is something all teachers will find useful to their goals. In fact, despite the compelling arguments that playing these games involve skills that are most certainly being learned and applied in the process, I still would like to see how real players of these games are applying these skills to tasks outside the game. My worse fear is that in some ways these games can contribute to a superficial and shallow orientation to tasks, moving students further from the kind of writing I find so hard to get them to do—long, extended arguments (minus blood and explosions) that can engage real world tasks in meaningful and thoughtful ways.

Okay, but there is the fantastic bonding and social cohesion that Thomas and Brown rightly point to, and I even experienced this profound experience in my short venture on WoW. It does seem that the social bonds can find meaningful expression outside the game, but there are many things that can build community, and they may not entail the kinds of tasks (alright, I’ll say it—violent and territorial) that many games seem to glorify. My question is this: does it matter what tasks are performed in virtual worlds? Is it enough to say that they build cohesion without looking at the nature of this bond?
I am thinking here of the “social bonding” or “trigger” that moves experience outside the game discussed by Thomas and Brown on page 163, where they note how one player said “He may be your good friend, but have you ever killed Arugal together?” adding that “the connection she felt to the group had been powerful and intimate” (163).

To complicate the question about the nature of the bonds being established in games like WoW, I am going to go a bit Burke on you for a moment (which means taking a theory and applying elsewhere, where it may or may not be applicable!). In his attempt to understand how nationalism and social organizations find themselves in bloody conflict without fail, Burke sought the source of the second world war in what he called “The Rhetoric of the Kill”: “On every hand, we find men, in their quarrels over property, preparing themselves for the slaughter, event to the extent of manipulating the profoundest, rhetorical, and symbolic resources of human thought to this end . . . .With the evidence of the Crucifixion before us, we cannot deny that consubstantiality is established by the common involvement in a killing. But one must not isolate the killing itself as the essence of the exaltation. Rather, one can account for the consubstantiality as arising from a notable, or solemn experience” (A Rhetoric of Motives 224-226).

It does seem that MMOGs can provide a solemn and notable bonding experience, but I just wonder if the nature of the tasks that groups bond in and over can help perpetuate the kinds of social bonds that allows and even condones a kind of group-think attitude that can be used to act violently towards others not inside the group. I do think that the bonding can be done in ways that might make the “rhetoric of the kill” a central feature of cohesion, which means that violent games may be another way to perpetuate bonding thru the kill. Of course, the majority of WoW players, like citizens of nation states that go to war, are peace-loving people, but this does not seem to prevent them from allowing violent acts to be committed by specialist who belong to their nation groups. “All for one and one for all” to quote Victor Hugo’s Three Musketeers—but were they really the good guys?

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