Axing the Interactive Games Fund

Among the raft of cuts made by the Australian government, which it’s leader describes as ‘grown ups’ in a rather patronising manner — is the axing of the Interactive Games Fund to the tune of $10million. This was set up by Labour of course and administrated — very well on most accounts — by Screen Australia. Screen Australia are in turn doing some really important work around ‘screen time’ too, and in fact one of the few bodies to be doing so. The Australian game industry is reportedly worth $1.45 billion dollars in 2012.

Why would you invest in games development? Simple. Games are the multi-billion dollar growth industry which can start in your bedroom and take the world by storm. Australia is (unless your are media hermit) known for being great at games. Go and look up some of the most influential games in the last five years … Australian’s are massive. Then consider that many in games also work in social media, marketing, advertising, film and television — so it’s not ONE company or a few grants which government killed off, but a valuable pathway which also includes education and life long learning. It’s hard to dismiss the culturally conservative undertones which focus almost entirely on game content and ignorant of game-play. The embargo-banning of games such as Saints Row is a typical example of not understanding the medium itself. For example, game-play is vital to the experience of a good or bad game, not content which is background (James Gee). Game-play would therefore be critical to medical and military simulations and so on. It will be important to training and education … but the fact that games have zombies and Murdoch hates them is sufficient it seems.

Compare this to the $248 million allocated indoctrination of children by un-trained and deeply culturally filtered people who freely wander into schools, where as media education is still waiting outside. I know massive spending and massive cuts make more sensational headlines, but for Australian gaming, this fund barely got up before it was pwnd.

I am clearly not a fan of neo-liberalism, and as a free minded citizen amazed at any ideology which believes it can legislate, starve or in any way prevent the continued rise of the interactive media entertainment industry globally — and bemusement at the simplistic ‘leaders’ who believe it prudent to dismiss Australia’s contribution so far or the value of this industry into the years set out in their ‘return to surplus’ as though that has any meaning in today’s society.

 

Videogames and Australians

It would be incorrect to assume Australians have responded to the phenomenon of videogames in the same way other nations have. In a sense today’s contemporary gameplay is a global network of servers and players whom preference certain games or genres. However, despite the ease of access to international information about videogames, childhood, parenting and school, very little information is based on national evidence and is not one single progression of discussion, study or debate – but a multitude which often have little in common aside from the term videogames.

I argue that videogames are essentially grouped into three periods of study and interest. Each period of study has seen increasing diversity and technological advancements of videogames and gameplay. I make a point of also separating videogames and gameplay because they evoke quite different conceptions and emotional reactions in both adults and children.

The first period is pre-2001. I realise that between the mid 1970s and 2002 videogames made many technological and cultural advances, but in terms of study, this period was concerned mostly with what games are, what play is and the effects of video games on society. It followed a long tradition of viewing media with suspicion and conducting experiments with small groups of participants to try and guage how playing certain games (mostly violent and sexualised) altered the behaviour of the sample subjects. As numerous scholars have argued, the methods used to do this are suspect and they made many assumptions, demonised and simplified games to the point of being little more than an erant-interactive film. Despite the claims from clinical science, it has not been shown to lead to real-life violence in any predictable way.

The second period is between 2001 and 2009. This is essentially because this period of scholarly interest and research began to look more deeply at the assumptions being made about videogames. In the literature, you will find many respected media, sociology, game and educational academics began to write about and discuss new dimensions of games and critically appraise the ongoing claims about aggressive and habitual behaviour in real-life. People like Marc Prensky, Jasper Juul, James Gee, Henry Jenkins and James Seeley Brown expanded the field of research (and potential research) well beyond the realms of science, economics and mathematics. This era also is the foundation of the majority of ongoing debate about videogames in popular culture. It plays out in newspaper, magazines, television and websites on a daily basis.

The essential question is usually: Are videogames bad for childhood development (and therefore society) and what should be done about it.

The answers probably lie in the third period of research and study of videogames, which can best be described as beginning. In Australia and prior to 2008, videogames were treated in national studies as a leisure activity. In that regard a videogame was treated like a trip to the movies, playing a game of soccer, listening to music or reading a book. It was not treated as a media-text with unique properties. It was not investigated in the public domain in association with or in preference to the kind of media-choices that families take in their stride in 2014. Most significantly, it was not treated as a form of literature nor something which was used in education or the workplace.

We therefore know very little about videogames and Australians right now. We have seen reports of statistics, but these often focus on simple demographics and size of the market. This is unsurprising given the close association some scholars now have with the games industry — and how secretive the game industry is about their data and their customers players.

In 2008 we knew that most parents were not overly concerned about aggression, violence or so called addictive qualities of video games. We also know that those parents with children aged 12 and over we considered to be the first generation of children to have grow up with access to video games and that over half had played video games as a child and continued to do so using a computer. Again, no specific details on the type of computer or game and even less about consoles and handhelds.

We can’t compare todays figures with older figures because there have been significant revisions to how videogames have been classified and how questions have been asked at the national level. For example, videogames are now considered part of children’s ‘screen-time’ use, but as most parents know — that use varies as does children’s access and the type of games they can play at any given available time. No data is being collected on the use of screen time or games in education, despite the billions of dollars of educational technology funding lavished on teachers and school systems since (weirdly) 2008.

What we do know is that the media presents videogames in ways intended to gain the attention of parents: either as customers or to perpetuate the same ‘media effects’ panic which has been rolling though popular media since the 1930s. We do know that all children and the vast proportion of adults play video games of one sort or another in the home, where as the vast majority of teachers and students (identity switch) do not. It strikes me as bizarre that some teachers are now expressing new interest in game-based-learning as though our culture has not already embraced it as media entertainment and used it to make sense of the world from the inside out for a very long time.

Videogames are a prolific and much enjoyed form of media entertainment in Australia. Despite ongoing media panic, Australians have not had the level of negative emotional reaction to videogames as might have occurred in other nations. We can’t assume that data and facts from PEW (American Life) can be generalised to Australia in the way the Aussie Dollar is a bit like the US Dollar.

We don’t need to hide from teaching and studying games, and games don’t have any excuses to make. The fact that Australians are highly likely to engage with complex, computational problem solving from pre-school onwards despite un-ambitious and media-conservative educators and narrow media ownership whos dislike of games is obvious — is quite remarkable.

So if anyone questions why you’d want to use videogames in school or home it is fair to say that as a media-text we see far more value in them than media reports broadly admit and far less danger than they claim.

Accessible Gaming

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At a schools conference last week, I was asked about accessibility and gaming by a teacher who had a student who had suddenly lost vision following an accident. The student had been an avid computer and video game player.

While gaming from a stereo-typical stance requires adaptation, it isn’t out of bounds for people with disabilities. World of AbilityCraft is a great blog documenting one persons use of Warcraft. It’s not purley an info-blog, but has documented one person’s journey with some very powerful posts. According to PC World “Steve Spohn is wheelchair-bound, on a ventilator and can barely move because of muscular dystrophy, but he’s still able to play video games.” His Xbox controller was invented during a Hardware Hackers Challenge, a contest to build a handicap-accessible game controller in under two hours. Industry research has currently shows around 20% of game-players (and buyers) has some form of disability. This is no small figure, given the hundreds of millions (if not billions) of people who buy and play computer and video games.

Evil Controllers produces a range of modified console controllers. The Gaming Accessibility Guidelines provides invaluable information on the development and use of games from basic through to very complex. Game Accessibility is a very broad topic, which includes the challenges of age as well as more overt challenges. Website “Assistive Gaming” produces reviews of almost all the new titles for OSX. This shows how diverse the topic has become, with plenty of information for multiple platforms and game devices.

Games used as a way to learn, can appear quite simple, yet very effective. Many of the best selling games currently appear throw backs to the golden era of video arcades in the 1980s with simple sounds and graphics. Don’t discount them on the basis of appearance. For example, the website One Switch has a list of games which are accessible – in a library of games – some being very simple, though to being as complex as any high-street title.

Need some adaptive hardware to play? Check out Broadened Horizons for an amazing array for adaptive interface devices for video gaming – which in many instances are better controllers for fully-able players, due to often bad-design in the first place. Yes I’m looking at you Xbox D-Pad.

Game Informer recently wrote a fantastic piece on what it feels like to be a game with a disability. In it the author says ” trying to define game accessibility is like trying to nail Jello to the wall. Since each disabled gamer has different limitations, we all have slightly different definitions of what makes a game accessible.”

There is a strong case for gaming and there is no reason to believe that computer and video games are in-accessible. AbleGamers, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to supporting the inclusion of accessibility in video games, rated Dragon Age: Origins the most accessible mainstream game in 2009 with a score of 9.8 out of 10.

There are devices, games, reviews and advice online to allow gaming to be included in the classroom. Not sure where to start – how about one of these six puzzle platformers …