Jim Fleming: Video Games. They've grown up. Celebrities act in them, famous directors like Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson design them, but electronic gaming isn't just about entertainment. British writer and game theorist Tom Chatfield believes games also have the potential to revolutionize a field that could use a dose of fun: Education.
Tom Chatfield: I'm really interested in games that don't label themselves as educational, but that offer intense and amazing learning experiences. One classic example is the game Civilization, and that series of games where you are learning about the history of the world and great discoveries and adventures through a management game, where you're managing a civilization. It's incredibly fun. And I also think that games are fantastic at teaching working with other people, and systems thinking, whether this is the body or the climate or a city or politics, and a good game is very very much like a good learning experience.
Fleming: You know it's not unique to video games at all, is it? You can never get people to accept information just because you layer it on top of them. You have to find ways to let them discover it.
Chatfield: Exactly right, yeah, there are people who argue that, in fact, the best way to understand any video game is as a learning experience. It's trying to teach you to do something. If you think about sports, you are getting better and better and better at a set of activities, and a really good sport is one in which there are immense possibilities and a sort of skill and mastery, but it's still fun to start out. And a good learning experience should often look like that. It should encourage people, it should inspire an appetite for excellence, but also interest you while you're doing it. There's some very complicated stuff going on in all this. Sad to say, commercial games really show up the limitations of mainstream teaching.
Fleming: I'm curious about that. Because the comparison between video games and sports is obvious enough, but what about the classroom? Are there any games that do teach you things that you really need to know?
Chatfield: Well, I talk in the book about some fantastic work going on in Scotland, where they've started using games - Guitar Hero, in particular. Students make up a band. They send it on tour. They then book hotels, they work in different languages, they do conversions, they release their band's album, they market it, they go to other schools and have playoffs and battles, and the act of play unlocks lots of incredible learning.
Fleming: Is it true that the U.S. Army is using video games to train soldiers now? That seems like an anathema, one to the other.
Chatfield: Well it's interesting, you say it seems like an anathema. Because if you look at the history of games, games and warfare are intimately linked throughout their history. And in fact, if you want to practice warfare if you're an ancient Greek or a Bronze Age warrior, warfare cannot really be practiced, except by playing games. Because if you're not playing a game, people die. And yes, the U.S. military is spending more than six billion dollars annually on games and game-like simulations. And in fact, you're beginning to see, I think a very disturbing collision between virtual and real environments where unpiloted drones and robots and that kind of technology are being controlled through video gaming interfaces - through virtual, three-dimensional worlds that pretty much, at the flick of a switch, you can go from being in control of a virtual drone in a virtual world to controlling a real drone or real robot in the real world. They are incredibly good at doing this, perhaps worryingly good.
Fleming: What about other areas of our lives? Could video games be used for political ends, for social ends? Could we develop political or social awareness with video games?
Chatfield: Well I think this is already happening, really. Some of the most impressive electoral achievements of the last few years have taken place in games. A game called EVE Online organized an election involving people from more than 50 countries to elect people on its Stellar Council in there. And then there are also lessons we can take away from, if you like looking at how people behave in game environments. To deal with economics, to deal with politics, to deal with cooperation.
Fleming: You recently did a TED Talk, and one of the things that was fascinating was an experience at Indiana University. They've done away with grades in one classroom experience, and in some sense it has almost taken the student out of the classroom and allowed the student to put an avatar in in his place?
Chatfield: That's right. It's the idea of using an experience system rather than grading. And instead of, whether you've got an A or a B or a C for a particular test, you're accumulating points on one large scale over time. And this has a number of advantages. People invest in this much more clearly on an emotional level. They own this steady, incremental progress of their little, kind of character, their little miniature self. But also, they can see very clearly where they're going, where they've come from, where they lie in relation to everywhere else, and this is very inspiring. It's one of the great things about games. You walk in, you've never played before, and you see around you people who are powerful, and people who are expert and amazing, but you also exist on exactly the same sort of scale as them. You can see your little experience points ticking over, and if you work hard enough, you will get there, your experience will reach that level. At every school, you see virtually no connection at all between the test you're doing and what someone who has a doctorate in Physics or is a professor is doing. They're a different worlds, it doesn't make sense. And the idea of this continual progress, and the excitement it generates, and the fact that it replaces this idea of sort of failure and punishment with continual, incremental personal progress. This is all very powerful stuff.
Fleming: So what do you think about the future of games? Where do you see video gaming going?
Chatfield: The interesting thing for me is that, a few years ago, people saw the future in terms of immersive virtual realities, where you sort of vanish into virtual worlds. In fact, the future is looking less and less like that. The future is looking more and more like a world that which people are casually playful, where people have a powerful mobile device in their bag and in their pocket, and they like logging in to play casual, fun games and to do things asynchronously with each other. Which means, "I do a move now, and then in a couple of hours' time you can make your move or you can update your foul, harvest your crops." And this barrier between sort of work and play is breaking down a bit.
Fleming: Several times in our conversation you've pointed out the similarities between sport and games. Sport, of course, involves in many cases thousands of people watching as a game is played. And that, at least as far as I know, doesn't really happen in the world of video games. Do you think it might be added?
Chatfield: I've got to contradict you there and say that it does happen, it's already started to happen. If you were to go to South Korea and you were to ask what the two most viewed sports were, soccer would be number one, but video gaming would be number two. It's the second-most televised sport. You can get crowds of over a hundred thousand people turning up at a stadium to watch a live match between two Starcraft gaming champions. What I think we're going to see is, people being more and more interested in watching expert gamers, and watching gaming heroes playing games in Youtube and also at live events. So I think, in that sense, it's almost inevitable.
Fleming: Tom Chatfield is the author of "Fun Inc.: Why Gaming Will Dominate the 21st Century".