Sep
2009

Social Games

Gaming has long been a part of our society, but today, video games have taken on an even bigger role in our lives. Are video games tools to help better our society?

I admit it, when I think of the typical “gamer,” I think of a guy in his mid to late twenties sitting in his mother’s basement, playing World of Warcraft, on X-Box Live, talking smack against his equally nerdy opponent. Well, I am wrong. While there are examples like the one I described (of which there is nothing wrong) gamers as a whole do get a bad rap. The spectrum of video gamers today can range from little girls to CEO’s of major companies. Whether video games serve to the advancement of mankind, or hinder us, is still a gray area.

Games in general have always brought people together. Major game maker “Milton Bradley” built their marketing campaign around “making it a family night” with their games. To this day one of my favorite board games is “Guess Who: The Mystery Face Game

Which I could still play endlessly. I became quite good at it, but not this good:

The point is that games have always had a place in our world, allowing us to relax, take a break from our realities, and/or grant us much needed mental stimulation. Violence in video games is swimming around in the afore-mentioned gray area. When looking at violence in video games I would borrow the slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Most normal functioning people in society have, no desire to wake up one day and start out on a Max Payne- like killing spree. I would argue that if one has a serious chemical imbalance, and that disconnection lays dormant in one’s brain, then playing a series of violent video games could trigger that spark to go out and simulate the action one has just portrayed on the TV screen.

As most people play video games they do know right from wrong. They know this is a simulation. Most would not go and pick up a gun and start a rampage like in Grand Theft Auto. My argument goes past the individual playing the game. There is a reason for the well-marked ratings system we have for movies, TV shows, and yes, video games.

When I was a kid, our first video game system was a family event. When we would play on the Atari, my dad would watch over and even join in sometimes. Likewise when we watched TV, if there was a show that was too violent, I wasn’t allowed to watch it. I was always told “when you’re older” Parents have a responsibility to the kids. Yes, more and more games are out there heavily marketed to kids. Everyone wants a Wii or X-Box or whatever. But parents cannot allow the TV, or the video game system, to become the babysitter. Parents still need to establish for their kids the difference between right and wrong. Certainly one could be conditioned to be a crazy violent video game-like character, if they had no idea of right from wrong. It’s the parents role to oversee and step in when things get a little too “adult” for our kids. As we get older we can handle more. A person in their twenties and thirties can mentally handle a first person shooter game much better than a ten year old.

Here is an example. Prior to becoming a librarian for teenagers, my girlfriend used to run an after-school program for kids between 1st grade and 5th grade. She would organize different games for the kids everyday and often played kickball. She had this one student named Finn, didn’t do much else at home other than play video games. Mom would just let him play because it kept him busy. Finn, who was about 7-years old, developed a “restart” line of thinking. When he played kickball with the other kids, and things didn’t go his way, he demanded a restart to the entire game. Most kids simply ask for a do-over, but Finn wanted everyone to come off the field, wipe the score clean and start fresh. When he did not get it he would have nasty fits. He was so used to just restarting in the video game world, he had a very hard time understanding that when he was playing a real game, with real people, he could not restart things.

On the other hand, games are also teaching tools. We start to play games at the earliest of ages because they teach us rules and boundaries. They help us perform better in society, even if we don’t realize it.

If I were to describe to you a relaxing place, where kids could go after school, to play video games – would you think I was talking about the library? A lot of today’s libraries are just as misunderstood as gamers, but that’s not the reason why video games are in libraries. Many people have the idea that their local library is a stuffy and a somewhat outdated place in these advanced technological times. Not so. Today’s libraries are widely under-appreciated for all that they are capable of doing for us, even in such modern times. Many libraries throughout the country now have departments designed just for teenagers. These teen programs often host gaming days. There are traditional board games played, but nowadays the majority are video games. Some libraries even loan out games. While the video games are not limited to just teens, that is generally the focus for the libraries. Why, you might ask? I will let the The American Library Association explain better. The following is from the gaming section of their website;

“Why should kids play video games at the library?
Lots of kids play video games at home – alone, with siblings, or with friends. The library is a safe and non-commercialized space. At the library, kids socialize with their friends and play video games while surrounded by books, librarians, and knowledge. Video gaming at the library encourages young patrons to interact with diverse peers, share their expertise with others (including adults), and develop new strategies for gaming and learning.”
“What do kids learn when they play games at the library?
Video games give kids a chance to practice reading, writing, and computing in the library’s safe environment. Popular video games, the ones that kids really like to play, are immediately engaging and make them work hard to succeed and ‘level up’. While playing these games, kids are constantly developing new strategies, predicting possible outcomes, managing multiple resources, reading and deciphering maps, tracking complex statistics, and adapting to increasingly difficult levels within the game. They learn a range of media literacies beyond basic reading that give them models for navigating our information-rich world.”

This is a prime age to get teens into the library, especially in a time when kids think they may not need such an important place. Get them in young and they’ll be devoted for life.

It certainly doesn’t stop there either. Video games can be a strong educational tool in schools as well. I was just reading today about a school in NY that built its new school year curriculum on what they call “game-inspired learning”

These two ideas really bring home the idea of “the experience economy,” as referred to in the 1998 July edition of The Harvard Business Review. The article highlights how many businesses, in our previously booming economy, were capitalizing on selling an experience, as opposed to just another destination. Meaning when you go to Disney World, it’s not just another amusement park, it’s a cherished memory. It’s an adventure. Obviously our schools and libraries are not trying to be Disney World, but with all of the options consumers have today, even schools and libraries need to compete to stay in the forefront of the consumer’s mind. As Liz Lemmon, from the show “30 Rock” says “I want to go to there.” They want us, to want to “go to there.”

When I first set out to make the case in favor of video games, I knew there were many gray areas. One argument that lands squarely in a gray area is whether video games help kids with Autism and Aspergers. Before I explain where I am coming from on this specific topic, let me make clear I have no intention of getting into any of the massive Autism or Asperger debates that already exist out there. My line of thought focuses directly with the connection of how video games are able to help kids that have been diagnosed with these two diseases. While it’s a very important discussion to be had, I am sticking to my theme of, “video games in our society”.

That being said, with regards to Autism and Aspergers, my experience is through two different families each with different, but somewhat similar cases relating to video games. I am respecting these families privacy by giving them alternate names. They are real people who have dealt with the harsh realities that comes with these diseases.

We will start with my co-worker who I will call Larry. Larry’s oldest son has Autism. According to my co-worker, games of all kinds have been amazingly helpful for his son to develop a more normal life with Autism. When he was in elementary school, he attended a school for kids with Autism and they used a lot of games to help the kids, specifically video games of various kinds. Larry’s son grew into more traditional video games which continue to help him grow even more. To teach the subjects like math, it was so much easier for the teachers to get through to them with a fun video game. The game would hold their attention, and help them to focus. Larry also said that now, when his son is somewhere playing a video game, other kids want to come over to him, ask what games he is playing and then they strike up a conversation about games. This is one of the ways Larry’s son is able to make friends.

Here is more information from the Autism Society about a specific video game that helps:

Autism Game

I also know another family who just recently found out their 12-year-old daughter has Aspergers. I will call the mom Elyse. This family has also discovered video games help this young girl as well. Elyse has explained to me that the games have set rules, and that with Aspergers, her daughter looks to understand what the defined rules are so she has an outline of what she is supposed to do. This allows her to be in her comfort zone, and also interact with others. It also lets her ask questions about life’s rules to help in her understanding. Video games have also been an entry for her to play with other kids. She gets to be more comfortable with others and she has the chance to observe them and understand and practice more social skills.

Here is an article from MSNBC about how Second Life can be an outlet for people with Aspergers, one Doctor refers to Second Life by saying “it’s a simulated environment and lets them practice social skills in a three-dimensional space.”

As I stated earlier, I wanted to keep my argument strictly to video games as a resource for these two diseases. I am obviously no doctor, and there is still a great deal of research being done on this topic. While the families I know are very much in favor of video games as a positive resource, I was shocked when I started to research this further and found that some groups are trying to blame video games for causing Autism and Aspergers:

Here is a blogger arguing that maybe this is not the case:

To date, there is no solid defined answers as to what causes autism:

I started out by saying this is a gray area for our society. Many demonize video games.

While video games can help build communication and social skills for those who need it, too much exposure to this technology can inhibit some social skills. An example of this was brought to my attention just today. During a visit to Lyndon State College, where I went to school for my undergrad degree in Television Studies, I was talking with one of my former professors about the habits of today’s students. One of the responsibilities kids have at LSC is to conduct on-camera interviews for our nightly news broadcast. When the kids are ready to begin an interview, face to face, many just stare at the subject quietly. Generally this moment of silence last a few minutes. The students are expecting the other person to start talking, as opposed to beginning the conversation they requested themselves. Needless to say this makes for a very uncomfortable interview. My former professor went on to say he is discovering that kids are so plugged-in to their video games that getting them to make real-life connections in conversations, phone calls, and even emails, is difficult. There is no computer-generated script or story, no directions to follow on screen, no help menu to try and lead someone. To help with this growing phenomenon, ironically, a new video game has been developed to help kids develop their social skills.

The Article states:

“The authors suggest that now may be a good time to reconsider how new media are affecting people. “Perhaps it is not that contemporary media use has led to a decline in civic and social engagement, as many have argued, but rather, that a decline in civic and social engagement has led to a ‘retribalization’ through contemporary media.”

To slightly counter-balance this argument, I found an article from MIT Professor Henry Jenkins trying to debunk myths about gaming.

In conclusion, there are risk with just about everything in life. If we ignore our children (especially at young ages,) and let the computer program the kids, then the wrong message could get through. We are at a crucial stage in the realm of video games. Today, video games have so much power over kids. This power can be used for good or evil, just like in the games themselves. If these video game systems are taken on as tools to help better our society, then that power will be used for good.

Sep
2009

Vlog Time!

As mentioned in my previous post, I went back to Lyndon State College today. I graduated from here and returned today to speak with freshman about life in TV. While there I shot this blog for the class. Hope you enjoy!

Sep
2009

The Hot Tub of Communications

As I often tell people, the TV industry is pretty small, and everyone knows everyone. How small you might be asking?

Today I headed back to my undergraduate college, Lyndon State, located in the North East Kingdom of Vermont. I am a proud graduate of Lyndon, and anytime the TV program needs something, I am there. I came back to give a presentation to the freshman class about my career in television. So why was this trip so unique?

After giving my talk, and catching up with a lot of folks, my girlfriend and I headed back to the hotel. We love this hotel because they have a really nice pool, and a hot tub. Perfect after a long day.

As we’re sitting in the hot tub, a lovely woman who graduated from LSC in 1979 (the year my girlfriend was born) joined us. We started talking, we discover she grew up the next town over from where we currently live in the state of Maine. Then another couple joined in. They were visiting their son, a freshman at Lyndon, who is also a TV student, and was in the class I spoke to earlier.

We all got to talking, and soon I discover the couple’s son was also a guest on my TV show a few months ago. As they’re describing their life in Maine, they mention they moved up from Florida. “Where in Florida?” the woman who graduated in ’79 asks. Turns out, she now lives in the town next to the city they recently moved from. They started swapping names and discovered a few common friends.

As we all become fast friends, I started thinking just how small this great world of ours is, and how nice it was to start up a chat with a few perfect strangers. Had we stayed silent, this lovely moment could have been lost.

Sep
2009

Website Ideas

1.) A WEBSITE EVALUATOR

-Enter a news information based website and see the how trustworthy it is. Test the “Truthiness” of it. This site would verify how legitimate the website is. Meaning if it claims to be reporting information, but that information is President Obama “is going to kill Grandma,” then this site will inform you that it is not a real news based website, but in-fact is simply a site for entertainment.

2.) A CONSUMER MEDIA WEBSITE – “NEWSLIST”

-Think of it as Craigslist but for local news. This is a consumer based website that is generated by user content. At the core of this website is only facts, no opinions. People can report about what is happening in their area, they must state their sources and attach their name to the story. Basically what the paparazzi does for TMZ the “average Joe” can do for this site. Moderators of the site must check out the information to verify its authenticity. Local police and town officials could also use the site to post information about what is happening in their town. You can tag your town or tag your story.

3.) NEXT LEVEL PHOTOSYNTH

-Take what we use for Photosynth and apply it to people or tagging. As a source for gathering information, and connecting people to people. Think of it as the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, but with tagging, and people all over the world. How would you connect me to you? Do we have any connections between us? Plug our names into “Next Level Photosynth” and find out.

Sep
2009

Commercial Media Versus Consumer Media

Should the commercial media converge with the consumer media to better serve the public?

As I write this, the landscape of the digital revolution has two distinct sides, “Commercial Media” which represents legitimate news-gathering organizations such as the network news, local news, newspaper companies and so on. These are the companies, that, combined, we call the “Main-Stream Media” or the “Media Conglomerates.”

The other side is called, “Consumer Media.” Consumer Media is the everyman. The “Joe the Plummer” types, the people who have no background in journalism or any experience in news or entertainment. These are the people who make up the blogosphere, the watch-dog groups, the grassroots campaigns, the organizations that want to get a story out there into the world, and they are only armed with an idea, a computer, and an internet connection.

Do an internet search on any topic and thousands upon thousands of pages will load. Is any of the information true? Maybe, or maybe not. How can you tell the difference between the factual sources and the ones who are simply inaccurate. Do you know? How do any of us know? How do we know that certain outlets are to be trusted and not others. What is keeping me from posting lies on any topic on to the internet? Nothing. Recently, Stephen Colbert from The Colbert Report demonstrated how easy it is to change Wikipedia:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word – Wikiality
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Health Care Protests

Stephen made his point clear, but in the process was banned.

Whatever chaos he may or may not have caused was beside the fact. There was no safeguard system put in place to prevent someone from posting clearly false information in a place that is considered by the average web surfing public to be a reliable source.

Commercial media is trying to reign in the wild west effect that the internet has created. The problem is they decided to start their campaign far too late in the game. For that matter they began the “convergence” of the media and the internet too late as well. For far too many years, newspapers and television stations (and networks) would have websites, but have no idea what to do with them. The idea was not to give anything away for free. Now in 2009 that’s pretty much all they are doing. Yes, one must sit through a brief commercial, or see banners plastered all over a webpage, but you can pretty much find whatever you need, (and today) directly from the people who made it. The media conglomerates have joined forces with pages like Hulu or TV.com. There are still barriers, but they are mostly international. One cannot log onto the BBC and watch any of their programming if they are not in the United Kingdom at the time of logging on. YouTube still reigns supreme in the world wide web.

In 2006 M.I.T. Professor Henry Jenkins wrote that our current state of technology has developed a “Convergence culture, where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways.”

Professor Jenkins went on to say this about convergence:

“I don’t think we can meaningfully critique convergence until it is more fully understood; yet if the public doesn’t get some insights into the discussions that are taking place, they will have little to no input into decisions that will dramatically change their relationship to media.”

This lack of communication with the public on the commercial media’s part has helped generate, a now very large, consumer media presence. This form of media is more often opinion based from people who want to call or refer to themselves as news and information providers, all via the internet.

Often times consumer media comes about through a feeling of irritation with commercial media for “not reporting the story.” Commercial media can’t report on airwaves every story that everyone wants. Yes, everyone has story to tell, but there isn’t enough time in the day to tell it. Plus not everyone’s story is compelling enough to share. News must be selective.

The cost is that sometimes important information slips through the cracks. Sometimes more details are required for the story, and can’t be told through commercial medias outlets. In “The Wealth of Networks” Yochai Benkler refers to it as “oversimplifying complex public discussions.” Benkler calls for more people to have access and to participate in an open flow of “observations and viewpoints” uncontrolled “by media owners and not as easily corruptible by money as were the mass media.”

So we see more and more blogs, or independent websites, reporting the stories they feel need to be told, but often make clear an opinion. Some are legitimate sites like the Huffington Post. Others go out of their way to fabricate the truth and even go as far as lying to their readers. They may believe the stuff they are telling people, but it may not always be true. For example, we know President Obama is NOT a Nazi, and is not trying to turn our youth into Nazis.

There are no real ethics in consumer media. One can post anything one wants anywhere on the web without being called out for accuracy. This is not to say that Commercial media doesn’t get information wrong from time to time, or even make things up, like Jayson Blair did with the NY Times. There are, however, checks and balances to catch this. The FCC can reject a broadcaster’s license, media companies can be held liable and be sued. Can the same be said for consumer media? Where are their checks and balances? Who holds them responsible for something that isn’t true, or for instigating fear mongering?

Commercial Media is going further and further to welcome the consumer media into the fold. Almost every cable news channel or local news asks it’s viewers to comment on a story, link to this, email us your photo’s, “If you see breaking news send us your photos or cell phone video of it, and other ways, “encouraging the consumer to become part of the story. This can blur the line between the professional media outlets and the amateurs.

Many media organizations call this “The Return Path.” The idea is to not lose the viewer. Keep them with you. By encouraging them to send their photos to you, or comment on the story, so they are involved, and they keep coming back. They, in turn, talk about it on social networks, generate water-coolor buzz, link and email the story to everyone they know, demonstrating that the power of the commercial media still exists.

More and more stations have producers dedicated to working on the return path. Rather than having viewers start their own webpages, commercial media would prefer that you utilize their webpages to tell your story. If one has a breast cancer walk they want to tell everyone about, use their space so you get noticed, as opposed to starting ones’ own blog to report about it, where very few may see it.

This action is a small, but an important one. It gives everyone a legitimate outlet to share their stories, but can catch any people who may spread incorrect information. People must register and attach their names to their comments. If a comment is rude, cruel, or hurtful that person is blocked from being allowed back to that site. That doesn’t stop them from going off and creating their own website, but does keep them off the trusted news source.

So does this convergence better serve the public? There is still lots of potential for the wrong information to be reported. Giving the average person a direct path to report their own news on an outlet that is charged with being the trusted brand, without checking their sources, is dangerous. Commercial media feels this is the needed action to keep people with them, and not lose viewers or readers to other sources.

Consumer media is only going to get bigger. Commercial media and consumer media will never fully converge, but the public must be better educated so they understand the difference between the two. I propose a “Better Business Bureau” type system where a trusted name in news, or a legitimate news organization, is allowed a ratings system, or certification, to show to the public they are indeed a real news organization. Commercial media outlets must get together, and put their rating wars on hold long enough to figure out a clear system to explain to a viewer or reader that they are the legitimate news organizations.

If a page wants to be taken seriously or be considered to be a real source of information that is checked and verified, then they must meet a certain amount of standards. Should this webpage or source meet the standards, then they are allowed in. Should they violate the standards then they must be reported and investigated.

This is not to say a webpage is banned or not allowed to exist. Under this idea if a webpage wanted to be considered a legitimate source of information they need to stand by it. It could be as simple as a logo on the web browser. Much like the logo of a pad-lock when one is on a secure website.

The public needs, and relies on, educated journalists who know what they are doing, and not rogue consumers who may have the best intentions, but may not fully grasp the consequences of their actions should they report something that isn’t true.

The convergence will continue between Commercial Media and Consumer Media, and there are a great many benefits, but the line should never be so blurred that the public cannot tell the difference between what is fact and what is fiction.