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  • Game Studies: How Do Games Make Us Think?

    - James Kinch
  • Game Studies: What tools do games provide us to "think"? Answering Kurt Squire's ~20 year old question.

    Kurt Squire asks ‘What are the goals and intentions of players in gaming environments? ... Do game players have opportunities to think with authentic tools in gaming environments?' Since his essay, a vast amount of Game Studies research has examined these questions. Using examples you have researched, discuss how gaming cultures, or games themselves, provide us with the tools to ‘think'. What type of ‘thinking' does this engage with, and how does it occur?


    In an early paper in the Game Studies journal, Kurt Squire published ‘Cultural Framing of Computer/Video Games' where he discusses how video games have been viewed by a variety of different peoples, games as teaching tools and where he would like to see game studies research in the future. In the article, Squire talks about the current research into how children learn from games.

    According to current research at the time, players only learnt skills that affect them in similar situations such as being a good shot in an FPS game which could be transferred to another. He then goes on to ask the questions "What are the goals and intentions of players in gaming environments?" and "Do game players have opportunities to think with authentic tools in gaming environments?" (Squire, 2002). Since 2002, many larger, more open and dynamic games have been released. In addition, these questions have been explored by other games researchers and this essay will discuss how they can be answered with examples of those current games and cultures that have been created.


    Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

    Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Infinity Ward, 2009) is an FPS developed in 2009 and features campaign and multiplayer modes. Early into the campaign mode, the mission "No Russian" can be played. The mission involves going undercover as a part of the enemy's team to kill hundreds of innocent civilians in an airport in order to gain their trust and by doing this, they hope to stop them. The mission is slow and very linear when compared to others from the game. The player is given a large arsenal of weapons to use to kill the civilians with. The game features many destructible/intractable props that are used liberally in the mission to showcase the damage that the player is causing.

    This level in particular uses a lot of set-pieces which shows civilians dragging other bodies around to move them away from the gunfire (often leading to their own death), large groups running away from the gunmen and others include people limping/crawling away. Checkpoint markers and a single "Follow" sign appears above the enemy team's leader, "Makarov". Children's luggage is shown on the floor. There is very little resistance from airport staff as they only have pistols. 4 Minutes into the level, the player is allowed to move faster and a riot team appears to try and stop them from killing more. Once they have taken out the riot team, the mission ends with them climbing into the back of the ambulance, the player getting killed by Makarov as he knew he was a spy and then leaving. As the player's body lays lifeless, some of the remaining riot squad move in to examine him.

    In this situation, the player's character was an American and once news spreads that one of the shooters at the Moscow Airport was American, Makarov knows that that'll be an excuse for the Russian people to want a war with the United States.

    This mission generated a lot of controversy around the game and the industry as a whole with many publications making articles about the leaked footage and the game's release upcoming. In an email statement after the footage was released, Activision said that the mission was designed to "evoke the atrocities of terrorism" (Activsion UK, 2009) signalling that the company knew the feedback that they would receive with the inclusion of the level.

    Figure 1 - Google Search between 2009-2010 for "Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 controversy" (Google, 2009-2010)

    It is notable that this level is optional from the start of the game. It prompts the player to answer whether they would like to see a scene that is particularly graphic or not without revealing what the content of the level will be to avoid spoilers for the story.

    Players have the choice to not shoot any civilians in the level, however, they cannot be saved either. No matter what the player inputs, whether that is to skip the level entirely or to play through it, the outcome of the event will always be the same and the story continues.

    By having it in the game, it gives the player a chance to make a choice about shooting innocent people, however, this choice could be considered meaningless in a way as the player will always end up dead and the war that starts in the game from this event will always happen.

    To see whether people wanted to participate in these activities in games, a study was performed by Hartmann and Vorderer. In this study, participants played a modified FPS game where they watched an intro cinematic that depicts a soldier torturing a captive while UN Soldiers are on their way to save him. Participants were then assigned to one of the teams and made to play out their scenario of beating the other team. It found that players who played the lone soldier were felt guiltier about killing the enemy team because they felt like they were morally in the wrong than the UN soldiers coming to liberate the captive. (Hartmann & Vorderer, 2010)

    Interestingly, in an earlier paper that Hartmann and Vorderer took part in writing that looks into why people enjoy playing violent video games, when interviewing people who play these games and how they deal with moral situations, the paper states that "they (interviewees) do not experience moral concerns when they perform violent acts and do not perceive a pressure to morally justify their actions" (Klimmt, et al., 2006) which shows that some players are not interested in whether they are doing the ‘right' thing or not, saying that it is only a game and therefore doesn't matter. Whether this is enjoyable or not is not made clear, though.

    In the same paper, some respondents said that they needed a little more justification to perform a task. One respondent said that "I would not feel comfortable if I had the evil role. But a small terrorist attack now and then, I could deal with that." This shows a sort of hypocrisy/double standard with how players deal with situations and what enjoyment they get out of them which makes it seem like it is more on a case-by-case basis for these players.

    In the context of Call of Duty, people can choose whether they would like to engage with the story as it is optional. Some players may even miss the point of No Russian as there is no need to remember more advanced story detail to play the game or they may be too young to understand the gravity of the scene. Typically, levels are set up for players to run from point A to point B with the objective appearing at the top left of the screen.

    In some games, this is not the case, however. Some games rely much more heavily on the story to make their players think about the choices that they make. One of these games would be Life is Strange (Dontnod Entertainment, 2015).


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