Monday, October 15, 2007

Chess, Ping-Pong, or Torture?

I've never met another digital games researcher as interested in this topic as I am, but I'm convinced that the World War II era is a treasure trove of brilliant and highly revealing, if sometimes disquieting, historical anecdotes about when and where humans choose to play games to achieve specific psychological and social benefits.

For example, I can't recommend highly enough George Eisen's "Games Among the Shadows -- Children and Play in the Holocaust". It really opens huge insights about why quality of life inside a game is higher than quality of life outside of a game. The Holocaust is perhaps the most extreme imaginable scenario for comparing the experience of a game-world with the experience of a real-world, but I believe so much of it applies to ordinary, contemporary everyday reality as well.

But that's not the main topic of this post. Here's the new piece of treasure I found this weekend.

Frank Rich's Sunday opinion piece introduced me to a powerful new piece of gaming history: the use of games (as opposed to, say, torture) after WWII to create affinities between interrogators and Nazi officials taken prisoner by the U.S.

Rich describes
a reunion of an elite group of two dozen World War II veterans in Washington this month. They were participants in a top-secret operation to interrogate some 4,000 Nazi prisoners of war. Until now, they have kept silent, but America’s recent record prompted them to talk to The Washington Post.

“We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture,” said Henry Kolm, 90, an M.I.T. physicist whose interrogation of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, took place over a chessboard.

(Read the full opinion piece: "The 'Good' Germans Among Us".)

Wow. I love, love, love this revelation. It's a perfect, serious example of using gameplay to create shared affinities among people on opposing sides of a real-world scenario.

Why is this important? When I talk about why so many gamers prefer their quality of life in virtual worlds or multi-player game networks, one of the points I always drive home is that playing a game with other people creates an overwhelming experience of a shared world view, a common perspective and POV. Staring at the same chess board, thinking in the context of the same chess rules, pursuing the same goals -- even as competitors, the players are at heart collaborators, sharing and co-creating an alternate reality (the game reality) together.

And, as evident in Kolm's story, that dynamic of sharing, that common platform for experience together, can lead to collaboration beyond the core activities of the game. That's the power that the interrogators were drawing on by playing games with their subjects. And that's the power that games today can use to drive collective action, diplomatic exchange, global development, and more. This is precisely where the Nobel Peace Prize for gaming is going to pick up momentum -- our growing understanding that playing a game together is a powerful force for creating affinities that drive collaboration.