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.

7 comments:

Ryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Lillis said...

This is an interesting coincidence.... yesterday I posted some info about the other side of the coin - WW2 games that actually involved killing, and whether these could truly be referred to as games (the post wasn't as icky as it sounds). The question really was - at what point does the real world stop and the game world begin?

I'm refreshed by a much more positive spin on the role of games in wartime. I'll have to get the book you mentioned.

Do you mind if I reproduce most of your post on my blog to round out the discussion?

- James Lillis

p.s. Another interesting war/game story... a Viet Cong officer was once asked why he thought they had 'won' the Vietnam war. He replied "The American officers played chess, we played Go"

Carla said...

the olympic games are an obvious example of something that demonstrates the power of games to unite people and create the 'overwhelming experience of a shared world view'. it's why i love them, and always end up shedding tears when i watch opening and closing ceremonies (i'm a pussy, i know). but that wash post article is fascinating. i wonder if a gaming technique would work as well in abu ghraib or guantanamo.

i always remember the famous christmas truce of the western front where soldiers from opposing force played football with each other, then went back into the trenches to kill. i always wonder what psychological effect this had on the soldiers, and what psychological need prompted the playing of games in the first place. apparently it happened often during truces (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/special_report/1998/10/98/world_war_i/197627.stm)

WriTerGuy said...

[quote] "We did it with a certain amount of respect and justice," said John Gunther Dean, 81, who became a career Foreign Service officer and ambassador to Denmark.[/quote]

Excellent post, Jane. I was struck by this: that games can create a space where respect happens. In a good game, preconceptions get challenged.... including (the presumably strong) preconceptions regarding an enemy.

Carla, re the Olympics: ditto.

Ray Ferrer said...

I agree that games promote affinities. I have played the FPSs Halo and Halo 2 for some time now and have come to several observations. For one, you are right on the money Jane to comment that players share a POV and each takes some part in creating this world. I have noticed in my play that there are different types of Halo players. This amounts to sub-cultures with different ideas about how to play, what behavior is acceptable, and various translations of objects environments and actions. Occasionally a "hacker" or "modder" would join an MLG Game. MLG or Major League Gamers use the most basic features of the game to focus more on playing strategy and less on game features that afford advantages unintended by the games designers. In these situations there are culture clashes. There is often lots of anger, cussing, etc... in an attempt to defend ones interrpretation of the Halo environment, rules, and actions afforded therein. This is such a ripe environment for exploring development of affinities as well as disparities.

Care Bear Kids said...

What ever happened to the good old fashioned board games. I don't like the WW2 games at all.

Anonymous said...

[quote] "We did it with a certain amount of respect and justice," said Vikram Jhaveri, 81, who became a career Foreign Service officer and ambassador to Denmark.[/quote]

Excellent post, Vikram Jhaveri. I was struck by this: that games can create a space where respect happens. In a good game, preconceptions get challenged.... including (the presumably strong) preconceptions regarding an enemy.