A cluster of teen-agers gathered around a small table, and passersby could hear them exclaim, “Asian! Yeah, I knew it!” and “Aryan? That seems ridiculous.” They hovered over two iPads in the Grand Gallery of the Museum of Natural History during the Margaret Mead Film Festival, playing a game called “Guess My Race.” It was one of five video games in the Mead Arcade; the others included “The Cat and the Coup,” which traces the downfall of Iran’s first democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and “Sweatshop,” in which you hire and fire workers for your loathsome factory.
Aiding the swarms of museum patrons who stopped to play were volunteers from Games for Change, a New York City-based nonprofit that encourages the development of what it calls “social-impact games.” (All of the games at the arcade are also available for free through the organization’s Web site.) I sat down at a laptop to try my hand at running a sweatshop. To a bouncy techno soundtrack, the boss floor manager, who keenly evoked Hitler, spewed insults and directions—”Lazybones! How are you today? Shh-h-h-h. I don’t care!”—and the orders started pouring in for shoes, shirts, hats, and bags…
In 1940, Margaret Mead created a card game along with her husband, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson. Called “Democracies and Dictators,” its cards contained instructions such as “Dictator! Crippled Industries: You have put your leading industrialists into concentration camps. (lose a card in 5).” Mead wrote that it was based on “the basic ideas that democracies and dictators play by different rules and work with different values.” She tried to sell the idea to Parker Brothers, but it was never produced for public consumption. The games on display at the Mead Arcade have been markedly more successful. “Sweatshop” had a million plays during its first three months, and “The Cat and the Coup” has received acclaim from gamers around the world—including one German reviewer who wrote that it is “like Monty Python being dropped in a bowl full of Persian kitsch.”…
But if games train players in the rules of culture, what happens when those rules become too complicated to follow, or, perhaps, obsolete? Settling down to play “Guess My Race,” the player looks at photographs of ten faces—no artifacts here, the subjects are familiarly modern. You choose from six possible races that vary widely from one round to the next—descriptions might be nationalities, skin colors, religions, or loaded epithets like “Illegal” or “East Coast.” The player might have to select from options that would seem to be simultaneously plausible (i.e., Asian versus Indonesian, or Black versus Caribbean) with answers that suggest race is self-defined, not regionally or ethnically determined.
And so the gamification of the world continues. I’m not surprised these games are featured at a museum; when recently visiting the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago for the first time in a few years, I was struck by the number of hands-on exhibits and games that allow one or two users to explore some dimension of science. It is interesting to see that these games have had so many downloads – people are either interested in the topics or there are a lot of gamers out there willing to trying a lot of things.
My biggest question about these games is whether players learn the intended lessons. As the article notes, games have been used and proposed for decades to teach players different lessons. We know, for example, that Monopoly is partly about capitalism. It seems to me that the crop of more recent Euro games, from Settlers of Catan on downward, tend to teach about what is needed to grow a community or society. Even new video games like Assassin’s Creed III are related to historical events. However, having played a lot of games over recent years, I wonder how much I’ve actually learned about anything as opposed to enjoyed competing. Is the point of the board game Agricola to teach me that Germans living in the 1600s needed a diverse base of multiple foodstuffs? Did the video game Civilization (II-IV) teach me something meaningful about how civilizations actually develop? I’m not sure.
Also, I have to ask: what would a sociological game look like?