SIGCSE 2008 Special Session: Games: Good/Evil?

Turns out my first post here isn’t actually about games and fiction, but it’s sort of close, and it’s an interesting topic anyway. And yikes, is it long.

If the reader isn’t familiar with SIGCSE, it is the ACM’s annual conference on computer science education. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the conference in Portland and participate in the student research competition. It was an amazing experience and a perfect capstone to my undergraduate experience.

The special session “Games: Good/Evil?” was one of several sessions I attended. It consisted of a panel of six educators, three for the “games are good” side and three for the “games are evil” side, that each presented his or her opinion on whether games should be used to teach computer science.

As a gamer and a student I was particularly intrigued, but I had mixed feelings going in. My first reaction was to think, “Of course games are good educational tools! They involve cross-discipline teamwork that most Computer Science (CS) projects don’t!” But at the same time I was glad my classes had generally not used games as projects because it gave me a perspective on what other things CS is good for: I was already interested in games, but I didn’t know about, for example, parsing RSS feeds and traffic simulations, two projects in my CS2 course.

The panel seemed to work off the general assumption that using games in the CS curriculum tended to exclude women and minorities, something counterproductive to movements within CS education toward more diversity in the field, and most of the panelists addressed this issue. I wasn’t aware of this beforehand, but apparently getting more women involved in computer science is a huge goal in CS academia.

I won’t go into everything everyone said, but here are some highlights from what I remember and took notes on. Unfortunately I neglected to write down the names of the panelists, so I will end up referring to them by number in the order they presented.

The first panelist talked about a summer program in programming for middle schoolers that included both girls and boys; he mentioned how girls enjoyed making games just as much as the boys did, they just made different types of games, such as socially conscious games: one example was a game about breaking the glass ceiling. He went on to say that the summer game development program would be targeted specifically at girls starting this year (cool!). He emphasized the interdisciplinary teamwork required to make a game. Later on, during the Q&A, he clarified that, since there are larger percentages of women in traditional “helping” fields such as nursing, teaching, etc., that showing CS as a “helping” field that can have important social contributions will attract more female students, and a good way of accomplishing that is through serious games. Interesting idea.

The second panelist was against games, and said that using games reinforces cultural stereotypes about computer scientists: that CS only involves “surfing the web, playing games, and hacking”, and that computer scientists are loners who have no social skills or concerns and work alone. The first one I can understand as a valid concern, and is something I think the first panelist was also trying to address, in a way, regarding the perception of what computer science is to people outside of the field. The second stereotype confused me, however: is it game development or game playing that is reinforcing this stereotype? The first possibility completely ignores the fact that most games require a team with a variety of skills to develop, and the second perpetuates a stereotype about gamers, so I have to disagree with this one.

The second panelist also pointed out that CS is about more than just programming, such as architecture, interfaces, networks, and so on, although these things also have their place in game development.

The third presenter, who I believe is a former Epic programmer, basically said that the point of using games wasn’t to turn out a bunch of game designers but to get people interested in computer science, then branch out into other topics. The idea was to increase enrollment and retain students in order to combat the declining interest and gender gap in computer science. He said that as long as games were presented in the right context, they wouldn’t exclude women and minorities. I was glad this was brought up because I thought the underrepresentation of women and minorities in games is definitely a problem, but it’s a problem with the industry, and not the nature of games themselves.

The fourth panelist was the only woman on the panel. She started out with how women and girls don’t play games; conceding the fact that many women play Bejeweled and the like, but “they’re not out there playing World of Warcraft”. As living proof against that statement (well, I don’t play WoW, but I thought MMOs had atypically high number of female players?), my initial reaction was to get kind of angry, but it is true that most women don’t play video games. (Ironically, I had been playing a demo of Meteos on my DS while waiting for the session to start.) She said that games and software as well as game development are male-oriented due to the encouragement of competition–who ended up with the best game? In the end she said that games were only mostly evil, and that she agreed in general with presenter #3, that games aren’t bad as long as they are presented carefully in order to not exclude typically underrepresented groups.

The fifth and final pro-games panelist pointed out that games could be useful as tied in with ethics and current events. He used SimCity as an example which, by how the gameplay operates, reflects the developer’s views (or some sort of view) on what makes a city good. In SimCity’s case, the developer decided that good mass transportation was a quality of a well-functioning city in the game. Why did he or she choose that? Questions like these could be good discussion and provide relevancy for both games and computer science.

The final presenter, who perhaps made the best argument, simply said that there are so many other types of projects–such as mobile or social applications, and others–that have the same benefits of games but none of the controversy, so why not focus on one of those areas instead? Why not, indeed.

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