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March 08, 2008


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Granted, your invitation for Ms. Noble to study and immerse herself in the design and play of video games would be hugely beneficial to anyone interested in fully understanding the medium. But for the benefit of discussing this one game, would you think it valid for Ms. Noble to observe and direct an experienced gamer as he played through Bully? I understand this method was used for the benefit of a US judge in a case attempting to ban the sale of the title at retail (who subsequently ruled in favor of the defendants.)

I personally feel that Ms. Noble being a 'second-party' observer/participant in the playing of Bully would be acceptable, and supply her the information she needed to ably discourse on the game itself, but I wonder what your thoughts on this mediated approach are.


Good question. I don't really think this is a valid approach, and I question whether such an approach is 'better than nothing' - or if in fact it could potentially be 'worse than nothing'. Here's why:

When you, or any experienced, literate game player watches someone play - say - GRAW - we see that the player and his squad exit a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, we see him walking around in a large open environment, we see him get in an intense firefight with some enemies in a patrol truck and defeat those enemies - and then continue on foot to the next engagement, and the next, and the next. To us, we already have the shorthand to understand that the defeated enemy vehicle cannot be used by the player. We've experienced this set-up hundreds, if not thousands of times in other games.

However, to a viewer not literate in the forms, they may have very real questions about my justification for continuing on foot and incurring further loss of life. I could have bypassed the subsequent 2 or 3 or 4 encounters and 10-30 deaths if I had simply taken that enemy vehicle - right? Well no... I can't do that because the use of the vehicle is not within the simulation boundaries of the game. I instinctively understand and accept this constraint in the vast majority of games I play. Illiterate viewers CANNOT know that.

Whether the use of the vehicle should be or not be within the simulation boundary is an important question - but the problem is not there - the problem is that the illiterate viewer is only able to engage the game using the literacies they already possess. I would argue that in the vast majority of cases, they translate what they are seeing into the language of film... they see all of this highly representational content and they 'read it' as film - and then they think - "boy there sure is a lot of killing, and it seems that the players are choosing to kill rather than choosing to avoid it by using a truck and driving around it" - when in fact that's not only wrong - it is dangerously wrong.

Do you read screenplays Steve? I don't. The number of screenplays to reach the NY Times Top 100 list can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand even if the number is non-zero. To my knowledge no screenplay has ever won a serious prize for literature. Why? Clearly, there are many, many, many amazingly written screenplays. Why don't we read them? Or why don't we rate films or decide whether or not to ban them by reading screenplays?

Aside from obvious reasons of utility, the real reason is that a written screenplay is fundamentally different from the resultant film. When we read a screenplay - unless we are experienced filmmakers literate in the language of the form, we are simply incapable of visualizing a film out of the text. In fact - as with games-as-film, screenplays don't make for good reading because ordinary people without the literacy engage them from a screenplays-as-novels perspective. And guess what, as novels - most screenplays are terrible. In fact, one might argue they are base and low-brow and that the factual and detached descriptions of violence or romance in a screenplay are described with such a total absence of emotion they could be called sociopathic. Clearly there is a powerful, powerful disconnect happening, because someone literate in the form is able to take these sociopathic descriptions of romance or violence and translate them into the powerful examinations of romance or violence we see in 'Casablanca' or 'Reservoir Dogs'.

Conversely - look at it the opposite way. Instead of talking about it as the problem of illiterate viewers seeing a game as film - let's imagine that they are not watching a highly representational game like GRAW. Let's imagine they are watching chess. Or The Marriage. Now their literacy is not mistranslated - it is ABSENT. Should someone be allowed to call for a ban of chess by watching - or even watching and directing someone - playing? Should Ms Noble - if she knows nothing at all about chess - be sat down behind Garry Kasparov and be allowed to say "I want you to try and get that piece with the pointy top using your horsey" - does that facilitate her comprehension of the game? Once she's done that, is she qualified to use her considerable poltical and soical clout to call for a ban?

Or how about The Marriage. Let's imagine for a minute that Mr Humble's interpretation of marriage is not a gentle, carressing interdependance and navigable troublshooting of life's challenges and needs, but instead has a lot more to do with sexual abuse, male domination of female, repression of individuality, subservience... whatever. Now - a game still in all reasonableness called 'The Marriage' - and still justly representing the creators vision of what a marriage can mean is now potentially teaching players that marriage is about husbands kicking the shit out of their wives until they are unable to function as human beings. But it's pretty with those nice colors and drifting shapes, so why would we ban it? Is Ms Noble able to read this game - even if she is watching and giving instruction? "Click rapidly on the pink square", she could say, and the blue square would grow and become more opaque and the pink square would fade and drift to the corner... and the more you did it the less the pink square would fade. Wow. What does that mean? I can imagine that mechanic and dynamic in my mind right now. I can 'leverage my literacy' to understand what that description of mechanics and dyanamics means aesthetically. I can even imagine how that would make me feel. My stomach is a bit queasy thinking about it in fact. How would it make Ms Noble feel to play this hyptothetical version of The Marriage versus the real version? How would it make her feel to watch it? Or to watch-and-direct? Could she feel the sickening disgust that I bet you can feel as you leverage your own literacy and run a little 'simulation' of it in your mind?

So in summary - I understand there are questions of utility, and asking Ms Noble to develop a robust game literacy is probably not going to bear fruit, but I have to reject the proposal that she watch-and-direct.

The watch-and-direct approach is passable as a stop-gap measure for a judge in a court case because - even though errors can be made using such a process, we value the legal process, speedy trial, and lottery assignation of judges over the ideas of putting a trial on hold for 40 years until someone fully literate in games becomes a judge. We have no choice but to do our best in the case of the legal system because 'our best' is all we have and we're not going to rewrite our legal system over this. If the outputs of the trial are deemed unfair in the decades to come, societal norms will shift, new precidents will be set and things will change.

In the case of the CTF and Ms Noble and her colleagues, however, there is no 'onus' on them to call for a ban. There is no demand of due process. There is no pending legal issue that entitles defendants or victims to proper and expedious resolution. The use of an inadequate or stop-gap solution is no longer the 'best we can do'. It has all of the problems of such an approach, but it's not enacted out of a requirement to proceed - it is enacted intentionally.

Calling for a ban is a fundamentally different thing than being required as a judge to rule on a legal proceeding. People who call for bans have a responsibility to be fully literate in the thing they are demanding be banned. Ms Noble and her organization have considerable political and social power. Irresponsible use of that power in service of an agenda (in this case raising awareness about the real issues of bullying) is morally wrong - EVEN IF the agenda being served is a just one (which it is).

First off, fucking bravo! Hope she/they take you up on it.

Should they end up being directed to the post and are reading this comment thread, I'd add Raph Koster's "A Theory of Fun", and "Difficult Questions About Video Games by Simons/Newman (if you can find it - was out of print last I checked).


Also good for the reading list: What Videogames Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, by James Gee. (

"One of the unfortunate weaknesses of our medium is the barrier to entry created by the need to actively input meaningful expression into the dynamic system of a game."

If by weakness you mean strength, and by unfortunate you mean awesome, then yes.

One of the ironic things about the controversy around Bully is that this game is so clearly Rockstar going out of its way to demonstrate their ability to make a compelling game without gratuitous violence and scandalous content. Bully is intentionally low-impact.

If Mrs. Noble takes you up on your offer, you guys should play through Persona 3 next.


Thanks for the thoughtful response. Good points, especially concerning the need to expedite a court case whereas there is no 'rush' to ban Bully from retail shelves.

I'd argue that the watch-and-direct approach is more valid for a representational game like Bully or GRAW than for a symbolic game like chess or The Marriage, simply because the actions onscreen are more much readable by the second-party and explainable by the expert. I'd also say that the screenplay comparison is off the mark; perhaps if I'd suggested that Ms. Noble read the Bully design document it would resonate more. But I'd think that watching/directing a knowledgeable player through Bully would be more akin to watching a difficult film alongside a film scholar and allowing him to talk you through the meaning of the piece.

Regardless, I agree with your anchoring point that in this situation there is no pressing NEED to validate via secondhand experience the opinion of someone who's not invested in the medium. So, whether the watch-and-direct approach is 'good enough' doesn't really matter at all.

When it comes down to it I guess I'm taking your original post over-seriously; your thrust was more likely to point out the sheer degree to which Bully's detractors are ignorant of the medium they're attacking. Unfortunately I feel like history has shown us that this is one aspect of the human condition that isn't going to change.

>>> "I'd argue that the watch-and-direct approach is more valid for a representational game like Bully or GRAW ... simply because the actions onscreen are more much readable by the second-party and explainable by the expert."

You could make the opposite argument. Actually playing is *more* important for games with overdeveloped representational/narrative qualities, because these are exactly the games that people mistakenly interpret as linear media.


Yes - that's the direction I was trying to take it.

I think Steve's point that the actions are 'more readable' is false. I think they are more readable for what they appear to be representationally than they are for what they might actually be mechanically or dynamically.

I feel like it's easier, per Clint's example, for the secondhand observer/director to say "take that jeep so you can skip all this fighting," then for the player to explain "it's impossible for me to take that jeep, so I'll have to keep going on foot," than for a player of chess to explain the reasoning behind his and his opponent's low-level moves and mid-level strategies to an inexperienced observer. I say this as someone who's played through Bully-- I think that the observer would be more able to formulate meaningful direction ("I want to go out into town!") and the player to reply with understandable responses ("the front gates are locked until I pass the Halloween mission) with Bully than the imagined chess exchange about the "horsey" above.

I'd hope that the value and character of many modern games could be expressed to an inexperienced secondhand participant via a knowledgeable player's guidance and that, depending on the situation, possible gateways for the uninitiated to begin understanding games shouldn't be shut down out of hand.

As a professional development trainer and teacher educator I often find myself in the awkward position of passive bully observer. The bigger, stronger aggressor will verbally harass and physically intimidate their victims, destroying what little positive efficacy the child may have had and do so gleefully.
Why not intervene? Because the bully, more often than not, is the classroom teacher or building administrator. The teacher bully is akin to a bad cop. They are in a position of authority, someone children are taught to respect and obey. Before attacking the video game industry educators would be wise to police their own ranks.

I haven't played Bully either, but would argue that a secondhand observer/director would be at least as difficult in a modern game as in Chess.

For older 2d side scrolling action games a second hand observer makes some sense and could work. For a modern 3d game its a lot more difficult. If you are not in control of the player's field of view you can't even see the choices you need to make. I still get a little dizzy trying to watch say a FPS over someones shoulder. I would say the action in a FPS probably seems about 2-3 times more intense to a 3rd party. Its more like the "Blair Witch Project" which added to its drama by the handheld video shooting.

At least with chess it is possible to observe the game.

*slow clap*

I've played Bully and while there are definitely elements that teachers wouldn't want kids to emulate, there's nothing worse than pranks I've seen on daytime cartoons. It isn't exactly a stunning example of meaningful narrative, but it also isn't dangerous by any stretch of the imagination.

Kudos to you Clint for trying to further the debate rather than simply taking a side.

I don't play games anymore because I don't have the gaming bug anymore. I am here because I saw a portion of this article on Boing Boing and was interested in what I read to that point. I played the hell out of Quake II and then kind of lost interest. I would imagine that a flow chart that shows the choices to be made and the consequences of those choices was possibly made at some point in the production of this game Bully, or is that still done? I'm sure it would be huge in any modern game. or for that matter, even in chess your first move will be one of 20 and there is no obvious consequence for that first move untill your opponent makes his/her first move. Already the coices become more complicated, and the further you get into the game the more complex it becomes. The funny thing is that with chess all of your choices and their consequences are right in front of your eyes but most of us, myself included, can't see them (I don't play chess anymore either.)

I believe it would be wrong to assume that Ms. Noble will get the point even if she were to learn and play the game for a while many of us played chess for years and still don't get it. She would have to engross herself in the game for an extended period of time to see what it is all about and she will still miss some things. How many hidden tools and secrets are hidden in games that you only stumble across by accident after you think you have already found them all. Unfortunatly if Ms. Noble was given a flowchart of Bully she would probably loose interest very quickly because of the massive size of the thing. Most people that are ignorant of games (or for that matter, whatever the subject of the day is) are that way by choice. Today the subject is Bully and Ms. Noble. tomorrow it will be someone else with something else that is bugging them that they know little or nothing about.

I have never played bully and likely never will, so I don't know what happens. I can see it depending on the mindset of the player as to how to interpret what you see on the screen. from the veiw point of the bully, if he pushes someone over the edge and the kid ends up killing him it might get the real bully to think about his actions. From the veiw point of the bullied the very same scenario could validate his urge to kill the bully.

I am just another person ignorant (by choice) of this game putting in my $.02.

I had the same preconceptions as the teachers when I picked up the game. There's a lot in there that I wouldn't want kids to see (depending on their age), but like another commenter said, what's in there is no worse than other cartoon violence. The story and the events also went in a different direction from what I had been expecting.

The teachers are missing out on a great opportunity to open up a dialog with students, much like the book Queen Bees and Wannabees (made into the movie Mean Girls, rated PG-13) did just a few years ago. That author was all over the talkshow circuit, even on Oprah. Why aren't the designers of this game being approached to discuss the topic in the same way?

Why not include Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence ( as long as you're recommending books. After reading it (, I don't think I could ever think about play-violence as being a strictly bad thing ever again.

Don't worry about this issue. It's just over-funded politicians looking to pick a fight they THINK they can win. Ask the CTF what REAL part they are doing to improve Native education and bias in Canadian schools and reserves. That'll shut them up. When faced with REAL issues they are useless and LOVE to point fingers. Ms. "Noble" will never agree to your offer of a mature discussion and open forum while playing the game. Know why? It's too logical. These people don't have their positions because of their intelligence, it's because they know other people. They won't enter into a debate on a subject they know nothing about. They'll sling negativity until the next budget comes out, but they won't directly confront anybody because they know they are just going for show, and have no experience on the subject to back it up.

Clint, I know I'm late to the party here, but allow me to add my thanks for providing a fantastically cogent argument.

I have to agree with you and disagree with Steve regarding the player versus observer dynamic. There is something very different about being in control of the avatar, immersed in the game, versus watching someone playing the game. I think your point on the observer reading what is on screen as a film captures this dichotomy nicely. If you had no say in the way the onscreen action plays out, you are detached from it. It is possible, no likely, that a game illiterate person will read it incorrectly.

While Steve addresses this by having the player be a skilled stand-in for the observer lacking game literacy, I think that there would always be the (incorrect) perception that the player was trying to put one over on the observer.

Finally, the suggestion for books and articles to read are really great. You are meeting them on a form of media that they can comprehend while challenging them to extend their media diet.

But do you think that Ms. Noble would understand Salen and Zimmerman, or Church or LeBlanc? These are references that we gravitate to because they are in our field. They are specific to the literacies of game design. It could be argued that to really 'get' FADT you would have to be familiar with the game play of SuperMario64, not just the textual description of the game play. Although it is obvious to us it may seem opaque to people outside the field. Such is the nature of domain specific literacy.

I just emailed the CTF the following comment. I hope you meant what you said:

Hi, I just wanted to make a comment about your ban of the videogame, Bully.

Before you ban something, how about you play it first? I am looking at the top of the screen here at your taglines: Conducting research. Expanding knowledge. Fostering understanding. But I am seeing none of this from your ban.

Here in Montreal, there is a videogame company called Ubisoft, and there is a developer there who has extended an invitation over his personal blog to the president of the CTF to play the game with him. You can read it here:

I urge you to conduct research, expand your knowledge, and foster an real informed understanding of the issues here by responding to his invitation.

Cheers and thanks for reading.

Okay dude,
CTF just respoded to my email:

CTF has purchased, viewed and played Bully-Scholarship Edition.

Educators deal with the after-effects of bullying every day. We regularly see kids who are often already struggling on the social margins and even more emotionally vulnerable than most, wrestle with plummeting self-esteem, failing grades, and depression. Some of them lose the battle, and end up forfeiting their futures out of a desperate sense of hopelessness.

Media violence alone doesn't cause kids to harm others. But scores of peer-reviewed research studies make it clear: when violence is glorified and designed to entertain, when the depicted scenarios are realistic and commonplace, when storylines justify revenge - young media consumers are more likely to imitate the violence they see, and to believe that violence is the inevitable and most effective solution to life's problems.

In going public with our concerns, and seeking to raise awareness about the seriousness of these issues, we recognize that more people may become aware of this unfortunate game. But we believe that the welfare of vulnerable students in every community warrants collaborative and pro-active effort on their behalf.

Thank you for sharing your views and opinions with us, nonetheless.

Francine Filion
Fédération canadienne des enseignantes et des enseignants Canadian Teachers' Federation

I wonder if there would be any change to the discussion about watch-and-direct if we considered all parties, the game, Ms. Noble, AND THE PERSON PLAYING IT FOR HER. How would the particular person playing it affect her opinion or vested interest?

I like Frank's point on having a film scholar. I would also like to someday watch a movie with Roger Ebert... I'm sure i'd pick up a whole bunch of great movies I would never have understood before. maybe then I could have him watch and DIrect a game with me... but we arrive at a similar cross.

I believe that this watch-and-direct is more common than we think. How many kids tell their mom to come and watch the game, as they explain in their kid's lingo how cool this is,etc. yes, most refuse. However, if Ms. Noble had someone she trusted, maybe a relative or a lover that has actually played the game, explain to her what it's all about, she probably would at least be more likely to give it a chance. Ultimately, it may just be a rock-n-roll scenario, where the old guard wont "give it a listen".

Clint may be a great person to show this game, even recomendable by all of us; but fundamentally, we're dealing with oposing stances. In this case, she doesn't respect Clint's expertise for whatever reason. Sound Ivory towerish on her side.

Consider how many times anyone of you have disliked a movie, say Rocky Horror, been taken to a R.H. show, and after having it performed, explained, gossiped, experienced, etc. the person then says, "yeah... i can see why it's good" and then after sometime, they're the ones calling you to go to Rocky Horror to dress up, etc... even on a cult classic, people have to be willing to give things a chance. you know, it's not just young kids today that might laugh at you for suggesting that an old 1941 movie is (one of if not) THE best film ever made.

I believe Clint's statement needs to be said though. It actually is a great argument, regardless of the point being moot.
It boils down to this... were dealing with a "parent" that refuses to tell their kid "why is it this good?... let me give it a whirl"

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