Thursday, June 22, 2017

Nicolaas VanMeerten - Sharing Experiences Through Video Games

Nicolaas VanMeerten is the Senior Programs Director at GLITCH, and third year Ph.D. student in the Educational Psychology program at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Nic is a data scientist by trade and his research focuses on learning behaviors in complex multiplayer video game environments.

Video games are an ideal medium for documenting and communicating the human experience. They allow us to take on the role of someone else and share in their experiences through a digital environment. For example, the game This War of Mine, which was inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, was developed to communicate what it was like to live as a civilian during war times in that city. While helping your group of civilians stay alive in the war torn city, you experience a whirlwind of emotions from sadness to fear and even depression at times. However, this game is only one of many that have been developed recently that are intended to serve as a way to communicate a person’s experience.

My first encounter with this type of game was Papers, Please. In this game, the player takes on the role of an immigration officer at a border crossing in a country that is reminiscent of the Soviet Union. As the officer, you are charged with completing fairly mundane tasks on a daily basis, such as checking people’s immigration documents, inspecting identification photos for fraud, and frisking people for contraband. However, your performance on these tedious tasks is directly related to the officer’s salary, which has consequences (food, heating, medication, etc.) for the health of the officer’s family. In addition, you are regularly charged with making decisions that question your morality. For example, do you let a person’s spouse into the country, even though they don’t have the correct paperwork and risk the loss of salary, or do you reject their spouse and send them back to their home country by themselves?

These are just a few examples of why video games could be used more often as an engaging, experiential humanities tool used to share stories across cultures. These games are capable of delivering a rich digital world that mimics the experiences of people around the world who we may never meet, allowing us a chance to perceive the world as they do and help us better understand our fellow humans.

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