Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Sensitize / Desensitize

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 16, 2004

In my days as a student activist (days that have never really ended, but that's another story), I learned some important lessons about the nature of propaganda and persuasion. When people think about propaganda, they typically think in terms of a simple cause and effect relation: a person hears a message on the radio, say, and goes out on a muderous rampage. But of course propaganda does not work in this way.

What I learned was that as a student activist I could empower points of view (and actions) sympathetic to my leanings by reframing the discussion. By taking a position that many would describe as hard-line or radical, I was able to shift the domain of discourse, to stretch the boundaries of hat would be considered mainstream and what would be considered extreme. People could say (if not aloud), "You think I'm radical, but I'm very reasonable; just be happy I'm not like that Stephen Downes."

In political discourse, we can see this effect in action by looking at the various media from different nations (something the internet now allows anyone to do). What constitutes 'the left' in the United States, for example, would be characterized as moderate to conservative in Canada. When I observe a 'balanced debate' on PBS, what I see appears to me to be various shades of right wing analysis. And, no doubt, Americans view the political choice in Canada as varying between pink and red.

What makes the debate about frames of reference more urgent in contemporary society is the emergence of new means of communicating these concepts. Today, for example, I was able to listen to some discussions of the use of virtual reality and gaming to shape attitudes. The lessons of the day were not about the effectiveness of the technology - though it was in part - but about the newer and wider uses of the technology to shape perception, cognition and attitudes.

To open the discussion, Geneviève Robillard introduced us to the use of virtual reality (VR) in cyberpsychology. Virtual reality, she observed, allows people to navigate in three dimensions, and therefore to be able to be immersed in their environment. It thus allows sufferers of phobias to confront their fears in a virtual environment.

There are numerous reasons why psychologists would want to use virtual reality. For a person with a fear of heights, for example, the use of VR is much safer; it allows psychologists to create the experience of a situation without exposing people to the risks of, say, ascending to the top of construction cranes.

Additionally, in VR, there is much more control over the experience. A person with a fear of flying can experience numerous take-offs and landings; the simulation is simply rewound. Simulations also reduce the cost of exposing a person to an environment, sometimes in obvious ways (such as the reduced cost of airfare) and sometimes in less obvious ways (such as the cost of maintaining animals - "I had a spider," she said, "but I was unable to keep it alive.").

Robillard described the various types of VR equipment she uses, varying from helmets to large computer screens to projections to immersive rooms, such as the CAVE. But the major equipment used are helmets and position trackers - fully immersive environments like the CAVE are too expensive, and other environments are not sufficiently immersive. You need presence, she said. "Without presence, people think it's a game, and it doesn't work."

What is interesting and important here is that with the right equipment, it does work. Robillard cited numerous studies (alongside her own work) attesting to the effectiveness of VR in treating phobias. "Exposition in a real situation is efficient," she noted, "VR is just as efficient," where efficiency in this context is described as the capicity to elicit an avoidance response and feelings of feel and apprehension.

When people are in such environments, they learn how to respond. They learn to breathe, she observed, and they learn to restructure their thoughts, to understand that the situation in which they have been placed is not dangerous.

We may be entering a new era of such immersive reality. While a custom VR system can cost $10,000 Robillard's team has been adapting Playstations and game software. "Instead of a gun we give them a magazine, so people can hit the spider with the magazine. It's a total attack."

Such virtual reality systems are useful not only for treating phobias, but also in addressing a wide variety of psycho-social issues. In some cases, children are shown simulations of historical monuments, so they can experience the presence. In others, the wandering attention of ADHD suffers can be tracked. In still others, improved motor skills for autistics can be taught. And teen-agers can learn and esperiment with social and behavioural skills.

What's important here is that the information presented is not merely presented cognitively; it is the immersion, the experience, that has gthe effect. Robillard's work is about changing perceptions, changing attitudes, about the environment. This is not the mastery of cognitive skills or facts; it operates at a deeper level, changing a person's frame of reference, their understanding about what is possible and what is not within their world view. In the case of those with phobias, it is clear that this is a necessary and good thing, as it allows them to cope with the world. But the techniques and the technology have a wider applicability.

Danish researcher Gonzalo Frasca approached the same question by underscoring the importance of games. "Games have been dismissed as trivial things, just for kids, for thousands of years," he said. But people today are taking them more seriously as they are beginning to discover that games can teach us a lot about human nature.

In a sense, games allow us to deal with things that would be taboo in everyday life. "I have been killing monsters for many many years," he said, "but not one in real life." But in addressing these topics, we see that games can penetrate further into our assumptions and world views. Games can be and have been used to express political and cultural values. Monopoly, argued Frasca, was originally developed as a protest against a land tax.

But we reach a point where it may seem inappropriate to use a game, in that it may be seen to trivialize our beliefs and values. We are used to narratives, he said. We learn the stories. For example, the Diaries of Anne Frank teach us about values, about the holocaust. "What if we made a video game about Anne Frank?"

This would be seen as disrespectful, he noted. And if we changed the story - so that a player playing as Anne Frank could survive - that seems to really undercut the message. "You are trivializing the value of her death." But perhaps, he suggested, you could use the same medium to teach about oppression, about social and political issues.

In the months and years after 9-11, more than 150 games circulated around the internet. Many of these were simple games, he noted, created by a single person, usually in Flash, and usually written by boys (so, naturally, the objective was to dismember Osama bin Laden). These games were designed not so much as games but as statements. "In the 60s you would write a song, today you design a game."

One of Frasca's projects, Newsgaming.Com, release a post 9-11 game in which the objective was to kill the terrorists lurking among the civilians in a Middle Eastern city. The weapond used was rockets, and you would aim the rocket and shoot at the terrorist ("you didn't need to teach people that, they just knew," he said). What would happen is that the rocket would explode over a large area, killing civilians and destroying buildings. Each time this happened, many new terrorists would pop up, so by the end of the game you would have nothing but a ruined city filled with terrorists.

"But now that you've seen this," he said, "it's wrong. It's just me making a statement. I got plenty of hate mail about it. But this is just me telling something. I am here, you are sitting down, and I have the truth. But I don't have the truth.

If such a game is just an expression of opinion, then, what would count as an objective game. Yasmin Kafai, is a (now out of print) book titled Minds in Play, observed that the making of games could be used to teach. Make things people care about - and children care a lot about video. And children can learn by making games.

Of course, noted Frasca, this is closely related to the constructivist approach to education, where people create their own learning. But constructivism, he said, is somehow limited to science. It is the ideology of a rich country, it requires a lot of technology, a lot of expertise.

But the same approach can be taken in a non-technological environment. Frasca cited Brazilian Augusto Boal, whose "Theatre of the Oppressed" built on the ideas of people like Paulo Freire, who explore Piaget's idea of the transfer of knowledge as being something more than just through authority, but through social construction. Boal's approach was designed around the idea of theatre for actors and non-actors, to allow people to explore a concept by shaping it themselves.

It's a breaking, said Frasca, just as Piaget wanted to break the power of the microphone. For example, in "Forum Theatre", a person facing an issue - say, a cheating husband - would create a five minute play. If she said "but I don't have a solution, I don't have act three," she would simply create the first two acts. Then the play would be performed, over and over again, with the audience allowed to step in at any time to assume the role of the protagonist.

The idea here is not to find a solution, but to be able to view the problem through multiple perspectives, multiple lenses. "It is to detach yourself from the situation and to analyze the situation, to be in another's shoes." It's not just psycho-drama, not just catharsis, but rather about understanding multiple perspectives.

So, suggests Frasca, why can't you use the same technique for video games? Wht can't the game be taken apart, and modified, and replayed in many different ways? Take a game like Space Invaders - could this be modified to address a social issue? Frasca showed a gay student modified the display to have the aliens being students hurling insults at a gay person. Then other people modified the game, to show gay people responding by grouping together, responding by firing back with culture and art, responding by creating an umbrella of dialogue.

So where does this leave us? It seems clear that online multimedia, and especially immersive simulations and games, are powerful teaching tools. They teach, not merely by transferring facts, but by reframing world views. They are, or could be, therefore, effective propaganda.

What is important to recognize about a simulation - any simulation - is that it creates a world view, and therefore shapes - not in a direct way, but in an indirect way, by reframing the possibilities - one's expectations and beliefs.

In my own experience, I have played numerous video games and have come to experience this first hand. In Sim City, the reality is that your city thrives if you lower taxes. In The Sims, the reality is that if you have more friends if you're rich. In many strategy games, the reality is that it is usually better to strike first, rather than let the opponent find the way in your cities. These games can have, over time, a subtle but persistent effect in shaping our understandings of civic politics, sociology and military strategy.

Again, and let me stress, this is not a simple cause and effect relationship. It's not about killing monsters, and then going out and killing people. Rather, it is about shaping one's understanding of the world. As moderator Renée-Marie Fountain summed up nicely, it's about "how to sensitize, how to desensitize, and who gets to do that."

In the world of print and literature, we have long since been able to amass a wide set of tools that allow us to counter propaganda. We have our knowledge of fallacies, for example, that tell us when a political leader is setting up a false dilemma, attacking an opponent through a straw man, or simply engaging in character assassination. These tools are at our disposal in order to sort out the reasonable and the unreasonable in social and political discourse.

But what is the equivalent in the world of simulations? What sort of logical and critical tools can we bring to bear? The creation of a simulation is not the creation of a neat argument or tract that we can disassemble, understand cognitively, and address through reason. The transfer of knowledge occurs at a basic, less cognitive level, and takes the form not of propositions but perceptions.

I think that the answer may lie in the philosophy of counterfactuals and possible worlds. Writers such as Richard Stalnaker and David K. Lewis have taken us a long way into evaluating the truth of statement like "brakeless trains are dangerous" (to use a famous example from the Russell and Strawson debates).

On this picture, we can think of a simulation as being like a possible world, but with some of the variables changed. The key in understanding a simulation lies in understanding which variables have been changed and what follows from that. So you're Anne Frank, say. What follows from that? Some things are relevant - you are hiding out from Nazis in WWII Holland - and some things are not - you are wearing a pink dress. Some things are possible - you get aid from the locals - and some things are not - you get super powers and fly to safety.

Two major factors spring to mind with respect to the evaluation of simulations. The first is salience - that is, whether or not the variable being considered is relevant to th context of discussion. The second is verisimultude - that is, wther the resulting possible world is maximally similar to the world it is modifying.

To some degree, children already know this. Change their wargam, and you may elicit a remark like, "Daddy, orcs don't fly." Well, of course, they don't, but neither do they exist. So how does the child know that orcs don't fly? The scenario has a logic that the child has internalized, that create a sense of what is allowed and what is not, in a simulation.

And just so, this sense operates in the case of other simulations. In an Anne Frank simulation, Anne Frank can't survive. It has nothing to do with making the game plabale or winnable, but everything to do with respecting the limits of the scenario. In the post 9-11 game, not all weapons kill indiscriminately. Again, the game must respect the range of tools available to the person fighting terrorism.

If we are to use simulations as a new vocabulary, as a new means of teaching and talking and of expressing ourselves, then it will be important that we also elicit an evaluative semantics from the form, that we draw out, make clear, and teach children how to assess and to criticize these games. It involves creating and providing tools that allow them not only to play, but also to create and modify games, so that they can see for themselves the effect of modifying this or that variable.

For after all, as I well know, the best way of learning how to respond to a propagandist, is to become one.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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