Thursday, December 9, 2010

Civic Education on a Spaceship

My latest PopMatters article is now up: Civic Education on a Spaceship.

If it's not clear by now, I can't really stop going back to Mass Effect. When I do revisit the game, I bring along a mess of subjects and concepts along with me. This time I brought with me an article about "Games for Civic Learning' which you can find here. The writers put forward a concept of civic education games that include not just raw information, but ethical decision making and critical analysis. Specifically, they suggests educational games are best when they "provide an interactive models of social life that reveal the consequences of players' decisions for multiple actors and for society." That sounded a bit like Mass Effect 2 to me.

Of course not everyone plays Mass Effect 2 the same way. Some people just want to kill things. But I am certainly not alone in appreciating the game for its demanding ethical dilemmas. I had to give serious thought to the effects of my choices during loyalty quests - not just because I was worried what one character might think immediately, but because of what my decision might lead to for the entire galaxy. Bioware creates a unique form of empowerment. In the words of retconned Uncle Ben, "With great power comes great responsibility." That is a valuable lesson to teach procedurally, even to those unwittingly in the class room.

Speaking of class room, I think people could make the argument that the potentially educational aspects of Mass Effect 2 are wasted because they are not in an educational environment. I don't completely buy that argument, but I think it holds some water. We human beings are pretty good at separating realms of existence. But we are also predisposed to learning, comparative thinking, and extrapolation - that's partly why stories with morals have been historically important and powerful. Also, although ME2 isn't designed to be used in a class setting, I think it certainly could be. My series on the politics of ME aim to prove that, at the very least, the game can raise interesting topics pertaining to real world politics.

A last interesting caveat: much of my praise for Mass Effect 2, I now realize, somewhat depends on the fulfillment of a tacit promise. Bioware has proven they can transfer your decisions from one game to the next, but it isn't all that gracefully done between first and second games. The completion of the trilogy can, to some extent, undermine the preceding game's ability to ask players to think critically in the long term (at least for those player in the know). Still, it's a promise at least partially fulfilled.

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