Behind the surface of a computer game is life in a technosociety

I spent the last year working with students to create a computer game. In the process, I realized just how out of touch most of us usually are with our own world.

This post spontaneously erupted from two random strands in my life coming together in my mind this afternoon. Yesterday, we had the official release ceremony of the student-made computer game Label: Rise of Band (you can download it at, although there's a technical glitch with the sound that we have to fix-I'll update here when it's really ready to go). And then today I got involved with a discussion about environmentalism, capitalism, government regulations and personal responsibility.

In this conversation, one of the participants-a TWU student I know very well-argued that consumers can't be counted on to make responsible, healthy consumer choices all the time because they lack the level of information and education necessary to make responsible choices. And whilst I was pondering this little idea, it struck me that there was a connection with my game project.

The connection is this: as consumer-citizens in a technologically complex world, we live on the surface of a lot heavily-constructed stuff. What do I mean? It's easier to start explaining with a question: can you explain to me what's happening when you flip a light switch? Do you know how an iPod works? I mean really works, not just "I push this button and my music plays." Do you know at the atomic level what's happening? Do you know what programs were designed, how they're coded and how they interact with the machinery? What about when you're using your fridge? Your car?

Most of us don't. Most of us know how to use things, but we don't know what's behind them. In fact, even the simpler things in life-like, say, coffee or tea-often fall into this category: we don't really know how it's made or where it comes from. Instead, we sort of skate the surface of all this stuff, even though we're surrounded by it (or drowning in it, depending on your opinion). That doesn't mean we're stupid or lazy, necessarily, although that may sometimes be part of the reason we don't know about those things. But a big part of our ignorance from something else, in my opinion: the sheer volume of technology and information that is an integral part of the complicated society we live in.

In a more agricultural society, like that of medieval Europe, the average person had a much smaller world to live in. To be sure, the planet was the same size. But typical experience was not. One of my family lines has been traced back to the 1200s, and as far as the records show, my ancestors all lived within a 20 kilometer radius. I'm sure few or none of them traveled very far because they weren't aristocrats. This was typical. Their knowledge of the outside world would be limited to tales from traveling peddlers and church gossip. And unless that knowledge had some practical import, like news of an approaching army, it was likely not going to change lives. Imagine spending sixty years in the same village, with the same families, doing the same jobs, and never learning to read or write. Although our history books typically focus on the movers and shakers of the world, what I just described has been the experience of the vast majority of humans who have lived and died.

The thing is, our capacity for knowing stuff hasn't changed all that much. And so even though the world we live in is swimming in seas of information that no one person can master, and even though our lives depend on a host of simple and complicated technologies, I'd guess we know only somewhat more than people living in simpler conditions and culture.

Working on a computer game-actually making it instead of just playing it-has given me an inside-out perspective of what I usually experience. I play a lot of games. Label: Rise of Band is the first one I've made. It is an enormously complicated process. Just listing all the elements that are part of the game makes for a boringly long read. Then the process of coordinating team efforts so that construction is properly sequentially ordered, let alone focused on a unified end goal-well, it's a headache. Don't get me wrong. This was a dream experience, and I absolutely loved it and the work the students have done. But it was complicated.

And the kicker is that it's not the most complicated game out there. And what do I do when I pick up a game? I play it for a few minutes, figure it out, and decide whether I like it or not. Oh yeah, I have a vague sense of what went into it. But now that I know?  Well, now that I know what really went into it, I'll at least be a little bit slower to condemn its shoddy design or production values! And more importantly, I'll be delving beneath the surface that I usually slide along.

[brief note: I'll be on vacation for the next two weeks, so aside from an update post or two on Label, I won't be writing again until the third week of July. Be well!]


Last updated Jun. 30th, 2008 at 11:12am by Kevin Schut