Prince Charles and Computer Games

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Do you know what Prince Charles’ problem is? He just hasn’t found a game he likes yet. Five years ago, I bet he would have loved playing a game in which
the handsome prince has to defeat an evil princess so he could be with his true love. Bet he wouldn’t have hesitated using
a rocket launcher at the time playing that one.

Today, of course, he might prefer a game which involves storming a castle
(or at least palace) and taking out the queen who is keeping him for being king.

You just have to give the audience what it wants. 🙂

Seriously, though, I think Prince Charles has identified a real problem, but it’s not what he thinks it is.

Maybe The Problem Isn’t The Games, But The Books

I really can’t think of any good “serious literature” written lately that would appeal
to young men. Can you? What do we have nowadays in current literature for young men?

For the most part, you get either preachy hackwork only a parent would love, pornography without pictures, or somebody whining about his neuroses and expecting
you to care.

“Serious literature” has abandoned young men, and the old stuff just doesn’t cut it.

Moby Dick is a book I would consider tailored for young men. One small problem, though. It was written a hundred and fifty years ago, and
whaling isn’t exactly too relevant to the average teen.

How can you really expect a kid to read a few hundred pages about chasing
a whale with a harpoon when any half-witted kid would have the sense to wait until he had a serious bad-ass weapon, then make blubber?

Don’t even think about bringing up the evils of instant gratification for this book. If you hand Captain Ahab a railgun with Moby around on page one, Moby Dick is over by page two.

Of course Moby Dick is more than a whale chase, but it’s the adventure of the whale chase that hooks the reading fish into everything else.

People have always craved adventure stories and they always will. What else is the Iliad and Odyssey? If “serious literature” won’t provide it, others will.

There are adventure stories out there alright. You can find them in the science fiction and fantasy section of your local bookstore, and people actually read them.

The literary people automatically call them trash, but they love books nobody reads. How much good is a book if no one reads it?

Are they fine literature? For the most part, no, but they tell the kind of story people want (and probably need) to hear.

One can be inspired by trash. The late Carl Sagan had a few accomplishments in astronomy. He was asked what got him interested in the field, and he honesty pointed to the Barzoom novels written by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I’ve read these books. They make a Startrek novel look like a scientific treatise.

Basically, the hero (John Carter) is an ex-Confederate soldier who somehow gets transported to Mars, where he finds the good guys and one hot princess babe, and he uhhh . . . kills a lot. Since he’s used to Earth gravity; he’s a lot stronger than the Martians (and always stays that way, no matter how long he stays on Mars). Talk about a rigged fight

Violent? He makes Conan the Barbarian look like a pacifist. This guy isn’t homicidal; he’s genocidal. After about eight novels, you know why Mars is now a dead planet; John Carter killed them all.

Clearly not Prince Charles’ idea of “meaningful books,” but from that, Carl Sagan.

Is Literacy Just An Obsoleted Technology?

Before the librarians freak, literacy will continue to remain essential in most walks of life. It will do so simply because it will remain a superior technology to the alternatives.

However, maybe not all the walks of life you might initially think.

Just like it is silly to use a harpoon to murder a whale when you have a rocket launcher, maybe it’s just as silly now to use books to convey certain types of stories.

What is the typical novel but verbal television? What is the point of spending pages describing a scene when better technology just shows it to you?

“But a book lets you use your imagination!” I’m going to make this platitude bite you in the rear end in a moment, but for now, use your imagination for what? To imagine what a character looks like? Why not just see the character, and use your imagination for something better?

You want to say movies and television oversimplify stories, you’re right, but that’s not the technology’s fault, and sometimes, those stories could use some trimming.

Obviously, it would be a lot easier and cheaper for me to just type a lot and write a novel than get a movie made on the same subject, but that might not be the case a whole lot longer. I can see the day where people can “type” a movie all by themselves.

Will we really need novels and at least a pretty good chunk of literature then?

Television is a pretty passive activity. But so are books. Either way, you’re being fed information. You don’t interact with the material, and there’s no reason why your imagination can’t be productively triggered by a movie as by a book.

But if you really want somebody to use their imagination and get immersed in a story, what’s more likely to accomplish that, having someone read a story, or putting them into the story?

That’s what a video game does, and that’s one of the underlying reasons why I think they’re so popular. They simply do a better job at meeting a human need than earlier technologies. Why read about Ulysses when you can be Ulysses?

Yet another is the social aspect of current gaming. When was the last time you heard someone say, “I got a hot Saturday night planned. I’m going to get together with my buddies and READ!!!”

Of course, you can say that most video games can be summarized in three words, “Kill, kill, kill.”

Well, first, that would be a pretty good description of those Barzoom novels I was talking about, too.

Secondly, we’re still in the infancy of interactive games, “kill, kill, kill” is just a lot easier to implement realistically than more sophisticated interaction. All that says is that we need to work on the more sophisticated interaction, and that will come in time.

Different Days, Different Skills

There was a time when being able to memorize large volumes of material was a very, very valuable personal technology. You could make a good living from it; you were the information technology main man back then.

But it was lousy IT compared to reading. Reading is far more efficient than memorization. In the time it would take you to memorize the equivalent of one book, you could read hundreds of books. Once a reasonable number could read and write, the real value of that skill dropped faster than the stock price of a dot.com. Despite that, a millenium or so later, people still value it more than they really should.

Then being able to read and write became a valued skill. You could make a living from it (and in some places of the world even today, you still can). That value plunged, too, as the technology became commonplace.

Not so long ago, handling a slide rule to do math was a very valuable skill, too. Then came the calculator.

Literacy is a technology, not a virtue. A century ago, it was certainly the best technology we had for everything. Then it got challenged by other technologies: movies, radio, television, and in all honesty, in some areas, it hasn’t done too well against the new kids on the block.

Computers are the next challenger, and in the long run, probably the most formidable yet, even if you’re pessimistic about their eventual capabilities.

But if computers could someday transmit information and thoughts far better than reading, what need will we have for literacy then?

We will be a lot less “literate” a half-century from now than we are today, but a lot more whatever else is needed by the technologies of the day.

That’s not a cause for concern. Our ancestors five hundred years ago would whip us silly in memorization. Would we call them smarter because of that?

The what is more important than the how.

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