Middle of last week, The Globe and Mail published an interesting and well-written article about the Canadian Teacher's Federation (ironically abbreviated 'CTF') calling for a ban on the X360 and Wii release of Rockstar's Bully: Scholarship Edition.
Before getting into it I want to praise the unbiased and seemingly well-informed writing of the article itself by Jill Mahoney and Unnati Gandhi. It is a rare treat indeed to read an article about topics like violence in games, or the banning of games and not be left with the dreadful feeling that the reporter, editor and publisher of the article are in fact terribly biased in favor of the complainant and against games and the game industry. While I don't typically read The Globe and Mail, this article reminds me that I should get off my CNN junkfood diet and start giving a shit about what news media I consume. So there you go; G&M, you've gained a reader.
Now - to the point.
I have not yet played Bully. I never had an opportunity to play the PS2 version and was eagerly anticipating the X360 version. Unfortunately, circumstances have conspired to delay my attempt to play the game, but this will not last forever. Therefore, this is not going to be a defense of Bully by saying 'the game is great, you should play it' - simply because I don't know if that's the case.
This is also not going to be a defense of Bully on principle. I am not going to attempt to champion the freedom of expression of game creators. I'm not going to stand up and say 'you can't ban me - I have rights'. I'm not going to get sucked into the debate on your terms. The simple fact is, I don't need to. Reactionary cries to ban a critically acclaimed game like Bully are doomed to failure and involving myself in the debate on these terms contributes to nothing but a minor validation of the fears of the fearful. I think that with a little bit of effort, I can come up with a better contribution than that.
So, what is it that I or the CTF could contribute? Since I haven't even played Bully - and probably neither has Ms. Noble, President of the CTF, (nor probably have her counterparts in the coalition of teacher's unions in Canada, the United States, Britain, South Korea, Australia and the Caribbean who are mentioned in the article) I wonder if we even can contribute anything? Ought we enter into debate about public access to media that we have not even engaged ourselves? That seems unethical to me - especially given our roles. It is doubly unethical if Bully might in fact actively contribute to broader and deeper societal understanding of the very serious and real issues of bullying. While our teachers are certainly on the frontlines of the battle against bullying - they are not the owners of the issue and they are not the only ones entitled to examine or discuss it. Those who create art or other media such as films, novels or games that engage the issue are also part of society's attempt to deal with the problem.
So, no, I'm not going to defend Bully at all. Instead, I am going to invite Ms Noble and her counterparts to examine it with me, and to enter into a critical discussion of its merits and the difficulties it may or may not pose to students and to teachers who clearly and irrefutably have to deal with the daily reality of bullying in our society. If the concerns of these individuals - our de facto authorities on bullying - are not explored in a game like Bully, then perhaps Bully is nothing but sensationalist junk. On the contrary - if Bully does illuminate the social realities of Bullying within the reasonably defined scope and capability of the medium, then not only is it more than sensationalist junk - it is arguably an important work. Perhaps even a work that students should be playing in school as a part of their education in order to safely explore notions of bullying while having to neither engage in, nor be subjected to it.
So, to Ms Noble - and to her counterparts in the coalition of teacher's unions - I extend an open invitation to play Bully with me, and once we have all finished we can collectively engage in an informed dialogue about the merits or failings of the game. Think of it like a book-club, but instead of reading Jane Austen we'll play a game - and then we'll talk about it. We'll talk about what it says and how it says it. We'll talk about what it means. We'll talk about its contribution - or lack thereof - to our body of knowledge and to our emotional experiences as human beings - as relates to bullying.
As a primer - since you are probably not terribly literate in games - you might want to start doing some homework. You taught me how to read - so now is my chance to return the favor.
Start with Eric Zimmerman's and Katie Salen's book Rules of Play. This is probably the most complete work to date on the subject of games and what they mean. It's being used to teach Game Design in universities, you know. Probably you will even be adding it to your own ciriculum in the coming decade.
For more insight into the growing field of game design as theory, I suggest a couple of small articles that are becoming increasingly central to the development of the profession, art and craft of designing games. These are Doug Church's Formal Abstract Design Tools, and Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek's presentation of the MDA framework. While certainly not applicable to 'reading' and appreciating games, they may help you bootstrap your understanding of this emerging medium and get us to the stage where we can all play Bully together a little bit sooner. If you only have time to read two short articles about the foundations of design theory - these are the two.
For formal discussion of numerous principles underlying game design and to brush up on the critical vocabulary you will need when we enter into discussion, I humbly recommend several of my own past GDC presentations, in particular, one on Intentional play, one on Exploration, one on Immersion, and one on Simulation Boundaries. More important probably than the presentations themselves, is the fact that each of them has numerous suggestions for further and deeper reading should you care to continue. Terminology and concepts introduced throughout these presentations will lead you all over the internet and into the heart of a whirlwind of knowledge about games from some of the smartest people in the world - people made smart by the previous efforts of you and your peers and colleagues to educate a generation of children who invented an entire medium.
I would also recommend you read my own discussion of the state of game criticism - in response to Ian Bogost's critique of (you guessed it) Bully, and - while I have not yet read Mr. Bogost's recent book, well, you might want to tackle that as well. I will certainly read it before we get around to our discussions.
Finally there is probably one remaining hurdle to this endeavour. I am guessing that you are not comfortable playing a game as complex as Bully. One of the unfortunate weaknesses of our medium is the barrier to entry created by the need to actively input meaningful expression into the dynamic system of a game (ie: it's hard to start playing games because you have to actually play them). Fortunately, the game industry has been working hard to lower this barrier to entry and open the doors to new audiences of people who have been up to now intimidated by this barrier.
If you, Ms Noble, are interested in playing Bully with me, say so. If you do not already own one, I will buy you an XBox 360 or a Wii and a copy of the Bully: Scholarship Edition. Once you have your new console, you can can use it to download a host of games either from XBox Live Arcade, or the Wii Virtual Console, and you can brush up on your gaming skills. Both platforms offer a fantastic wealth of titles dating back to the days of Donkey Kong and Pac Man. You can certainly choose a dozen or more different award winning titles of varying complexity and challenge level to gain comfort with the controller and prepare yourself to play Bully.
So there you have it. Since I am interested in the debate, but I'm not interested in the trite and dull perspective that the uniformed are bringing to the table, it's time to turn the tables. I welcome - even actively encourage - any informed debate on the value of games, or even of a particular game. If you want to talk about these issues as informed professionals with potentially conflicting perspectives in need of thoughtful resolution - I'm game. If you want to enter into ideological debate about whether or not Bully should be banned, I've got better things to do - and frankly, I would like to think you do as well.
In closing, I wanted to say I hope you don't think I'm being a smart-ass by throwing out an offer I know you won't accept. I sincerely do not mean it to come across that way. I'm simply trying to challenge what appears to me to be systemic bias and injustice arising from ignorance of what thousands of people working in my industry are trying to accomplish for the betterment of our society. It's easy to shake a fist in outrage, and I have done my share of that. It's harder to invite rational discourse and to work with those with whom you have conflicting opinions in order to do what you know is right - especially when it is unpopular.
I think I learned that from Atticus Finch when I read "To Kill a Mockingbird" in my eighth grade English class with Mrs Uchiyama at Kitsilano Secondary School in Vancouver. Despite numerous attempts made to ban the book over the decades - I am more than proud to say that the debate surrounding it, and the content within it has been formative of my world view. Despite the cited 48 instances of the use of the word 'nigger' in its text - the book taught me not to be racist, but instead to tackle difficult and sometimes unpopular challenges head-on and with courage. So regardless of where the CTF stands on the controversial and challenging issues surrounding Miss Lee's book today, it seems clear that the debate itself makes a difference and contributes to the shaping of who we are.
I hope you do not see this new medium that your children have created as being beneath debate and ban-worthy simply because you don't understand it. Especially not in face of an offer to examine it openly. Perhaps together we'll find out if The Child is father of the Man after all. (Mr Henderson's Lit12 class).