BOB GARFIELD: Until recently, video games were, you know, games, not instructional tools, not team-building exercises and certainly not propaganda machines. But nothing that engages young people stays pure forever. Eventually it will be co-opted by those eager to have the attention of the next generation. Video gaming, therefore, was a natural target for such diverse institutions as the U.S. Army and the Chinese Communist Youth League. The phenomenon has captured the interest of writer Clive Thompson, who joins us once again. Clive, welcome back to OTM.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Good to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Can you tell us a little bit of the history of so-called "persuasive gaming?"
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, sure. For a long time, games were big, expensive things to make. I mean, millions of dollars would go into the average game that you'd go to a store and buy. But that started to change maybe three or four years ago because of the advent of online Flash animation games, which almost anyone who knows a little bit of programming can make at home and put online for free for anyone to play. But the thing that got really interesting was that activists and artists and what-not, they'd make little games that sort of had a political point, sort of an animated or game-like version of a political cartoon.
BOB GARFIELD: But then larger institutions got involved, not just ad hoc political commentators but big organizations like, for example, the United States Army.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, that's right. They decided that what they needed to do is get hip a little bit with what the gamers were doing and they realized that if they produced a really good quality game that reflected as close as possible actual U.S. protocol and doctrine of war and put it out online for free, for anyone to download and play - and this is a fantastic game - I mean, even though it's free, it's as high-quality or better than many of the things you pay 40, 50 bucks for in a game store. And so millions and millions of people worldwide have downloaded that game. And the Army now regards it as probably the most cost-effective outreach they've ever done.
BOB GARFIELD: The United Nations World Food Program, of all entities, have something called Food Force. What's the point there?
CLIVE THOMPSON: Well, the idea is you do things like try to accurately drop food out the back of a plane, the way the U.N. does. You try to get agriculture, in sort of a Sims-like way. Essentially it's a game that's intended to teach kids who play it what it is that the U.N. wrestles with as they try and stem world poverty.
BOB GARFIELD: A consciousness-raising exercise.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there are different kinds of consciousness-raising. One is for the unalloyed good cause of feeding the world's hungry. And then there's slightly more controversial subjects like the notion [CHUCKLES] of hating Japan in perpetuity for its crimes against China in the '30s and '40s, which apparently is the message of the Chinese Communist Youth League, which is trying to game its way into the hearts and minds of Chinese young people. Tell me about that one.
CLIVE THOMPSON: There's been a lot of examples of general shoot-'em-ups with, you know, shooting aliens or whatever, but people take the game and put different-looking enemies inside the game. It's called reskinning. For example, white supremacist groups have taken games and reskinned them to put in targets ranging from Jewish people to immigrants to anyone else that skinheads want to target. And so that's sort of the disturbing side of persuasive gaming, which is that games are a great way to reach young people, but also, since they're a fairly easy thing to do, anyone, including some fairly noxious political elements, can create them.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to get back to the U.S. Army because it has created maybe the most successful of these persuasion games. But as we have read, the Army, because it's fighting a war in which people are getting killed left and right, is really having trouble recruiting young people. So is there necessarily a connection between the success of the game and the success of the underlying message?
CLIVE THOMPSON: That's a really good question. And a really interesting political example of that was a game that came out about a year and a half ago. It was a World War II game. It was produced here in the U.S. And in the game, you take the role of an American soldier who goes over to Japan to exact vengeance for Pearl Harbor. So you're running around and killing Japanese soldiers. This game came out in Japan and was incredibly popular. And when journalists asked the young Japanese players, you know, "isn't there something a little alarming about you running around and killing Japanese men who, technically speaking, would be your fathers and grandfathers," they all responded the same way. They said, well, sort of, but I don't really think about it because it's just a really good game. And so there's something about when a game becomes really good and addictive that the actual content of the game almost sort of boils away, and it becomes sort of just a form of sport.
BOB GARFIELD: Ah, so the solution is if you want to brainwash the next generation, create a, you know, not very good game.
CLIVE THOMPSON: [LAUGHS] Exactly. Something right down the middle seems to be the best way to make a point.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Well, Clive, as always, thank you very much.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Take care.
BOB GARFIELD: Clive Thompson writes for Slate and the New York Times. His blog is collisiondetection.net. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]