The Situationist

Virtual Worlds, Learning, and Virtual Milgram

Posted by Will Li on April 28, 2009

In a post in February, BoingBoing writer Cory Doctorow told a story about a parent who incentivizes their son’s video gaming by having the teenager adhere to the Geneva Conventions while playing the game Call of Duty.

I asked Evan to google the Geneva Convention. Then he had to read it and then we had to discuss it. This we did. So the deal is that Evan has to fight according to the rules of the Geneva Convention. If his team-mates violate the Convention then play stops and Call of Duty goes away for a while.

It might seem outlandish, or merely a tool to educate your child about the Geneva Convention (as opposed to teaching an actor in real life to adhere to the same Conventions), but is there any real-life applicability to virtual worlds and teaching behavior through virtual environments?

* * *

A study by Mel Slater at University College London might indicate that there is. In a 2006 experiment, Slater and other researchers replicated the famous Milgram experiments, only in a completely virtual setting. Their study concluded that

in spite of the fact that all participants knew for sure that neither the stranger nor the shocks were real, the participants who saw and heard her tended to respond to the situation at the subjective, behavioural and physiological levels as if it were real. This result reopens the door to direct empirical studies of obedience and related extreme social situations, an area of research that is otherwise not open to experimental study for ethical reasons, through the employment of virtual environments.

* * *

Other examples of the intersection of virtual worlds and behavior in the real world have popped up in the news more recently.

Lei Feng was a young man who joined a transportation unit of the People’s Liberation Army in Communist China, and at the age of 21 in 1962 was killed in a work-related accident. His life and story was subsequently promoted heavily by Communist leaders during the Cultural Revolution in China as a paragon of Communist virtues. Today, he is alive and well in an online video game that employs him as the protagonist of the game, in which participants gain levels by performing selfless deeds. Additionally, March 5 of each year is designated Lei Feng Day, and while the promotion of his character by Communist authorities has declined, his name has made its way into everyday vocabulary.

The existing and increasing popularity of online gaming in China is well-documented, from participation of youth in MMOs like World of Warcraft, to internet cafes, to the establishment of “gold-farming” as an industry in the same game. The popularity is apparently being co-opted as a learning tool to re-teach and re-deploy the lessons of a cultural icon. And while the effectiveness has not been studied, the ostensible aim of the game is for its players to take the lessons of the game and then employ them in everyday life.

While the use of video games to teach behavior in Communist China raises a rather extreme case, it raises the same questions as our Geneva Convention / Call of Duty example and Virtual Milgram example, and it might only seem extreme due to the unique situation of the participants in the game.

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In fact, blogs (hat tip to BoingBoing and Terra Nova) report that the Council of Europe has developed two sets of guidelines, one regarding human rights guidelines for online games providers, and the other regarding human rights guidelines for internet service providers. While the guidelines target those that distribute the games and provide access to them, Ren Reynolds writing for the blog Terra Nova points out the wide range of actors involved in what we consider gaming, and that these actors play potentially different and importantly unique roles in the process of developing, publishing, distributing and enjoying online games.

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For other posts on the subject of virtual worlds and situationism, see “Virtual Bias,” “Are Video Games Addictive?,” “Resident Evil 5 and Racism in Video Games,” Encourage Your Daughters To Play Violent Video Games?,” “The Situation of First-Person Shooters,” “Suing the Suer: Video Game Company Sues Jack Thompson,” and Michael McCann’s “The Intersection between Tort Law and Social Psychology in Video Games.”

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One Response to “Virtual Worlds, Learning, and Virtual Milgram”

  1. Anything that reduces the amount of violence and callousness in gaming is a plus in my book.

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