Sunday, April 20, 2008

Gutfeld On Games

I watch "Red Eye".

There, I feel better with that off my conscience.

I find it amusing most times. I'm a big Dr. Baden fan, and I love him on that show. I love that host Greg Gutfeld manages to get the hottest women imaginable--who are almost, to a one, able to demonstrate a high degree of wit, humor and quick thinking. And then there are the women like Michelle Collins, Kerry Howley and Amy Schumer who manage to do the whole smart, sexy and first-class funny.

While it's usually on the level of a blunt instrument, I also like Gutfeld's Swift-meets-Bozo-style rants as it teeters on the border of seriousness and absurdity. But last week he aired (and Sunday repeated) a rant against Guitar Hero. I think it was Thursday's show, but the "gregalog" for the day was on Bridget Bardot according to the site, so maybe it was just a news item and not a rant.

Gutfeld objects to "Guitar Hero" and a similar upcoming game where you conduct an orchestra, apparently on the basis of inflating people's self-esteem. You learn no real skill, but the game leaves you with the impression you have, I guess, accomplished something.

This is a surprisingly puritanical argument from the former bodybuilder, whose schtick as a hedonistic perv (with a taste for young, easily dispatched houseboys) belies his generally conservative message. But perhaps it's just his inner jock coming to the fore.

I'm a gamer (though sadly out of play in recent months) and a game designer, as well as an educator. These things have taught me that a game-any game--teaches you nothing except how to play the game. Sometimes--rarely--games overlap with real skills. (In the larger sense, of course, all human activity is a game, but I'm speaking here of formally designed games.)

Even games designed to teach, while they can hone certain skills, the mechanics of playing the game will be the skills most honed. The more abstract the skill, the closer a game can mimic that skill, and the better it can teach. But even then, in almost every case, the game mechanics will burden the player to the extent that it will be those that are mastered.

Chess, for example, teaches virtually nothing about war or courtly intrigue (whichever it was initially abstracted from). To the extent that playing or studying chess teaches anything about anything else, it's only in the concepts of patience and vision (the great chess players being sort-of pattern matchers, from what I can tell, more than strategic geniuses).

And what's more, you can become the greatest chess player in the world without ever learning how to apply those skills to real life.

Or, let's take football. A representation of a military skirmish, right? Maybe. If you had a military goal of "if even one guy gets all the way over here, his side wins, no matter how cut off from supply lines or communication."

I studied martial arts for years. When I started, my school trained in the "point fighting" that was common in the day. (It superficially resembles the sort of fighting seen in The Karate Kid, which communicated the conceit that one could learn martial arts by performing janitorial tasks.) In point fighting, you never hit the other guy hard. That's grounds for disqualification. Especially if you struck to the head. You were responsible for not hurting the other guy. You'd strike, and if a judge thought you hit, he'd raise a flag. Then you'd stop, everything would reset and you go on.

This makes sense from a game standpoint, i.e., a game you want to be able to play over and over again without getting sued. But it's actually contra the skill of learning to defend yourself. Scoring a point isn't going to stop someone who wants to kill you. In fact, point fighting encouraged the sort of goofy maneuver that puts your hand or foot in the vicinity of someone else's body, regardless of whether you could've actually hurt that person.

We later moved into a full kickboxing mode, where body armor was used. You could hit a lot harder but, of course, the really effective techniques--breaking knees, gouging eyes, throws--were off limits. It was more realistic and trained skills that were parallel with self-defense, like endurance and pain tolerance, but it was by no means real. And you could suffer from learning to fight that way. The hope would be that you'd be able to flip a switch and fight for real if you needed to.

Hand-to-hand combat is an ugly, sweaty and barbaric thing, by the way, and most people don't really want to learn it. They'd rather have the false sense of confidence, or less harmfully, they'd just rather play around for fun.

Which brings us back to Guitar Hero. Guitar Hero is played by more than a few rock stars who, by Gutfeld's criteria, shouldn't need to play it. They can play the real thing. So are they being given a false sense of accomplishment?

No, because they know they're not actually playing guitar. Hell, that's one of the reasons they're playing it. It's a break. And that's why most people play it--because it's fun. It's completely unconnected to whatever musical desires they have, being a slightly more aggressive form of listening to the radio.

Are there a few people out there who probably believe that playing GH is indicative of a real or potentially great musical talent? Sure, but they'll all be destroyed when my zergling army conquers the earth.

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