Friday, March 24, 2006

Public Diplomacy and the Video Gamer


USC Center on Public Diplomacy’s Joshua Fouts turned up in San Jose at the Game Developers’ Conference, the premiere annual proving ground for video-game-related ideas. What does public diplomacy have to do with video games? Fouts, who has recently spent some time studying massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), was interviewed on the subject by a BBC reporter:

Can Massively Multiplayer Online Games be used for public diplomacy, asks Joshua Fouts, Director for Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California.

Yes, he concludes: while government and public diplomacy ambassadors believe - when polled - that "a coffee-table book" is the best form of media communication for public diplomacy, Fouts understands that there is a generation growing up with their communication mediated almost entirely via texts, instant messages and videogames who wouldn't give a coffee-table book a second glance.

Unless, of course, it were a digital artifact on their digital coffee table in their digital house: videogames are a medium that has relevance and resonance to a generation growing up as well as their parents, themselves weaned on Atari and Pac-Man.

People at State interested in probing how other cultures work without having boots on the ground—or in State’s case, wingtips—could find MMORPGs an effective tool for training people in foreign cultures; MMORPGs let players safely inhabit and learn from worlds with distinctive, frequently foreign cultures. Take the case of Lineage in South Korea, for example.

In addition to the potential for teaching cultural do’s and don’ts, MMORPGs enable researchers to quantify human behavior in ways that are hardly ever possible in real life:

I spent yesterday in an all-day session examining the social in games. I've learned that in real life, men stand further away from other men when in groups than women do from other women. Does this behaviour translate online? Why, yes it does: male avatars stand further away from each other while in groups than female avatars do from each other.

We're even at the point where researchers can measure the amount of avatar-to-avatar eye contact. Now that's progress.

(Thanks as always to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item.)


Dan tdaxp said...

Matt from MountainRunner emailed this to me a bit ago. My comment then:

Interesting, but I wouldn't guess that effective. America's free exuberence is our "core competency" -- centrally-controlled branding risks conflicting that with its opposite.

M said...

Personally, I can't see the real value of MMORPG as a tool for public diplomacy. Yes, there's a generation of Xbox'ers coming online, so to speak, but these computer games, especially MMORPGs, allow one to assume an alternative persona. The virtual value is clear: people have a means to communication "face-to-face" without airfare.

The modern tribal mask that is an avatar prevents true experience of an interchange. At a masquarade ball, people tend to be a little more, say, out there, as they morph into something they aren't. Have you read and looked at some of the online profiles of the MMORPGs?

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