Several days ago before dawn, in a state of mind that can only be described as dangerously pre-caffinated, I was reading a story on CNN.com about the row between Britain and India over racism on the TV series Big Brother. Like Michael Richard’s and Mel Gibson’s career-decimating meltdowns in Los Angeles recently, the incident itself isn’t worth dignifying with a retelling (you can read about it here if you insist) but the issues it raises certainly are. In its conclusion, the CNN story quoted David Aaronovitch of the Times of London, who wrote “But what is so odd is that to discuss real things we have to make them unreal first, and then describe them as reality.” Something struck me about that statement so I poured another cup of joe and zoomed over to the Times of London to find Aaronovitch’s complete commentary so I could read it in context.
Maybe it was just the double expresso kicking in, but when I re-read his last sentence “…that to discuss real things we have to make them unreal first” Epic Games’ Unreal video game engine came to mind, along with the power of television, movies, novels, shamanic ceremonies and my admittedly naive intention to “change the world” as an aspiring 20-something filmmaker (yes, it was a powerful cup of coffee!). But pondering his conclusion was like a needle and thread stitching together my entire career, revealing a truth I have long understood intuitively but never been able to articulate clearly.
While videogames are often maligned by aspiring politicians as violent and misogynist — sometimes rightly so — the medium of videogames and simulations can be a hugely powerful tool for learning and change, for the same reason David Aaronovitch makes in his commentary. We’ve long known that experiential learning where there is a visceral, emotional connection between student and subject is vastly more powerful for most students than reading or lectures alone. Likewise, to learn a skill that is prohibitively difficult, dangerous, expensive or just plain unacceptable to replicate in the real world, creating an unreal environment where that skill can be taught is more effective and better than the real thing. Today, we have the technology and off-the-shelf tools to do that.