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Being played by the games that we play

August 31st, 2015

Over the last six weeks or so I’ve been playing a game called Clash of Clans. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, according to http://clashofclans.com/,

Clash of Clans is the hit army strategy game where you

  • Raise your own army of Barbarians, Archers, Hog Riders, Wizards, Dragons and other mighty fighters
  • Battle with players worldwide and take their Trophies
  • Join together with other players to form the ultimate Clan
  • Fight against rival Clans in epic Clan Wars
  • Play on iPad, iPhone and Android devices

The game is pretty much what it says on the can. You start with a little village, a handful of resources, and a few hints about how you can move on up in the cute little Clash of the Clans world. And moving on up is what it’s all about. You acquire resources by means fair or foul, add to your ravening hordes, and raise the height of your ramparts as you are tantalised by visions of your future terrible majesty at the next level up.

At the time that I signed up, it sounded like fun and it has turned out to be. It’s an immensely popular game that earns squillions of dollars for Supercell - the company that developed it. But I am not just interested in the fun and the popularity of Clash of Clans, I am interested in the learning that is associated with it. Of course, every game has learning associated with it – from Tiddlywinks to Blackjack – but how does that learning substantiate both within and without the game, and how is the world  changed by that learning?

As I was thinking about learning and Clash of Clans, I came across an interesting paper by Sybille Lammes that applies a post-colonial analysis to a number of games that share some similarities with Clash of Clans (she mentions Age Of Empires, Civilization and Rise of Nations). This kind of analysis is not something that I am familiar with, but I could immediately see its value. Broadly, it investigates (with a post-colonial analysis frame) how a player is positioned by a game and how that positioning impacts on how the player interprets and responds to the world around them.

Maybe that sounds a little academic. If it does, then have a look at this clip where Frank Lantz asks of the game Counterstrike, “How does a game like this interact with ideology?” Although it’s in a different context, he’s asking a similar question. And to me a least, his presentation is certainly interesting, but not at all academic. [And thanks to Rachel Bolstad for sharing that clip with me.] In fact, I think the issue of how we are positioned by the games we play is not just interesting, but important. And every game is different – the positioning associated with a game like Minecraft is quite different from the positioning associated with Clash of Clans.

For written texts, it’s completely normal for us to think about the purposes for which texts are written and how authors write texts in order to influence. In fact, we ask our students to think about these sorts of things too – from even the very early days of their school lives (try level Two of the New Zealand Curriculum). And in doing so, we empower them. So why not for games?

I don’t know the answer, but I suspect that it’s because it takes much less time for games like Clash of Clans to become normal in the lives of our children than it does for us to reflect this normality in our pedagogical practices and curriculum documents.

So how does all of this relate back to Clash of Clans specifically? It’s a popular game and as with all games, it can have a big impact on people’s lives. In particular, if we’re thinking about how we are positioned by the games we play and how this changes us, what’s interesting about Clash of Clans? Earlier, I wrote “The game is pretty much what it says on the can”, but I think that that “pretty much” was a bit of a lie. What follows are four of the things that aren’t “on the can”, but that are key to how players of Clash of the Clans are positioned:

Freemium – is Clash of Clans’ business model. In particular, players can purchase upgrades and in-game resources that they would otherwise have to earn through time consuming game-play. That is, players’ real-world money is an occulted resource in the game. Because Clash of Clans is competitive (albeit with low stakes), this clearly presents a model of a world that is far from egalitarian.

Territory – Isn’t a resource. No player ever occupies the territory previously occupied by another. To my mind, this feature marks out Clash of Clans as something a little different to the colonisation games analysed by Sybille Lammes. Interestingly, players who have just been raided by an enemy are given a default choice of revenge – again without the possibility of capturing territory.

Death – Doesn’t exist. When an enemy has plundered a players’ territory and razed it to the ground, it simply regenerates along with all of that player’s resources (although the enemy is rewarded). So what, if anything, then represents ultimate loss in the game? I wonder if the answer is stasis – not acquiring resources, not attacking others, not levelling up. If so, then this places the player in a situation that rewards them for continual growth – a fairly clear real-world political and economic position.

Clans – Is a feature of Clash of Clans that lets players share military resources with a designated list of other players. Obviously players who are affiliated with more powerful clans are more successful. There are many features of this that I find fascinating, but for me the most fascinating is that many of the clans are based on real-world language spoken by the players, or their real-world ethnicities or nationalities. For example, there are clans whose names and whose member players’ names are written in Korean – presumably they all speak Korean. How do real-world issues – bound up as they are with death and territory – play out in a world where anyone who cares to be is effectively immortal and there is no such thing as occupation? Or are the game mechanics set up so that real-world issues are a barely detectable signal amidst the rest of the game’s noise. Supercell must be sitting on some very interesting data.

None of these points are intended to show that Clash of Clans is bad or good. I certainly enjoy it. If you want to while away some time pounding the snot out of the virtual agents of someone you don’t know, half a world away from you, then give Clash of Clans a go. But if you do give it a go, think about how you’re being positioned and how this might change your interactions with the world around you. And then write and tell me about it.

Games, Pop culture and education