Press-Republican

May 13, 2012

Technology can be double-edged sword

STEWART A. DENENBERG, Technology and Society
Press-Republican

---- — The main title immediately caught my eye: "The Hyperaddictive, Time-Sucking, Relationship-Busting, Mind-Crushing Power and Allure of Silly Digital Games." But the alternate title, "Just One More Game ... Angry Birds, Farmville and Other Hyperaddictive 'Stupid Games'" clinched the deal.

I had to read the article in the April 4, 2012, edition of the New York Times Magazine by Sam Anderson (http://tinyurl.com/blmp3hn).

I was hooked because I've always had this love/fear relationship with games, and especially computer games. The attraction came from the addiction, and so did the fear.

In 1982, I presented a paper at the National Education Computer Conference in Kansas City entitled "A Call for the Study of Computer Games," in which I attempted to make a positive case for them — they improve eye-hand coordination, thus improving the chances of your son growing up to be a fighter pilot — and to try to categorize them according to their structure (learning games for teaching, reading or math; board games like chess and checkers; adventure games like Dungeons and Dragons, etc.). Nowadays, there are games and simulations that are smarter, faster and prettier.

Back then, the most interesting and exciting computer games existed in video arcades in malls. I fed many a quarter into single-purpose computing machines that allowed me to play Space Invaders and Asteroids (Pac Man never grabbed me). As computer technology improved and became less costly, these and newer games migrated to personal computers made by IBM, Radio Shack, Apple and Microsoft.

By this time, I was wary of the seductive power of computer games. As a graduate student in the mid-'70s at the University of Massachusetts, I designed and developed a Computer Managed Instruction system pretentiously named "ACCOLADE" — An Alternative Curriculum for Computer Literacy Development. Definitions of "computer literacy" can range from "the ability to tell a computer from a horse" to "highly developed skills in the art of programming, plus broad and deep knowledge in the areas of history, applications, social issues, hardware and software." I chose the latter.

After a hard day of building and testing ACCOLADE, I relaxed by using my state-of-the-art Plato computer — it had a pixel resolution of 512-by-512 — to play one of the very first games on a very early version of the Internet — only about a dozen nodes. "Empire" was a graphical, multi-user game with a simple premise: conquer the universe. You joined a team of geographically distributed users — aptly named Terrans, Klingons, etc. — and with combined recourses (spaceships loaded with armies and various weapons) attempted to accomplish the goal of universal domination.

When this was achieved by one of the teams, the game was reset and another 24 hours of play began. As a newbie, as soon as I entered the game I was quickly dispatched by a seasoned player, so it was not much fun. In desperation, I sent out a message to all players, "New player needs help, please be gentle." Almost immediately, I got the response "I can help," and they proceeded to put me in "tractor orbit" and tow me around under their protection while I was taught basic survival strategies (like reallocating some of my energy from defensive shields to photon torpedoes instead of the laser canons). After a bit, I messaged back to mentor, "OK, I think I'm ready to fly on my own — thanks very much for the help." I got the reply, "No problems, by the way, how old are you?" Surprised, I answered, "I'm 36." "YIIIIKES!!!" was the reply. "What's the problem?" I said. "I'm 12," my instructor said. It was my turn to say "YIIIIKES."

I learned that while there are many ways computers waste our time and even act as dehumanizing agents, they still have the power to promote egalitarian values. By masking cues such as sex and age, they allow us to interact as equals. In fact from that point on, our conversation changed as my teacher realized I was an adult and I that he was a child — it shouldn't have but it did. Just another instance of technology acting like a double-edged sword.

Dr. Stewart A. Denenberg is an Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at Plattsburgh State, retiring recently after 30 years at the institution. Prior to that he has worked as a technical writer, programmer and consultant to the U.S. Navy and private Industry. Please send comments and suggestions to his blog at http://tec-soc.blogspot.com where there is additional text and links. He can also be reached at denenbsa@gmail.com.