Issue No. 09 - Sept. (2011 vol. 44)
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MC.2011.285
David Alan Grier , George Washington University
For many years, I've followed a strict discipline of buffered output to protect myself from the undue influence of the past. I live in small quarters that lack all the accoutrements of storage: attic, cellar, basement, garage, toolshed, and burial ground.
To keep the evidence of gross materialism from accumulating in rooms, I keep a buffer, in the form of a larger cardboard box, in the closet. When I find something that's cluttering the house, I place it in the buffer. If I determine that I need the object, I retrieve it. But after a decent interval, I tape the buffer shut without looking at what remains inside. I then give it to one of those charitable agencies that's devoted to recycling wayward souls and the unwanted goods of the middle class.
The key is to avoid looking. Once you look, you risk bonding with an object. A pleasant memory will form, and you'll decide that nostalgia requires you to save something "for just a little longer." As you remove the object from the buffer, you'll find something else that evokes another pleasant emotion, and you'll feel bound by some sense of fairness to save the second item. So the process will continue in an iterative fashion until the box is empty, and the room is cluttered. Buffered output solves this problem by putting a barrier between yourself and the fatal attraction of ideas outgrown.
I admit that buffered output has failed me on a few occasions when I unintentionally disposed of an irreplaceable household item. However, the embarrassment from such failures never lasts and pales in comparison with the benefits of a home free of clutter.
I've argued that industries and research fields could benefit from such a procedure, especially when they're attempting to undertake new areas of activity. It seems this would be especially useful at the current time, when we're looking at the "leisurification" of computer science.
The Industrialization of Leisure
Leisurification—transferring ideas from the world of leisure to the world of industry—is a concept I discovered many years ago when I moved into an office and found a collection of journals that hadn't been properly handled with the buffered output process. These journals were from a field called leisure science, a discipline in which researchers engage in the study of play.
In reading through the articles, I discovered that their focus was somewhat scattered, lacking a common theme or approach. This was apparent even when the articles addressed a specific topic, such as the operation of a household consisting of a couple in which one member is currently employed outside the home and one is retired, which the authors identified as a mixed-leisure household.
In studying the mixed-leisure household, the authors used every conceivable tool of social science to cover all possible combinations of partners. They treated the common scenario of the retired husband and the working wife from a sociological standpoint, but they looked at same-sex couples with economic models.
As I started to move these periodicals to the local recycling bin, I concluded that the contributors to this publication had undertaken a task that was fundamentally self-contradictory. They defined leisure as one concept and then were determined to prove that it was something else. They simply dropped an idea that no longer worked.
Traditionally, and here tradition dates only to the start of the factory age, leisure was defined as the activities that had nothing to do with production. While those activities ranged from hobbies to arts, sports, and ceremonies, all had "the common economic characteristic of being nonindustrial," noted one early scholar of the field.
However, shortly after leisure was defined as "nonindustrial," a variety of institutions rushed to create industrialized leisure, which consisted of traditional activities that were augmented by capital and dominated by systematic procedures. They created major league baseball, which was industrialized sport; sight-seeing tours, which were industrialized walks; and amusement parks, which were industrialized fantasy—the purest form of industrialized leisure.
Amusement parks were a direct application of industrial principles to leisure activities. The earliest of these parks were owned by electrical utilities or trolley lines that were looking for ways to generate new demand for their products.
These companies had "excess capacity at night, on weekends, and during the holidays, precisely the times when an amusement park did business," explained David Nye, a scholar of these parks. The companies located the parks at the end of trolley lines, exploiting cheap land and low fares. They draped the new parks with lights and developed electrically driven rides as novelties. "The amusement park was a machine of illusions," Nye argued, "the logical counterpart of the new industrial factory."
Originally, the engineering community generally kept its distance from the new forms of industrial leisure. In the first half of the 20th century, even though electrical rides presented substantial problems related to efficiency and safety, the precursors to IEEE, the AIEE, and the IRE published not a single article about electrical rides, although they did discuss the problems associated with lighting the buildings at world's fairs. The "engineer responsible for planning the lighting for an exposition must approach his problem with the purpose of the exposition in mind," explained an engineer from General Electric. "Originality and appropriateness should be the outstanding characteristic of lighting installations of this class."
Leisurification of Industry
A significant change occurred in industrialized leisure in the last three decades of the 20th century. The driving force behind this change was videogames. Originally, videogames represented just another step in the industrialization of leisure. They borrowed ideas from simulation, computer graphics, real-time computation, and other developments from computer research.
Unlike the engineers who worked on the early amusement parks, the designers of these new electronic games were pleased to discuss their accomplishments and describe the technological accomplishments behind their work. "The home TV game industry has just been through a year of unprecedented growth," explained IEEE member Ralph Baer, who discussed the underlying engineering in computer games. Baer compared the industry to the technology of telephones and TV and explained the nature of "microprocessor controlled TV games."
The discussion of computer games quickly shifted from the games themselves to their applications beyond entertainment. Barely six months after Baer wrote his article, Steven Bristow, an Atari engineer who worked on the original Pong game, suggested the future of gaming technology. "What can be done on a TV game?" Bristow asked. "Literally anything can be done," was his response. Bristow went on to suggest battle games, driving games, and simulation games. "Anything that is enjoyable and fun," he concluded, "will be or has been simulated for fun and profit on the screen of a TV game."
Games And Governance
The game industry grew quickly during the 1980s and 1990s, and the technology was soon adapted for use in a variety of industrial applications.
Having concluded long ago that industry had determined that games were a flexible and powerful training tool, I was a little surprised when I recently received a report from the National Research Council on the value of serious games to governance and policy problems. "The technical and cultural boundaries between modeling, simulation, and games are increasingly blurring," the report began, "providing broader access to capabilities in modeling and simulation and further credibility to game-based applications."
After quickly scanning the report's summary, I was about to conclude that it offered nothing new and consign it to my system of buffered output so that it might ultimately grace the bookseller's table at some thrift sale. "Incomprehensible policy reports: 12 for $1.00," the sign would read.
However, something made me pause. I wondered why the NRC was involved and started to think about the story behind the report. The council doesn't address technology problems unless someone brings it a question. Despite what many people think, the NRC isn't a government agency. As an independent organization that's part of the National Academies of Science, it's chartered to answer questions posed by units of the US government. Clearly, someone had asked the council about videogames, and the council had felt moved to respond.
I pulled the report from my box and flipped through its pages. The report didn't specify the underlying question or the organization that had asked it, but both were easy to identify. The report's major recommendation stated that the US Department of Defense should start using commercial videogame technology for some of its war games.
"There," I thought to myself, "problem solved." The DoD wanted to use this technology for its war games. Because it faced some resistance, a deputy secretary of something or another asked for an NRC report to handle the objections.
I looked at a few more pages and noted that the report urged the DoD to stay ahead of all potential threats. It claimed that one of the 2008 presidential candidates had appeared weak because he admitted that he'd never used e-mail. It was a trivial point, but it added a little sting to the report's conclusion.
I was about to make a third attempt to dispose of the report, but an irrational attachment had started to form in my mind. There was something deeper in the report, a story about the nature of leisurification. Certainly, any organization that could build multibillion-dollar fighter planes could find a way to spend a couple hundred thousand dollars to buy some commercial gaming equipment.
That something else in the report was the asymmetry of the leisure process. We find it easy to apply industrial methods to leisure. We find it harder to admit that our leisure informs our production processes.
The Leisurification Process
The great benefit of computer games is that they provide a new way of developing technical and nontechnical skills. "As gamers play together in groups large and small," argued the NRC report, "they gain specific new ideas in how to communicate, organize, and act in ad hoc collaborative environments, a skill that will be in increasing demand in a global transient workplace." While this educational process is one of the great advantages of transferring ideas from the world of leisure to the world of industry, it also represents one of the most serious threats to leisurification.
The conventional alternative to learning by experience is learning through schools. In addition to conveying knowledge and intellectual skills to students, schools also socialize them, giving them the abilities to work within established society and social institutions.
We find it difficult to shake the idea that individuals without social skills are prepared to work in modern society. The NRC report's authors had tried to address this concern. "For many years," they explained, "the popular perception of digital games has been that they are solitary experiences enjoyed by those who shun social interaction, such as introverted teenage males." The writers countered this claim by arguing that "These are mistaken assumptions, as digital games have evolved to be highly social environments that appeal to a much broader demographic."
It's difficult to offer a strong defense of the claim that your colleagues are indeed able to engage with the larger society when your report is filled with the kinds of details that are familiar only to people who spend a great deal of time playing games. The report discussed aspects of Spore, World of Warcraft, and Grand Theft Auto. It talked about the soundtracks of various games and explained some of the commercial products that are advertised by careful placement in games. These were ideas that the report wasn't quite ready to abandon, an old vision of games that needed to be expelled from the house so that a new one could take its place.
Computer games indeed represent the mature technologies of computer science. They're moving from the world of leisure to the world of production in a way that will likely have a substantial social impact. Some will likely be good. Some might not be as welcome. However, to see that process clearly, we have to put aside an old vision of games. We might not have had to abandon outmoded ideas when technology industrialized leisure, but we clearly have to do so when it leisurizes industry.
David Alan Grier, an associate professor of international science and technology policy at George Washington University, is the author of the upcoming book, The Company We Keep.