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Sherry Jones Interview

I recently met Sherry Jones at a Technology Symposium in Denver, Colorado. Sherry is a professor of philosophy with some ideas about teaching that will no doubt strike a chord with gamers and geeks visiting our site. In short, she uses games to help teach concepts about philosophy. Not only that, but she is a facilitator of the Metagame Book Club, an ongoing Google+ community dedicated to using games, both digital and analog, to further discussions on a number of topics. I wanted to learn more, and Sherry graciously accepted my request for an interview.

GV: In laymen's terms, you apply philosophical concepts to video games in order help your students learn about these concepts. You also run gMOOC and rgMOOC courses. Is that correct, and can you explain what you do briefly for our readers?

Sherry: I co-created the concept, gMOOC, to refer to a specific type of MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). An interesting fact is that the MOOC was originally intended as a play on the MMO acronym that gamers are familiar with. The original intent of MOOCs was that anyone from any educational background can come into the course to participate, collaborate, curate articles and videos, and learn. MOOCs drifted away from that past and so different terms are used to distinguish them now. The MOOC that is more like a traditional classroom with an instructor leading is called an xMOOC. A gMOOC is a games based MOOC, and an rgMOOC is a rhetoric and game based MOOC.

Though Sherry Jones' gMOOCs are not currently running, anyone can participate in the Metagame Book Club here). Her track is titled "Track I: Game Studies," but is one of several running at any one time in this reading club that was created to study academic literature on the meanings of play and games.

GV: "Recognize how game rules and mechanics alter your worldview" is a tagline in the trailer for one of your MOOCs about games. I think many gamers will take pause at this line because they have found it to be true, even if it's only on an amusing note. I, for example, often relate RPGs to real life jokingly saying, "If I talk to this person one more time, they might say something new, but they will probably start repeating themselves. Typical NPCs." What's an example of how games have altered your worldview?

Sherry: Two ways: Games reflect the gamers' cultural consciousness. They are a consumer product. When game developers create/develop a game, they want an audience to be able to relate to it. Sometimes when gamers are new to that type of culture found in a game before they play, they might be influenced by the culture in the game. So in Call of Duty, for example, maybe you would get a sense of what a soldier is going through when you play the game. There is a lot missing from this experience, and you can also look at the game that way; You can look at what is "missing" from the game.

Culture is a way of life. It's how you live every day. Games are a great way to study culture because it provides a lens to study it. Sometimes game developers invent another kind of culture through video games. A game is a lens, but it is a limited lens. It reflects parts of reality while hiding others; It can only show so much. What is unique about games vs. books in this sense is that games are things you have to play and interact with - otherwise you can't progress, you can't explore. A book provides a physically passive experience. So a game has a specific curious nature and forces you to understand its context completely. It's a higher form of literature in my mind. How can video games be a higher form of literature? Structurally, games are more complex logical systems that force people to think on a higher level in order to progress through them. That is not to say that the narrative content of games is as socially and culturally diverse as traditional literature, yet. I believe video games will become better and more complex as we go on.

GV: How did you become interested in video games?

Sherry: To be honest, I started playing when I was 5. Avid board game player too. Early on, I noticed that games explored certain concepts and issues that I wasn't getting in college studies.

Professor Mark Chen teaches game design. He says that the nature of video games is to resist existing systems, existing structures. A system is a contained rule-based structure. Higher education is a system. Your house is a system. The corporate world is a system. A game itself is a system, and you have to follow its particular rules. It argues against previous systems and it can annoy people because it challenges that previous system. Indie game devs can also experiment and deviate in ways that other game developers cannot. For example, Papers, Please deals with immigration. AAA studios are not touching that. Most people want you to make a game that conforms to their worldview.

GV: I think you could host the most interesting Twitch feed in the world. How about you?

Sherry: My husband, Stephen Getter, is a game developer and he does lots of Let's Play videos. In the rgMOOC, he did Let's Play videos for all the games we assigned. I am not sure that the audience of Twitch wants to hear me go on about philosophy concepts quite yet.

GV: Well, we have people putting on videos with bad jokes and terrible songs, so I think there might be a niche. Just think about it :) I particularly liked your thought-provoking questions on Gods Will be Watching, though I admit I am not able to wrap my head around all of the concepts you discussed quite yet. In particular, the question "How is one 'condemned to be free' in the game?" struck me, as it's something I felt as I played the game for the first time (in its free-to-play original form), even though the game provides no explicit prompt for this. In my review, I mentioned "(You) can never seem to save everyone, only win measured, terrible victories. The title of the game says it all: there's nothing you can do that will let you rest with a clear conscience." I was hoping you could expand on your thoughts on the "condemned to be free." concept in Gods Will be Watching.

Sherry: Jean-Paul Sartre, an existentialist philosopher, created the phrase, "condemned to be free," as part of his greater existentialist philosophy. First, you need to understand facticity. You can consider facticity to be the limits placed on us. Those limits include people we can associate with, the family we are born into, etc. Within those constraints, what can we do? For example in games, we only have so many dialogue options. Though you can think of other options, you have to click on the ones you are constrained to do.

Condemned to be Free: Sartre is responding to Nietzsche's claim that "God is dead." Sartre says if there is no more god, and it has been the source of our morality, then what can or can't we do? Our moral rules are based on god; If god is dead, and there is no more morality, what are we to do? We are free to do anything we want to do in this world. We are condemned because if we make a mistake, then it's our fault, and we can't blame any higher power.

GV: Whoa, I just got chills. I just related that to the title of the game and the implications are deep. Very interesting.

Sherry: We are not promoting Nihilism, let's make that clear. Another existentialist philosopher, Albert Camus, says yes, we have lots of constraints placed on our lives, but you can still say to yourself, "That is not the right option, but I'm doing it because my hands are forced."

GV: Thank you very much for your time, this has been very interesting.

That was the end of our interview, but definitely not the end of many questions I have for Sherry. Discussing games the way we discuss literature is a fascinating line of thought for me. Hopefully this interview sparks your interest as it has mine.

As an interesting side note, the developers at Deconstructeam had a short twitter conversation with Sherry (here and here) when they caught wind that she was running an rgMOOC that used Gods Will Be Watching as an example. They joined the course, but amusingly tweeted later, "I tried so hard to understand what your project is about but.. it goes beyond my comprehension ·_·" That was before the full version of Gods Will Be Watching went live on Steam, so who knows, perhaps they used some of their time in Sherry’s rgMOOC to help enhance the final product!

For more information on Sherry Jones and her current work, check out her Pathbrite page here.

-Fights with Fire, GameVortex Communications
AKA Christin Deville

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