Teacher, feminist, krautrock connoisseur, anime enthusiast, player of video games, occasional modder, intermittent blogger

Education and technological incompetence

A couple of years back, I completed my Masters degree. It was principally concerned with open, online and distance learning; in short, educational technology in the modern learning environment. Now, while I never really expected to be able to apply all those ideas in my job, since our learning institutions are still very much based around classrooms and traditional structures, I did at least think that it would be generally accepted that, as the information age moves into the digital age, the importance of such technology would be basically unquestioned. The internet, portable computing, and constant connectivity are increasingly ubiquitous. Denying that is like Cnut trying to hold back the tide.

Some six years before that, I worked for an institution which was integrating the internet and computing into examinations. Instead of pen-and-paper exams for each separate discipline, we were beginning to do combined, networked exams. Students would begin in the morning, have a number of tasks to complete over the next few hours, had full access to computers and the internet, and took breaks when they wanted. The general idea was to make the examination as 'realistic' as possible, essentially reflecting a day at work, along with the resources and skills required to deal with it.

By no means was the procedure perfect, but it nevertheless embodied the principle that education and examinations should adapt to the actual way the world works. Educational institutes do not exist in a bubble; they should prepare students in a way which is relevant to society and the work environment into which they will be thrust upon graduation. Even if not all institutes could or should be consistently cutting edge, surely all must be informed by the realities of the world outside.

When I began teaching in the late 90's, I purchased a briefcase which ultimately broke under the weight of the stuff I had to carry around in it: textbooks, dictionaries, cassette players and so on. I quickly lightened the load by purchasing an electronic dictionary, which was soon supplemented with and ultimately replaced by a Palm handheld. Nowadays I have only a MacBook Air, a set of USB speakers, and the occasional textbook. The university has a wireless network which, even if a bit flaky, covers the whole campus. Beyond that, smart phones have expanded internet connectivity to the point that essentially all my students are online at all times. Not being able to access the internet is the exception, rather than the rule.

Textbooks are next for the chopping block, as Apple's keynote yesterday indicates. As mobile computing becomes increasingly powerful, yet also more lightweight and affordable, and as the digital publishing becomes easier, lugging heaps of textbooks to lectures will become a thing of the past. I'm not fantasizing here, nor jumping on the 'Apple will revolutionize education' bandwagon; this is just the way the world is now. This semester, for the first time, I have students using iPads to write academic papers. Between exams today, most students pulled out their smart phones and checked Facebook or whatever. In many ways the important point is that this technology is not brought into the classroom by teachers, but by the students themselves.

In this context, I would argue that it is largely anachronistic that my students today are writing an exam with pen and paper. After all, the only time in their lives that they will actually do such a thing is in an examination. But I accept, with qualifications, that our institution does not have the resources or confidence to administer the kind of networked examination that I described above.

Worse, in my view, is the professor who says, amidst sexist jokes, that universities should be the same today as they were 60 years ago.

I do not expect everyone to be as much of a geek as I am, but people whose job it is to offer instruction to the youth of today should have a basic level of technological competence and understanding. Without that, how can you possibly stand in front of a classroom and offer your students relevant instruction in an appropriate manner?

Gratuitous Censorship, or Why the German Censors should be Censored.

gratuitous (adjective): uncalled for; lacking good reason; unwarranted [OED]
In the aftermath of World War II, the Allied Powers (naturally enough) eliminated Nazi ideology from Germany's educational curriculum. But they went a step further: in 1949, the constitution of West Germany divided educational authority between the various federal states, to all intents and purposes abandoning a centralised system. The rationale behind this was to ensure that, should an objectionable party rise to national power again, it would be much harder for it to indoctrinate school children.

This devolution of educational responsibility has led to any number of problems for the German school system, not least that some states do not recognise the qualifications of others (meaning that, for example, someone who has trained as a teacher in one state may have to go back to university if they wish to teach in another). But for the purposes of this post that is beside the point. What's important is this: that in the matter of education, one group of elected officials acts a buffer to the potential excesses of another group of elected officials. Effectively a system of checks and balances, the constitution does not trust elected politicians to act in the best interests of the people.

So why is it that unelected German censors are able, without any opposition whatsoever, to dictate what is appropriate for me to see?

German censorship was always a bit idiosyncratic. As if uncomfortable with the farcical association of the erotic and the macabre, Woody Allen's 1975 film Love and Death had its title changed to The Last Night of Boris Gruschenko. Perhaps for a similar reason, Peter Jackson's 1996 film The Frighteners was awarded an 18 age rating in Germany, in contrast to its 15 in Britain (that's really the only reason I can think of here). Most ridiculously, however, is the fact that the 1963 film version of Tom Jones is still rated an 18. It is, and as far as I know always has been, a PG in Britain. The mind boggles.
But the German censors are having a field day with computer games. And no, I'm not just talking about highly controversial games like Postal or Grand Theft Auto. No. I'm talking about Portal. [Spoilers follow]

If you're not aware what Portal is about, I'd advise reading the wikipedia article I linked to, or picking it up on Steam for €9. In short, it's a physics based puzzle game in which you have to escape from an experimental complex run by a rogue AI. The player acquires a 'portal gun' which may be fired at two surfaces (floors, ceilings, and so on) in a room, thus creating an 'entrance' and an 'exit' and letting you reach otherwise unattainable areas. Falling through a portal allows the player to gather momentum and so 'throw' yourself across greater distances. The graphic on the right (taken from wikipedia) explains this mechanism a bit more.

The point is simply that this is what the game is about. It isn't about shooting old ladies or dismembering aliens. It isn't about stealing cars or fuelling gang warfare. It's a extremely well-scripted and inventive game which demands some actual thought to complete. To be sure, we're not talking about the puzzle complexity of Riven or the Rhem series, but Portal succeeds because it gradually introduces the player to a few simple mechanics and challenges him or her to combine them in interesting ways.

But surely, for it to fall foul of German censorship, there must be some of the more stereotypically gratuitous elements of computer games involved? Well, there aren't. There is no nudity or swearing. The player does not have access to a weapon of any kind; to defeat enemy gun turrets (which crop up on only a handful of levels) the player must knock them over by, for example, opening a portal underneath them. The rocket launchers encountered on the last level are indestructible, but can but used to destroy obstacles (and the final boss) by forcing them to fire through portals.

So, if there is no nudity, no swearing, and no actual violence in the game, what exactly was censored?

Well, there's some blood on the walls, as can be seen in the image below:
And here is what the censored version looks like: (both images taken from schnittberichte.com)
Now, I played through Portal yesterday before being aware of the extent of the censorship, and you know what? I thought those marks on the walls were mud or dirt. I honestly have no idea how prevalent they are in the game, because I hardly noticed them at all.

An apologist might ask whether the blood was really necessary. After all, haven't I just been talking about how surprisingly cerebral the game is, especially for such an unexpected hit? The answer is that yes, the blood is necessary. Because there is this thing called narrative.

The blood on the wall has a purpose. As mudstains they are just ambient dirt; as bloodstains they serve to increase tension as you progress through the game. There was meant to be a contrast between the computerised voice promising to reward me with cake at the end of the test, the increasing danger, and the suspicion that not all is as it seems.

As I played, I found myself wondering when the 'story' would begin. It already had; but as the game designers had chosen to give visual hints, and because many of these hints were subsequently gutted by the censors, I didn't notice. All I saw was mud.

The irony of this whole situation is that the proponents of censorship, who would claim that computer games are just exercises in sleazy violence and sex, are cutting off the nose to spite the face. Portal is exactly the kind of game which they seem to think doesn't exist: a clever, inventive game in which there is little or no objectionable content, and yet became extremely successful. Yes, there is some blood; but it is used as a narrative device rather than as a gratuitous gimmick. Rather than neutering Portal, the censors should have used it as proof that they are not opposed to computer games in general, but only those mired in excess.

They could even have acknowledged it as having educational value, not only in the problem solving skills, but also as an illustration of there idea of 'Show, don't tell'. They could have used it to help young players to be able to recognise precisely when a game—or a film, or a song, or a book—is being gratuitous, and when it is not.

Of course, that would never happen. Computer games are the but the latest scapegoat of the narrow-minded. When it was published in 1749, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones was blamed for a number of earthquakes (which helps to put Boobquake in context). We don't blame books anymore; Charlotte Roche's Feuchtgebiete was the best selling novel in the world in March 2008, and few people even batted an eyelid. In the 1950's, Elvis was condemned for his 'black' music and 'erotic' hip gyrations; today, few people care about the pseudo soft-porn videos which usually accompany the 'songs' of the latest pop starlet. But some blood in a computer game? Too much, too much.

In the end, it would be easy to conclude that 'dumb censorship is dumb'. Yet I feel the issue goes deeper than that. Though computer games were blamed for the Erfurt massacre in 2002, the educational system of Thuringia left the perpetrator with few job prospects. The educational structure is broken in part because of the distrust of elected officials, and a constitutional safety measure to prevent them from imposing an ideological agenda. But that is exactly what these censors are doing to the population of Germany. They have decided what is good, and what is proper, and what we are allowed to see, and what we are not. By what right do they make these judgements? On whose authority? They were not elected, and they are not answerable to the public. The system does not trust publically-elected officials to do their jobs without prejudice; so why should the system allow those who are not even elected to be beyond question?

The gratuitous censors, I think, are the ones who need to be censored.

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