Are video games good or evil – examining them through different presentation styles and audiences

Just to let you know, I’m a media spokesperson for my professional psychological society, having been trained and then offered training in media for almost 30 years now… I had my own radio show when I was in my late 20s in the early 1980s soon after graduation, and have appeared on radio, TV and in print media on many occasions. I’m sure it’s been a boon to my public speaking skills, both in terms of my delivery, anxiety management and the training of others. Since then, I’ve also turned my attention to slideware this past decade, and especially so after Apple released Keynote in 2003, when the scales fell from my eyes and I decided against socially conforming to the still present standard – Powerpoint (or the alleged Gold Standard – the Cognitive Style of Powerpoint, as Edward Tufte has referred to it).

I get media referrals for topics like anxiety disorders, as well as how technology is affecting society, especially things like “internet addiction”, the effects of violent video games on children, the pro-social effects of technologies, and “technofears”, where people are afraid to take up new technologies. Kind of runs the whole gamut of behaviours around technology.

So yesterday saw the intersection of three media related events.

The First Media connection to young people and video gaming – A GP newsletter media enquiry

First, the media section of my professional society asked if I would take a call for assistance from a medical journalist writing for a General Practitioners’ weekly publication on how GPs can best understand “internet addiction”, recognise its presence, and thus offer assistance to those “afflicted”. You’ll note by my uses of quotation marks that I am somewhat opposed to the terms used as the best ways to define a real concern members of the wider community possess. No doubt some of the conversation I will have with the journalist will be about the effects of prolonged gaming on children and adolescents.

Here are some of the questions I’m told will be asked of me:

Why are some people so susceptible to the online role playing environment and is it a substitute for real relationships for those who have difficulty in real situations?

Is it an illness and what sort of illness? If not what what is it?

Should it be classified as an addiction? Treating internet addiction has become a huge industry in China and the US some rehab centres charging 10s of thousands of dollars for programs. Do these work?

The Second Connection – TED talk by Jane McGonigal

Secondly, yesterday TED published a new talk by Jane McGonigal. Here’s what the TED write-up looks like at this link:

(Curiously, next to this writeup is a TED section, with links to “related speakers” where one finds a link to Steve Jobs. When I saw this yesterday, I could have sworn I would know if he had done a TED talk, but instead it’s TED linking to Steve’s famous Stanford Commencement speech from a few years back.)

McGonigal, who has a Ph.D in performance studies from USC Berkeley is pro-gaming and has constructed a number of games for institutes like the World Bank. You can read more about her in a recent Wired article, here, conducted in the week before her TED talk. (Beware of staring too long at her mesmerising blue eyes).

In a current world where so much of mainstream media is out hunting for negative gaming stories and how children’s and adolescents’ brains might be negatively affected by “too much” gaming (whatever that may be, but someone with a MD or PhD will come up with a definition that works for them), McGonigal throws a curve ball with her TED talk and will get you thinking afresh, like it did me, on the whole concept of gaming.

Naturally, not just am I watching and trying to comprehend her story, but I’m also watching her presentation technique and her commanding use of slideware.

In her case, I’m pretty sure she’s either using Powerpoint for the presentation or PDFs of her Powerpoint. There’s no computer in sight to assist, but when you watch the TED talk, you’ll notice a few things (now that I point them out to you).

Jane uses no transitions, builds or animations in her talk, which suggests to me she’s not using Keynote! Something about Keynote compels one to think creatively about their use, while as Tufte has written, Powerpoint is a useful picture container (or words to that effect). In fact, she doesn’t need to, as her use of full picture slides, colour, and matching of her story with the pictures together with her own animated expressiveness (she refers to it as her exuberance) is sufficiently compelling.

Shown below are screenshots from her TED talk.

Two slides in, she's captured the audience's attention with the epic moment gamer face

The sign at McGonigals workplace - very Apple-like.

What gamers get from immersion in their connected gaming experience

Are there really 14 million gamers in Australia, which has a total pop. of 20 million?

Good use of a simple, referenced and highlighted quote

The first game? 2500 years ago, using sheep knuckles for dice

By now, you’ve got the idea. Big, bold bright pictures and words which truly illustrate her storytelling.

But a couple of other things: Jane rarely ums and ahs. She pauses as she collects her thoughts, prompted by her good use of current and next slides as shown in this “over the shoulder” screenshot from her talk. You’ll notice too the countdown clock (total of 18 mins) yet she had about two more minutes to go at this point! By using this slide arangement, rarely do we see Jane casting her eyes away from the audience and turning to look back at the main screen.

What the speaker sees at TED - current slide, time remaining, next slide

So by now I hope I have sufficiently teased you about this talk about gaming, so below is the embedded TED talk of 20 mins, so come back and we’ll look at another set of slides presented to the British Parliament on gaming just a day or two back – for contrast.

The Third Connection – Mindhack’s Vaughan Bell presents to UK parliamentarians on the evidence about video games and young people

The third connection is a presentation given March 17 to the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Scientific Research in Learning and Education by MindHack’s blogger and neuroscientist, Vaughan Bell. From its website the purpose of the Group is:

Notice that one of the Chairs is Baroness Susan Greenfield, who in Britain is a very famous neuroscientist (Parkinson’s disease is her speciality) but not one without controversy. She has been very vocal about children’s development and gaming’s ill effects as she sees it, but she has also been criticised for going beyond the current empirical evidence in making her assertions.

As it turns out, Baroness Greenfield also gave a presentation, which was then followed by Bell’s. You can read his take on following her (to her own committee, moreover) at his current blog entry here.

Let’s look at some of slides, to contrast them with McGonigal’s and bearing in mind to whom he is presenting! (His blog states videos of his and Greenfield’s talk will also be posted sometime soon.)

You can download the full set of PPT slides here, by the way.

First, here’s the title slide, which didn’t inspire me to expect great slides from the get-go:

Vaughan Bell's opening slide - pure Powerpoint

Things improve however, when Vaughan illustrates how the media is reporting gaming and children in an alarmist fashion, using the exact online sources:

Vaughan begins to tell a story: that alarms over technological changes to society are nothing new, and he illustrates them thus:

and he continues the story by showing evidence for their debunking:

and it’s here that we really get bogged down in standard science presentation style:

I wonder if you can see the issues I have with these standard means by which to present complex data?

Basically, these slides are tired. They lack engaging properties, with too much (small text), small pictures, and a general sameness from slide to slide that needs a good shaking up.

Of course, we must bear in mind the audience to whom Vaughan is presenting, who as politicians may well live and breathe Powerpoint, but it seems to me his vital message could have been better illustrated by moving away from so much text by including more visually engaging material.

Baroness Greenfield’s slides are yet to be posted, but you can see her in presentation mode in a talk from October 2008 here, and judge for yourself.

But Bell does offer a description of her talk to the All-Parliamentary Group, thus:

Her talk was sincere, very well delivered but unfortunately her argument was poorly lacking in terms of its scientific content, and I’m afraid to say, wouldn’t pass muster as an undergraduate thesis. This was not least because she discussed not a single study on the effect of games or the internet.

And this has been the crux of much of the criticism levelled at her, that she is going way beyond the available data and extrapolating beyond her own knowledge base, not to mention that of researchers working in this domain.

Once more, this goes to my increasingly repetitive notion that in 2010 if you’re a presenter, you must bring to your audience reasons why they can consider you a presenter of authority and authenticity. Baroness Greenfield has been awarded for her contributions to the public’s understanding of complex scientific topics, but when I read her material related to young people and the internet I’m reminded of an old Yiddish joke:

Young eager son to old wise father: “Pop, look at the nice new yacht I bought with my latest sharemarket killing… and look at my shiny new Captain’s outfit I bought to sail in…”

Father to eager son: “That’s nice, sonny. By your mother, you’re a Captain, by your father, you’re a Captain, but by a Captain, you’re NO Captain!”

One response to “Are video games good or evil – examining them through different presentation styles and audiences

  1. Thanks for sharing this excellent video. If only more speakers took this approach, rather than the second example……

    Re: the use of transitions and builds, at Ignite Sydney we recently decided to ban them altogether and insist on static slides (which advance automatically every 15 seconds).

    We found this resulted in much better presentations as the audience were able to concentrate on the speakers and their messages, without being distracted by moving text, flashing graphics, etc.

    You can see the videos from this event at if you’re interested.

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