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2007 October 29 -- The Video Game Mentality

I face this dragon almost every day, sometimes in more than one way.

Nine months ago, in my "Life Isn't a Game" post, I made the observation on how video games encompass and oversimplify the complexity of the world we live in, so that without very much effort gamers can convince themselves that they are as proficient as the experts in real life modelled by the game. Of course it's all a lie and we game programmers work very hard to sustain the illusion.

Today I am programming not a game, but a real-life tool for doing a real job. Actually, the program is pretty much complete, and I'm using it the way I expect my customers to use it, while writing the documentation that will help them do so. It's a natural-language translation program, and writing the grammar for translating into English has taken three weeks so far (out of an initial estimate of four). Except for an occasional bug I need to fix, the program is working as planned. What worries me -- the topic of today's post -- is that users accustomed to playing video games will expect a credible translation from this tool in minutes or at most a few hours, not weeks or months.

Bible translation professionally done by trained linguists takes 12-15 years to do the New Testament. I'm hoping to knock a big chunk off that, but there's no way computers will reduce the task to a few minutes or hours. Trained linguists still need to study the language, and they still need to think hard about how to render complex theological concepts into languages that don't have words for "lamb of God" (or even sheep) or redemption or repentance. This takes years. My program does not help in those areas, it only automates the process of forming correct sentences in that language after you know how to say what needs to be said.

Like the linguists I hope to be helping, I am a professional. Writing complex programs like this takes years. People can write simplistic "Hello, world" programs in a few minutes -- and I have written some of the tools to help them do it -- but that is not the same as what I do. Professional sports players command multi-million-dollar contracts because they spent years training their bodies to deliver particular plays. No video game is going to make that kind of pro out of a couch potato. But it sure feels like it when you play those games!

I am not a professional theologian. I studied Greek and Hebrew in seminary (and I still try to keep fluent), but professionally I am a computer technologist. The video games of theology are the Bible search software programs you can buy, and the comparable internet sites which do similar things online. In a few minutes anybody can run a word search and copy-paste some erudite-sounding theological ideas, which are no more real and meaningful than swinging a Wii wand to hit a home run in a baseball game. I can get better results than the gamer, but only because I have spent (and still spend) the time to do the job the way it needs to be done.

My sister is a professional (licensed) family therapist. She has the training and experience to understand dysfunctional relationships and to recommend changes to correct the problems. I'm more of an amateur, the way I'm an amateur theologian. I read a lot of what the professionals write, and I spend a lot of time thinking about it, but I'm not a professional. As in theology, I have skill levels somewhere between the professionals and the gamers. I don't know what counts as "video game" in relationship therapy (Sims?), but I do know that every once in a while somebody with no more insight than a video gamer tries to instruct me in the finer points of relationships. If they have studied the training materials available to professionals half as much as I have, their opinions and methods don't show any hint of it.

I'm not even an amateur musician. I like to sing, but lack voice control. I took one year of piano lessons as a child, then convinced my parents to let me stop -- and have been kicking myself ever since. You cannot play a musical instrument well enough to keep the audience from cringing without lots of practice and training -- mostly practice. I spend my time on other things. Our church pianist is competent but not concert quality; she makes occasional (but relatively few) mistakes, but it would be foolish for me to try to tell her how to play better. I read a few weeks ago about new video game hardware that lets you do Wii-like (in other words, fake) motions and plays great music for it. Every once in a while one of those gamer types tries to play something on a real instrument at church, or sing karaoke. Their lack of practice and training shows. Everybody politely claps. Everybody is a bunch of liars.

When it comes to running the sound board at the church, my skill level is about that of a gamer. They ask me to do it because nobody else is available, and they get what they pay for -- like a loud "pop" in the middle of the service last night when I tried to bring another mic online. At least I know what I don't know. When somebody comes along who has more training and/or experience than I, I will gladly yield to his greater competence.

In sports -- well, I write the video games, I don't play them. I'm not even a gamer.

My comments here are not intended to belittle the amateur programmer or theologian or therapist with a lower skill level than myself. I too have a lower skill level in sports and music and family therapy. I have chosen how I prioritize my time, and it does not include pumping iron nor practicing the piano four hours every day. That's why I'm no good at those skills. Other people have other priorities. I respect their choices -- but not their hubris if they depend on their game mentality to qualify them at a skill level comparable to the person who invests the time.

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