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News

The Human Element

Ann Mellow
April 19, 2011
The following headline in the Arts section of the New York Times grabbed my attention: “Busy Job of Judging Video-Game Content to Be Ceded to Machines”.

Since 1994, it’s been the job of the Entertainment Software Rating Board to evaluate the content of video games. I am sure you have noticed the bold, black and white ESRB rating labels on video game packaging: “E” for “Everyone”, “T” for “Teen,” etc.

Well, it seems that video games are proliferating so fast, particularly online, that human beings cannot keep up with the hefty task of evaluating their content. Instead, video game manufacturers will fill out a questionnaire and a computer will generate the game’s rating. Human beings will apparently double check the data submitted by the game maker to “verify that the disclosure was complete and accurate”—but this will be done after the fact. The complex evaluation of impact and appropriateness of content will remain in the hands of the machine.

Now, whether or not video games (or any other form of media) should be rated, by whom, and under what standards is a debate for another day. What seems terribly wrong with this picture is the idea that critical, ethical judgments about the content of language, the use of violence, and the portrayal of sex, race, and culture can be reduced to a “moral questionnaire” parsed by a software program.

Those of us who work in schools know first hand that even the simplest situations carry within them complex moral and ethical questions that could test Solomon: the playground dispute, the off-hand comment in the lunch room, the student speech in chapel. Surely the worlds created in video games, their overt or implied value judgments, and the decisions players must make are no less complex.

Episcopal schools have always engaged intentionally in questions about what is right, what is best, and what is true through study and dialogue. Such important work cannot be reduced to a checklist, expressed in formula, or managed at all well by a software program.

It is unlikely that Episcopal schools will ever delegate judgments of mind, heart, and spirit to a computer. Nonetheless, we must work actively to insure that face-to-face conversations and meaningful human dialogue about social, ethical, and moral decision-making remain central to who we are and what we do in Episcopal schools. Our students deserve and need no less.

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