Sherry Turkle gave a brilliant talk at the GVU Brown Bag at Georgia Tech today about her book Alone Together. Towards the end of the question session, she had a fascinating exchange with Carl DiSalvo about robots to bathe elders. Sherry argued that people who no longer can bathe themselves should be bathed by caring humans. (I can imagine the dialog: “Hello Mrs. Johnson! It’s time for your bath. I saw your son was here yesterday. Did you have a good visit?”)
Carl responded: We all agree that would be ideal. But in reality, the attendants are often workers paid minimum wage who are unkind to their charges. When you interview real nursing home patients on the subject, they all say “I’d rather be bathed by a robot who isn’t expected to care than by a human who fails to care.”
Here’s my thought in reply: What’s the difference between a robot that bathes you and one that you use to bathe yourself? It’s a subtle point–a question of where the sense of agency resides. (Of course when I’m done bathing myself, I’d also like a real human to ask how my visit with my son yesterday went.)
A hygiene-assist robot is an easier problem to solve than a sociable robot–one whose primary purpose is social or emotional. Could we still keep the sense of agency with the person in those cases? It’s harder to understand what that might mean. The problems Turkle raises in her book are serious.
This theme of agency and of designing to keep the sense of agency with the individual keeps cropping up in different areas of HCI. It feels to me like a core principle–something we should highlight in HCI classes and emphasize wherever possible in design. The more this technology pervades different aspects of life, the more human agency seems important.
At the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) this year, my PhD student Betsy DiSalvo was struck by the irony of a bunch of middle-aged white men debating whether social games are evil. Social games are aimed primarily at non-traditional gaming audiences. The new hard core gamer is 40 and female. The irony of a bunch of guys dismissing the games liked by women was apparently lost to the GDC panel. ”Dear ladies, instead of playing free games with short play times per session in which you pretend to grow vegetables or run a café, please pay $60 to buy a game with one-to-two hour long play sessions in which you shoot at things. Thank you, The Game Developers.”
One underlying issue is diversity in the game industry. Now that we have a more diverse gaming audience, we need a more diverse community of game developers. And game scholars. I remember folks at GDC back in the late 90s dreaming of finding games that would appeal to women. If only we could find what they like–we’d double the potential market for games! Now that we’ve achieved that goal, we have a tiny little problem: many of the developers now don’t like the kind of games they have to make. Hence the hostility at GDC. (Be careful what you wish for….)
People don’t go into the game industry to get rich or have a great quality of work life–they go into it out of love for games. If you hate the stuff you’re working on, that’s a problem. Will game companies now have to offer developers more reasonable working hours? That might be a silver lining.
Researchers in computing education have often argued that love of games is one factor that draws young men to study computer science and pursue CS careers. Now that there are more women playing games, will more young women choose to follow that path too? I’m guessing that they will, but the effect may be smaller than the industry needs–because the new social games tend to appeal middle-aged women, not high-school and college students choosing career paths. The young women who do go into the game industry will likely find themselves in demand.
The other consequence of this turn of events is that there will be a much greater need for good design practice. It’s relatively easy to design for yourself and others like you–you figure out what you like and do it. As game developers are challenged to design things they would never play, they are going to need to actually read an intro human-computer interaction (HCI) textbook and learn about techniques to get input from members of their target audience before they invest development time to make something.
I agree with my colleague Ian Bogost that these games have privacy implications, and also that it can be problematic to treat your friends as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. (That’s the definition of unethical, according to Kant.) But the games also connect you to friends and family in a positive way, and have shorter playtimes that better fit into adult lives. There’s a lot to debate here both positive and negative.
And to the organizers of GDC: maybe the next panel on social gaming could have panel members (other than the moderator) who actually play social games?
Addendum: This is a somewhat unfair shot at this particular panel (which I heard about second hand from multiple sources, but did not attend), but the broader points about the game industry hold.