[In his new Gamasutra column, writer and game designer Ian Bogost asks -- why can't the power of games be used to help retain information in public safety drills and other instructional tasks -- for example replacing the air safety videos that many travelers barely listen to?]
When we talk about the unique power of video games, we often cite their ability to engage us in thorny challenges, to envelop our attention and commitment, to overwhelm our senses and intellects as we strive to master physical trials of a battle or work out the optimal strategy for an economy.
Usually we're right when we think this, no matter the subject or purpose of the game. Indeed, one of the benefits of games over media like print, image, and film is how effectively they occupy our attention, forcing us to become practitioners of their problems rather than casual observers. From algebra to zombies, good games captivate us with sophistication of thought and action.
If we imagine that this sophistication is the gain on an amplifier, we might realize that some problems don't need the levels cranked up to 11. And not just because they are casual games, or games meant to relax us or to facilitate our interaction with friends.
No, some games just don't take on topics that interesting. They are regimens more than experiences. Tools more than art. Drills more than challenges.
The International Civil Aviation Organization requires that flight crews provide passengers with explanations of the safety and emergency features of a commercial aircraft before takeoff.
If you are an experienced flyer, you've heard such demonstrations enough that you probably ignore them. "Who needs to be taught how to use the safety belt," you might grumble as you thumb through upholstered pet beds in the ubiquitous SkyMall catalog.
Air travel is very safe, after all -- far safer than driving. As distressing as recent airline crashes like Continental 3407 and Air France 447 might be, According to aggregated by LiveScience the odds of dying in an airplane crash in the United States are 1 in 20,000, compared to 1 in 246 for falling down, 1 in 100 for motor vehicle accidents, and 1 in 5 for heart disease.
For flying to become as risky as driving, a commercial jet would have to crash and kill a full complement of passengers once a month. Statistically, the flight safety demonstration would be more productively used to dissuade passengers from eating at the fast food restaurants in the terminal upon arrival.
Despite the low risk, who can't spare five minutes? Why not figure out where the nearest exits are and remind yourself how the oxygen masks work? The best reason is not the most obvious: the airlines' demonstration practices have actually made it harder to do so.
Things didn't used to be this way. As late as the mid-century, commercial air travel was downright dangerous.
When boarding the luxurious Boeing B377 Stratocruiser in 1950, a Pan American passenger might have been well advised to heed the safety card's unusual advice to "Loosen your collar and tie, remove glasses and sharp objects from your pockets, but keep all your clothes on."
That's not bad advice given the fact that 13 of the 56 such aircraft built suffered hull-loss accidents between 1951 and 1970 (although it's unclear why one might be tempted to disrobe, even during the Summer of Love). Far fewer people traveled by air, of course, so the impact of this danger was less palpable -- those 13 crashes only resulted in 140 total fatalities. 216 people died when Air France 447 plunged into the Pacific this May.
In the '50s and '60s, the curiosity (and expense) of air travel might have offered reason enough to peruse the safety information. Today, as we jockey for overhead space and attempt to settle into the uncomfortable crush of economy class, air travel is too ordinary to merit curiosity, let alone fear. There are too many passengers and too little time to personalize. And thus, the safety demonstration plays right into the weary ennui of contemporary air travel.