“Decision Points” Does Little to Teach About Real Presidential Decisions in The George W. Bush Library Game
Making waves among members of the gamification community last week was a video segment from “The Rachel Maddow Show” describing and condemning a gamified interactive exhibit at the recently opened George W. Bush Presidential Library. As demonstrated in the following video, the game “Decision Points” is designed to allow library visitors to experience what President Bush was going through while making the decision to invade Iraq in March 2003, using video segments and digitized multiple choice questions.
“Decision Points” takes what is a promising use of technology — part of a growing trend in museums around the US designed to grow patronage and engage different learner-types alienated by the traditional, solitary, silent museum experience of pictures on a wall accompanied by large blocks of text — and executes it in the service of one man’s still rigid political ideology. In this way “Decision Points” makes the Bush Library consistent with theme of the Bush Presidency as a whole: an enormous opportunity to spend resources on the greater good is wasted in order to settle a personal vendetta. The implementation of the game is at once more disturbing than Maddow describes, but far less shocking.
At its core the problem with the game is exactly what Maddow mentions – it selects and distorts facts to drive you to the conclusion the designer wants you to come to. The use of video testimony by decision-makers who were “at the table” at the time these decisions were being made is such a powerful piece of historical evidence that — if used properly –could leave more of a lasting impression than any history textbook ever could.
Unfortunately it is being used to rewrite history based on a false dichotomy. It’s great to have multiple choice questions to bring in visitors who might not know which questions to ask so they begin to think about the events the exhibit is describing. However, there are many important questions missing from this game, questions that must be asked if we are to understand how we were rushed into war with no firm plan, exit strategy, in which its main raison d’être turned out to be false.
Hell, even if you didn’t care about historical accuracy and deliberately misleading the public (which is something an educational institution should care about), as a game designer your game becomes infinitely more interesting for the user if you present real hard dilemmas that make you sweat (think Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis). “Choose this option or be obliterated” is not a very interesting or difficult choice.
If the Bush Library wants to fix “Decision Points” they should ask a more diverse array of political and history scholars to give their feedback on the game so that they can include more serious criticism than the Bush Library seems willing to take on.
When it comes to the outright lies which are part of this game — chiefly that there was international consensus that the US should invade Iraq — I immediately thought of my first reaction to the opening of the Creation Museum in Kentucky. The Creation Museum is an institution dedicated to the denial of evolution. A boatload of money was raised by supporters to create expensive interactive exhibits in which dinosaurs and homo sapiens roam the Earth together.
I literally cringe at how much money was spent on high technology at this edifice to ignorance when that money could have been spent educating the public on the impending environmental catastrophe of global climate change threatening Creation. In a similar vain the Bush Library is spending oodles of undisclosed corporate donor money on innovative technology to push an agenda to their visitors -the origin myth of the Iraq War. In the case of both institutions the most harm is done to those who come to them without a previous education on the topic from trustworthy sources of information.
While watching The Maddow Show’s video it was this line of the game which horrified me the most, but whereas Maddow emphasized the”take no action” part of the sentence, I’m concerned with the phrase the people in the theater. As in plural. When the show’s cameraperson selects the option of “Take No Action” the former White House Chief of Staff and President Bush proceed to lecture you on video about why that wasn’t the right choice. However, it occurred to me that when adult tour groups or impressionable Texas schoolchildren visit the museum on a class trip, that option will have to be chosen collectively.
The students will have to vote and send a representative to make the selection. How likely is it that after all that video testimony is shown, a majority of kids from a red state are going to choose “Take No Action?” That will be left to the few kids who are willing to openly move against their peers, who were just told by authorities that going to war is the only course of action to deter an attack on the US.
This game is designed to bully schoolchildren into accepting the Bush rationale for war. The same way Bush bullied Congress into giving him the authority to go to war – through public shaming and strategic media imagery. It is a very disturbing use of a game that’s supposed to be used in the pursuit of knowledge.
Maddow is relaying two trends here: the first being the Bush tendency toward classlessness and propaganda, the second being presidential libraries becoming temples to the egos of politicians and their supporters rather than public educational facilities.
As it stands now most Presidential Libraries are becoming like amusement parks in which cities compete for the tourism dollars they inevitably bring (Honolulu will fight with Chicago over the Obama Library. No matter who wins, I can’t wait to see those Obama dresses up close). However, perhaps the federal government should post a warning label over these buildings the way they do with cartons of cigarettes to make the public aware of the potential harm:
WARNING: Items Presented In This Building Have Not Been Verified By Peer-Reviewed Historians.
It’s such a shame when games are used to mislead when we know they can do so much to educate.