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Mind games

Nicholas Holm



Video games are making children lazy, rude and stupid. While we fret about an epidemic of childhood obesity, video games lure the youngest members of our society into a life of sloth. While we watch the world around us collapse in an ever increasing spectacle of war and violence, video games teach children that crime and brutality is not just rewarding, but entertaining. Now, when it is more important than ever that the next generation be equipped with skills necessary to solve the dire problems they will no doubt face, we watch helplessly as our youngest and brightest are lured into stultifying worlds of fantasy. Video Games – they’re more perverse than the Marquis de Sade, more addictive than crack cocaine and more destructive than a convoy of super-charged monster trucks being driven by intoxicated dinosaurs. Right?
Well maybe not. Since they first slunk onto the scene in the early 1970s, video games have borne the blame for any number of social ills and concerns. The most recent furore has been the fuss over the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series of games in which the player must perform tasks involving murder, theft and wanton property damage in order to progress within the game – and that’s not even considering the infamous “hot coffee” mod, which allowed hard-core geeks to release their pent-up sexual frustration, as well as rage, by engaging in virtual intercourse, hot damn!
Pre-GTA, we were told that playing Mortal Kombat, with its hyper-realistic rotoscoped characters and ice-chucking ninjas, would inevitably transform us into knife-wielding psychos. This was due in large part to the game’s system of “fatalities” where those with too much free time could master tricksy button combinations that would unlock previously inconceivable displays of ultra-violence. And who could forget the Ms Pac-Man controversy when it surfaced that the arcade hit, played backwards, would call forth our dark lord, Satan, who would sodomise the gamer to the point of exhaustion and then assassinate the president of the United States.
All any of this really proves however, is that people like to get all hot and bothered about video games. Only several weeks ago the popular press seized upon the latest release of the Competent Child Report, a study that has been tracking 500 children in the Wellington region for the past nine years, in an attempt to decipher what makes bright kids bright and thick kids so god damn thick. The reason why? The study seemed to provide the final incontrovertible evidence that it’s not poor parenting, socio-economic inequality or substandard teaching that’s ruining our children – it’s video games.
“Research into how children fare at high school has sounded a warning for Generation X-Box kids and their parents,” crowed a well-known progressive Sunday paper. “Young people who do little else but immerse themselves in the dazzling and entertaining world of electronic gaming look to be headed for trouble, academically and socially[!]” Is there anything in the future for those poor sick playstation addicts apart from booze, drugs and pity sex from hookers? Dr Cathy Wylie is the head of the Competent Child study, and she thinks those youth who have no strong interests besides video games are “vulnerable.”
“Most kids are doing it, [playing electronic games] at some stage,” says Dr Wylie. “What we’re really talking about is that if electronic games are your only interests and there’ s nothing else going on and there aren’t any other strong interests, and you also don’t enjoy reading, then there’s some risk signs there in terms of engagement in school and the other kind of activities you get up to in your life.” So while it’s all right to spend several hours a week slaughtering pixilated nazis, you might be in need of a reality check if your main goal in life is to slay the evil wizard Ganondorf and save the princess.
Dr. Wylie’s prescription is an old one – everything in moderation: “If somebody’s totally engrossed to the point that everything else is blacked out, to the extent that they can’t cope any longer, then you’ve obviously got a problem – no matter what it is. There’s something about video games that for some kids might sap their interest or their energy for other things, but that’s some kids, not all.” Video games are like hitting the turps for kids – it’s perfectly tolerable as long as it’s not the reason you get up in the morning. However unlike writing angsty teenage poetry or getting up at seven am to play rugby, video games aren’t something we should be encouraging in other people’s kids, should we?
“Game development and programming is a language which enables people to communicate, express themselves and be creative,” says Dr Gareth Schott, a media lecturer at the University of Waikato with a particular interest in video games and gamers. “I think game players are a wildly creative and subversive bunch of individuals who aren’t constrained by the boundaries of technology, but instead see it as a tool and a rich sandbox for their creativity.” To those who work closely with video games, they aren’t just a way to kill a hungover Sunday afternoon, they’re a new and exciting medium with just as much potential as film, painting or literature to challenge, inspire and profit.
“When you have the amount of money being spent on games that there currently is, you have to start taking it seriously just from a busines perspective,” says Dr Simon McCullum, a lecturer at Otago who teaches a course in video game design and development. “World of Warcraft [a popular online game], has three million users in Western Europe alone, who pay US$10 a month, that’s $30 million a month.” The Xbox game, Halo 2, sold 2.4 million units to a value of US$125 million on its first day of release, out grossing Spider Man 2 – that was at the time the first-weekend box office record holder.
As the business of video games expands so does the number of gamers. Online multi-user games have surged in popularity following the provision of cheap, fast broadband throughout the developed world. More participants means that bigger, more complex worlds are needed to sustain player interest with in line with a massive increase in potential for interaction and communication. “From the perspective of ‘sociability’, research shows that massive multiplayer games are infinitely sociable with many activities occurring around the game-play experience,” asserts Dr Schott. “Research that I have done on fan communities has stressed the creative and productive outcomes of young people’s engagement with games in the production of fan art, fan fiction, their own digital games and machinima.” These aren’t just boys’ toys anymore either, with an increasing proportion of females admitting to taking part in online games. “The Sims is played by enormous numbers of men and women of all ages. Middle aged women make up the largest proportion of online gamers,” says Dr McCullum.
Young people who find little opportunity for expression or involvement in their day-to-day life can express themselves in online games. This experience could prove to be beneficial in any number of ways including increased confidence, creativity and openness to new ideas, benefits more customarily associated with reading. “If I think about the purpose of literature, it’d be about challenging what you take for granted and introducing yourself to other ways of thinking as much as enjoying the play of words. I think that activities that promote [those ideas] – it doesn’t really matter what they are,” agrees Dr Wylie.
Video games can introduce gamers to issues about which they would otherwise remain ignorant. The Civilisation series has introduced hundreds of thousands to the finer points of history, The Sims is a how-to for domestic affairs, and the Mario Bros games taught us all to jump on turtles and smack our heads against levitating rocks to make cash. Dr Schott has carried out research in the area: “[I’ve] found evidence of game narratives having an influence on raising political awareness and sparking debates on capitalism, commercialisation, slavery, vegetarianism and the treatment of indigenous populations on online fan forums. Other research I have completed shows that a key feature of playing any game, even one-player games, is collaborative play, where players play with friends who advise, participate and take turns.”
But if games are so great, you ask, then why have we always been told to turn off space invaders and make something of our lives? Why does society hate video games so much? Dr Wylie puts it down, in large part, to the novelty, the newness of the medium. “This is a new entrant into how kids spend their time. It’s been gathering momentum over the last ten years and I think that’s partly why people are saying, ‘what do we do about this now?’ It’s not like we’ve got a lot of research to draw upon to tell us about what the impact of this is.” Older folk are wary of new tricks, and short of actually sitting down and playing the damn things, perish the thought, the only information they ever get about them is from reactionary newspaper reports such as that in the recent Sunday Star Times article. They just don’t understand how their children could be doing anything constructive when they “disappear for hours on end and don’t want to talk to me or anybody else,” in the words of Dr Wylie.
“There are some gamers who end up in the gaming community who are freaks,” according to Dr McCullum, who qualifies that by saying, “but I would find it very difficult to argue that they’re freaks because they play computer games. That doesn’t mean everybody in the gaming community is like that or by playing computer games you end up like that.” You all know what he’s talking about – the image of some full-on poindexter, hideously scarred by years of acne, greasy and dirty and painfully awkward. “There is the stereotyped geek who plays far too many computer games and that’s bad for them, but you also have the geek who reads books and therefore doesn’t go out and socialise, you have people who focus on music and get so into music they ignore normal conversation and normal people. You get skaters who isolate themselves into their own community,” philosophises Dr McCullum. Which boils down to, in all walks of life there are freaks, and none of them are likely to be getting any, anytime soon.
It’s not the dweebs that society fears however, it’s the other side of video gaming, the otherwise good kids who snap under the vicious influence of video games and stage a spontaneous re-enactment of Quake during lunch hour. “Empirical research evidence from mainly laboratory experiments does exist which presents statistically significant associations between experiencing violent content in games and increased levels of aggressive feelings or hostile thoughts post play,” confides Dr Schott. It’s not common that those in the pro-video games camp admit to the existence of such research. “However, most of these studies suffer from many limitations, for example, allowing players to play for only a small time-frame, sometimes as low as 5 minutes, which obviously decontextualises any violent conflict from the narrative back-story of the game. Furthermore, levels of aggressiveness are usually established from participants’ responses to psychometric paper and pencil-style questionnaires rather than any real behavioural instances of aggressiveness of hostility.” Oh. Tests that examine the link between video games and violence are marred by the laboratory conditions in which they’re carried out – without a real life context, the results seem pretty much meaningless and inapplicable to the actual contexts in which gaming takes place. The other big unknown is why people would ever suppose video games lead to violence in the first place, much like the tenuous and disproved connection between mobile phones and cancer. Dr McCullum agrees that the arguments for game-induced violence are shaky at best, “The evidence of linking between violence and violent video games tends to be relatively tenuous. The links tend to have to be manufactured to some extent.”
He’s right you know. Gamers aren’t scary people, they’re kinda funny looking. “When you look at a gaming conference, there are not many fights. You don’t expect to be beaten up at a gaming conference,” says Dr McCullum, who at the age of 31, has not yet killed anybody, despite a long-term involvement with video games. When this is compared to, say, a Friday night out in Courtney Place, you see his point – gamers are pretty passive people for the most part. “If there was a strong link between violent games and violent people surely the people who were most engaged with that violent material would be the most violent people in society.” Dr McCullum doesn’t believe that video gamers are trained to fight when they play Tekken, they’re trained to move their thumbs rapidly, which doesn’t incite fear in many. “When you think of a gamer you don’t think of someone who’s going to punch you about, they’re more likely to tell you about their favourite game.”
You’d have to be daft, however, to deny that a large number of games revolve around the idea of violence. Whacking, shooting, or leaping on the heads of others is a fact of everyday life in video game land. “At the moment conflict is a big part of the players’ interactions within game worlds due to limitations in being able to develop dialogue based interactions and emotional content within games,” explains Dr Schott. “Yet, there are a number of pro-social and creative game play experiences that do not receive the same level of media coverage as the contentious titles like Manhunt and GTA – names that most of the general public could cite – but what about commercial games like Rez or Ico, or more independent political games like Escape from Woomera or September the 12th?” Efforts to moderate violence in video games through the use of a rating system, such as those used with films and videos, has met with little success. Dr Schott says the system has failed to get the respect it needs in order to function, “I think the issue would be much less controversial if the classification system that is in place and applied to games, in order to communicate the appropriateness of content, is followed more closely. Classifications should be treated with the same respect they are given when applied to film. This is really important.” Retailers and renters have largely ignored the barely enforced censorship regime, forcing the outright banning of some games to avoid them finding their way into innocent little hands.
“I think video games have been singled out as destroying society, just like TV was singled out as destroying society and movies were singled out as destroying society,” says Dr McCullum, connecting gaming to a history of “moral panics”, situations where society fears for its existence following the introduction of new technologies and media. He believes that fear of video games is a symptom of a lack of understanding, “with anyone older than me it’s less likely that they grew up with computer games, that changes your opinion about them, they become a scapegoat. They become something you dislike.” Dr Wylie disagrees that the reaction to video games is characterised by panic, seeing it as more of a slight uncertainty – “I don’t think it’s a moral panic, I think it’s more that this is something new. This is a new electronic dimension in our lives and people are concerned about what that is doing to people’s conception of the world and their relations to each other or their sense of individual identity. I think all those questions are coming up now.”
So are video games destroying our society? Probably, but at least two or three people think differently. Despite mounting evidence to the contrary most of society continues to regard video games as a breeding ground for terrorists and maniacs with no respect for human life or common decency. In the US, Grand Theft Auto has been invoked in trials as a reason for granting leniency, and accepted as such by judges. Video games such as RockStar have stoked the conflict in pursuit of free publicity, pushing the envelope in terms of permissible violence and representation to goad conservative elements in the media to splashing them across the front page.
There will always be psychotic types who take to video games, but no one suggested banning the novel after John Lennon’s assassin was found to have a fondness for Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Hitler had a taste for Wagnerian opera, but very few have suggested that Parcifal incites audiences to acts of genocide. Video games serve as an easy target because the majority of people who play them don’t seem very good at standing up for themselves. Gamers have internalised the prejudices against themselves and now live torn between shame and guilty pleasure.
At the heart of gaming is not the idea of training or learning, it is the idea of play. It is a world of obnoxious blue hedgehogs, and fat Italian stereotypes who save magic kingdoms or other such wistful nonsense. There is no such thing as video games that teach us how to kill, there are only games that teach us how to identify and solve problems. Because unless you’re a complete fuck-up, odds are you can tell the difference between a little computer dude and your neighbour – and hey if you can’t, then video games are the least of your worries.