We come to praise video games, not to shoot 'em up
From The Observer,
Sunday 10 January 2010
Most guides to child development would counsel against encouraging kids to imagine themselves as mass killers, playing out repetitive fantasies of butchery to the exclusion of social activity. So it is perhaps peculiar that society is generally tolerant of video games that achieve just that.
But not all games, or even a majority, fit that description. And, of course, they are not just played by children. Many require complex problem-solving techniques and place the user in wholly peaceful scenarios where they must exercise moral, diplomatic and commercial judgment. As the writer Tom Chatfield argues in today's Observer, the sophistication of modern gaming has not had due recognition as a transformative cultural phenomenon. Games have been well remarked upon as an emerging force in business, rivalling cinema in the entertainment industry and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in the technology sector.
The cultural backlash has also been well aired. An opinion poll last week highlighted fears that excessive gaming saps children's speech development. Too much screen time has also been associated with obesity and has fed into wider cultural laments that children don't get out enough. It is worth remembering in this context that novels were once presumed to corrupt the morals of young ladies and that Elvis Presley's hips were deemed obscene. Civilisation generally survives innovation in entertainment. The under-recognised aspect of gaming is in the conceptual changes it introduces to the way we get aesthetic thrills. Gamers are the subjects of the action, not passive observers. They also often interact with other players. Within some of the vast online gaming environments, players rehearse different strategies for consensus-building, regulation of competition and restorative justice. At the very least, this gives social scientists mountains of data to play with. In the past, revolutions in leisure, driven by new technology, have catalysed equivalent upheaval in society. The novel, made possible by mass printing, allowed people to retreat into an interior world of the imagination. That fed the subjective individualism of Enlightenment philosophy. Without rock'n'roll on the radio there would have been no 1960s counterculture.
The virtual gaming experience of today will surely breed some development with similarly powerful consequences. Too many people are having too much fun doing something that their great-grandparents could never begin to comprehend. That, human history teaches, is a recipe for social change on a revolutionary scale.
[OK, maybe I wouldn’t quite go that far, but I think that computer games are demonised far more than they should be or need to be. In one sense they may be solitary activities (but so is reading don’t forget) but they are interactive, responsive and, more and more these days, reliant on the co-operation of friends and strangers to complete successfully. They have been called escapist (again like books, television and movies) as if that is a bad thing and much worst besides, but I fail to see how they ‘damage’ the people who play them or the society which produces them in any way. Humans are natural game players. Computer games are simply a modern manifestation of that trait. As long as I am able to do so I, for one, will be playing them.]