Gaming is one of the main reasons I started this blog, because I felt the need to express my thoughts about something that I’m rather passionate about, but in my career and within the social circles I find myself in it is hard to find people that share this passion. One of the reasons that these people are hard to find is probably because, like me, they prefer to downplay their passion for games, since they know that it is something that isn’t really respected among some people.
The video game generation
There is an old Roman proverb that directly translates to “they [people] condemn what they do not understand”. Being born in the 1980’s, I was part of the first generation to grow up with video games. As a child, my parents tried to limit the amount of time I spent playing video games, because like many other parents at the time it was completely new to them. They didn’t grow up with it, didn’t understand it, and for the most part thought that it was a giant waste of time.
Over the last three decades the popular media has gradually started to realize that there are benefits associated with playing video games. Not only can it be directly used as an educational tool, but even games that were designed for pure entertainment can contribute to cognitive and social development. It is nice to see that around three decades since video games became widely available, it is actually being used as an educational tool in schools. All that said, there is of course also a lot of talk around the negative effects of video games, particularly surrounding video games depicting gratuitous violence.
The focus on violent video games
There is a lot of scientific debate surrounding the effects of video games, mostly the violent titles that tend to get a lot of press coverage. I’ve recently read a number of peer reviewed articles on this and I should point out that there is no consensus among academics as to whether video game violence is a causal risk factor for actual violence, particularly in the long term. It is something that is highly debated and very controversial. I’ll cover violent video games and their effects in depth in another post, but for now let’s just acknowledge that violent games that attract the public eye like Grand Theft Auto V and Call of Duty are not aimed at children, and moreover they are not the only games that people can buy and play.
In terms of it’s effect on people, I believe that no form of media can be inherently positive or negative. It depends on the content of the media, and how that content is presented, but mostly it depends on how the content is understood and digested. If someone asked you whether you thought that games was good or bad in terms of the effect it has on people, you might as well ask them the same question of literature, movies or music without specifying the content and without specifying who the particular individual consuming the media is (because that would be an equally vague question). So if we are talking about literature it could be anything from textbooks to light fiction to hardcore pornography, and the person reading it could be anyone from a child to an elder, with any personality type and varying degrees of understanding and varying levels of impressionability. The point I am trying to make is that the effect that media has on people depends on the context.
To give you an example, I first watched the movie Fight Club when I was in my late teens. For me, it was an eye opening experience, because it got me thinking about things like consumer culture, capitalism, and how society defines personal progression and success. That is what I took away from it, but of course, depending on your age, personality, and various other factors you might have experienced it completely differently. Maybe someone watched it and thought: “Hey, Brad Pitt is really cool and he thinks we should all be anarchists and start our own fight clubs, let’s do that.”
It is the same with games, it is just another form of media, sometimes it is good, and sometimes it is bad, or sometimes both depending on your perspective. Sometimes it gives us an uncomplicated thrill, and other times it pulls us into a really complex and thought provoking story. It is up to developers to decide what they want their games to be, and up to the players to decide what they will make of it.
Games and other forms of media
It is not useful to try and argue that any one form of media is “better” than any other form of media, but each form of media has its strengths and weaknesses. One of the things that games has going for it, lies in its interactivity. The aspect that makes most games so engaging, is that it requires you to pay attention and give your own input accordingly. I wouldn’t say this is never true in other forms of media, but in most cases television programs, films, and books don’t demand any input on your part. Whether or not you pay attention is not going to change the way it reacts to you, even though it might change the way that you experience it. If you’re watching an episode of CSI, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re paying attention to every clue that is uncovered and what it means. You can actually zone out completely for the whole episode, the killer is going to get caught all the same.
If you did that in the average game, chances are there will be consequences. Games reward you for your input, and punishes you when you are not paying attention. Not all games do this, and I would definitely argue that some are much better at it than others, but it is the perfect medium for putting your cognitive abilities to the test. For example, games like XCOM: Enemy Unknown test your ability to plan ahead, organize, and make critical assessments of situations, among many other things. Fail to do this, and you can get your squad members killed or even risk being completely overrun by the aliens. Likewise, simulation racers like Forza Motorsport puts your driving skills, concentration and reflexes to the test. The list goes on, and there are loads of games out there that require players to critically apply their minds in various different ways.
Ignorance and controversy
So why is it that some people can’t take gamers seriously? Well, in some cases it is just plain ignorance. It’s hard to respect things that you know very little about, or that you haven’t properly tried for yourself yet. Unfortunately, people that don’t play games often only know about the triple A titles like Grand Theft Auto V that break all the sales records and attract loads of controversy due to it’s violent content. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t question that these games have a right to exist (or that they are very good in some respects), but it is a shame that they represent a stereotypical view of gaming which undermines the depth, complexity, and variety of the interactive experiences that there are to be had in gaming.
Some people would argue that games are a waste of time simply because achieving things in games does not actually translate into real life achievements. I agree, but then neither does playing tennis, golf, cycling, or any other sport that is seen as a perfectly legitimate pastime. Yes, these sports do provide physical exercise and stress relief, but gaming provides mental exercise and stress release. Also, I do realize that there is such a thing as a professional sportsperson, but keep in mind that it is becoming more and more common for people to be professional gamers. That said, we should accept that the majority of gamers won’t be able to make a living out of playing games, just like the majority tennis players won’t be able make a living off playing tennis.
Dealing with negative views on gaming
So what is the right way of dealing with negative views on gaming? Well, first of all, realize that it is not all people look down on gamers. People are much more open to video games now than they were when I was a kid, and it will continue to become more and more popular and accepted as the decades go by. I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I tend to downplay my passion for games with some people. This is not because I’m ashamed of being a gamer, but rather because I realize that not everyone else will be as fond of it as I am, and it wouldn’t be fair of me to force them to listen to me talking about games. Much like I wouldn’t want to endlessly listen to somebody talking about fishing, or any other activity which I have no interest in.
When people are interested in talking to you about games, know your audience. If you have a friend who asks you opinion about which games to play, think about what they would enjoy. If you know they like solving interesting puzzles, and also enjoys the occasional bit of dry humor, perhaps you could introduce them to Portal. If you know they don’t like gratuitous violence, don’t force them to listen to you going on about how much fun you had blowing people’s heads apart in Fallout 3. People have different tastes, and it is our responsibility as nice human beings to respect that.
As a final thought, know that some of the negative views are legitimate. I can completely understand why a parent wouldn’t want his or her ten year old to be playing Grand Theft Auto V. I would also understand if parents were concerned because their child is spending every free minute of his or her life playing video games, and as a result they are neglecting other aspects of their lives. Everything has its time and place, and it is important to maintain balance in life. With that in mind, if you want to spend a significant amount of time gaming, and you can do it without compromising your health or neglecting your responsibilities, go for it!