Friday, August 17, 2007

Good News... Games Are Good For You!

A few weeks ago, I read Everything Bad is Good For You, and I was pretty impressed with the argument that Johnson laid out. The book is essentially an argument against the people who claim that technology is dumbing us down, or that television is getting stupider with time, etc. There are several points to be made there, but his main point is that, if you do any kind of objective measure, programming today is more complicated and requires greater mental participation from audiences than programming ever did in the past. Shows have larger casts of characters, more complicated plots, more sub-plots, and stories are measured in seasons, not episodes.

Amanda started a nice discussion over at Pandagon, and Mighty Ponygirl talked about it as well.

The thread at Pandagon is growing nicely, and, not surprisingly, there are a number of people who are really dismissive about gaming and video games. A lot of the arguments levied against gaming and television are the same kinds of arguments that were levied against radio, or comic books, or whatever media type you want to bring up. There's always this reaction against it, and this doom-and-gloom forecasting about how X new media type is going to bring about the destruction of our children's minds.

Johnson never argues that gaming is the best new tool for education, and that we should abandon reading altogether, which seems to be lost on several of the posters. There's the usual criticism that games are all fast-twitch and that they must, therefore, contribute to a decline in attention span, and that the only thing they teach is how to process lots of simultaneously occuring pieces of information- such an air traffic controller might have to do.

These kinds of arguments treat every game as though it's Asteroids on speed. They imagine that the gamer is forced to make tons of split-second choices amid an ever increasing wave of hostile forces, while trying to rescue the princess, etc. And, sure, there are games that involve that kind of rapid-fire, fast-twitch gaming.

There are also lots of games that reward slow, methodical planning. Hell, there are entire genres devoted to rewarding careful gameplay. Turn-based strategy/tactics games and RPGs, for example, greatly encourage players to think about longterm goals, not just the immediate circumstances. Also, you know... being turn-based sort of negates the need for fast-twitch responses. Weird, that.

Ultimately, I find conversations like the one on Pandagon infinitely frustrating and annoying, though. The focus on "but games make kids stupid! They make them lazy! They give them ADHD!" ignores the very real concerns that we should be having about games.

Here's reality: Games aren't going anywhere.

That's the fact of the matter. Games aren't going away, and whining that you don't like them because you think that they're all fast-twitch and flashing lights isn't going to change that. It's mostly just going to make you look like you don't know what the fuck you're talking about, and like you haven't picked up a video game since Space Invaders was king (and even then there were games like Utopia that were, you know, rewarding for people who wanted slow, methodical gameplay!). Games survived that big crash, and there's not likely to be another one. Gaming is a huge industry. Video games bring in more money than the film industry's box office draws.

That's big.

There are real problems with video games, and harping on about how you think that books are soooo much better than Bloodrayne is nothing but a distraction. As recent events have shown, there's a lot of work to be done in the gaming community. Homophobia, sexism, and racism are all still serious problems in the gaming community.

Ultimately, what these conversations seem to reveil to me is that there's a huge cultural divide between gamers and non-gamers. Gamers don't really take the comments from non-gamers seriously, precisely because there are so many non-gamers who clearly know very little about what gaming is actually like. If you think that gaming is nothing but flashing lights and sounds and that playing a game is just about processing tons of information all at once- ignoring chaos- why should a gamer listen? That's not, I suspect, what most gamers think of their experiences as being like. The other thing it does is reinforce the idea that non-gamers are trying to get rid of games or trying to take games away from gamers. This is, in fact, kind of true. There are a lot of people, like Gore, who think that games are a total waste of time. So, it's not surprising that gamers might not react kindly.

More on this, I'm sure, to come...


Stupendousness said...

I think some people are wary of gaming in very young children. From what I've read online and heard in conversations in real life, many people think that if a gaming system is in the house, then the child will ONLY play video games ALL the time. And I agree that a child who *only* plays video games during their waking hours is lacking in crucial mental development (a lot of which comes from interaction with other people).

But, children don't only play video games. A child who does would be the extremely rare exception and may already suffer from a mental disability or parental neglect.
I don't know of any studies that have scientifically looked at this, but my anecdotal evidence tells me that kids participate in all sorts of activities.

Our generation is no less intelligent or talented for having grown up with video games and computers. I should know because I'm surrounded by my peers and grew up with them.

But you know, even if all of us youngins were complete idiots, whose fault would that be? Can an 8-year-old be held accountable for sitting in front of the TV playing her PS2? The parents/guardians of the child are the ones who purchased the system, the TV, and allow the child to play it.

My father-in-law harps on all the time to his two sons about how *he* didn't sit around playing video games. He went outside, he played cards or board games with friends, and essentially he is just so much better.
And I think, well, if you didn't want your sons playing video games, then why did you buy them an NES, SNES, and N64 - one of each for each child, with all of the accessories and games?!
Oh, I'm sure my husband and his brother laid on lots of pressure to have those games, but the parents ultimately have control - if they have the will to hold onto it.

And my husband and brother-in-law are great people - very intelligent, kind, funny, and somehow without big egos, unlike their father.

Ugh, that man just boils my blood.

Jaclyn said...

While ITA that it's not an 8 year old's fault if no one is making hir do things other than watch TV/play video games all day every day, I think it's too facile to blame the parents in all cases. I think a good deal of the blame lands on American class inequities and the fact that often both parents have to be out of the house most of the day (and often, night), just to support their families, and that often leaves no one available to do the crucial work of child-rearing. This is in part also the result of devaluing child-rearing as "women's work" and making the work culturally invisible except when we want to blame (poor) women for not doing it right.

Not to thread-hijack. But the stereotype of the kid doing nothing but playing GTA all day comes from somewhere, and it's important to trace it back to it its systemic causes.

Auttumn Harvest said...

This is your first post in at least a week that's not on something horrific and creepy. Well done!

Stupendousness said...

You make a great point Jaclyn. It's pretty much impossible to find a daycare center or individual nanny who will interact with children and teach them instead of just making sure they don't electrocute themselves. I know because my sister is a single mother and had a rough time recently finding daycare for her nearly-5 and 3 year old girls.

And this is off-topic, but I have to rant. Texas public schools don't accept children for kindergarten unless they turn 5 by September 1st, and my niece turns 5 on September 19th. My sister can't afford private school, so my niece will have to be in daycare for another year. Schools would rather have 6-year-olds in kindergarten because they have higher test scores by the end of the school year, of course due to the extra year of experiences in life and not better teaching. Grrrr.

The Nighttime Philosopher said...

I can already sense this comment is going to be all over the place, but here I go.

I'm glad you brought up that book. I've seen it in the "Community and Culture" section in Chapters every time I buy a book there, but never bought it. I think you've just piqued my curiosity enough to finally fork over the money for it.

Now, I don't think video games are harmful in themselves, but I do believe there is the potential. Personally, I am a former game addict. It was just a couple years ago where I would spend all or nearly all of my free time online playing Diablo 2 (I'm sure you've heard of it). It certainly wasn't a healthy situation and I knew it, but I still couldn't break the habit myself until I went away for a week to Ottawa. I had so much fun there---realized what sorts of things I was missing out on---that I got back and gave the first person I encountered online my account name and password.

I realize I was probably not in the majority (even though, although I haven't consulted any studies, there seems to be more and more people becoming addicted to gaming), but I believe that gaming does have the potential to harm people when they allow themselves to essentially be consumed by it.

It should also be noted that media (and I mean television in particular) undoubtedly reinforces things like gender roles and stereotypes (I wrote a paper on this very topic), and if television does it, surely video games do as well. Of course not every game will have the same influence or same degree of stereotypes, which must be kept in mind.

To wrap this up quickly, ridiculous actions like banning video games is not the solution. Rather, we need to recognize the harm that video games have the potential to cause. If one is watching their daughter or son particularly inclined to going around in GTA shooting up protitutes, one might want to have a discussion with the child to make sure s/he understands the messages s/he's seeing.

I apologize for the long and poorly organized comment.

Roy said...

I definitely suggest picking it up- it's a pretty quick read, and it's got some interesting arguments to present. Definitely worth reading if you've got an interest in this stuff. And no need to apologize at all- I sure as hell can't criticize anyone for being verbose.

I don't disagree that there can be issues with gaming, but I think that many of those problems aren't unique to gaming, they're larger social problems that games show symptoms of, as well. I know people who've shown signs of addiction to gaming, and it's certainly a study worth examining, but I suspect that the sort of psychological addiction that people show towards games can show up in many other forms- people who are compulsive action figure or card collectors, people who watch hours and hours of tv every day, people who have compulsive eating issues, etc. These sorts of addictions aren't necessarily the cause of the thing that the person has become addicted to, I suspect.

And I definitely think that games can reflect and reinforce the ills that still exist within our society. No argument there. I think that those are a problem with the message, though, not the medium. I think that games can also be used to put out really positive messages, and that proper education and a better understanding of gaming culture can help to minimize some of the harmful messages that get put out.

The Nighttime Philosopher said...

Well said, Roy!

Yeah, I definitely didn't mean games were the only thing one could become addicted to, but when you bring up things that aren't particularly seen as addictive (action figures, cards), one must definitely question whether these things are intrinsically addictive. After all, just because some people become addicted to gaming, not all people do.

And yes, there is definitely the possibility of sending positive messages through games. I can't think of any good examples off the top of my head (although the environmental messages in Oddworld come to mind), but I'm sure they're out there already. It would be great to see more positive messages come out in the future.