142: The Myth of the Media Myth

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Great article.

I know the following is typically critical, but just to let you know, I've been playing video games since the 70's, in a very on and off way. I've owned a couple of consoles over the years. I still play Halo an awful lot.

I think there are a number of issues that are being ignored by both the media and the defenders of video gaming:

1. Unlike board games and other games in 'reality', video games force the participant into a visual tunnel (the screen) that enforces a constant state of spatial and temporal "rejection" : i.e. one is forced to 'screen out' the surrounding environment and become disconnected from 'real' time and substitute the game's 'time' which is manipulated by heightening speed, events, etc. If you've ever played many of these games for any length of time, you notice that time may have 'flown by' as well as (especially with FPS games) a tunnel vision feeling, similar that the kind you may have experienced after driving cross-country for 12 hours. One can argue that this is no different than TV, except for one thing: Games are active activities. Whatever effects games have that are similar to TV, games do with much greater affect, because they are reinforced through the muscles and nervous system. For instance: listening to a language tape will marginally help you understand Spanish. Repeating the phrases, writing, pressing buttons for answers will greatly help you understand.
However, in the case of video games, interaction is 'remapped' and abstracted: Nearly every activity, be it running, jumping, speaking, touching - is reduced to finger movements. Thus any real-life benefit is negated, and perhaps degraded. WII enthusiasts have a slight argument - and as the controllers become more advanced we will see haptics become indistinguishable from 'real' interaction.

2. Unlike drugs/alcohol, video games always have a specific agenda. One can get drunk and still have free will to engage in freeform decisions and spontaneous activities, interacting with the world, however foolish that may be. The vast majority of video games have a relatively narrow range of choices within a very narrow 'reality'. Secondly, drugs/alcohol use or abuse has consequences. In reality. But one can 'die' over and over again in a video game. This encourages a mentality of non-thinking persistence, or at best a mechanistic problem-solving-within-a-limited-world, rather than a thoughtful, considered, approach. It also discourages true 'out-of-box' problem solving as this kind of solution is usually outside of the constraints of the game (the game IS 'the box'). I have observed a generation of kids demanding a 'give me problems that have a specific solution' approach to everything, utterly fearful of a world where the 'rules aren't laid out' - where one succeeds by finding a new answer, an innovation. These kids' sense of comfort and wonder with the freeform, mutable world of reality has been utterly atrophied by the mechanistic (though often imaginative and complex) aspect of video games.

3. A great majority of video games focus on two aspects of human behavior or programming: The "fight or flight" response, which is a vestige of our primitive survival instincts, being one. Continual stimulation of this reptilian part of our brain doesn't seem very enlightened. In fact it strikes me as priming the pump for warlike, aggressive behavior. Again, people will offer the fact that TV/Film is full of this stuff. But again: The mind/body connection! You are acting out the fight or flight response, over and over. It is language training for primitive behavior. It's what boot camp does.

Secondly, video games tend to orchestrate a continual goal-reward structure that is extremely addictive. Every few seconds or at most minutes, you are 'rewarded' by doing some mildly difficult task or other. You could be Mario running around picking up coins, or you could be running over pedestrians in GTA, or making another row of cubes disappear in Tetris. Whatever - what is happening is that a feedback loop of pleasure-response "popcorn" is flooding the brain. Dopamine rules! I suspect this is the culprit with the ADD-video game accusations. Think about spending hours and hours in this world of continual adrenaline/dopamine fight/flight/hunter/gatherer tunnel-vision. The 'real world' seems dull, slow, frighteningly ambiguous, unrewarding. One has devolved to an addict to the pleasure/response/fight/flight interactive 'crack'.

4. Let's be honest: what parent can police a child with these games on his or her cellphone? Or other portable device? Or their friends'? Most parents are both working, and this technology is becoming more and more ubiquitous. Capitalism is stronger, more persistent and better funded than the best parent.

Djimnh, welcome to the forum. Hope you enjoy your stay here!

Your points are well considered, but I do have some qualms about them at least in context of discussing video games with the "uninitiated". None of your points are false, mind you, just that in the context of the current public disquiet about video games they're more likely to disuade people from making reasoned judgements on the merits (or lack thereof) of games.

Point one is certainly valid, but could be made for many hobbies. I paint miniatures, myself, while others collect stamps or build model kits. All of these induce tunnel vision and have repetitive motions not well-mapped to real-world activities as well. This is neither a positive or a negative, just one criterion for deciding.

For point two, I'd like to point to Halo (which we both enjoy) as a counter; Randall Glass' famous "Warthog Jump" video (link) and the many "tricking" sites (notably "High Impact Halo") show that "outside the box" thinking can be used in, and indeed inspired by, games. Indeed, speed-running in general rewards creative thinking. Another counterpoint is that many other games and past-times are just as prone to tunnel-thinking... to my chagrin, Lego has even made itself vulnerable by shipping models pre-built. Yes, the Lego model can be taken apart and assembled in new forms, but by exploring physics and game-mechanics (and maybe even by exploring the modder community) so can games.

Your third point is rendered somewhat moot, however, by your first... the conditioned response in this case is a thumb twitch or mouse-movement. (Or, sadly, an inappropriate vocalisation... but that's also the case from TV.) In those good, healthy sports like football and hockey, the conditioned response is an actual physical blow, and you get plenty of fight-or-flight in contact sports. I'd much rather see parents crack down on out-of-control jocks who have, demonstratably, been operationally conditioned into asocial behaviour.

And the fourth point can be addressed by having the parent police what games are loaded on his/her cellphone or console. Much modern hardware has some form of "parental controls" or V-chip like manner that parents can use (if properly instructed, of course) to limit children's access to games. Remember that, even if capitalism is stronger and better funded than the best parent, it's parents who hold the purchasing power for items with price-tags like consoles and smartphones.

The points you make are valid, but they're not a clear-cut indictment of video games. They are important to discuss for all childhood activities, and parents should be aware of them in the general case and not just (unjustly) in the case of video games.

-- Steve

edited to change the "Warthog Jump" link

I used to play computer games a lot back in the late 80's to mid 90's:
lots of Atari 2600 games, Star Control I/II, WarCraft, StarCraft, Doom
I/II, Quake I, Ultima Underworld II, Sim City, and a plethora of
"tiny" games like Tetris. I was also a programmer and dreamed one day
of working on serious games with complex physics models and superb
graphics, games that would one day lead the way to immersive VR. I
read Gibson and imagined my own interface to Walled City.

But sometime around 1999 I lost interest in computer games. Part of
the loss was lack of time, but a lot was quite honestly the rise of
the "gaming subculture(s)". I enjoy programming and playing the odd
game, but I find the black clothes semi-gothy "hardcore" geekness
thing that many gamers put out there as offputting. When I think of
"serious" games I think of EB and GameStop and 20-something guys who
know how to setup computers but can't make it through an intro
programming course. That's a _really_ snotty way for me to put it, I
apologize, but it's the real impression I have. The people in this
thread who liken it to comics are on to something I think; I get the
same feeling in GameStop as I do in a comics or anime store. I'm not
a frat guy playing a football or basketball console game; I'm not an
anime fan who nails black sheets to the living room windows to get a
dark TV room. Instead I'm a guy who loves being outside working in the
yard and taking walks around the neighborhood with my wife.

I know that games in themselves aren't really bad, though they do seem
to be split between "games you can get to playing in five minutes and
walk away from anytime" like Puzzle Fighter and "games that will suck
40-160 hours out of your life" like Metal Gear Solid with very few in
between. Maybe what games really need is to target that middle
ground: immediately playable for a few minutes, but not just a
weeklong grind to the finish, yet capable of getting more complex for
people who really want to invest the time in it. Like Guitar Hero and
Rock Band.

But at the root, I think that the various gamer subculture(s) really
have a perception issue: games equals comics equals anime equals "a
relic from the dot-com era that is sharply targeted to males aged
12-35". (And what is it with the booth babes? Not just E3, even CES
had them just last January. I can guarantee my wife will not be
encouraged to buy product from any company that thinks T&A is the best
promotion.)

Gaming companies might do really well by interviewing different kinds
of people and asking what kind of computer games they would want to
play and more importantly what kind of advertising would appeal to
them and what would turn them off of it. Here is a short list of
people they might benefit from talking to: Steve Jobs, Diablo Cody,
Amanda Marcotte, Hugh Laurie, Robin Williams, Al Sharpton. Yeah, this
is a weird mix, but every one of the people in it is very smart and
far outside the main gaming subculture(s).

The idea that violent and inappropriate video games produce a generation of violent users is often regarded as ridiculous based on the idea that no respectable scientific study has ever shown it to be true. But how would such research even be conducted? One approach would be to start thinking of video games primarily as educative devices, the designs being a combination of pedagogy and curriculum. Then a study of the implied as well as intentional moral lessons derived from these games can be more easily made.

This was a refreshingly well written article and accurate except for one claim. The attitude that parents have been paranoid of what their children do is far from old. In fact it is very much a recent feature of American Culture and only goes back a few generations. Anywhere you see it in other countries is due almost entirely to American influence. Changes in mediums and attitude between generations was practically unheard of a century ago. Although it was meant to be funny, the claim that the quad to bi-ped conversion met with resistance from the older cavemen is way too fantastic even by joke standards.

Nice article. There are so many irritating things about non-gamers' attitudes towards video games that I could write pages about it, so I'll just mention one thing that really gets me. It is, frankly, the fact that so many non-gamers imagine they are entitled to dump on videogames. Many of them have either never played videogames or abandoned them around the time Pac-Man was new. And then they disparage games. I have no problem with people not playing games if they don't want to, but I am irritated by their dismissal of something they have no experience of as worthless. They're just not in a position to comment. If there's a subject I know nothing about, I forbear to comment until I've boned up. I don't listen to rap or read comic books, but I don't look down on people who do because I don't really know anything about them. Dismissing a medium without sampling it is just silly. If someone who had never watched a movie started talking about how worthless the medium of film is, people would laugh in his face Why isn't it the same for games?

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