Monday, June 12, 2006

A one off

This is not the first article in my series, but a criticism of one recent article on the topic: The Brain Workout by Brian Anderson on OpinionJournal.

I am NOT going to argue whether or not I agree with the thrust of the article, which is a defense of video gaming. I am only going to point out that I think he doesn't do a good job of it.

Brian is responding to charges leveled against the video game industry for its R-rated graphic violence. His defenses are, essentially: a) there's not as much violence as they say, b) violence is good for you anyway, and c) there are good things about video games as well.

As for a), he cites:

more than 80% of the top-selling titles for the past five years came with the video-game industry's "Everyone" or "Teen" ratings, meaning that parents can assume reasonably inoffensive game content ...

and a few paragraphs later writes:

A T-rated game for example, might warn: "Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language and Suggestive Themes."
I don't know about your family, but blood, gore, intense violence, strong language, and suggestive themes are not what I would consider reasonably inoffensive game content. My own look at the top selling games on Amazon and Wikipedia reveal that, with the exception of The Sims, Myst, and Railroad Tycoon, they sure look pretty bloody to me. Some of them are probably reasonably inoffensive, but not most.

Compare this to the list of top selling books and movies. Sure, some of the top selling books have some sex and violence in them here or there, but not for hours on end, unrelenting, without anything else in between, and not as the single primary plot point. Ditto for movies. Perhaps the important words here are "unrelenting" and "primary". The fact is: the majority of these games are based around entertainment using depictions of violence, with some strategy or tactics used to control this. Don't beat around the bush.

As for b) , two of his defenses are:

And with many titles selling for $50 or $60 a pop, how many children can get a hold of games without mom's or dad's consent in the first place?
If you're through laughing at this, let's move on to the next one.

Some observers speculate that playing violent video games may be cathartic, channeling pre-existing violent impulses into virtual reality, where they can do no harm.
This is a great theory, and probably the most bandied about one in the history of the defense of video games. It happens to be the only thing that can get you off the hook. However, please note that no sources are quoted to support this theory. I am sure that there are such sources (just go to Techdirt, they're sure to have some), and I'm just as sure that I can point you to many more sources pointing out the opposite.

The problem here is that a video game advocate pushing this defense is as believable as the Tobacco industry pushing the "not proven to cause cancer" defense. Isn't there just a little self-interest in wanting to believe this? The fact is that video games are vastly more violent, unrelentingly, and primarily, than other forms of entertainment. The fact is that this entertainment is in its infancy and that this is the first generation of children who commit this virtual graphic violence for many hours a day for years at a time. And the fact is that this industry is raking in colossal amounts of money, and is no more interested in your welfare than is the tobacco industry.

Are you really prepared to possibly let your children come to permanent harm on the basis of what appears to be a pretty flimsy defense with direct contradictory evidence? If a really attractive candy were made available to kids, with ten studies showing that it caused brain damage and another ten showing that it was not entirely proved to cause brain damage, wouldn't some more fact finding be the appropriate step before letting kids go wild and consume as much as they wanted?

In the meantime, we come to argument c). It is hard to argue that some video games can teach many benefits. However, this ignores a few points:

First of all, reading can also teach many benefits, but not all reading teaches benefits as effectively as any other reading. If you digest reams of junk literature (just look at the top selling book list ;-) ), you are not getting the same value as you would from making critical choices with your reading literature. It is not popular literature that is worthwhile, but good literature. I'm not in the business of telling you what is good or bad; but you have to at least make some sort of value-assessment. I will go out on a limb and suggest that the same would apply to video games. Which is why Brian's statement

As for my kids navigating the game, wouldn't it be comparable with
their playing chess for hours?
is almost as unbelievable as his "children can't get a hold of video games without consent" sentence above. In short, no. Chess is a great game. It teaches you to calm down, focus, think many many moves ahead in advance, act slowly and with deliberation, and consider before acting. The game provides a well structured goal even when you probably can't win, there is no visceral violence, and the metagame includes mannered rules of analysis, social behavior, and etiquette. There is a clear path to understanding how to manage scant resources, and how influence and positioning delicately balance. And there are no cheat codes. I doubt there are many video games that can compare to chess as far as worthwhile uses of one's time.

Second of all, even if you prove that a game has many great values, this does not make up for any negative values, any more than a highly nutritious piece of wheat bread is good eating if it is soaked in floor cleaner. I'm not saying that any particular game is or is not this type of equivalence; I am merely saying that promoting benefits does not answer the criticism of negative effects.


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AdamC said...

"I doubt there are many video games that can compare to chess as far as worthwhile uses of one's time."

Most computer strategy games hold up very well to chess. In fact, in many ways, chess holds up poorly. The depth and complexity of modern computer games is such that no other medium (yet) can compare.

My favorite video game, Madden 2006, an American Football simulation, is far more complex than any normal board game, and it's not even a strategy game.

It's important to separate subject matter from game-play when judging video/computer games. I don't own GTA because I too decided the subject matter was too graphic. I also realize that it's one of the most complex and engaging games ever made, and the mental workout required to finish the game is a rigorous one.


Yehuda Berlinger said...

I'm learning a whole lot about computer games as I begin this quest.

My pov is that Chess is deeper than computer games, and I aim to prove it or recant, depending on the results of my research.

For now, my opinion is based on the idea that Chess takes a lifetime to master, but that any one computer game is over and done with after, I would guess, no more than six months of daily play.

Furthermore, a video game is mastered through a series of trial and error until the correct winnable strategy and type of tactics are discovered. In other words, one strategy and type of tactics will always ultimately dominate. That is a pure hypothesis, without any grounds in fact. Am I wrong?


Anonymous said...

In postulating that computer games are essentially a puzzle to be solved, you're neglecting an entire aspect of modern computer games: multiplayer. It's generally true that playing any single player computer game devolves into discovering the correct winnable strategy and tactics, primarily because AI isn't good enough yet.

However, most games today allow for playing other humans online, and that's a whole nother kettle of fish.
It's also not something I do regularly, so it's hard for me to say whether or not it eventually devolves into one strategy. I know people who still swear by online Starcraft or Counterstrike. Apparently squad type games like Counterstrike can lead to some pretty sophisticated strategy/tactics development amoung teams.

Also, I assume you're not considering computer implementations of Chess, Hex, Othello, etc, in which some AI has gotten pretty darn good.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

alex - you are right, technically.

When someone says that playing computer games is on the same level as playing chess, they are probably referring to single player computer games, such as Civilization, Sims, and so on.

These games, while great and fun and all that, should more appropriately be compared to Sudoku, not Chess.

The apt Chess comparison is to two-player or multi-player games. I have another article to write. :-)