Thursday, March 27, 2008

Brenda on Video Games and the Media

Brenda Brathwaite has a new article on the media and video games in the Escapist.

Essentially, she can't understand why her friends all think that video games are bad, are for kids, and that kids shouldn't play them. She thinks it may be the media, but isn't sure. She solicits other people's comments on the issue.

My comments follow.

Brenda points out that "The same people who drowned machines in quarters back in the 1980s" complain about people playing video games today.

These are exactly the people who can say that video games are addictive. And these same people who played the entertaining but abstract games of the 1980s can say that many of today's games are excessively gory and violent compared to what they played.

Just because someone likes movies, doesn't mean he likes R-rated or X-rated movies. And the fact that someone was addicted to something once gives them the right to judge the activity as addicting.

There are a noticeable amount of games which are not violent and gory, but they're not the majority in stores near me. If more people are playing The Sims, Roller Coaster Tycoon, and Hoyle's Card Games, you wouldn't know it from from the conversations I hear from my kids and their friends. I walk down the aisles of video games in my local stores and most of them are excessively gory and violent by my standard. My standard is "more constant and descriptive violence than I would expect from an R-rated movie" which, by the way, lasts only two hours and is not violent the entire way through.

Brenda polled her friends as to how they felt about video games. "Oddly, no one cites the media in his initial response" ... "a former boyfriend would play for hours, upon hours, upon hours. Maybe I felt neglected, ignored and disrespected" ... "Many times as I called my son, I could hear the background noise of the game, which would mean very little concentration on our conversation" ... "

In other words, damn straight it is not the media influencing your friends, Brenda. They are giving you real first-hand experiences of the addiction and social-disruption that video games can produce. Their opinions are bases on the real world, not the media.

"So, games take the fall for the son's rudeness" is no answer. Sure, manners is largely a function of training. But an anti-social, absorbing, rushing activity makes people anti-social and absorbed. Does anyone easily ditch video games when they are called by someone else?

A video game must provide constant high level edge-of-the-seat entertainment, an endless series of engrossing and climactic battles. These same types of scenes occur fairly infrequently in a typical book or movie. Other activities don't need to do this. In movies there are moments of reflection. In sports, either the sport is over quickly, or there are moments in between each rush.

"At my house, we have an efficient means of dealing with such issues. You get a two-minute warning to save your game, and then it gets shut off. There is no negotiation." This type of training is never necessary for book-reading or music practice, right? Which means you had to set these special rules for video games, only. It is not then possible to argue that video games are not more addictive and socially-problematic.

When you then ask "Where the hell is all this coming from? If not the media, where?", you already answered yourself: from people's first-hand experience of dealing with children, boyfriends, and spouses who will not answer you and who are absorbed for hours or days blowing things up.

"It would be like the film industry being blamed for people making snuff films or amateur bedroom porn." is disingenuous, as is the fact that only six percent of the video game titles are Mature. Teen games are already excessively violent, and far more than six percent of games are Teen, Mature, or AO. And players play these games in a far higher proportion to the number of games they represent in overall titles.

Snuff films, porn, and liquor all have warning signs, are not available to minors and have social discouragement factors that violent video games do not. If violent video games were sold in adult only stores, the major video game press didn't cover them, and they were played only outside of the mainstream, that would be one thing. Take a look at the list of reviews on 1UP, the leading online video game source. How many Sims games there? A few sports game, a singing game, and the rest are killing games.

Imagine if the majority of the film industry reviews and sales were explicit war movies, or adult and snuff films. People would be writing articles about fuddy-duddies who complain about explicit violence and killing in movies; oh wait, they already do that. There's too much violence in films; arguing that video games are no worse than films is no great argument.

I've watched my son play popular games that are not considered ultra-violent, such as Age of Empires, Red Dawn, Rome: Total War, and so on; not even FPSs. And I insist on the sound being off, because I can't stand listening to hours and hours of realistic explosions and death screams. I don't ask him to turn the sound off in movies: the violence doesn't take up the entire movie, and it's over in two hours, tops. Plus, the story and acting might have some redeemable content.

For adults, playing at killing for an hour or two here or there is not a huge problem. But, like drinking, watching endless television, and other essentially wasteful activities, making these a habit is not something you'll be proud of at the end of your life. These activities, owing to the very fact that they are easy and entertaining, are addictive.

Violence in video games is not a media myth. It is the industry's laziness and appeal to a base brutality and fascination with violence in its consumers. The addiction of the consumer is also not a myth, although it is a lazy man's addiction, not a chemical or neurological addiction.

Instead of complaining about the perception of video games, work at maturing the industry so that it produces more games with less explicit brutality and violence, more content, more downtime, and more reflection; games that contain stories within a set time period and don't simply pump an endless series of violent thrills into your brain to keep you glued to the screen. Work at making the endlessly brutal games a small adult-only part of the larger world of games, like snuff films.



David Klein said...

Hi Jon, as usual a very insightful article. Thanks.

Dan Robinson said...

Your post was an interesting read. However,I feel that your post mirrors the panic that sets in when people try to talk about videogames. When you make the point that "[Videogames are] an anti-social, absorbing, rushing activity makes people anti-social and absorbed. Does anyone easily ditch video games when they are called by someone else?", you're also discounting other diversions like reading books or listening to music that can have the same impact on people. Long before there were games at home, parents were after their kids to turn down that "noise", whatever popular music of the day was playing, and come to dinner. A lot of my friends and I would sneak flashlights into bed to read books past our bedtimes. Does that mean music and books contribute to anti-social behaviour as well?

What I got out of the article is that it isn't the media that forms the perception of videogames but the feelings and opinions of people who are impacted by them either directly or indirectly. For what it's worth, your post is an excellent example of that point.

AdamC said...

There is a balance between violent and non-violent games. So-called "casual" games are the fastest growing segment of video gaming and the Sims franchise is the best selling video game franchise of all time. Video gaming is also sub-divided by platform. Nintendo, a more family friendly brand, has mostly non-violent (or abstract violence, like Mario) dominating its top sellers. X-Box 360, on the other hand, has a murder's row of violent games in it's top ten. Like most articles commenting on violence in gaming, the issue is overstated and oversimplified.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Super GG, Thanks for the reply.

I think there is a difference between kids playing loud music or reading books under covers versus kids or grownups playing video games.

Kids will always act out with rude behavior to grownups.

In the case of playing loud music, if done in a way that is meant to disturb, the person may be exhibiting anti-social behavior, but the activity isn't anti-social by design. Video games are beginning to open up to social interaction - online games, double joystiqs, the Wii - which is great, but too much of it - as it is now played - is still single-player and anti-social.

Furthermore, loud music is not continuously engaging in the same way. You may tell someone to wait until the end of the song, but there are breaks between songs. A concert, at the most, goes on for an hour. Then it's done. Video games consume endless hours by design.

With regards to loud music with violent lyrics, I agree that it's the same problem, although, again, unless listened to time and again over several hours, it's less penetrating and pervasive than video games.

With regard to reading under the covers, it is an act of breaking house rules; this says nothing about the act of reading and only about the breaking of the rules.

Reading for extended periods is anti-social, true, but most people can take a break very easily after a paragraph, a chapter, or at most by the end of the book if they are close to it.

Reading violent stories is also a problem, but again, reading is not something that is usually done for endless hours with maximum engagement. And the violence is not continuous and visceral every minute. Furthermore, reading about violence is not as engaging as perpetrating the violence in a virtual manner.

Lastly, the subject is video games, not children. The fact that kids will find ways to ignore or annoy parents is not in question.

But why do so many adults who play video games exhibit anti-social and addictive behavior? Video games aren't the only addiction in life; you can be addicted to the Internet, going to bars, and so on. And an outside addiction is surely a sign of trouble elsewhere.

But that doesn't deny that it's addictive and anti-social; it merely brings the problem into context. Video games, like drinking gambling, and the Internet, are catalysts for addictive and anti-social behavior. That's why parents, spouses, and even children have a problem with their endless and unrestricted use, and prefer to encourage other activities. Not because of the media.


Yehuda Berlinger said...

David, thanks.

Adam, you're right. It could be that "playing video games" is akin to "reading books". It only defines the media, not the content.

The gaming industry and press should draw the lines themselves: relegate violent games to a small niche section, and devote the rest of the space to other games. It seems to work in the literature and movie world (not perfectly, but sort of).

Right now too much of the industry is centered on reaping short term profits on gore and cheap thrill games and only beginning to come to its senses regarding taste and value.


Ian Schreiber said...

I find it interesting how hot-button an issue this is, even within game design circles.

Yehuda, you say that the people who played arcade games in the early 80's are exactly the people who can judge addictiveness of games. I'd disagree; the games of the 80's (particularly arcade games) were designed to make the player lose quickly, so the aesthetic was specifically to NOT keep the player continuing to play for hours at a time. This is in stark contrast to today's epic JRPGs with 120 hours of gameplay. It's apples and oranges, so I'd say that no, if the last video game you played was Frogger then you really don't have any basis on which to judge "addiction".

You also note that it's difficult to pull yourself away from a video game, moreso than a movie or a book. I think that's open to debate. My wife and I were pretty "anti-social" with respect to the rest of the world for a few days after each Harry Potter book came out, and it wasn't just a matter of finishing a chapter and putting it down -- we wanted to finish the whole book! Some authors have a tendency to leave each chapter at a cliffhanger, so "just one more chapter" becomes the literary equivalent of "one more turn". We say a good book is one you can't put down, and some books will take you just as long to read as a complete play through a game, but we don't say that a book is "addicting". It's the same behavior, though, so there IS something to be said for perception trumping reality here.

I'll also point out that video games DO have the equivalent of waiting until you finish the "chapter" or waiting until a "slow part" of a movie. It's called a Save Point. (Some games even let you save ANYWHERE.)

As for your argument that games are more violent than movies... I'd also say that's open to debate. I'll accept that a typical shooter game probably has MORE violent conflict per unit time than a typical war movie, but the level of graphic detail is really far less. Watch "Saving Private Ryan" and then play "Call of Duty 4" and tell me that you really felt like the game stirred your insides more than the movie.

Lastly, as for your advice to stop complaining about the media and start making games that aren't blood-and-gore-fests... well, here's where the 6% M-rated figure comes into play. The fact is, the industry *IS* making a lot of nonviolent games. If you counter with "yeah, but the SALES of M-rated games are much higher"... then this is no longer a decision being made by game creators, but by consumers, isn't it?

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Ian, thank you for a very interesting comment; it's comments like your that keep me blogging.

Your points:

Your first point is that arcade games tried to get you to stop playing, while some of today's games try to keep you playing. An excellent note that I completely overlooked.

As Brenda pointed out, a single arcade game "session" was a series of games in a row, each one separated by a bunch of quarters.

A lot of the games allowed you to continue your game if you pressed start within a certain time period. Others allowed you to start on higher levels.

Still, other than those games, most earlier arcade games were short, and so between each game was a natural break. This was true as well for the home versions of these arcade games on early consoles.

Any addicting quality these games had were simply in their intense action, puzzles, or simply fun. While many were shoot-em ups, the violence was fairly abstract. Girls hung out at arcades as much as boys, if I recall correctly; they didn't play home arcades as often as boys, but they played. The "hard" generation of gamers began in the 1990s with Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and other bloody person-to-person fighting games.

Your third point correctly states that many games today have "break points"; I'm not sure if that means that the action actually stops for a while, or simply that a red light flashes on the screen during the action indicating that the game's state was just saved.

Either way, it was hard to pull people away from video games back then and still is today. So what?

You can't fault a product for being entertaining. That's not a flaw. And you can't fault a product for being re-playable, or being able to provide entertainment for long periods of time.

If a good book captures your attention (your second point), or you decide to write a screenplay and it takes you days to come up for air, that doesn't mean that the activity is "addictive" in any negative sense; it's just "captivating". All well and good.

The problem comes down to your fourth point: violence. And another point: worthiness.

As for violence, there is a world of difference between watching twenty minutes of WWII historical violence meant to disgust your senses as an anti-war sentiment, and actively executing virtual violence non-stop over several hours - over the course of several days - and being rewarded for doing so.

I've seen game that try to make anti-violent statements by putting players in the role of the perpetrator of violence. They all fail when attached to a point reward system. Playing a violent game equates to enjoying the experience.

You wouldn't have an uproar about video games if the games were non-violent, or abstractly violent, and simply contained videos of intermittent violence in them. In fact they would even be considered educational.

I'm not claiming that this training - and it is training - leads to violence; studies show the opposite, I believe. That's not really the point, believe it or not. It's the enjoyment that's problematic, just as enjoying (as opposed to being horrified by) the the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan would be problematic - more so because the player is deliberately causing the violence.

Civilized society does not accept the idea of happily enjoying gore and violence, unless it is clearly fake, or for a short period of time as a joke (like a creepy movie). The more realistic, the less civilized.

If you get your kicks out of it, go ahead; it doesn't bother me if that's a niche in the video game world. But it's not niche: it's front and center, the core activity in over half of the games produced: every game where your job is to kill and be rewarded for killing, for hours at a time, in realistic detail. And that's not only the Mature games, it's most Teen games, as well.

As for worthiness, studies show many benefits for video games, including some historical knowledge, strategic and tactical thinking, problem solving. Unfortunately, that's not the entire picture.

The historical knowledge is wrapped up with just as much historical fiction. The strategic and tactical thinking is of a very limited sort, and repeated video game play is not necessarily the best way to gain it anyway. (I can't argue with the problem solving.)

So you have an entertaining activity which does its job well, but does so as often as not with carnage, killing, and little comparative benefit except visceral entertainment. It's not hard to see why those out of the loop think video games are a waste of time.

As to your last point, the industry is a cycle. If people are hooked on vapidity, and the industry just feeds them more vapidity, there's enough blame to go around: the industry, the people, and those who defend the cycle. If someone outside the cycle thinks it's vapid, defending it's vapidity isn't going to make it less so. There is so much space to make something better, and relegate the vapid to the corner.


Anonymous said...

Video games are anti-social, are a waste of your time and you are not doing yourself any favors by including them in your life. Do not even begin to justify multi-player online games as being a form of socialization. They simply are not a substitute for face to face contact.

Anyone that thinks otherwise is delusional and need to seek immediate counseling. This is not a joke.

There are only so many waking hours during your typical day that tend to include working /schooling /parenting and/or some form of exercise routine.

If you justify playing games after your work day or schooling day, you are obviously not spending sufficient time exercising, socializing, reading up on current events [i.e. news]or broadening your vocabulary with leisure reading. Do not underestimate the importance of each of these aforementioned activities.

If you wish to continue to piss away your lives, knock yourselves out. This industry is an unfortunate, albeit lucrative part of society that some addicts can't seem to resist. All at the expense of sacrificing some more important part of their lives.