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Video games can be good for you

It appears that prohibitionists in the United States are winding up the pressure against computer games for allegedly turning the nation’s young into violence-crazed monsters. This article in Wired nicely points to some of the absurdities involved in the position of would-be banners of such games like Jack Thompson. Another article here in libertarian monthly Reason makes an even stronger case against the moral panic brigade here.

This issue reminds me of an unusual book I read a few years ago, called Killing Monsters. The book makes the argument that children – and adults – often use games as ways of acting out roles in ways that can help them to overcome fears and grapple with issues, rather than as just passive recipients of violent messages while watching a movie. This is not psychobabble. Children have played games involving rough-house action, or staged plays, or dressed up as cowboys and fighters, since time immemorial. What the moral scolds of our present age tend to overlook is that with some modern computer games, the players get to shape the plot, even down to the point of adding their own ideas to how games should be run and developed.

As the Reason article points out, turnover of gaming has shot up enormously over the last decade in sales volume, from $3.2 billion in 1995 to $7 billion in 2003, while levels of youth violence in the United States have gone down. Whatever else may be going on to explain the drop in some categories of crime in the U.S., video games don’t seem to be making the problem worse.

In fact, computer games may even make us smarter.

20 comments to Video games can be good for you

  • Julian Taylor

    Sims 2? SIMS 2?? How in the hell can Jack Thompson claim that the Sims is a ‘violent’ game by any measure? If we were talking about Postal or Postal 2 (a game that resorted to using Gary Coleman in an effort to boost its sad, seedy underdeveloped image … ’nuff said) then I would understand, but to focus your aim on a RTS game such as The Sims is beyond comprehension.

    I have yet to hear some 17 year old claim that he redecorated his parents’ kitchen because, “playing The Sims made me do it”.

  • John Thacker

    Let’s not forget that Jack Thompson is a particularly excessive nutball. Even the mainstream anti-video game violence groups have distanced themselves from him, with some (such as the National Insitute on Media and the Family) openly attacking him for using their names and implying that they support him. He has a tendency to issue press releases falsely claiming that he has support from politicians and organizations.

    Of course, there are other scolds out there, but Jack Thompson is a laughing stock. Sadly, his habit of filing lots of lawsuits has cost plenty of people time and effort, even if he’s ultimately lost basically all of them.

  • Greg

    That was a very interesting article. Two things about it strike me. First of all, they make the point that a sense of danger might help the learning process, but then they conclude that they want to use their findings to create a non-violent game to help stroke patients recover some abilities. It seems odd to me that they would want to remove an element that they theorize may help the game to confer its beneficial effects.

    The other is that while tracking things in the field of vision undoubtedly has an effect on the brain, and that such a skill may have survival value, such as aiding attention while driving a car, that doesn’t help the thesis that playing the games makes people smarter.

    The things we usually associate with intelligence, verbal, mathematical, deductive and organizational abilities, are not the things being trained. Games may be designed that do train these abilities though. Scrabble and Boggle might be good examples. But the notion that action computer games help people with what we consider intelligence just isn’t borne out here.

    The kinds of effects these games are having on the brain might just as well be produced by playing sports like soccar, football, rugby, cricket, baseball and such. These games may even have a more beneficial effect on the brain than video games do, perhaps by getting the blood moving and training the metabolism.

  • Why would they say that? These are the same people who say that video games make you lazy and mind-numbed to everything. To me there seems a clear difference between going out and shooting up the block because you’ve played Grand Theft Auto and sitting there and whining, “Mom, I’m bored. I wanna play my gameboy.”

  • Claxton

    His recent spat with Penny Arcade has been a source of never-ending amusement. The guy’s a media whore along the lines of Michael Newdow.

    With the way games are going today, though, I doubt they’re making anyone any more intelligent. Maybe just teaching them that looks are more important that substance? After all, having ultra raytraced polymorphic laser beam ripples in your engine’s water is much more important (and gets much more funding) than any sort of gameplay.
    And, of course, having Patrick Stewart!!!1111one do some voice acting.

  • Greg

    Aw come on, Claxton. You’ve heard nothing but the surface hype for video game play. Game fans are impressed by other concerns besides graphics. Take Half-Life 2 for example. No question the graphics are phenomenal, but what really gets people’s attention about it is an unprecedented level of interactivity. So much is possible within the game environment that you’ve got to be genuinely resourceful to get through it. And everyone I know who has tried it says that the way the other characters react to you is amazing.
    Non-player characters in todays video games are guided by programs originally developed for cooperative robots. Massive multiplayer online games rely on true human interaction.

    Whether computer games have any connection to violence or whether they increase actual intelligence may be open to debate, but they are certainly very complex and challenging compared to passive entertainment.

  • guy herbert

    Game fans are impressed by other concerns besides graphics.

    True, but however sophisticated the casual consumer, game magazines and game publishers are still hung up on the look of the things and being ‘cool’, albeit a little less so than 10 years ago. That’s one reason they still have difficulty breaking out of the lads’ market.

  • Well part of the reason game magazines are less going on about the “cool” factor is that its getting harder and harder to notice the differences. The great leaps in graphics are not happening at the same rate these days. Game companies are actually having to pay attention to plot and gameplay (well except ID of course).

    I think many video games are actually good at teaching young adults problem solving and logic. They also require concentration unlike say television or passively sitting into front of a DVD or sports. Interactivity in entertainment is far better that passive watching.

    I find the hysteria about video games absolutely hilarious. I mean if some moron goes out and immitates what he sees in game its the fault of his parents and his teachers not teaching him the difference between fantasy and reality. This is the same debate that happened over heavy metal in the 80s partially led by fascist cow drug-addict wife of Al Bore and her PMRC.

  • Julian Taylor

    I’d beg to differ on that point Guy. Greg rightly says that gamers look for more interactivity than graphical superiority. It’s the ‘ooh, aah look at the lovely colours’ set of game reviewers and critics who tend to focus more upon the graphics engines and FPS rates than the actual gamers – look at Halo or Halo 2 which are most certainly not up there in the same graphics intensity of, say, Halflife 2 or Doom 3 yet Bungie has produced one of biggest sellers of the last 5 years.

    A very good example of the graphics versus content can be found in Quake 4, released just last week by Raven and Activision. Quake 4 succeeds in graphically looking absolutely fantastic yet having the playability of a game of solitaire on a wet Saturday afternoon with half the pack missing. I found that it even managed to put Doom 3, of the famous “Look! There goes a zombie and a demon! F**k me that was scary!” (copyright The Frogman Of War) game genre, into a new class of interactive respectability.

    As for violence in the computer game industry who could be more hypocritical about that than Conan himself? Arnie seems to have strangely allied himself with the harpy from hell (Hillary Clinton to the rest of us) and Jack Thompson in a crusade pushing for legislation of video game content and in particular violent games. Now correct me if I’m wrong here but don’t all computer games already come with ESRB ratings or, in the UK, similar BBFC warnings relating to violent content? Monolith’s beautifully crafted F.E.A.R (they still make the best graphics engine on the market in my opinion) comes with an 18 rating and clear warnings against allowing young children to play the game – something ID Software admittedly did fail to do with Doom 3 (putting the warnings inside the box did not exactly help). Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty 2, released this week, comes with a 16 rating, mostly due to the occasional profanity rather than the violence level which you probably experience more of in watching The Longest Day or Saving Private Ryan than in playing that game. Another well crafted and well executed game – Max Payne 2 – came with a 17+ rating but did have a lot of profanity, blood, and violence, albeit pretty cleverly incorporated into a Frank Miller-style setting.

    Regarding Jack Thompson we should bear in mind how truly pathetic this creature really is. One doesn’t really expect any lawyer to make good his promises ever, but one doesn’t go out and threaten to sue people for simply reminding you of the financial promises you committed yourself to …

  • JT is right sometimes the rating system is downright daft. They miss the most obvious stuff and have fit about minor things like swearing.

    As far as ratings go. Instead of going after parents who allow their children to play games that they should not be doing they try to ban the bloody things for the rest of us. I think that for people like Jack all games must be suitable for all ages.

  • RAB

    Well video games can be educational in an unintended sense.
    They ran a poll of schoolkids over here a while back to find out what they knew about D Day, and the end of the 2nd WW, it being the 60th anniversary and all.
    Everyone did abysmally as usual, except for one kid who had a near perfect score.
    Seems he loved playing Call of Duty , which though undoubtedly violent, is reasonably factually accurate.
    Always a silver lining!

  • guy herbert

    Sorry Julian, where were we differing?

    I’m very clear where I stand on playability vs prettiness, because if we sneak a good game past a marketing department review, and the swines can subsequntly be persuaded to make a half-baked attempt to sell it, rather than diverting the funds into techno-themed launch parties for the latest ‘edgy’ product, my clients stand to make loads of money.

  • That’s one reason they still have difficulty breaking out of the lads’ market.

    I don’t think anyone’s told you that video games make more money than movies now, and have for several years.

    – Josh

  • guy herbert

    They have, Josh. It very much depends how you measure. You can make a huge turnover and still sell appeal only to a small segment of the population. Videogames could be bigger than television. They won’t be, until they start to offer a broader range of appeals to more varied market sectors.

    I’ve worked in business affairs in the videogames industry for a decade, BTW.

  • Julian Taylor

    Agreed that the film and computer game industry are moving closer together all the time with the obvious benefits of a mutual tradeoff – film of the game, game of the movie etc.

    If we look at the comparable figures on 2004’s big sellers we can see that, for example, Halo 2 grossed $124m in gross receipts over 2.4m orders within the first 24 hours of release (actual sales were under 200,000 – 2.2m were pre- orders) with a tail off from November 9th until late November, when Xmas seasonal sales start to kick in and total sales, up to August 2005, are now around 6.3m units inclusive of all worldwide sales. Thus we get round about the $325m upper gross sales mark for a topdrawer game (I just used the average $51 per unit while the price can be anywhere from $19 up to $50 depending upon location and sale preference).

    This does not quite come up to comparison with the movie industry. Look at a movie such as The Incredibles with a similar release date to Halo 2. Their gross box office receipts were around the $70.5m mark for the opening weekend and estimated gross box office receipts were well over the $300m mark – $255m from US domestic with $45m from the ROW. Then we factor in the DVD sales and the sales figure increases by an estimated $402.5m. This, bear in mind, from a DVD release outside the “Magic 77” (October 10th through to December 26 is the best retail period for Video and DVD).

    We are told that the DVD market is in depression at the moment – sales for 2005 are apparently very dismal so far – but more recent research shows that people are actually concentrating on building up a ‘personal catalogue’ of the older movies now being released than focusing on buying new releases, which the distributors would obviously much rather people do.

    All in all I think there’s a very long way to go yet before the games market dominates the film industry.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Julian, you may be able to tell me this, given your business background — it appears a lot of movies are now made that can be easily translated into a game. Like the Matrix, or latest 007 film, or the Incredibles, etc. It may explain why a lot of movies now have strong futuristic themes, lots of violence, and so on. More adult films (no, I don’t mean porn) are not so easy to turn into a game and are not made. Most Hitchcock films could not really work as game material, for example.

    I think the game issue explains a lot of why certain films are made and others left on the shelf. I may be wrong about this but it seems quite plausible. Thoughts?

  • JP: Well movies that are aimed at the demographic of most game buyers tend to be the ones that lend themselves to being made into games. Of course, the cynically minded might suggest that some movies are done as an advertising vehicle for a game or at least scenes therein. Of course now we have games being made into movies like Doom and Halo. There are rumbles that other games are being made into movies as well.

    There are times where it looks as if more thought is being put into the plot of games than of movies. Course this could be my professional prejudices showing.

  • Stuart

    Well when I was a kid we didn’t have video games but played with toy guns (if you didn’t have one, a stick would do, or just pretend). It’s no co-incidence that when we played with toy guns, we never dreamed of taking real ones to school………

  • Julian Taylor

    Jonathan, with the movie industry seemingly buying up the entire catalogue of Marvel in a desperate move to find another Spiderman – they are even remaking Superman at the moment – it would not surprise me one bit to see more games being turned into films and vice versa. As for whether films are being written with games in mind I should think that that is very likely the case and, given the ‘simultaneous’ releases of games and their associated movies, I should think they share screenplays or effects. The Lord of The Rings – The Return of The King would be a good example, where we must all be aware of how protective they were about the effects in the main battles, yet the game was released in conjunction with the premiere of the movie.

    Of course Jack Thompson and his ilk have yet to see what truly horrific games are still scheduled for release right now. I would hope that someone would send him the demo of Call of Cthulhu, which lovingly claims close reproduction of Lovecraft’s monsters and locations, as well as,

    a Dynamic Sanity system resulting in hallucinations, panic attacks, vertigo, paranoia, and more!”

    Talking of Thompson, did anyone see the comic strip done by Penny Arcade relating the telephone incident?

  • With the advent of things like Team-Speak and other voice chat systems to be used with games things are getting even more realistic. The chaos of any given situation is further intensified by your fellow players yelling in your ears.

    You can buy a chair that vibrates and rumbles (with a huge freaking woofer) to add to the sensation. I believe someone is developing a system that produces smells according to where you are in a game.

    Interactivity is increasing all the time in games. I know I am not interested in passive entertainment anymore. It will be interesting to see if the younger generations will be similarly inclined and less willing to sit through movies in the theatre where they can not doing anything else.