Rant: Oldtimers Unbellyfeel Gaming

Right, that’s it.

I’m pissed off, honest to blog.

Recently someone I was corresponding with warned in grave fashion that video games were eating their children, that they

enhance addictive tendencies and unchecked will consume all spare time to the exclusion of any other form of play.

Here’s a medium that’s arguably more powerful than any other – a communication tool so engaging that people actually get addicted to it – and you’re saying that the medium itself is a bad thing?

Addiction is a bad thing. Doing only one thing all day, every day, is bad for you and your kids. But as long as you’ve got control of yourself (or your kids), I say better being engaged in a video game than rotting passively in front of crappy TV. At least with a game, you’re actively engaged in problem-solving.

The fact is that there are good games and bad games, just as there are good books and bad books, good TV and bad TV, good films and bad films. No one would dismiss books as a medium just because they’d found their kid reading a Harlequin Romance.

And yet, critics of gaming do this all the time, for a whole range of reasons, real and imagined, often without ever playing the games they are criticising. Well, it’s too late for that. Ultimately this is a demographic issue, as Richard Bartle pointed out in his acerbic but ultimately truthful column in the Guardian recently.

Orwell could boil Bartle’s rant down to three words of Newspeak: oldtimers unbellyfeel gaming.

And that’s more than a little frustrating for someone like me.

A child who spends every spare moment lost in books is called ‘studious’, not ‘addicted’. A kid who spends days kicking a ball around is called a ‘dedicated athlete’. But kids who spend their free time creatively engaging in digital culture – gaming, updating wikipedia articles, blogging or whatever – are often considered maladjusted and dismissed as geeks.

Well, geeks like this guy, this guy and these guys are changing our lives – our entire civilization, in fact – deeply and irrevocably because they engaged in digital culture instead of dissipating their spare cognitive energy watching TV soaps.

Clay Shirky wrote a great post about this on his blog. I heartily recommend it.

Now I need a drink.

UPDATE: The discussion continues after the jump!

My interlocutor writes:

given the choice between playing ‘Sim city’ and ‘brain training’ or playing ‘Sonic’ and ‘Mario karts’ I know which my children will tend towards, why?

Well, given the choice between ‘The Incredibles’ and ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’, which would they watch? Same example. These two movies are completely different, aimed at different audiences; just like the two games.

There are plenty of good, fun, enriching games for kids out there. The people in BBC Childrens’ are doing wonderful things. I have the greatest respect for them.

As for the addiction thing, I’m not inclined to contradict the assertion that they’re addictive. In fact, I’d say that’s spot on. Well-designed games present their players with challenges whose resolution is tantalisingly at the edge of the player’s ability. Players encounter increasing frustration as they try, try, try again to beat the enemy, finish the level or otherwise solve the puzzle. When they succeed, there’s a rush of dopamine released in the brain. Same chemical release you get when you’ve eaten a good meal, had an orgasm or taken a hit of crack cocaine.

Same rush you get when, after six hours of dancing around the blindingly obvious, Darcy and Elizabeth kiss, or when you score a goal in the neighborhood footy game. Same rush you get when you achieve anything, in fact – it’s the motivation chemical.

So – where’s the problem?

Addiction is bad. Doing only one thing, over and over, all day, every day, is bad. But that’s a question of self-discipline – not an inherent problem with the medium. For games as a medium, this is a good point.

We have at our disposal a means of communication capable of expressing sophisticated, complex points, of immersing audiences in a deep exploration of a topic; a means of communication so effective that people feel compelled to engage with it – and this is a bad thing?

It’s bad if you make TV shows, yes – because today, the biggest screen in the house is more likely to be used for the Wii in the evening than for Big Brother, Planet Earth or Panorama.

But it’s a whole world of opportunity for informing, educating and entertaining our audiences in an engaging, interactive and creative way.

One thought on “Rant: Oldtimers Unbellyfeel Gaming

  1. I agree.
    I might suggest, two factors that feed the fear or at least mistrust of people towards computer gaming. Firstly, computer gaming is an aspect of a digital age, where conception about time place, communication and information are dramatically changing; for example, mobile phones and getting at a rendez-vous on time, expectation of being in touch with news and facts at all time, and most of all it’s beyond their control.
    Secondly, the content of games is in itself objectionable. as you point out, there are bad games, but worse, there are good games, and they are violent. Parents don’t give a damn whether BBC does children friendly games or that their kid are discerning and aware of the difference between sawing an alien in half (Gears of war) and not liking your classmates. They don’t like violence. Which gaming as a genre churns over and over again. I know you’ll argue, it’s then up to them not to buy those particular games but their perception is of one single-minded industry, not a multi-purpose medium as we would see it.

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