In Defence Of Video Games
By Elmo KeepMarch 28, 2012
In the 40 years since Pong became the first to gain mainstream recognition, video games have become a $65 billion a year industry. Often considered mindless, video games, it turns out, are changing the world for the better.
A minor conniption ruffled a small section of the publishing world recently when some of the internet's more diligent amateur sleuths unearthed a book, thought to be lost to history, written by a young Martin Amis. The excitement had less to do with the discovery of this out-of-print artefact itself than with its content. Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict's Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines is just that: a guide to 1980s arcade video games.
The derision with which this book has been met, and Amis's own wish to scrub it from his professional history (as noted by The Millions, it is glaringly absent from a new biography), combine to underscore the oft-repeated sentiment that the playing, design and theories of video gaming are profoundly unserious subjects, rife for the piss-taking.
It could be argued that Amis did not help himself by including such missives as "Donkey, your days are numbered. The knackers' yard awaits you," when referring to one of the most successful — and most difficult — gaming titles of all time, Donkey Kong. Still, the glee with which such a high-minded writer was drubbed for taking on such a low-brow subject was palpable. Video games are like the punk rock of entertainment: forever thought of as sneering, adolescent and unworthy of much consideration.
When revered film critic Roger Ebert opined on his blog that video games could never be considered art, a firestorm of biblical proportions — even by internet standards — rained down upon him in the form of 4936 irate comments. Many of these were to do with the fact Ebert had never played a game before making this assertion, though he did concede at a later point that perhaps they could become art, one day, and further to that admitted it wasn't a great critical notion to assail something he had never seen. Yet an Xbox controller is still to be held by his hands. "I have books to read and movies to see," he writes. Perhaps Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict's Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines could be a good place to start.
Assertions that video games are at best mindless and at worst beget real-world violence and life-crippling addiction have dominated media narratives around gaming for decades with little beyond anecdotal evidence to support them.
In 1993 Time Magazine dedicated its cover to the story, Attack of the Video Games: Better Than Movies! Better Than Reality! Soon To Zap A Kid Near You! The attendant piece singled out the fighting game Mortal Kombat as too violent for children, and soon the title came before a US senate hearing, which resulted in the current American ratings system for video games, since adopted elsewhere in the world. (The federal government here has banned games unsuitable for its maximum MA15+ rating but this year introduced legislation to create an R18+ rating; already the states and territories have given in principle support for the new classification, expected to come into effect in January 2013. The ACT parliament already has introduced legislation to enable the proposed national reform.)
Controversial US psychology professor Craig A. Anderson often was called upon to give expert opinion on his proven links between violent games and real-world violence, though less so once it came to light that many of his studies were funded by a conservative lobby group, the National Institute on Media and the Family, and were otherwise disproved by rival academics, and rejected by the US Supreme Court, on the grounds of insufficient methodologies.
In the long-drawn out review for the establishment of an R-18 rating for adult video games in Australia which is now set to become law in January 2013, the then Federal Minister for Home Affairs, Brendan O'Connor rejected the causal argument between gaming and violence, stating on having read the available literature that, "Evidence about the effect of violent computer games on the aggression displayed by those who play them is inconclusive," a point of view supported by findings published in Springer's Journal of Youth and Adolescence in 2010.
Increasingly research appears to attest that rather than doing us harm, playing video games is turning us into better people.
IN 2011, THE GLOBAL VIDEO GAME INDUSTRY was worth US$65 billion. Some $1.5 billion of that is spent in Australia. A lot of people game. According to most recently available US data, 72 per cent of households play video games. Gender lines are approaching parity, with women making up 42 per cent of players. It is more popular among people over 50 (29 per cent) than people under 18 (18 per cent). Three billion hours a week are spent around the world playing video games. It is, clearly, an enormously popular way for people to spend their leisure time.
In the growing field of video game research and development, this popularity is attributed to the ways gaming touches our deep-seated, hard-wired and irresistible psychological impulses, known as game mechanics. Through these, games are designed to keep players playing. Game mechanics are employed in everything from poker machines to Angry Birds to sprawling, immersive game worlds such as those players find in the BAFTA award-winning Bioshock and Heavy Rain.
While it's obvious to say games are popular because they are fun, what is it about how they are designed that makes them that way?
Video games are essentially asking players to work, but they are designed in such a way as to make this work fun. Anyone who has played a simulation game like FarmVille knows this: all you are doing is returning at a certain time to perform certain menial tasks (water your crops, OR THEY WILL DIE) in return for some kind of reward (unlocking new items, accruing credit points). On paper it doesn't look especially appealing, but these games are almost irresistible, as 32 million daily users attest. But why does this happen? How can we feel such a strong investment in a virtual world?
It is because these kinds of games are built on the powerful conditioning principle of intermittent rewards: if the amount of time between being given a reward varies randomly, then we will put more time and work into increasing our chances of receiving, or finding, this reward ("You have unlocked new crops! Come back and water them tomorrow"). Pretty soon we are spending a lot of time in the virtual garden, watering virtual plants. This is the same principle that will lead you to check your smartphone up to 34 times today, and when you receive a new message, your brain will reward you with a small dose of dopamine. Just about everyone is powerless to resist this mechanic, and game designers know it.
In a FORA.tv talk, Visions of the Gamepocalypse, game designer Jesse Schell explains that games are fun because they make us feel good, and they do this by using mechanics that hit many of the sweet spots in our psychological make-up simultaneously. On top of the pleasure of intermittent reward systems, well-designed games meet our deep-seated needs to progress, to compete and to achieve, as detailed in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. And in the process of doing so, games also provide us with clear feedback ("Yes, you have successfully watered the crops!"), while giving players a space in which they are constantly achieving, in that the only true aim of the game is to complete it by advancing through a series of levels and being rewarded at each concluding phase along the way. This, says Schell, also brings a pleasure pay-off to our brains: game worlds provide the opportunity to encounter the satisfaction of solving problems which can be solved with enough perseverance, in exactly the same way as completing a particularly challenging crossword puzzle is enormously satisfying.
To be caught in the thrall of this problem-solving mecca is to be in a state often referred to as "blissful productivity."
AT THE IMPROBABLY BUT WONDERFULLY NAMED Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, in California, Jane McGonigal heads up research into how this state can be harnessed to transfer the blissful productivity of virtual worlds to measurable outcomes in the real world.
Her research focuses particularly on the vast universe of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), where players from all over the world come together to meet common goals by collaborating to solve complex strategic problems. More than 10 million people have subscriptions to World of Warcraft, and on average players spend 34 hours a month playing, progressing through an open world which gives them a very strong sense of personal agency, and even a sense of a kind of freedom that isn't often encountered in real life.
McGonigal's research asks how this investment and its returns can be used to solve problems in the real world, and it culminated in her writing the book Reality Is Broken. An alternate reality game, World Without Oil, was developed in the course of the research. The game asked players to take part in a forecast simulation of the world after the point at which peak oil is reached. Players collaborated to come up with realistic scenarios and solutions for living in this new reality. The game was awarded the prize for activism at the South by Southwest interactive conference in 2008.
Elsewhere, the compulsive nature of collaborative games was harnessed by the makers of Foldit, developed at the University of Washington. The online puzzle-solving game invited players to find ways of folding protein strands, which were then analysed by biochemical researchers at the university for real world applications, namely curing diseases. Foldit quickly garnered 240,000 players whose hive-mind set about cracking the crystal structure of a retro-viral disease which causes AIDS in monkeys, the Mason-Pfizer virus. The structure of this enzyme had eluded study in laboratories for 15 years but took just 10 days of competitive solving in a game world to be cracked by amateur biochemists.
But it isn't just the collaborative world of multiplayer games that has powerful applications for both the real world and players. The humble and fiendishly difficult Tetris has proven very adept at staving off the flashback symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in patients studied at Oxford University, by preoccupying the part of the brain responsible for creating traumatic memories. At the Virtual Reality Analgesia Research Centre in Washington, far more complex and immersive game worlds are being trialled in the treatment of PTSD in soldiers returning from combat with agonising injuries and drawn out recovery times. Here the distraction that a richly realised, arctic SnowWorld provides the brain of a trauma patient is proving to act as a painkiller as effective as morphine.
Even the continually vilified, violent, first-person shooter games (such as Resident Evil, Call of Duty: Modern Warefare and Dead Space) have been shown to enhance the fine motor skills, lower the stress levels and quicken the decision-making times of players in a study published in Current Biology in 2010.
AS THE PROPHESIZED ARMIES OF KILLER CHILDREN fed on violent video games in their youth don't appear to have materialised in the adults of the world today, it's a point of consternation to ponder where the opposition to video games came from in the first place. Perhaps it was just down to the shock of the new, exactly like the previously perceived threats of Elvis Presley, rap music and the printing press. Or perhaps it was a rejection of idle time wasted, antithetical to a good old-fashioned Protestant work ethic. The advent of gamers working in blissful productivity to solve real world problems puts paid to that notion.
The same accusations of cultural waste were once laid at the feet of television, but that was before the dawning of the current age of the "novelisation" of TV, when we're now free to enjoy critically revered shows — Mad Men, The Wire and The Sopranos — on an intellectual level because they have been bestowed with a sufficiently literary point of reference, safely elevating them above the level of pop culture dreck in the eyes of cultural arbiters.
Even novelist and technophobe Jonathan Franzen has okayed the television adaptation of The Corrections with HBO. Yet for Franzen, new-fangled technology Twitter poses an unmitigated threat to literature, labelling it the "ultimate irresponsible medium. People I care about are readers… particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people." One can only imagine the grave disappointment Franzen may now be feeling in Martin Amis, knowing he once deigned to write a book about video games.
But what if Amis was really a soothsayer, onto the transformative powers of video games well ahead of his time? What if he wrote Invasion of the Space Invaders with the exact seriousness the subject deserved, and not, as he contests, just to make some extra money while he was writing his properly serious novel, er, Money?
In any case, where is the shame in enjoying yourself and soaking your id, whether it's slaying zombies in Left 4 Dead, plotting complex strategies in World of Warcraft or diligently watering your crops in FarmVille?
Go on, have some fun.
Seriously, it turns out to be really good for you.