Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Are Video Games Bad?

A few posts back, I covered Jack Thomopson's overdue disbarrment. In those two rants, I briefly touched on whether gaming was inherently damaging to, specifically, our youth. I would argue that no, it's not. At least, it's no more damaging than any other form of media. Jack Thompson's problem (and Hilary Clinton's, and Joseph Lieberman's) is that gaming is unregulated. This is totally untrue--the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, an organization founded in 1994 after Mortal Kombat began showing up in newspapers around the country, does a wonderful job of rating games. Frankly, the ESRB is analogous to the MPAA, although if you've ever seen This Film is Not Yet Rated, you know that the MPAA is corrupt and unfair. But we won't go there today. The ESRB has yet to sink into the deeply entrenched moral authority that runs our little country, so I support it. Just like the movies, games are given a ratings based on the content of the game. Developers submit footage of the most brutal or extreme gameplay to the Board, who gives it a rating based on that footage and a questionnaire.

When the retail release is ready to be shipped, publishers send a copy of the game to the ESRB, who checks it over to see how well the developer responded to criticisms and to see whether their initial submission was accurate.

The ratings are very much mirrored by the MPAA: E for Everyone (G), Teen (PG-13), Mature (R), and Adults Only (X). Also like the movie ratings, games that recieve an AO rating are generally not sold in stores like GameStop, Best Buy, Fred Meyer, etc. Also like the MPAA system, games are rated far more harshly if they include nudity or sexual content. Violence will usually result in merely a T or M rating, but if you throw a sex scene in there, it's AO. There are some exceptions, like God of War (the sex scene is off-screen) and Mass Effect (you'd really have to see it), which each recieved M ratings. Other games, though, with nudity but not violence (Singles: Spice Up Your Life) basically start off the process with AO's. Movie theaters won't screen X-rated films, and stores won't carry AO-rated games. Thus, financial disaster awaits those games that do go to market with AO ratings.

This whole problem would go away if parents actively participated in what their kids were playing. The ratings are there for a reason. If a game is rated M, Little Billy probably shouldn't be playing it anyway. Look, not every game out there is like Grand Theft Auto 4 or Gears of War. Those are the games the news media covers, because in a very specific context, they are controversial. And that context is this: Should your 8-year-old be playing Mortal Kombat vs. the DC Universe? Probably not! But can your 16-year-old? Sure. Can your 21-year-old play Mass Effect? I really have no problem with that, but you might.

There are safeguards in place anyway. Stores can't sell M-rated games to kids younger than 18. It's like buying alcohol--you have to show your ID when buying something like God of War. Stores that don't operate this way probably should. Gaming has achieved the kind of mass-market saturation that DVD players have nowadays, so it should be no surprise that more people are playing them. And here's another shocker: Many developers make games for that older audience. This is another thing the media doesn't seem to understand: It's not just preteens playing video games. The biggest shift in recent years in gaming has been the change in demographic. As my generation, who was raised on the NES, grows up, we continue to play video games, and thus the number of 21-35-year-olds has steadily increased. The Wii and the DS have successfully courted the female market, too. In Japan and Europe, women make up a significant portion of Nintendo's market.

At any rate, my other point is that there are plenty of very fun games out there for everybody, regardless of age or gender. Again, if you only listen to the news, you'll only hear about the next GTA or Halo. You'll never hear about the just-plain-fun games like Super Mario Galaxy, Patapon, or Beyond Good & Evil, which manages to be both political and empowering. God forbid we make mention of games that offer social commentary, incredible art direction, or any other positive light. For every Soul Calibur IV, there's a Tiger Woods Pro Tour. For every Resistance: Fall of Man, there's a Wario Land: Shake It. In fact, there are more.

So what about damaging people? Do violent games make kids more violent? Does seeing the GTA "Hot Coffee" mod make young boys want to have sex with their girlfriends? But more importantly, do video games make people want to do this more than films or television shows? I don't know if any actual hard data has been done on this topic. The news media is always crying foul, saying that the Columbine shooters played a lot of Doom and got it into their heads that they could do the same thing. That is complete and utter bullshit. First off, I don't think you can put people down any more than that. Kids play with toys all the time. Little boys with LEGOs create huge fortifications where the little LEGO men shoot each other and dragons eat them. Dinosaurs eat people, Little Bobby has a toy laser gun that he runs around with, shooting everyone in sight. Are you telling me that kids can't distinguish play from reality?

Second, what if those Columbine idiots really couldn't distinguish reality from fantasy? Are we going to generalize the clearly insane minds of two malcontent kids across the entire spectrum of youth in this country? That's insulting and fear-mongering. If you do a study, and find that one kid in a million thinks that he can jump off a cliff and "respawn" at the top after a few seconds, that kid is clearly nuts. You don't claim that all of the kids are nuts!

Let's talk about the positive aspects of gaming. Let's say you've got a kid with aggression issues. Is playing Grand Theft Auto 4 going to increase those tendancies? I doubt it. I'll bet that the reverse is true--in blowing off steam in a fantasy setting, the aggression probably goes down. Again, I'd love to see somebody do a study about this. Every gamer I've ever met says that gaming does several things:

1) It lets the user escape everyday worries for a little while and explore a different world on the user's own terms;
2) It relieves stress;
3) It provides a wonderful art medium;
4) It improves fine motor skills (there actually is a study that backs this up);
5) It's fun.

I have not met one person yet--and I went to PAX--who said they play games so they can practice killing somebody or blowing something up real good. Gamers are an odd bunch, but they're not fucking murderers. If you don't want your kids playing Fallout 3 (and if they're under 18, they probably shouldn't be), go to the store with them and pick out a different game. Better yet, see what games they play. Talk to your kids about video games. You already talk to them about drugs, cigarettes, sex, violence, whatever else. Gaming isn't something you can just ignore anymore. Parents have to get involved, and the media has to stop blaming the medium. Harsher restrictions on game content is not the answer, and besides that, it's a violation of the First Amendment (as has been shown many times in court).
Video games are here to stay. That's a good thing. Gaming is a perfectly legitimate art form, and like any piece of art, it's not going to please everybody. If you don't like what you're playing, play something else.


ScottE said...

Well said!

(Of course, I'm filled with a debilitating ennui at most of the titles discussed.)

I dunno.

Let's see what Professor Layton's curious Village does for me...

Sean Craven said...

Y'know, I don't play video games. I'm from the Lost Generation that saw pinball slip out of the arcades as the video games pulled in. I could play pinball all afternoon on fifty cents; with a video game (we're talking Asteroids or Destroyer) I slipped my coin into the slot and lost before my fingers hit the control.

So it's been interesting to watch video games take over the world. And while I don't play them I've seen enough of them to agree with your points.

What strikes me about this is that what you describe is very much what I've seen happening in comics over the years. You know what made it easier for comics to slip into the mainstream?

Giving them different names. Like 'graphic novel.' Or 'manga.' You can find graphic novels and manga in virtually every bookstore in the country. But no comics...

I'd also like to point out the CBLDF. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. If someone gets busted for selling an adult comic? They get a lawyer. A lawyer who's dealt with these kinds of cases before. They don't win every time but it has made a serious difference in the market over time.

Is there a similar system in place for video games? Or do video game companies assume they can afford lawyers if they need them? That sure ain't true of comic book publishers and retailers for the most part...

And just out of curiosity. If you were to reccomend a game for someone with an interest in narrative, a reprehensible amount of bloodthirst, and really bad hand/eye coordination, what would you suggest?

robp said...

First off, I'm biased: my wife started a game store in August which makes me de facto co-owner. But we did it because our 16 year old son had a good idea. People want to play these games. Granted, a lot of these people are children, but as is often the case, there is a far greater problem when there is a lack of parental involvement than with the games themselves.

Hey, I personally find GTA repugnant and we don't have it at our store. We do have Call of Duty 4, which is a "pretend you're a soldier" game, but as someone who grew up without video games, I pretended I was a soldier (or a cowboy or an Indian or an alien or anyone else who might have cause to use a weapon) a pretty high percentage of my free time.

If parents talk to their kids and make sure they get exercise video games become just another concern. They're not going to be eliminated, some of them are not appropriate for all ages, and although there aren't any studies in place I would assume that kids playing too many shooter games might find pulling a trigger too damn easy. But if they aren't then given access to real weapons it doesn't fucking matter - you can blast me as many times with that controller as you want, it's still bedtime.

I think you covered this really well, just thought I'd throw in my general agreement with specifics.

Sean, there should be a game for you with Beginner/Easy settings where you could indulge yourself - you should call the store, 510-522-2109, Nathan is the expert.

Glendon Mellow: The Flying Trilobite said...

Excellent, Zach!

I agree with you about parental involvement and with using games to blow off steam.

A few years ago when I started in my current management job, one of my friends and fellow managers was worried about me because I don't drink, and he wanted to know how I'd handle stress (he was mostly kidding). He hit upon the idea of video games.

I hadn't played them in years. But I went out a and got a Game Cube and Rogue Squadron and Rebel Strike. And when I'm stressed after work, I play a Star wars game and blow away droids and stormtroopers. Beyond Good and Evil and Jade Empire also raised the bar for me as far as beauty and storytelling.

Games are an art form, and are for a spectrum of audiences.

Amanda said...

I like video games. I think they're okay. But, I do think that some people play them in excess and that they're really addictive, just like alcohol or drugs or porn can be addictive.

So, in moderation...rock on!

Zach said...

Agreed, Amanda. I know a few people who have minor WoW addictions.

d boy said...

well, i play video games alot, and i agree they arent all bad but that doesnt make them good either most are just stupid in my opinion, and im one of those people that has let games take over my life, if im not at school or doing homework then im playing WOW or runescape or some other game, i think im one of those patheitic losers that just lost it when thier parrents got them their first game

Kiara said...

I don't think so. I have come across with many video games that are educational. And often I play Download Games. They are amazing, that I can get some learnings while playing.