[Paleopsych] Economist: Video gaming: Chasing the dream

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Video gaming: Chasing the dream

    As video gaming spreads, the debate about its social impact is

    IS IT a new medium on a par with film and music, a valuable
    educational tool, a form of harmless fun or a digital menace that
    turns children into violent zombies? Video gaming is all these things,
    depending on whom you ask.

    Gaming has gone from a minority activity a few years ago to mass
    entertainment. Video games increasingly resemble films, with
    photorealistic images, complex plotlines and even famous actors. The
    next generation of games consoles--which will be launched over the
    next few months by Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo--will intensify the
    debate over gaming and its impact on society, as the industry tries to
    reach out to new customers and its opponents become ever more vocal.
    Games consoles are the most powerful mass-produced computers in the
    world and the new machines will offer unprecedented levels of
    performance. This will, for example, make possible characters with
    convincing facial expressions, opening the way to games with the
    emotional charge of films, which could have broader appeal and
    convince sceptics that gaming has finally come of age as a mainstream
    form of entertainment. But it will also make depictions of violence
    even more lifelike, to the dismay of critics.

    This summer there has been a huge fuss about the inclusion of hidden
    sex scenes in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas", a highly popular, but
    controversial, game in which the player assumes the role of a street
    gangster. The sex scenes are not a normal part of the game (see above
    for a typical image). But the offending scenes can be activated using
    a patch downloaded from the internet. Senator Hillary Clinton and a
    chorus of other American politicians have called for federal
    prosecutors to investigate the game and examine whether the industry's
    system of self-regulation, which applies age ratings to games, is
    working properly. Mrs Clinton accused video games of "stealing the
    innocence of our children" and "making the difficult job of being a
    parent even harder".

    As a result of the furore, "Grand Theft Auto" had its rating in
    America changed--from "M" for mature (over-17s only) to "AO" for
    adults only (over-18s)--by the industry's rating board. But since most
    big retailers refuse to stock "AO" titles, of which very few exist,
    Rockstar Games, the maker of "Grand Theft Auto", is producing a new
    "M"-rated version without the hidden sexual material. This is merely
    the latest round in a long-running fight. Before the current fuss over
    "Grand Theft Auto", politicians and lobby groups were getting worked
    up over "Narc", a game that depicts drug-taking, and "25 to Life",
    another urban cops-and-robbers game.

    Ironically, the "Grand Theft Auto" episode has re-ignited the debate
    over the impact of video games, just as the industry is preparing to
    launch its biggest-ever marketing blitz to accompany the introduction
    of its new consoles. Amid all the arguments about the minutiae of
    rating systems, the unlocking of hidden content, and the stealing of
    children's innocence, however, three important factors are generally
    overlooked: that attitudes to gaming are marked by a generational
    divide; that there is no convincing evidence that games make people
    violent; and that games have great potential in education.

    Start with the demographics. Attitudes towards gaming depend to a
    great extent on age. In America, for example, half of the population
    plays computer or video games. However most players are under
    40--according to Nielsen, a market-research firm, 76% of them--while
    most critics of gaming are over 40. An entire generation that began
    gaming as children has kept playing. The average age of American
    gamers is 30. Most are "digital natives" who grew up surrounded by
    technology, argues Marc Prensky of games2train, a firm that promotes
    the educational use of games. He describes older people as "digital
    immigrants" who, like newcomers anywhere, have had to adapt in various
    ways to their new digital surroundings.

    Just getting by in a foreign land without some grasp of the local
    language is difficult, says Mr Prensky. Digital immigrants have had to
    learn to use technologies such as the internet and mobile phones. But
    relatively few of them have embraced video games. The word "game"
    itself also confuses matters, since it evokes childish playthings.
    "What they don't understand, because they've never played them, is
    that these are complex games, which take 30, 40 or 100 hours to
    complete," says Mr Prensky. Games are, in fact, played mainly by young
    adults. Only a third of gamers are under 18.

    "It's just a generational divide," says Gerhard Florin, the European
    boss of Electronic Arts, the world's biggest games publisher. "It's
    people not knowing what they are talking about, because they have
    never played a game, accusing millions of gamers of being zombies or
    violent." Digital natives who have played video games since childhood
    already regard them as a form of entertainment on a par with films and
    music. Older digital natives now have children of their own and enjoy
    playing video games with them.

    The gaming industry is trying to address the generational divide. It
    is producing games designed to appeal to non-gamers and encouraging
    casual gamers (who may occasionally play simple web-based games, or
    games on mobile phones) to play more. This has led to the development
    of games with a wider appeal. Some of them replace the usual control
    pad with novel input devices: microphones for singing games, cameras
    for dancing and action games, and even drums. In addition, the
    industry has started to cater more to women, who seem to prefer social
    simulation games such as "The Sims", and to older people, who (if they
    play games at all) often prefer computerised versions of card games
    and board games. Other promising avenues include portable gaming,
    mobile gaming and online downloads of simple games. Many people enjoy
    gaming, but do not necessarily want to commit themselves to an epic
    quest that will take dozens of hours to complete.

    The industry, in short, is doing its best to broaden gaming's appeal,
    which is of course in its own best interests. For the time being,
    however, the demographic divide persists, and it does much to explain
    the polarisation of opinion over gaming and, in particular, worries
    about violence. It also provides the answer to a question that is
    often asked about gaming: when will it become a truly mainstream form
    of entertainment? It already is among the under-40s, but will probably
    never achieve mainstream status among older people.

    But aren't critics right to worry that gaming might make people
    violent? Hardly a week goes by in which a game is not blamed for
    inspiring someone to commit a violent crime. After all, say critics,
    acting out violent behaviour in a game is very different from
    passively watching it in a film. Yet surveys of studies into games and
    violence have produced inconclusive results, notes Dmitri Williams,
    who specialises in studying the social impact of media at the
    University of Illinois. And, in a paper on the subject published in
    June in Communication Monographs, he notes that such research
    typically has serious shortcomings.

    For example, studies have examined only the short-term effects of
    gaming. There have been no studies that track the long-term effects on
    the players themselves. Another problem, says Mr Williams, is that it
    is meaningless to generalise about "game play" when there are
    thousands of games in dozens of genres. It is, he notes, equivalent to
    suggesting that all television programmes, radio shows and movies are
    the same. Better-designed studies that measure the long-term effects
    of specific types of games are needed.

    They're beginning to happen. In his paper, Mr Williams describes the
    first such study, which he carried out with Marko Skoric of the
    University of Michigan. The study concentrated on a "massively
    multiplayer online role-playing game" (MMORPG) called "Asheron's Call
    2". This type of game requires the player to roam around a fantasy
    world and kill monsters to build up attribute points. It is
    "substantially more violent than the average video game and should
    have more effect, given the highly repetitive nature of the violence",
    the researchers noted.

    Two groups of subjects were recruited, none of whom had played MMORPGs
    before and many of whom had never played video games at all. One group
    then played the game for a month, for an average of nearly two hours
    per day. The other group acted as a control. All participants were
    asked questions about the frequency of aggressive social interactions
    (such as arguments with their spouses) during the course of the month
    to test the idea that gaming makes people more aggressive.

    Moral choices

    Game players, it turned out, were no more aggressive than the control
    group. Whether the participants had played games before, the number of
    hours spent gaming, and whether they liked violent movies or not, made
    no difference. The researchers noted, however, that more research is
    still needed to assess the impact of other genres, such as
    shoot-'em-ups or the urban violence of "Grand Theft Auto". All games
    are different, and only when more detailed studies have been carried
    out will it be possible to generalise about the impact of gaming.

    But as Steven Johnson, a cultural critic, points out in a recent book,
    "Everything Bad Is Good for You", gaming is now so widespread that if
    it did make people more violent, it ought to be obvious. Instead, he
    notes, in America violent crime actually fell sharply in the 1990s,
    just as the use of video and computer games was taking off (see chart
    2). Of course, it's possible that crime would have fallen by even more
    over the period had America not taken up video games; still, video
    gaming has clearly not turned America into a more violent place than
    it was.

    What's more, plenty of games, far from encouraging degeneracy, are
    morally complex, subtle and, very possibly, improving. Many now
    explicitly require players to choose whether to be good or evil, and
    their choices determine how the game they are playing develops.

    In "Black & White", for example, the player must groom a creature
    whose behaviour and form reflects his moral choices (get it wrong and
    the results can be ugly--see the illustration). Several games based on
    the "Star Wars" movies require players to choose between the light and
    dark sides of the Force, equivalent to good and evil. Perhaps most
    striking is the sequence in "Halo 2", a bestselling shoot-'em-up, in
    which the player must take the role of an alien. Having previously
    seen aliens as faceless enemies, notes Paul Jackson of Forrester, a
    consultancy, "suddenly you are asked to empathise with the enemy's
    position. It's very interesting. Games are much more complex than the
    critics realise."

    The move away from linear narratives to more complex games that allow
    players to make moral choices, argues Mr Prensky, means that games
    provide an opportunity to discuss moral questions. "These are
    wonderful examples for us to be discussing with our kids," he says.
    Indeed, perhaps the best way to address concerns over the effects of
    video games is to emphasise their vast potential to educate.

    Even games with no educational intent require players to learn a great
    deal. Games are complex, adaptive and force players to make a huge
    number of decisions. Gamers must construct hypotheses about the
    in-game world, learn its rules through trial and error, solve problems
    and puzzles, develop strategies and get help from other players via
    the internet when they get stuck. The problem-solving mechanic that
    underlies most games is like the 90% of an iceberg below the
    waterline--invisible to non-gamers. But look beneath the violent
    veneer of "Grand Theft Auto", and it is really no different from a
    swords-and-sorcery game. Instead of stealing a crystal and delivering
    it to a wizard so that he can cure the princess, say, you may have to
    intercept a consignment of drugs and deliver it to a gang boss so he
    can ransom a hostage. It is the pleasure of this problem-solving, not
    the superficial violence which sometimes accompanies it, that can make
    gaming such a satisfying experience.

    Nobody is using "Grand Theft Auto" in schools, of course, since it is
    intended for adults. But other off-the-shelf games such as "Sim City"
    or "Rollercoaster Tycoon", which contain model economies, are used in
    education. By playing them it is possible to understand how such
    models work, and to deduce what their biases are. (In "Sim City", for
    example, in which the player assumes the role of a city mayor, no
    amount of spending on health care is ever enough to satisfy patients,
    and the fastest route to prosperity is to cut taxes.)

    Games can be used in many other ways. Tim Rylands, a British teacher
    in a primary school near Bristol, recently won an award from Becta, a
    government education agency, for using computer games in the
    classroom. By projecting the fantasy world of "Myst", a role-playing
    game, on to a large screen and prompting his 11-year-old pupils to
    write descriptions and reactions as he navigates through it, he has
    achieved striking improvements in their English test scores.

    Another area where games are becoming more popular is in corporate
    training. In "Got Game", a book published last year by Harvard
    Business School Press, John Beck and Mitchell Wade, two management
    consultants, argue that gaming provides excellent training for a
    career in business. Gamers, they write, are skilled at multi-tasking,
    good at making decisions and evaluating risks, flexible in the face of
    change and inclined to treat setbacks as chances to try again. Firms
    that understand and exploit this, they argue, can gain a competitive

    Pilots have been trained using flight simulators for years, and
    simulators are now used by soldiers and surgeons too. But gaming can
    be used to train desk workers as well. Mr Prensky's firm has provided
    simple quiz games for such firms as IBM and Nokia, to test workers'
    knowledge of rules and regulations, for example. For Pfizer, a drug
    company, his firm built a simulation of its drug-development process
    that was then used to train new recruits. Other examples abound:
    PricewaterhouseCoopers built an elaborate simulation to teach novice
    auditors about financial derivatives. Some lawyers are using
    simulators to warm up for court appearances. Convincing older
    executives of the merits of using games in training can be tricky, Mr
    Prensky admits. "But when they have a serious strategic training
    problem, and realise that their own people are 20-year-olds, more and
    more are willing to take the leap," he says.

    So games are inherently good, not bad? Actually they are neither, like
    books, films, the internet, or any other medium. All can be used to
    depict sex and violence, or to educate and inform. Indeed, the
    inclusion of violent and sexual content in games is arguably a sign of
    the maturity of the medium, as games become more like films.

    Movies provide one analogy for the future of gaming, which seems
    destined to become a mainstream medium. Games already come in a
    variety of genres, and are rated for different age groups, just like
    movies. But just how far gaming still has to go is illustrated by the
    persistence of the double standard that applies different rules to
    games and films. Critics of gaming object to violence in games, even
    though it is common in movies. They worry about the industry's rating
    model, even though it is borrowed from the movie industry. They call
    upon big retailers (such as Wal-Mart) not to sell AO-rated games, but
    seem not to mind that they sell unrated movies that include far more
    explicit content.

    In June, Senator Charles Schumer held a press conference to draw
    attention to the M-rated game "25 to Life", in which players take the
    role of a policeman or a gangster. "Little Johnny should be learning
    how to read, not how to kill cops," he declared. True, but little
    Johnny should not be smoking, drinking alcohol or watching Quentin
    Tarantino movies either. Just as there are rules to try to keep these
    things out of little Johnny's hands, there are rules for video games
    too. Political opportunism is part of the explanation for this double
    standard: many of gaming's critics in America are Democrats playing to
    the centre.

    Another analogy can be made between games and music--specifically,
    with the emergence of rock and roll in the 1950s. Like games today, it
    was a new art form that was condemned for encouraging bad behaviour
    among young people. Some records were banned from the radio, and
    others had their lyrics changed. Politicians called for laws banning
    the sending of offending records by post. But now the post-war
    generation has grown up, rock and roll is considered to be harmless.
    Rap music, or gaming, is under attack instead. "There's always this
    pattern," says Mr Williams of the University of Illinois. "Old stuff
    is respected, and new stuff is junk." Novels, he points out, were once
    considered too lowbrow to be studied at university. Eventually the
    professors who believed this retired. Novels are now regarded as
    literature. "Once a generation has its perception, it is pretty much
    set," says Mr Williams. "What happens is that they die."

    Like rock and roll in the 1950s, games have been accepted by the young
    and largely rejected by the old. Once the young are old, and the old
    are dead, games will be regarded as just another medium and the debate
    will have moved on. Critics of gaming do not just have the facts
    against them; they have history against them, too. "Thirty years from
    now, we'll be arguing about holograms, or something," says Mr

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