Anybody who’s followed my blog probably knows that I’m a big fan of video games, with them being one of the primary ways I spend my free time. Now, there’s a lot of different thoughts and ideas floating around out there about video games and how they relate to us.
Here are five of those thoughts that I disagree with.
5. Violent games are corrupting our youth
This is something I heard a lot when I was growing up. Violent video games were desensitizing kids and making them more prone to commit violent acts. And considering the brutal nature of games like Mortal Kombat (which made a name for itself solely on how gory and violent it was), the idea made a certain kind of sense. So why do I disagree with it? Two main reasons:
- Television shows and movies have plenty of violence, yet they don’t get nearly as much criticism.
- There is no scientific study or literature that conclusively shows that playing violent games leads to a higher chance of committing violent acts.
In regards to the first one, I understand that one of the primary concerns with video games is the interactive nature of it. Instead of passively watching the main character shoot a few dozen dudes, you are actively participating. But like I said with point number two, no study has ever proven anything beyond the fact that playing video games may lead to increased aggression.
The other main issue with scientific studies into violent games is that many of them are flawed. I remember reading about a study that took place while I was in high school (around 2005 or so I believe). Basically they had two groups of people, one playing Wolfenstein 3D and another playing Myst. After about an hour or so of playtime, they brought these two groups together and gave them air horns. What they found was that the group that played Wolfenstein 3D would honk the air horn for longer periods of time than the people who played Myst would.
I think you can already spot some of the flaws here. This study took place in roughly 2005, which means that at that time, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas had already been released the year before. And even if the study took place before it, there were other Grand Theft Auto games they could have used. So then, why did they choose two games that were released a decade earlier in the 1990’s?
The other issue is the air horns. Using an air horn does not translate to intent to commit violent acts. Now, you can’t take a group of people and hand them guns (because that would be really REALLY bad), but air horns do not strike me as a good metaphor for increased aggression.
And this is the problem with most studies into the subject. They don’t have a good way of interpreting the effects of games because they usually study subjects in a one-off manner, having them play a game and then seeing how they act immediately after. It doesn’t take into account other factors that could contribute to this alleged aggression increase.
Besides, the juvenile crime rate in the 1990’s was on the decline, which is the same decade that video games began their rise to prominence. So there’s no solid evidence to support the idea that violent games cause more real life violence.
4. Video games are mindless entertainment
This is another one I heard when I was growing up. And while it is true for certain games (the Call of Duty franchise comes to mind), there are plenty of games out there that are more than just “mindless”.
Myst is one of the games I had growing up that was anything but mindless. There were no enemies to fight. All you had were your wits to solve the many puzzles laid around the island and uncover more of its secrets. In fact, I remember my brother actually had a notebook journal dedicated to writing down clues for the game. But Myst is not the only game that serves as a counter to the mindless argument.
Spec Ops: The Line is a game I have yet to play, but one that I want to get around to at some point. It’s a game about a soldier who goes to a far off country to deal with what seems like a normal mission. But when he gets there, things start going Apocalypse Now, with the main character’s sanity slowly degrading throughout the story. The game is supposed to feature some of the most interesting and complex moral choices of any game ever. For example, there’s one scene where you’re tasked with shooting someone who’s running away. Now the two choices are clear: shoot him or don’t. But apparently, there’s a third choice to be made in there. You can shoot at the person but miss on purpose, making it look like you were fulfilling your orders but allowing the man to live. And the game doesn’t tell you that this exists. You just find that out on your own.
There’s also Journey, a game where you play as a nameless, faceless figure wandering a surreal desert landscape. But it’s more than just that. Journey is also a bit of a social experiment in that as you wander through the game, occasionally another player will be inserted into your game. You can’t talk to each other or communicate (aside from gestures I believe), and you can’t identify each other either. You can only make the decision to work together or ignore each other.
There’s also Papa & Yo, a game about a boy and his monster friend which was an allegory for the creator’s experience with an alcoholic, abusive father. There’s Neverending Nightmares, a psychological horror game in which the creator drew upon his own personal experiences with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder to replicate a sense of bleakness in the game similar to what he felt in real life. And there’s Gone Home, a game about a girl returning home and discovering all that has happened with her family in the year she’s been studying abroad.
So no, games are not just mindless entertainment. They have plenty of potential to talk about complex and difficult subjects.
3. Games aren’t stories
This is one I ran into fairly recently, and is what inspired me to write this post. It comes from a Cracked.com article entitled “4 Things Gamers Think Are Important (But Aren’t)”. In the article, the writer talks about people who play games have come to expect movie-quality stories from their games.
From the article:
“The reason video games don’t have great stories is that they’re games. Games are different from stories. The first goal of a video game is always to be fun, but somewhere along the line, we decided that the only way to have games be taken seriously is to give them Serious Stories. So we decided to splice in cutscenes — whole chunks of the game in which instead of “playing,” we’re watching a CGI movie. This is the equivalent of playing chess with your friends, but taking five minutes before your turn to explain the motivation of your rook, and the tragic injury in his youth that prevents him from moving diagonally.”
Now, I get what he’s saying here. Often the gameplay and the story of a video game can feel like they’re in separate worlds. When the story world appears, control is usually taken away from the player as they watch a small movie within the game. It creates this disconnect that sometimes hampers the experience of the game overall. But while the author complains that calling the stories of games “stories” is simplistic, reductive thinking, I would argue that his reasoning is simplistic as well.
It is certainly true that many games with quote unquote “deep stories” tend to have their story sections get in the way of playing the game, but there are plenty of other ways games can tell a story. For example, when two people who play games talk to each other, you’ll sometimes get these stories that start with “well this one time I was playing (insert game here) and this totally crazy thing happened”. This is something fundamentally unique to the video game medium. You don’t read a book and have some totally unexpected thing happen that didn’t happen to anyone else reading the book. But in a video game, there is the potential to create events and stories that even the people making the game might not see coming.
I talked about a game called Salt in a recent post, and I think that serves as a good example of this. Salt is all about the player’s journey. There’s very little overarching story created by the developers (although that could change as it is still in development). In the post I made a joke about how you could use the game’s journal feature to write a diary of a man going slowly insane. But isn’t it cool that you are even allowed to do that? You can literally tell your own story within the game, because it’s all about the things you discover and experience. And considering that the world is procedurally generated, no two player’s experiences will be exactly the same. They won’t discover the exact same island as each other (well, until they add multiplayer that is).
In short, games have story possibilities that no other medium has to date.
2. PC/Console gaming is superior
Oh boy, haven’t I heard this one more times than I can count. In much the same way as rival sports teams have fans that will incessantly fight each other over which team is better, video games have fans of formats that will fight each other over which is superior.
Let me get something out of the way. For most of my life, I have been a console gamer (meaning that I played on things like the Super Nintendo, PlayStation, and so on). It’s what I grew up with, not to mention the fact that I prefer sitting back with a controller to being hunched over a keyboard and mouse. Yes, I understand that keyboard and mouse is more precise. Yes, I understand that PC games have better graphics than console games. I just don’t care.
Now, I will admit that for the last few years I have used my desktop computer to play games far more often than I have consoles. I bought an Xbox One a couple of years ago, but I barely use it these days. There just aren’t enough interesting games coming out for it, not to mention that I can get more games for cheaper prices on my computer. But in the end, I will always prefer the feel of a controller over the feel of a keyboard and mouse. It’s just more relaxing to me.
Besides, isn’t personal preference what it all comes down to in the end? Why are we gamers constantly fighting over this nonsense? Just play what you want to play and be happy with that. Arguing over which format is better just sounds pretentious.
And speaking of pretentious…
1. Games are/aren’t art
If you ask Google to define art, this is what you get:
“The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
Do you see what the issue with this definition is? It’s too nebulous. It doesn’t have a clear definition for what can and can’t be considered art.
And that’s exactly the point.
Look, this might sound funny coming from someone who wants to write books, but I don’t care if video games are art or not. It doesn’t matter to me. Because regardless of everything else, I consider games to be a form of expression, art or not. And besides, hasn’t it always been said that art is in the eye of the beholder?
Do you consider games to be art? Good for you.
Do you consider games to not be art? That’s fine too. In a way, you’re both right.
To me, art has always been a matter of perspective. The definition from Google talks about how art is appreciated for its beauty and emotional power, but these two things are incredibly subjective. I can’t hold up a painting and say “this painting has emotional power” because for some people it might not have that power. To some people it might seem boring or uninspired. To others, it might even be deemed offensive or insulting. The fact of the matter is that whenever I look at something I am seeing it through my own eyes, through my own experience. And while I play Gone Home and see it as a touching, emotional experience, others play the game and see it as boring and stupid.
Trying to nail art down to a concrete, scientific definition ignores one of the fundamentally great things about being human: we are all different in our own unique ways. We all have our own perspectives, our own experiences. And we use these things to shape our own unique path through life, our own unique story.
Thanks for reading! Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.
You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.