In the last few weeks, Arts and Letters Daily has posted links to two significant articles about video games. As per ALDaily’s mantra, they are both contrarian, in this case meaning that they are dedicated to “exposing errors” in anti-video game sentiments. And they’re both wrong.
The first and better of the pair is Tom Chatfield’s Prospect piece, “Rage Against The Machines.” The writing strides along with measured eloquence (Chatfieldeven takes another author to task for muddying her critique of gaming with her lackluster prose), and his anecdotes are certainly entertaining, at least.
Two things jumped out at me. First was this: “Worldwide, [Grand Theft Auto IV] grossed sales of over $500m in its first week, outperforming every other entertainment release in history, including the Harry Potter books and Pirates of the Caribbean films.” Excuse me? How did this not cross my radar? Such a staggering record deserves to have its every molecule closely scrutinized, and nothing of the sort is happening. Those 18th and 19th century gentlemen may have been ignorant by our standards when they earnestly debated “the woman question,” “the Negro question,” or “the Mormon problem,” but at least they had national conversations about major, paradigm-shifting transformations in the fabric of their society. The closest we come to that today is voting on American Idol.
Much of the second half of the article is of superior quality because it attempts to assess the artistic value of video games. Chatfield surveys the market and finds that there are glimmers of hope that this medium may become truly artistic, not just in terms of visual design, but of narrative depth and complexity. I’m skeptical, though. While his evaluation of the video game industry’s artistic appeal is honest, his enthusiastic optimism smacks of wishful thinking, an eagerness to please, a desire to fill a vacuum. Though my experiences are definitely years out of date, it seems obvious that the narrative conventions of video games still rely heavily on preprogrammed cinematic scenes which function as a kind of deus ex machina.
Chatfield’s essay is worth reading because he asks tough questions, even if his answers are scant and vague (so as not to offend the massive lobbying base of Big Gaming, I suppose; it doesn’t do to alienate one’s readership, after all). For example, my jaw literally dropped when he casually threw out this tidbit as a token effort at balancing the argument, and then skipped right along as if nothing had happened: “While there are no agreed-upon statistics, a recent study at Stanford University suggests that men are more likely than women to respond compulsively to games, while a 2007 poll of 1,178 US children and teenagers concluded that 8.5 per cent of youth gamers (aged 8 to 18) could be classified as pathological or clinically “addicted” to playing video games.”
Did I read that correctly? Nearly ten percent of American youth who play video games (and that’s a pretty sizable percentage of the whole) could be addicted? Where are the outraged protests? Where are the charities and media campaigns for “awareness”? How can such a pandemic be dismissed with nary a whiff of rueful rumination?
Still, Chatfield’s piece far excels what I read this morning: Bill Blake’s unadulterated love letter to GTA in The Chronicle of Higher Education (!), “Go Ahead, Steal My Car.” For Blake, there are no shades of gray. Anyone who suggests that video games might have any negative consequences for society is worse than a drooling Nazi Puritan troll.
He insists that “The idea that video games and explicit media content are a threat to society is demonstrably false. Whatever evidence there might be that violent media content causes violent behavior, or that graphic sexual content stimulates unhealthy sexual behavior, there is a simple test that invariably proves otherwise.” He fails to debunk any of this evidence; he doesn’t even have the integirty to address it. And, as you’ll see briefly, his “simple test” does not put to rest the mountain of research that contradicts his fun.
Last Autumn, a detective from our police department’s gang unit came to do a training at my school. His decades of experience in the field (he’s a nationally recognized expert and much sought-after speaker) had led him to conclude that violence in the media does promote violence in actual youth. (Duh. Blake seems to think that the saying “monkey see, monkey do” materialized out of thin air.) At our presentation, he suggested that we all read Stop Teaching Our Kids To Kill: A Call To Action Against TV, Movie, And Video Game Violence. The authors cite numerous reliable studies that firmly establish violent media’s pervasive damage.
Perhaps Blake is unfamiliar with, for example, the “Joint Statement On The Impact Of Entertainment Violence On Children” made to Congress in 2000 by the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychiatric Association, and American Psychological Association, among others.
Blake tries to establish his pro-GTA thesis with a laughably facetious hypothetical situation: play the game and then see if you steal a car. Here’s where his thinking gets so self-nullifying that one wonders why he even bothered. First, he spends seven paragraphs developing and lauding this little idea before he reverses and admits, “But no doubt you’re already prepared to question the conclusions of the test because you realize that proving you aren’t susceptible to such media effects isn’t the same as proving that other people won’t be.”
So now that he’s completely negated the meaning of a substantial portion of his writing, he turns around and stabs that new assertion in the back: “You sound like a racist. You sound like a sexist. You sound like a paternalistic bigot.” Wow, Bill, like I said, not too many shades of gray in your world, are there? The bald falsity of this argument is obvious: nobody claims to be “immune” to media effects because of their race or gender (or implies that anyone else is susceptible because of theirs). However, mental and social development, as well as any number of community norms, do form the kinds of character that either do or don’t allow the media to have too much sway over people’s lives. Denying that is a pretty cheap cop out from having a real discussion.
Blake ends his narcissistic tirade with a plea to approach video games with the tools of literary criticism, not “media effects.” There’s a red herring if I ever saw one. His two references to the furor over Joyce’s Ulysses are about as appropriate as trying to exonerate Paris Hilton’s behavior because, you know, Hester Prynne was a bit too much put upon.
The moral of the story: just because something is contrarian doesn’t mean it’s right. Sometimes the conventional wisdom–in this case, that video games have a significant harmful effect on our society, especially our youth;a trend that we are largely ignoring–is dead on. Alas, perilously so.
Several years ago, I and some colleagues had a conference with a mother whose son was having trouble in school, partly because he played eight to ten hours of video games a day and had trouble sleeping at night because, when he closed his eyes, all he could imagine were the violent images of the games he’d played that day. We all implored the mother to take his games away. She looked deep in thought for a minute, then told us that she had spent $300 on those games, and didn’t want to waste them.
Like millions of others who grew up in the 80’s, I had a Nintendo. I had a few other systems as the 90’s waxed strong. By the time I was in high school, however, my habits had become detrimental to any kind of social or academic success. I can’t believe how lucky I was to be able to take those machines to a local store and sell them and never look back.
So should everybody who owns video games get rid of them? Are all gamers a bunch of zombies with mush for brains? No, of course not. But given the obvious information we now have, our lack of concern and control regarding what could be a simple pastime is alarming. Three or four hours a week is a hobby; ten hours–or more–is a raging addiction. Video games are not inherently evil, but quality and moderation have gone the way of the dodo when they’re needed now more than ever.