Common Thread

As I've said on a few previous Round Table entry comments, I find the "Video Games cause violent crime" discussion hilarious. Not good hilarious, like "laugh and squirm like an itchy bear cub" hilarious.

The argument is invariably based on some sort of a vague hunch that the entire world is going to hell in a handbasket, and that video games and violent crime are just one of the symptoms. Violent crime is down, people. Way down. I'm not going to argue that violent video games cause a decrease in violent crime, but it's hard to argue that they cause an increase, when there's no actual increase to be observed. The subject needs no futher discussion.

Likewise, I've never really put much stock in the "getting your ya-yas out" argument, which suggests that video games actually do reduce violent crime, because they provide outlets for people who would otherwise be likely to engage in violent behavior. Violent crime has been on a steady decline since the 70s, I beleive, with no marked change that can be linked to the popularity of video games. That subject needs no further discussion either.

So what do video games teach us? They teach us pattern recognition, they teach us hand/eye coordination, they teach us faster reflexes, they teach forethought (in the same way that chess does), but to assume that any of these skills are easily applicable in real life is taking, I think, a very large, not necessarily intuitive step. Unless I repair watches, or compete in some sort of speed-knitting Olympic event, my hand/eye coordination will probably not be tested very often beyond the "functioning member of society" level. And while being good at Advance Wars might make me a better Chess player, I hardly think that being good at Chess counts as a "Socially Responsible Lesson", to quote this month's Round Table description.

To make a long story not in any notable way shorter: Do video games teach socially responsible lessons? Yes. Is there any reason, inherent to the medium, why they can't? No. Do they make it a habit to do so? No.

So what "Socially Responsible Lessons" have I learned from games? Sadly, the kinds of things that I would say I've learned are the easiest to verbalize. I consider myself entertained and edified after watching "Rebecca", but did the movie teach me a socially responsible lesson? That's harder to prove. Likewise, I enjoyed playing Portal, and because I have, I now have a shared pool of experience to draw from with virtually everyone else on the internet, but is that really a socially responsible lesson?

Barring Edu-tainment (which I'm totally in favor of), I think this is the most socially responsible lesson that games can teach us. By giving our generation a sense of shared context, games provide identity, ease communication, and build a foundation for all further creative interactions.

Wow, that's a tall order. Let me say it again. By giving our generation a sense of shared context, games provide identity, ease communication, and build a foundation for all further creative interactions. Games aren't really special in this regard, I just happen to believe that they join the illustrious ranks of Books, Movies, Music, Television, and any other creative endeavour.

The first two items on that thesis statement can be granted as common sense. If I read a joke about "The Cake is a Lie" on the SomethingAwful forums, I need to have played Portal to get the joke, and if I'm meeting someone for the first time, and I find out he/she is a big fan of Smash Bros, there's an instant comraderie there.

Regarding the concept of building a foundation for further creative endeavours, who can doubt that the creative gamer minds of my age (early 20s) that are now making it into the working world were impacted by Aeris's death, the search for the way to recruit General Leo into your party, and the sheer tenacity of the little guy from Frogger. In as much as games can tell stories (and probably even farther), they contribute to my generation's shared context, which is a particularly valuable lesson, I'd say.


Natalie said...

I've always thought that one of the most socially responsible things video games can do is to reinforce socially responsible messages by making those messages a theme, core fantasy, or both. One of the messages I took away from Bioshock, as you know, is that violence is messy and bad but sometimes the right answer. I'd say that's a pretty socially responsible message (especially when you pair it with the message that mercy is rewarded in the end, as Bioshock does).

I agree with you that video games don't generally try to teach "socially responsible" lessons, but I do think they generally try to teach artistically responsible lessons. Pretty much all Blizzard games try to teach the lesson that the ends never justify the means. Is that socially responsible? I suppose. But I get the distinct impression Blizzard cares a lot more about whether that lesson makes you feel something genuine. Max Payne 2 teaches the lesson that love conquers all. Socially responsible? That's debatable. But it's certainly a valid lesson for an artist to put out there.

Incidentally, on the topic of what video games "teach" us in terms of skills or mental development, Lara David lent me a very interesting book she read as part of her education MA entitled What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, by James Paul Gee. The author's basic premise is that successful video games (financially successful) take advantage of many sound principles of learning that are ignored in the modern classroom. His ultimate call to action is for educators to present their message with a more informed view of how people actually learn, but the book also makes out a decent case for the proposition that video games provide valuable forms of mental exercise that do enhance one's general mental performance in ways that are unlikely to be exercised or practiced elsewhere. I've still got the book, if you want to borrow it (though we should probably ask Lara first).

Corvus said...

I think that shared context is a valuable benefit of video games, but so is drinking the right soft drink, listening to the right pop music and wearing the right jeans.

For that matter, so does reading Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and the religious source text of your culture. The added benefit to these activities is that you can share a context with multiple generations and gain a clearer understanding of much of the other media that surround us.

The risk, I feel, is that video games often seem to be aimed at catching the marketability of the former, without containing the even a small portion of the substance of the latter.

Natalie said...


Is that risk you see different from non-video game aspects of pop culture? Or would you say that generation-specific pop culture has the same risk?

Corvus said...

I'm actually going to peel your question into two parts, Natalie.

1) Yeah, it's a concern about most pop-culture. It tends to rely upon cultural norms and stereotypes without providing meaningful perspective. However, I recognize the irony in saying that as Shakespeare, Dickens, and (dare I say) religious texts were the pop culture of their day. Of course, they were pretty substantive by today's mass produced disposable pop culture.

2) I think games are a more potentially transformative experience than most other pop culture media and I think they have the power to reach greater heights (or depths, if you will). The fact that they are being driven and defined by big business is actively hampering their development as a meaningful medium and I find that disappointing.

William said...

Unfortunately, I'm not even sure that games "generally" try to teach artistically responsible lessons. Blizzard has a decent track record, Max Payne 2 was clearly an artsy game, but most? I'm not so sure.

Also, I'll be sure to look into that book, especially since I'll be seeing the both of you (hopefully) soon.

I think there's some overlap here, actually, with the idea of a core fantasy. Something is able to give us shared context because it has a message associated with it larger than the thing itself. If I happen to be wearing the same jeans as you, we might have a little bit to talk about, but there's no real connection there until the jeans mean something, or the soda, or the game.

I strongly agree with you that games have the potential to be a more transformative experience than other mediums to this point, and that no one has really nabbed the holy grail of how to be that effective.

This jury is still out in my case as to whether big business driving the medium is actively hampering its development (as opposed to being the next step of evolution before we can all agree to buckle down and talk about the emotional aspect of gaming). Maybe that just means I haven't been in the industry long enough. =P

orange-fell said...

I don't think people are arguing that video games are causing an *increase* in violent crime, because like you said, that's just ignoring the facts. I also don't believe that myself. But what do you say to the hypothesis that violent video games may instill a pattern of seeing people as scores or kills? First-person shooters are used as some kind of training in US armed forces, and I have seen it cited that this sort of "virtual reality" dramatically decreases soldiers' hesitation to fire their real weapons in training. Is it really so hilarious to propose that the same sort of desensitization might also be occurring to civilians? Thoughts?

Your final thesis is very true and is also total proof that the geeks and nerds have won the day. When we were babies in the 80s, you could never have said that video games were a way of sharing context or identity with large numbers of people, or that they were going to attract the creative minds of the future. Now even as a non-gamer, I can see that all of those things have happened. Yay Generation Y, or whatever we are.

orange-fell said...

Oh, also, I know why the Cake is a Lie, but I never heard of Aeris or General Leo.

You may delete this comment if this admission is too shocking for your eyes. ;)

William said...

Actually, I find the comment fascinating. General Leo is a little more obscure than Aeris, but I find it interesting that Portal has made the jump into the conciousness of the internet literate non-gamer, probably just because of the sheer saturation level it achieved.

Regarding de-sensitization, I think it's very possible, but the sticky question becomes how far you can extend it. Suppose that playing an FPS makes me less hesitant to fire a gun. Does it make me more likely to purchase a gun? Or use it inappropriately as a problem solving device? None of these additional facts are self-evident, I say. (Which doesn't mean they're untrue). All in all, beats the hell outta me...

Natalie said...

I agree with Orange-Fell that desensitization isn't a hilarious thought, but I also think it's less than obvious. An Army recruit using a semi-VR setup built and used with the express purpose of teaching him how to get over his instincts about a combat situation is not an obvious analogue to a completely non-VR setup built and used with the express purpose of entertainment. At least it isn't obvious to me.

That doesn't mean that they aren't analogues, but you'd have to do more than point to the two systems and say, "Hey, look, they both use monitors!" There's also the question of how effective the Army has found such setups, as opposed to more traditional systems like MILES that involve holding an actual weapon and moving your actual body. I don't know how effective the Army "video game" systems are, but if I recall one of its main selling points is it's they're cheap.

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