Current Affairs in Video Game Culture

Video games affect players, just like everything else in their lives affect them. Any game that you play is part of your environment.

Just as with all other psychological inquiries though, just *how* video games affect players isn’t understood, nor will probably ever be.

Its not a good idea to listen to the media outside of experts who usually don’t make the mainstream press. Its also not a good idea to listen to reactionary players and player-groups that care more about defending gamers than about truth. You’re better off examining yourself and the games you play and come to your own conclusions.

Developers and publishers are inclined to make violent games because violence is an easy way to establish game dynamics. Its an easy way to create drama for games with narrative, its an easy way to set goals and accomplishments. Unlike a conversation where the effect you have is not understood and is largely internal, violence produces visible injury and death… its a very *objective* procedure. Corpses aren’t exactly *subtle* or open to debate.

Violence is also *universal*. You don’t have to worry about a segment of the player population not understanding it.

Also, media types and culture in general feed each other. So, for example, if Hollywood sensationalizes violence that will have a positive impact on developers putting violence into games.

99% of the time violence in games is a form of convenience and laziness for developers. Its a “necessary evil” of game design.

In terms of the effect it has on players, that depends mostly on what the player brings to the table. If players think of gaming as “sinful” lets say, they may be inclined to “sin” in traditional reality using the game as an excuse, especially if it gets more socially acceptable to treat games as a cause for violence. Or lets say you’re thinking of killing a bunch of people in a shootout. You might watch “Reservoir Dogs” or play “Counterstrike” to get you in the mood and to share your feelings.

Other things are going on as well. The line between gaming and traditional reality is becoming blurred. Or I should say, culture *wants* that line to become blurred, since it sees gaming as “alternate reality” that just as any other form of art *should* affect reality. A developer can create *his* vision of a world, can populate it with creatures of high AI, and cool things that we can learn from can happen. Game effect so far has largely been aesthetic and narrative-driven, but advances in AI will change that, allowing for truly memorable experience that will affect traditional reality’s culture.

Its exciting to see culture grant games power when at the moment they have very little. What will culture think of games when they really *do* have massive impact on society? I suppose that depends on the impact.

Developers may not like this, but they’ll have little choice. They need to start taking their jobs more seriously. They need to see what they do as not trying to minimize the effect on the player, but to *maximize* it. They need to stop treating their games as “mindless fun” and embrace the effort to have a positive impact on culture THROUGH their games.

Games should still have a wide range of impact: there will always be a place for mindless fun. But society is demanding and developers must provide games of cultural significance.

Within that demand there can be a wide range. Deus Ex for example is a very fun and also culturally powerful game. Violence in no way harms the game, it is a necessary part of the narrative and gameplay.

Some people say that “the industry” shouldn’t care about this and that universities and research institutions should have the responsibility of making games of cultural significance. These people are basically selfish and don’t want developers to lose sight of the profit motivation.

That concept *can* work, but the problem is that the best developers are IN the industry… so unless that changes you can’t shift the responsibility since at the moment universities simply can’t produce at the level they need to to succeed.

The film industry succeeds in making both “big picture” films that largely serve the profit motive and “art” films that serve filmmaker interest and culture. One of the major reasons why this succeeds is that filmgoers KNOW they are seeing art when they go to a smart, capable film. Just as when you go to an art museum you know you’re going to see art.

Games at the moment have no dividing line. There’s an attempt to *create* a dividing line with “indie” games versus “AAA” games. The problem is that “indie” games are not about art: they are about having a small budget and trying to do something different. You can never make the assumption that a game you are buying is artistic unless somebody else has told you so. This greatly injures the market value of art within games, since games aren’t able or willing to express themselves as such in advertising or marketing.

Game developers, unlike filmmakers, simply don’t CARE about creating art within the game. Many *do* create art, but unlike other artistic mediums its rarely a main focus.

Lets look at Deus Ex again. That game is artistic on several levels. The tone throughout is dark, paranoid, and repressive. This works both in consistency and because it fits the game world excellently. The narrative is logical and “deep”: everyone is on the same page and events build off and around each other. The narrative is interesting and expresses modern culture.

Serious filmmakers might like their viewers to have fun at their film, but its rarely a main focus. They want to make a great movie, one that teaches viewers something about themselves. Note that great films are great *because* of their artistic content, not in spite of it. Games work the same way. Eventually developers will grow up and learn that. Lets hope we don’t have to wait another decade.

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2 Responses to “Current Affairs in Video Game Culture”

  1. Samuel L. Says:

    After reading through the article, I feel that I need more info. Could you suggest some more resources please?

  2. briankoontz Says:

    I don’t know of anyone who has done a serious evaluation of the effects of the culture of gaming on society.

    The movie War Games is helpful. The main character “games” everything, from hacking into the school’s computer to manipulating his parents, going so far as tossing around a yo-yo in front of them to act childish and innocent while he lies to them. This movie can be watched on Google Video here – http://video.google.com/videosearch?q=wargames+(1983)+part+1&emb=0&aq=f#

    From the player’s perspective games are about having control over an artificial setting. Gaming culture therefore may lend itself toward control and domination of the environment in general.

    The biggest obvious negative impact of gaming is the same negative impact found in TV watching or other forms of “entertainment” – it has little relationship to traditional reality. Games are works of art, but very few people spend 50 hours staring at the Mona Lisa. Some people spend thousands of hours playing World of Warcraft.

    Even if this had no direct negative impact, there’s a massive lost opportunity since the player doesn’t live in traditional reality for those thousands of hours. It’s wasted time which accumulates into a wasted life.

    The common objection to this is for the player to read off a checklist, which goes something like this:

    Girlfriend/Wife: X
    Job: X
    Some friends: X
    Some other hobbies: X

    All of this might be just fine if we were living in a very different world. The one we are actually living in includes massive social isolation and alienation (in part caused by the very video games we are talking about), widespread poverty and disease, global warming and nuclear weapons which threaten the existence of life on earth, harmful elite sectors, surveillance of entire societies, slavery, imperialism, and numerous other major problems. So for a person to consider his life satisfactory based on a meager checklist is the equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns. Which wouldn’t be quite so bad, except now it’s the whole world that’s burning.

    It’s no coincidence that gamers are some of the least political people on the planet. Understanding politics forces one to understand the world, which is the last thing gamers want to do. To gamers, it’s not gaming that’s a distraction from the world, it’s the world that’s a distraction from gaming. So while some people might turn off the TV switch, gamers turn off the world switch. The world suffers for it.

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