Alien Shaman drew our attention recently to a lecture hosted by three professors of the University of Madison-Wisconsin. The lectures revolved around the increasing value of video games to teach problem solving skills and create an environment where learning occurs at an accelerated rate.
I agree wholeheartedly with several of the WTN article's points:
"Video games let their players step into new personas and explore alternatives. Not only that, but people can try to solve problems they’re not good at yet, get immediate feedback on the consequences and try again immediately."
"Because games keep things “pleasantly frustrating,” Gee said, players have incentives to keep on improving their performance. That can lead to learning outside the game as well."
"Games also let players be producers rather than just consumers. Many recent games allow “modding,” the insertion of new plot-lines, graphics and characters, or even the creation of entirely new games."
I have had similar experiences. Alien Shaman attributes part of his success in the IT field to the need to learn a broad range of skills in order to keep up with the leading video games. I fall neatly into the same category - because IT stuff is so complex, I had to develop a lot of skills on my own and there are a lot of rewards along the way (newer and better games) that kept me going. Video games have real value in teaching a number of important life skills (just as team sports do in a variety of ways).
But then there is the dark side. Specifically, I worry about the indulgent side of the video game industry. By this I mean the following chain: since the video game market is wholly market-driven, and the market is driven by gratification (at least in our culture), then I worry what games are going to do to gratify their audience.
To be fair, the WTN article exclusively lists games that fit neatly into its productive purpose. It lists Halo, Half-Life, Lineage, Age of Mythology, America's Army, and others. Especially with respect to America's Army and Biohazard, they are referring to these games' function in a training role for real world activities (team military operations and firefighting, respectively). I have a hard time finding fault with games like these and most of what the article says about them (and what Alien Shaman celebrates about them) is true and praiseworthy.
And while I am hardly in the camp of ban-all-violent-games (I love Halo, Neverwinter Nights, Dungeon Siege, Battlefront, and others), there does seem to be something unhealthy about a 10 year-old playing six hours a day of the new Punisher game as a gratification of his very male aggressive impulses.
I also realize that games have content advisory stuff, but I have never actually met a 12 year old that hasn't had the "mature" games stacked next to Tetris and Mario. No doubt a game store employee is going to think twice about selling the new Playboy game to a 10 year old, but what about a 16 year old? Is there any reason to think there is any way of keeping it out of their hands? Are we a society that no longer thinks that is important or necessary?
Not mentioned in the WTN article are games like Grand Theft Auto, Leisure Suit Larry, Punisher, Doom3, or Playboy. Even seemingly innocuous games like the popular Sims games and some of the Star Wars games have some paths you can take to indulge your "dark side" impulses.
I just don't know what to think about all this. It is true that interactive systems like the ones discussed during the lecture have far-reaching and positive potential for training, education, and entertainment. But the video game industry is driven by gratification. It is thriving in a culture with an ever-diminishing ability to distinguish between healthy and harmful pursuits. What effect does increasingly unlimited indulgence in aggression (Punisher) and sexuality (Leisure Suit Larry) have? They are only games. I am not ready to make a logical and necessary connection between real world behavior and video game behavior.
But is it still possible to say there are no negative effects on the human heart when a gamer repeatedly presses "B" to slam the face of a drug pusher into the pavement over and over to achieve a plot point goal, all in the name of entertainment?