Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The $20B Video Game Industry: Pros and cons of market-driven interactive entertainment

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?

I wonder.


Alien Shaman said...

Interesting points Jason.

With regard to indulging the "evil" side of things, the game that sticks out most in my mind is Fable. In this game a person has to decide if they will be good or evil, and their actions dictate how people around them react.

I chose to play a "good" character because I felt it would be more challenging. It is very easy to run around and kill everyone in a "virtual world," it is much more challenging to decide which characters should live and which ones shouldn't.

As we generate more realistic virtual worlds, our ability to live out more extreme sadism will grow as well. Some will argue this is a healthy place to "experience" (I inititally had written "live out") fantasy and another side of your life. Others will speak to this as being a gateway to reality.

Thankfully, as least in the game Fable, the creator Peter Molyneux, limited the ability to do evil. In this article, Peter speaks to how he had allowed so much freedom that an evil character could kill all of the children in a school yard. He then changed the game to stop this. How long will it be before the FPS "High School Shooter" actually becomes a real video game, or more rebellious developers come out with even more extreme/open ended/realistic games?

Another direction to take this thought... How different is a video game from a Dungeon Master running a Chaotic Evil character campaign? Essentially video games are just providing an easier interface to "virtual worlds" that many of us have spent time with in our minds through various paper and dice RPGs.

As cliche as it may be, parents need to be involved with their children and have an idea of what they are up to. They also need to instill a strong sense of right and wrong, among other things. By doing this, the parent allows the child/young adult/husband, to recognize what is tolerable and acceptable. When exposure to the more violent and realistic realms become available to an individual, he/she will decide to not partake in such things. Thus, as a market driven society, demand will not be there for such products.

It is just like the Southpark Wal-Mart episode so eloquently points out, until consumers stop creating markets, a market will exist and it will be exploited whether right or wrong.

ted said...

I cannot agree more with the parents being the one to take responsibility of what their children are exposed to. You, as a parent, have a great deal of input as to what your child is exposed to for the first four or five years of their lives. In this time you MUST take the time and expend the effort to make sure your child knows right from wrong. I think parents need to know their child well enough to make the decision of wether or not certain inputs (movies, games, music, friends) are detrimental to your child's development. I cannot believe that people actually think that it is the responsibility of the goob behind the counter at Best Buy to make sure your kid is not buying something he/she is not supposed to. Here's a question, why the hell is your kid at Best Buy spending money without you knowing about it? Where did he get the money? How did he get to Best Buy? We as a society, and more specifically we as fathers, are turning out our children to make decisions we have not equipped them to make and then sit back and wonder why we are so disappointed in our children. I really enjoy FPS games. I really enjoy terribly violent movies where guys mess each other up. And I, as a gainfully (give or take) employed white male, actually think that Eminem has something to say that should be listened to. But I do not think that these things are appropriate for children. We don't let kids less than 15 drive a car. We don't let kids less than 18 vote, or buy long guns, or lottery tickets or pornography. There is reason for this, and I defy anyone to prove this wrong: kids are idiots. I will stop now as I am dangerously close to a seven page rant.

Gunslinger said...

I wrote my high school paper about this type of thing. The "it's not my fault; I deserve better" generation. In every problem person/incident, it was cited in my paper, that there were parents involved that were making bad choices. Who remembers those two brothers whose mother was driving them to convenience stores to rob? I know a single mom, actually I know several. Two in particular are at extreme opposites of the spectrum. One, a recovering mormon, has two wonderful daughters. She takes wonderful care of them and makes sure that she always knows, and is involved in, what they are doing. She accomplishes this even while going to school full time. The other one is a very bad parent. Her kid has massive Ad/Hd (which I think is caused by bad parenting when the child is very young) She is always yelling at the kid, and threatening to call the cops to get the kid taken away if she doesnt start behaving. INcidentally, the kid is at this very moment in the care of a friend, because the state was going to take the kid if the mom didn't clean up her house. About the most interaction I have ever seen with mom and kid, is mom making sure that cartoon network is on so the kid can go to sleep in the living room chair at around midnight watching tv. Any bets as to which group of kids will turn out better? As far as games go, when I was reading Steve's comment, I was thinking to myself. D&D. Ted is one of the most normal, well adjusted, great parents I know. But he ALWAYS plays the most powerful/evil characters in games. Not that there is anything wrong with that. My sister has on occasion claimed that we were abused somehow as kids. I would respond wiht the fact that as kids we were monsters, and any ammount of ass-paddling we got, we had it coming. And when we didnt get a whomping, we certainly had one coming, and were just getting away with something. Tim Allen talks about the difference between criminals and normal people, is the ability to control the maniac within ourselves. I think that ability comes straight from good parenting. I had better stop, because I am just ranting now, and it is after 3:00am. I doubt I am making any sense.

Tim Lewis said...

Kori (my girlfriend) is the Reading Specialist and Title 1 director at her elementary school in Oregon City. It happens to have around 200 students (about half of the school) in the Title 1 program. What that means is she sees the students doing the worst, having the most trouble, etc. What she hears about these students is what was said about them being ADD or ADHD misbehavin' kids. She then has parent-teacher conferences or hears straight from the kids' mouths that the parents are drug addicts (not joking) or there is only one parent, or the kids are kept up too late because their parents are having parties, then eat junk at home and in the school cafeteria.

Kori has sort of done a study and read other studies that the combination of the two (sleep deprivation and poor eating habits, along with bad parenting) leads to ADD or ADHD. This is why it's good to make your kids eat vegetables and go to sleep on time, aside from just teaching them good habits, you could otherwise be actually giving them ADD.

Of course the option is there to drug the kids into some sense of normalcy, but there is always the "other" option of making them sleep and eat better. You know, like Eric said...being a good parent.

Tim Lewis said...

I meant to say Ted & Eric, cause you both said it, and I was just reiterating and reinforcing. It's 1 pm and I'm not making any sense, so I'll just stop.