Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Mixing video games and politics

When I was a dumb kid, I played a lot of video games, in which bizarre cartoon-like creatures conspired and fought.

I think they did me some good. Children play stuff because it’s fun, and our perception of fun is, in a Darwinian sense, “meant” to induce the developing brain to seek activities that improve the brain, thereby improving the chances that the brain’s owner will reproduce. Video games are complicated, and fast, and the good ones require one to anticipate the behavior of other humans. I believe those qualities are good for you. It’s a testament to the strength of biological imperatives that when parents don’t want their kids playing those games, but the kids do, the kids usually win.

While the aspects I have described seem to me bound to have positive effects, I have not addressed the question of how video games affect a player’s attitude toward violence. I don’t know. This guy and these guys sure think they’re harmful – in fact, so it seems does every study that Google returns. It may be that Google returns the most popular things first, and for any topic X the position that X is bad is more popular than the position that X is good,– but I tried including phrases like “no effect” and “harmless”, and still got none of the other side of the argument, if it exists.

What I can say, though, is that video games have meaning now that they did not when I played them. I left right around the time that games started to be able to portray bleeding three-dimensional humanoids. Perhaps that novelty was enough to allow the storylines to be stupid, because they were: “creatures from hell invade Earth”, or “men fight creatures from hell on a moon base”. Even if they were to affect my attitudes toward violence, they could not have affected my politics.

Today, most of the storylines go like this: “There’s a terrorist threat [over there]. You must neutralize it.” The player is not given the opportunity to deliberate the morality of this imperative. He obeys it. He has fun doing so. His simulated fellow citizens treat him like a hero when he succeeds. (Here’s one description of what video games are like now.)

I would whine at this point that video games ought to be apolitical, to keep impressionable youth from forming baseless opinions about who’s right and about what sort of war actions are legitimate. But I don’t see any way around it – the realistic games sell the best, and the one-sided, “you’re a hero” games sell the best. Telling firms not to make those games seems like a violation of the First Amendment.

It’s all ugly and complicated.

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