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It’s coming around again: finding the evils of the video game

It’s coming around again. You can feel it. Video games seem to ebb and flow within the public imagination — sometimes pilloried, sometimes praised, sometimes forgotten and made invisible. Every time video games come into focus, however, there’s a strange tension between a need to represent video games as a thing that people undeniably do and enjoy, and a need to fit into previously established media narratives of what video games might mean.

Consider two recent examples. On Friday night, ABC TV’s Catalyst ran a story about video-game addiction. It was, for the most part, unsurprising. It had slow-motion montages of video games set to scary music. It had emotive language: “the playgrounds of our brave new cyber world”, with children “even now wiring their brains for future entrapment”. It had dramatic reconstructions of children being priggish to their parents while playing video games. It even had associate professor Doug Gentile, whom you might remember from a similar turn in an episode of Jo Frost: Extreme Parental Guidance.

I’m not going to debate the existence of video-game addiction. First, despite my status as an academic in training, I don’t particularly feel qualified to comment on the ever-increasing number of scientific studies on the issue. I’m a humanities scholar, not a psychologist. Secondly, I’m not going to use this platform to belittle anyone who feels they have suffered, or continue to suffer from video-game addiction. Their experiences are worth more than my idle observations.

Nonetheless, it’s worth noting at the very least that while associate professor Gentile agreed that “a lot of psychologists don’t believe that this is a real problem, partly because they think it’s a symptom of other real problems”, not one of these psychologists made an appearance on the Catalyst story. Despite the fact that video-game addiction is the subject of serious debate within scientific studies, there were no dissenting opinions presented by Catalyst. And when I say serious debate, I mean it: video-game addiction has, for example, been considered and rejected for the next version of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders.

It’s interesting to compare this state of affairs with, say, the special edition of Q&A on climate change, which screened on the ABC the evening before, a program that presented serious debate on national television over an issue where no credible scientific disagreement exists.

Ultimately Catalyst presented some very reasonable and commonsense solutions to the potential issue: “Do your research, get online and play as well. See what it rewards and what it punishes. And then hopefully, with your fully formed brain and your mature mind, you can make a decision for your child.” Makes you wonder if the 11-minute segment was required after all.

Also interesting was a story that the Fairfax papers ran on Saturday, titled “Just one more game”. The piece was syndicated from The New York Times, and sadly, the piece’s most interesting facet (the interactive game built into the piece on the NYT’s website that allowed you to destroy the article itself) didn’t make it to The Age. It’s not a terrible piece by any means — it at least is a generally interesting exploration of the kinds of casual, short and (again) addictive games people have flocked to with their iPhones recently. There’s some quotes with relevant people on both sides, and my primary concern stems from the author’s breezy dismissal of what might constitute “time-wasting” or good uses of time for a variety of people.

This renewed suspicion of video games could be partly due to the recent rise in visibleness for the medium. Locally, in addition to all the regular advertising and general buzz about games, we’ve had media analysis of video game classification legislation, as well as events such as the MSO concert of video game music and the upcoming high profile Games Masters exhibition at ACMI.

Certainly, there does seem to be some sort of correlation between the visibleness of video games and the general suspicion of them. Have a play with Google trends, for example, and you’ll see an undeniable correlation between the search terms “video game violence”, “video game addiction”, and “video game sales”.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that video-game violence and addiction aren’t real, but it does suggest that when games are more visible (like when they’re on sale, or when high-profile games are released each year at about November and April), we’re more likely to be worried about these things.

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