Are Games “Beneath Popular Culture”?

An Interactive Media Essay

Almost since their inception, videogames have been met with rampant prejudice, legislation and stigma. Indeed, they are often “beneath popular culture”. This is usually related to violence, children and education, or diminished social skills.

(Southern, 2001)

Introduction

In 2009, UK videogame software sales totaled £1.612 billion with console hardware sales amounting to £1.06 billion, while in 2008 US entertainment software sales reached $11.7 billion.

In this essay I will argue whether games can now be considered a part of popular culture, as opposed to “beneath”, it after the industry’s rapid growth over the past few years. I will also look at the negative portrayal of videogames in the press due to tragic incidents such as the Columbine High School massacre and controversial games such as Manhunt and the Grand Theft Auto series. I will also look at the lack of proof for a link between children playing violent games and exhibiting violent behavior, and the possibility of confusion between statistical correlation and causation.

The social aspect of videogames is another important topic with the popular Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Game “World of Warcraft” surpassing 11.5 million users in late 2008. I will discuss this topic in terms of co-operative and competitive play and whether this can have a positive or negative effect on children. I will also look at the opportunities for using videogames in educational environments and how games could be used to enhance the learning experience for children.

Are Games Really “Beneath Popular Culture”?

In its beginnings, cinema and film were considered a novelty by many people. The movies of the time were mostly seen during travelling exhibitions or as acts in vaudeville shows. Kinetoscope viewing parlors began to open in a similar way to videogame arcades did almost 100 years later on.

Films were considered by many to have little artistic merit and struggled to gain respect among academics of the time. However, over the years the popularity of cinema exploded and became a major part of the popular culture of the time. The comparisons which can be made with the videogame industry are obvious: Many people refuse to believe that videogames should be considered an art form and academic interest in the industry has only taken off in the last decade.

It can also be shown that videogames have exploded into our current pop culture in the past few years. Videogame software sales in the UK have increased every year, apart from a dip in 2009 which can be attributed to lower average retail prices and the worsening of the economy. However, “total sales of all videogames software amounted to £1.621 billion” (ELSPA, 2010) and consistent sales indicate that this is not a decline in the industry. “Overall, in 2009 UK consumers bought a total of 74.6 million videogame units – which works out at more than one per person in the UK” (ELSPA, 2010).

Further proof that videogames are becoming more ingrained in pop culture comes from the release of Activision’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 which became the first videogame ever to top amazon.com’s best-sellers chart in 2009 selling 1.23 million units in the UK during its first 24 hours on sale (ELSPA, 2009). Activision claimed that the launch of Modern Warfare 2 was “the biggest launch in history across all forms of entertainment”.

Nintendo managed to spur on the popularity of videogames in 2006 with the release of the Nintendo Wii. This console brought gaming to a whole new audience with its innovative motion control system and simple, pick-up-and-play style games shipping 56.14 million consoles as of 30th September 2009 (Nintendo Co., Ltd., 2009).

These monumental sales figures clearly indicate that video games should be considered part of popular culture; however videogames are still met with prejudice in terms of violence, social skills and their effects on children.

Violent Games in the Media

To seek evidence of ‘the effects of media violence’ is to persist in asking simplistic questions about complicated social issues.

(Buckingham, 1997)

On 20th April 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Eric Harris (18) and Dylan Klebold (17) killed 13 people and left over 20 injured in a 47 minute massacre. It was widely reported that both Harris and Klebold were fans of the games Doom and Wolfenstein 3D and Harris often created his own levels for Doom which were widely distributed.

Two years after the incident families of Columbine victims filed a lawsuit against 25 companies, including Nintendo, SEGA, Sony, id Software, Acclaim, Activision, Capcom, Interplay, Eidos and GT Interactive, seeking damages of $5 billion. The lawsuit was dismissed by US District Judge Lewis Babcock.

The explanations for the killers’ actions provided by the FBI were that of psychopathology and depression, however, Jerald Block, a US psychiatrist, argues that their actions are not well explained by these diagnoses.

…these explanations for the attack have merit. Yet, one critical explanation for their rage is missing. Harris and Klebold had one thing in common, something that set them apart from others—both were immersed in the world of technology.
(Block, 2007)

Since the events in Colorado several other incidents have been speculated to be related to video games which have helped to fuel controversy around the industry. In February 2003 a 16-year-old American named Dustin Lynch was charged with aggravated murder and made an insanity defence, claiming that he was obsessed with Grand Theft Auto III. Former attorney and anti-videogame activist Jack Thompson encouraged the father of the victim to pass a note to the judge that said “the attorneys had better tell the jury about the violent video game that trained this kid [and] showed him how to kill our daughter, JoLynn. If they don’t, I will.” (Hudak, 2003) Lynch later retracted his insanity plea and his mother commented, “It has nothing to do with video games or Paxil, and my son’s no murderer.” (Hudak, 2003)

In 2007, false reports claimed that Seung-Hui Cho, the killer in the Virginia Tech massacre was an avid Counter-Strike player. However, police reports said that Cho’s roommates had never seen him play any video games and no video games were found in his room. Despite this Jack Thompson continued the claim the videogames were to blame for the incident stating “This is not rocket science. When a kid who has never killed anyone in his life goes on a rampage and looks like the Terminator, he’s a video gamer.” (Benedetti, 2007)

Despite these claims there is no definitive proof of a link between playing violent games and exhibiting violent behaviour. In fact, in the United States between 1996 and 2006 violent crime decreased dramatically while video game sales soared.

The strong link between video game violence and real world violence, and the conclusion that video games lead to social isolation and poor interpersonal skills, are drawn from bad or irrelevant research
(Kutner & Olson, 2008)

It is also interesting to note that some authors have argued that the consequences of playing violent video games are more harmful than that of other media due to the interactive nature of games. The viewer of film and television violence is perceived as a passive spectator, whereas a gamer is engaged in controlling a character and therefore has increased identification with the character and their actions and as such this may underpin the replication of such behaviour.

It should be clear that the fears about violent games are unfounded considering the number of children and adults who play these games when compared to the small minority of those individuals who commit violent crimes. The press however prefer to run with sensationalist stories as their attention grabbing headlines are more likely to sell copies of their newspaper.

It can also be argued that the results of studies which claim to show a link between violent games and violent behaviour could be confusing correlation with causation. Questionnaires use correlations to compare two measured variables and conclude whether or not there is a significant relationship present. However, although there may be a relationship between violent games and violent behaviour in this instance it may not prove that this is a causal relationship.

Our current culture is one which is obsessed with quickly finding someone or something to blame rather than looking at the circumstances behind the occurrence.

People ask why, but they never ask it right. “Why oh why did that isolated, neglected, ostracized kid with little supervision, documented psychological problems, and access to guns shoot up that school?” people ask. “It must have been the video games.”
(Sakey, 2009)

Root Cause Analysis is often used in business and consists of tools and mechanisms to identify the cause of a problem because when looking for a cause it is important that a symptom of the problem is not accidentally identified as a cause. It seems that in many cases violent games are more likely to be a symptom of a problem rather than a cause. It seems reasonable to assume that people who are predisposed to violent behaviour would also enjoy violent videogames.

While looking for things to blame perhaps it is worth looking at the parents of children who are playing violent games. Almost all videogames are age classified in a similar way to films, as such there is an easy indicator of whether or not a game is suitable for a child of a certain age. However, many parents ignore these age ratings and buy games for their children which are not age appropriate. Many violent games are not aimed at children in the same way that violent films are not aimed at children.

Parents may also be ignorant as to what kind of content the games their children are playing contain. If parents were with their children when they played certain games they may be able to provide their children with extra context or a historical framework for the events taking place within the game and as such give their child a better understanding of the game they are playing.

It is also important to consider that the majority of violent games are not violent for the sake of being violent. Violence is mostly used as a signifier of progress through a game, for example the player may have to kill people to progress to the next level. That is the disparity: it isn’t about killing the people; it’s about progressing to the next level of the game. In film and television progress is evident as the plot moves along, however in a game the user is the one driving the plot and so there has to be a way of showing the user that they are progressing in the right direction.

Violence is simply one of the easier ways of showing this progress. If a player is killing other people within the game, and keep finding more people to kill, they know that they are heading in the right direction. However, not all games use violence to show progress or momentum. Games based around the theme of stealth reward players for avoiding conflict and killing others and still manage to convey progress.

It must also be kept in mind that there is a difference between violence as an allegory for progress and violence for violence sake. Games that are violent simply because they can be, such as Manhunt and Postal, more often than not aren’t particularly fun to play and often receive poor reviews in the gaming press. Violence isn’t the only allegory for progress in videogames, it just happens to be one of the more common ones.

Mainstream press reports about the gaming industry are also skewed to the point that violent games are the only ones which are reported on. There is no mention of the hugely popular non-violent games such as Portal, a puzzle game in which the player is tasked with escaping from a testing facility using only physics and a device for creating “portals” which the player can pass through. Sports games are some of the biggest selling franchises in the industry but there is nothing controversial about playing an incredibly realistic simulation of football or tennis and so they are ignored by people who don’t play games.

Social Aspects of Video Games

The stereotype of a video game player being an anti-social loner is no longer accurate. A study in 2008 published by IGN and Ipsos MediaCT revealed that more than 75% of video gamers play with other people either online or in person. Online gaming has grown rapidly in recent years with Blizzard reporting that their Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game World of Warcraft surpassed 11.5 million registered players at the end of 2008 and Microsoft announced that their Xbox Live service had reached 17 million active members in January 2009.

Looking at MMORPG games such as World of Warcraft and Lineage the basic game design forces players to join clans and co-operate to complete quests which would be impossible when playing solo. Some of these clans are small, consisting of people who know each other in real life, however some clans are huge and consist of players from all over the globe who have never met outside of the game world.

Teenage online gamers have developed various mechanisms to cope with complex interpersonal interactions-both among game characters and the individuals who control those characters.
(Lin et al., 2003)

These games also have massive communities of players discussing and debating every aspect of the game from weapon-hit percentages and analyses of characters abilities. In the game EVE Online, the player community persuaded the company running the game to hold democratic elections for a “council” through which players can voice their concerns to the games developers. The first election took place in March 2008 with 66 candidates putting themselves forward for nine positions. In May 2008 the results showed that of 222,422 eligible voters there was a turnout of 11%.

Video Games in Education

Many games currently used in educational environments are specifically created to educate pupils and are often referred to as “Edutainment”. However I believe that “pure” games can prove to be extremely valuable in educational environments as they can be used to model real world examples of the principles or methods which the students are being taught. For example, games such as SimCity place the user in the role of a city’s mayor and their actions have consequences for the development of that city. This could be used to model economic principles and allow students to view the effects that their decisions would have upon a city’s infrastructure.

Another game which could be useful in a classroom environment is RollerCoaster Tycoon. In this game the user is placed in control of a theme park and provides a model of a real world business but in an environment which the students would find fun. In a study conducted in 2003 it was also found that some schools used RollerCoaster Tycoon to aid in the teaching of physics lessons.

This activity will provide students with the opportunity to research the history of roller coasters and the physics behind the operation of roller coasters. After the students have a good understanding of roller coaster physics, the students will use Hasbro’s computer software demo, RollerCoaster Tycoon, to design and test possible roller coasters.
(Kirriemuir & McFarlane, 2003)

There are of course limitations when it comes to using games in a learning environment. The teachers may not be familiar with the software which is used and as such they may have to learn it at the same time as teaching it to their students as well as the cost of software licenses. It may also be difficult to maintain the students’ focus on the intended learning objectives.

It is also important to note that education is not always confined to the classroom, learning occurs at home too. Video games are often described as “stupid” or “mindless” however video games engage multiple senses all at once; and even the most basic games require the player to quickly assess the situation, interpret the information given to them, prioritise that information and then come up with a solution. Games often create abstract, non-linear problem solving scenarios and yet they are often claimed to make children more stupid.

Games which are set in a historical context may also encourage the player to research that time period on their own outside of the game environment. For example, Assassin’s Creed is a game set in 1191 AD during the Third Crusade and if the player finds the setting particularly intriguing they might be encouraged to look into the Crusades in more detail. The sequel, Assassin’s Creed II, is set during the Renaissance in 15th century Italy and features many historical figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolò Machiavelli and Pope Alexander VI as well as many landmarks including St Mark’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. 

Conclusions

I believe that it is no longer correct to state that games are “beneath popular culture”. Although they are not covered in the mainstream press, apart from in controversial circumstances, the large, rapid growth of the industry, as evidenced by the amount of money spent, and units shipped indicates that video games are now well and truly part of popular culture. Games may not yet pull in the same numbers of consumers as films and television but the continual yearly growth shows that it may not be long before games reach the same numbers of people as more traditional types of media.

I also believe that it is wrong for people to assume that violent video games are a cause of violent behaviour in children. It is far more likely the violent games are merely a symptom of a larger problem but the press finds it easier to blame video games than to find the root cause of the problem. It is also possible that studies which claim to show a link between video game violence and violent behaviour are confusing statistical correlation with causation. While these studies may show a relationship between the two it is not necessarily a causal relationship.

Online gaming also helps to produce complex social interactions between individuals and while this may not be a sufficient substitute for real world social interactions it could be a very useful complement.

Games can also be used to great effect in educational environments as they allow students to implement principles, theories and methods in a model of a real world environment. Games also challenge users to solve complex, often non-linear, problems in a way which engages multiple senses all at once. However, the limitations of teacher experience, technology and cost are major factors which are likely to limit the effective use of video games in an educational environment for some time. 

Bibliography


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