Think video games. Then think of the person playing the video game, who do you see? For a long time most people will have imagined an unhealthy looking, spotted geek – someone who has clearly seen too little sunlight and too few mornings. Well, I suggest that this has been, and is changing; in the same way as video games themselves are changing.
For one, most people by now will know a gamer, whether they be your child, sibling, friend or co-worker – games have become a huge source of entertainment for a majority of people. It of course depends on how you define a gamer. If someone who reads is a reader, someone who goes to the movies is a movie-goer, then someone who plays a video game is a gamer, even if that game is a casual game such as Candycrush Sage, Bubble Witch, or Angry Birds. And so, we move away from the notion that only the people who play World of Warcraft, MOBA’s, or shooters are the gamers. These are core gamers, or maybe even hard-core, but they don’t monopolise the title of gamer anymore – times have changed. This is partly due to technology, and our consumer habits. The smartphones and tablets led to a resurgence of these casual games that, with their lower requirements of commitment, could draw a large new audience of gamers into the fold. These games can work as a way of switching off for a short while, or assume the feeling of control within the game environment – something we could all use from time to time.
In such a sense games are no longer just for the nerds of this world. But what about the self-indulgence? We play games for our own enjoyments sake don’t we? Entertainment is their function.
Well, games can function as entertainment, and it might not be wrong to see entertainment as its main function, but it certainly isn’t the only function video games can inhabit. Video games actually carry the potential as a media, to do so much more than just entertain. Ian Bogost, highlights some of these functions excellently in his book “How to do things with Videogames”. It is some of these functions I would like to touch upon briefly here.
Games seem to have the potential to teach. Quite of research is already going into how video games can be implemented in school teaching environments, but games as a teaching tool transcends usage at schools. When Bogost touches upon this in his book, the point I find particularly interesting is a video games potential when it comes to teaching people something new – something they haven’t had to do before. Doing even the simplest of tasks can be daunting the very first time, we lack experience and confidence, and have no prior memories to support ourselves with. A video game can present a virtual environment in which such things can be established – this might not mean we know exactly what to do next time we stand in the given situation, but at least the game has added experience and with it memories to draw upon. The example Bogost offers is that of airline emergency protocol. We all know of the protocol that the flight attendants show us every time a plane gets ready to take off – from where your safety vest is placed, to how you disembark the plane. But ask yourself the question – do you ever really pay attention? Would you know what to do, and how, in a state of emergency? The issue that arises, is that being told how to do something is a far cry from what it is like to actually doing it yourself. Now, if the airlines instead of just showing you what to do on their monitors, instead actually made you perform every step through the use of a video game it would force you to actively think about what you need to do. By actively processing the information, and having “performed” each step in your head, there is at least a chance that you may have a better idea of what to do in a real like emergency aboard an airplane. Such games will more than likely be mundane, and mostly uninteresting, but they would be performing a function that up until this point has been solved without much success by the airlines to date.
If there is one area of particular controversy within video games it is probably the use of violence. I have mentioned it several times in various blog posts because of the frequent misunderstanding that surrounds the issue. People worry about how violence in games might affect people, especially young people – and therefore wish such violence prohibited in games. Whereas there may be good reason to restrict ease of access when it comes to violent games at the more impressionable ages (here I am thinking particularly of the pre-teens and early teens), we might wish to shift our view on what violence can due, or at least how it is in fact represented. We can divide representation into two major groups – abstraction of violence, and realism. Of the two, it is realism that worries people the most, even though it probably should be abstraction.
People worry about the content of a game such as Manhunt, and its obvious immoralities. But take note, they are like I just said, obvious. It is not a game that makes us want to become a serial killer. In fact, the content of such a game is so gory that it probably repels most people! A game that depicts horror and suffering without a filter, in a somewhat realistic way, makes the player do home terrible things – and experiencing such violence may very well work as a repellent rather than an encourager. On the flip side Call of Duty displays obvious violence in its shooting content, but it doesn’t actually deal with any of the consequences of such slaughter. This is where the issue is to be found. We easily abstract from those consequences, because the game doesn’t dwell on them. There is therefore the risk of conditioning people to abstract from the consequences of violence in general, as an inconsequential by-product of other, higher prioritised, actions.
This brings me to my last point in this blog; the video games ability to evoke empathy. Through games we may be able to abstract from the consequences of our actions, but the opposite is also true, and there is even the potential of teaching us how it to some degree feels to experience things from another’s perspective. The most obvious example of this would be through narratives, and experiencing a narrative through the character the player assumes control of. But many games contain a protagonist with power. The power to change things, the power to affect his or her destiny. This power is often what makes games fun to play – assuming control, even when the odds are stacked against us. But there may lie even more potential in empathy creation is the protagonist is not powerful, but instead weak, or vulnerable. Bogost offers examples of such games, one of them being Dafur is Dying.
All the player can do in the game is to avoid the militia in the quest to procure water for your family. You can hide, but if you hide for too long you get caught – in other words there is no respite in your goal to simply survive. It is of course merely a simple representation of the hardships in Dafur, but goes some way to make the player understand the high stakes of every choice made in such troubled areas. No one likes feeling vulnerable, but maybe that is exactly the reason why more games such as Dafur is Dying should be made, because even though we might not like such experiences, they serve as important reminders of what other people might be going through every single day.
These all just served as short comments on the ways video games can affect us in more substantial ways than that of entertainment. Every one of these points could be fleshed out a lot more of course, and debated back and forth. That being said, I hope to have offered if just some insight into the many potentials of video games, and there are many more than just the few mentioned here.