It’s often been said that the moral outrage around video games is the result of a generational gap: most people born before, say, 1970, are unfamiliar with video games, and as a result, they’re afraid of them. This speaks to the negative impressions involved in the debate, and seems to make sense. But the fact that so many people fail to see the immense value, the huge potential for good, in video games, is another matter. I think this part is due to widespread confusion between medium and content.
Video games are a very special medium. Unlike traditional one-to-many media, its content is interactive – the player takes an active part in the events portrayed. Unlike newer many-to-many media (like blogs and social networks), on the other hand, the content of games is not entirely up to the participants to create – a portion of the content is always designed and produced on a one-to-many basis.
But in a way, video games are still just a medium. Like with other media, the medium does not necessarily define the content, nor does the content necessarily define the medium.1 If you’re thinking about a more familiar medium, such as books, it would be obviously absurd to judge what the medium (all books, or any book) can do based on some small part of the content (a given genre or literary style). Depending on what books you’re familiar with, you might come to the conclusion that books are low-quality, stupefying entertainment, or that books are intensely deep and philosophical. Neither of these things is true of books as a whole, and each is true of some books. But oddly enough, most people think of books as a medium with potential to enlighten, educate, and enrich people’s lives immensely.
There’s no factual reason not to feel the same way about video games. Okay, video games are a young medium, and they’ve come into being in a very commercialized environment, so not all game designers or all players think of the medium as an art form that aims to enlighten. But neither do all authors and readers, nor all movie producers and filmgoers.
To recognize the potential for good in the medium, you simply have to realize that it really is a medium. If a child “plays a lot of video games” that could mean almost anything, but many people take it as something to be alarmed about. If a child “reads a lot of books” that could also mean almost anything – there are plenty of really awful books out there – but most people assume it means the kid is discovering intellectual worlds and learning a lot.
The way games can be good, conductive to intellectual discovery, are not all that different from books. Yes, some games are trash, but because a medium is a vessel of culture, a creation which is filled, by a creator, with stories and concepts taken out of the broader culture (directly or indirectly), they can, just like books, be a gateway to greater things. I have often learned new things about the world through a game, or come into contact with concepts and stories I later took more interest in and learned more about. This doesn’t happen with every game, but that’s entirely beside the point.
It would be the wrong conclusion from all this to think, for example, that parents should monitor their children’s gaming and make sure they choose games with good cultural content. That’s not how media work.
For example, just yesterday I finished an action game, Assassin’s Creed. I tried it out because I heard it’s good-looking, fun, and allows you to do cool things. These cool things include killing a lot of virtual characters in interesting ways. As a bonus, part of the game takes place in my hometown, ca. 1291 CE.
As it turned out, the game was much more intellectually stimulating than I expected, due to the historical setting more than the somewhat philosophical story. It got especially interesting when I reached the part of the book I was reading, The Source (which I wrote about, too), that tells another fictional story in the same part of the world at that very same time. And the end of the game led me to Wikipedia a few stories (historical and pseudo-historical) the game referred to.
Like any medium, video games can provide deep food for thought and leads for curious inquiry even when you don’t expect it. Like any medium, the intellectual value is not necessarily – but sometimes – the reason to consume a new opus. Like any medium, painting video games as mind-dulling or violent, even based on a good sample of evidence, is throwing out the baby with the bath water.
And of course, from a psychological perspective, there are those many benefits of video gaming, as well.
Keeping this in mind, a parting thought: isn’t it strange that there’s a rating industry in charge of telling us what age you should be before consuming a movie or a game – an industry so well-supported that some countries legally enforce their conclusions – but nobody does the same for books and newspapers?