Should We Even Try To Explain Video Games To The Uninitiated?

the masses_cropped

The unwashed masses, everyone. Well…I’m sure they all had showers that day.

When it was revealed that Vice President Biden was meeting with representatives of the video game industry along with other parties like representatives of the film industry and the National Rifle Association about what America can do to curb gun violence, Gamasutra Editor-in-Chief Kris Graft penned an editorial about why the video game industry should not have met with Biden, and IGN Editor-in-Chief Casey Lynch penned a rebuttal which argued why the video game industry should have met with Biden. Graft’s position can be boiled down to the idea that responding to an illegitimate charge – that video games have anything whatsoever to do with inspiring real life violence such the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut which prompted Biden’s meetings – lends legitimacy to those charges, and Lynch’s argument comes down to the argument that if Biden wanted input from the video game industry it was important for the video game industry to represent itself versus allowing someone else to have that conversation with Biden.

I fall on Graft’s side of the debate not because I think attending that meeting lent credence to the charge that video games have anything to do with these sorts of school shootings – and if you want to read about what I think these school shootings are about you can read my editorial published on Kotaku today -  but because I debate the value of trying to explain what video games are nowadays to Vice President Biden, or anyone else who doesn’t actually play them.

Perhaps a better writer than I can describe what it feels like to watch a movie, read a book, listen to music, or observe a painting. I’d be hard-pressed to try and explain these experiences using nothing but words and feel like I was doing these potentially-profound experiences any sort of justice. Experiencing these things for oneself is the lion’s share of comprehending them. You have to have these experiences in order to create personal touchstones for conversations about these forms of media like what’s good and what’s not, what’s valid and what isn’t, and all the other ways we talk about media.

Now add interactivity into the mix. When we play video games not only are we seeing vivid images and listening to music scores or reading text and all the other ways in which video games, like all forms of new media, borrow from and incorporate aspects of all the old media which preceded them, now we’re also shooting or platforming or shooting and platforming and driving or flying, and with mice and keyboards or control pads or even with our own bodies. We’re making multitudinous decisions during the course of these experiences, problem-solving and making quick, reflex-based decisions and processing relationships between characters and in some cases virtually acting, all things we lump under the terms mechanics or gameplay.

Even when we’re talking amongst ourselves, the lifelong devotees of video games, we tend to use nondescript words like mechanics to describe the minute-by-minute experience of playing the game. We think we know what each other means when we talk about gameplay and so we throw that word in rather than breaking down all those little myriad actions and decisions because we want to get to talking about the good stuff, like whether we liked the game and why or why not and what worked and what was broken, but I think we also skip those details because they’d be really difficult to write about, especially when we lack a common, critical language to do so.

Biden and Ritticello

Electronic Arts Chief Executive Officer John Riccitiello (left) and Vice President Biden (right)

So the ESA sits down with Joe Biden. They can offer him studies that suggest video games have nothing to do with inspiring violent behavior. They can issue platitudes about how video games are so much more than the Call of Duty game Biden has seen advertised on television and school shooter Adam Lanza was purportedly a fan of, and maybe show him a video of Journey or something, but what does Biden really walk out of that meeting with? Do we really want to pretend he has a greater understanding of video games, or is it more reasonable to imagine he’s checked off a box on his list of industries he thinks he needs to meet with in order to make it look like he’s done his due diligence before giving his recommendations on curbing gun violence to the President?

The question is whether or not it’s even possible to explain what video games are like nowadays to people who do not play them. Showing them video clips of games doesn’t do the trick. If you want to begin talking about video games with the uninitiated, I think you have to hand them a smartphone with Angry Birds or stand them up and play some Kinect Adventures or hand them a Wii Remote and do some virtual bowling or hand them a control pad and let them try their hands at Call of Duty. Or maybe you have to do all of the above, and then sit the person down and say “See? Video games aren’t what you thought they were. They come in all shapes and sizes, and the violent games are just part of the melange and the players understand them all to be electronic entertainments, not simulations of reality…and by the way, did you have any fun?”

Biden’s recommendations had been reported as not including anything about video games, but at his press conference today President Obama said the executive orders he was signing to begin addressing the issue of gun violence included support for scientific studies to assess the effects of violent video games on behavior, and I think we should all welcome those studies. All the studies to date suggest no relationship between video games and violent behavior, and the more studies come to the same conclusion the more people will realize how dead this horse is that they’re beating, and that part of the conversation will eventually close owing to lack of evidence and more importantly, interest.

This issue has nothing to do with us. It does have to do with accessible and affordable mental health care, reasonable restrictions on firearm ownership, and whether parents are living up to their responsibilities to raise their children with a basic, decent morality. I’m reminded of something a developer told me once at the end of an interview, about how when novels were becoming popular people expressed concern over what effect they might on “ladies of the house,” or housewives. Perhaps the fear was that novels would titillate women in a fashion that was indecent. And in the end of course such concerns were revealed as nonsense and now we have bookstores all over the place selling cheap romance novels aplenty and women don’t seem to have turned into sex-hungry lunatics.

We could beat another very dead horse by talking about how new forms of media always are met with suspicion from ignorant minds who don’t actually experience that media but who watch from afar, heads filled with untrue notions and opinions that ultimately revolve around the private moralities of these individuals and their desire to impose them upon others. Even opera was met with suspicion when it was first being performed and ostensibly like popular music, comic books and movies, as more people began to see opera performed and the activity became a normal aspect of life the suspicion died and all was well.

The same thing is going to happen with video games, though we have a particular hump to get over which I think speaks to why we needn’t bother with trying to explain video games to the uninitiated: technological illiteracy.



In my day job I teach people how to use technology in their academic careers, and I am constantly amazed at the number of people I meet who don’t know what a web browser is. I don’t judge them because I am all too familiar with the concept of digital natives and digital immigrants, an idea which argues that anyone born prior to the advent of popular, digital technologies are immigrants who may require special attention and patience in order to teach them how to adapt technology into their lives, and anyone born with technology readily-available to them, like my four-year-old nephew who uses his parents’ iPads, are digital natives for whom technology is just a way of life and they adapt to new technologies readily, if not easily.

If someone doesn’t know what a web browser is, if they lack even the most rudimentary computer skills and are terrified of Microsoft Word, how could I possibly explain to them what the experience of playing a video game is like, and especially if they’re not willing to educate themselves by trying some video games? These are the people who think video games can have effects on their children’s behavior and inspire acts of violence.

Problems like these solve themselves when the old generation dies off and the younger generation ascends to positions of power and influence. Let’s take bets on whether our government in thirty years’ time ever concerns itself with video games when the men and women in those Congressional seats are all as familiar with video games as they are with movies and books and popular music and television. This is a problem that will organically go away over time, with anti-video game attitudes clung to by radical fringe groups who have no real authority, no real influence, and increasingly become the sort of people everyone else rolls their eyes at.

The hand-wringing from members of our own community, like this opinion piece written by Brendan Sinclair on GamesIndustry International bothers me because it’s completely unnecessary. Chiding publishers for developing and marketing games that the audience adores in droves is an indictment of capitalism, not the video game industry, and putting so much attention on these companies ultimately leads to our own industry obscuring all the developers who produce profound video game experiences or who create serious games for educational purposes or all the other myriad examples of video games which don’t adhere to the stereotype of the violent game.

Why not take the energy we waste on that sort of counter-productive punditry and instead promote whatever games we wish the audience could be aware of besides Call of Duty? How much work have pundits done to promote Indie Game: The Movie which, for whatever criticisms you have of the film, does an excellent job of illustrating that video games are more than these stereotypes? How often are they pitching stories about interesting, nonviolent video games to mainstream outlets like CNN and stop speaking solely to the converted, i.e. the audience of the enthusiast video game press?

We should never ignore popular opinion about video games, but nor should we wring our hands over expressions of ignorance regarding them, either. Time is our ally. Let’s rest a little easier in that knowledge, and be willing to teach anyone who wants to learn about our beloved hobby or art form, however you look at it, but not worry about whether or not it’s our job to try and explain to the masses what video games are and how they work. It may not even be possible.

1 Comment

  1. Konekon1nj4 says:

    Great points! You have summed it all up with this well rounded post and it’s wonderful to see that there are at least some people out there who are interested in having a reasonable discussion instead of a shouting match/ragefest.

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