Humans love games. Some of our earliest cultural artifacts are game pieces. The modern world has several massively lucrative industries around games. People will dump half a week’s salary into two tickets to a professional sports event (make that a whole week’s salary if you each want a beer). We take activities like cooking, fashion, singing, trivia, drinking, and even theatre and “gamify” them by creating gaming structures around them. If there’s one thing people love, it’s a way to score more points than someone else.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. I love games as much as the next human. But for a game-loving society, we spend an inordinate amount of time hating video games.
We claim they are dangerous to developing brains, cause people to be more violent, prevent people from forming healthy human relationships, are rife with sexism, racism, and homophobia, and we have the studies to “prove” it. Yet we romanticize sports and excuse its negative aspects– its shockingly high injury rate (including brain injuries); its continuous problems with sexism, racism, and homophobia; and a culture of bullying and hazing that permeates and poisons athletics, particularly K-12 and college athletics– because we believe that games you play with your body are intrinsically, even morally, better than games you play with your mind.
Video game culture is no better than sports culture in any of those respects save injuries, but we treat it as if it is intrinsically, morally lesser, and that engaging in a game you play with your body is somehow morally superior to engaging in a game you play with your mind.
It’s an ableist position to take.
We frame physical activity as the best of all possible choices for filling free time. An hour with a book or a video game is “indulgent,” but an hour of cycling or basketball is “healthy” and “making good choices.” We worship the body and what it can do, granting the highest cultural status to people with able-bodied, thin, athletic bodies. We even describe them using the word “fit,” as if people who are disabled, fat, or unathletic are “unfit.”
Because our culture worships the body and ignores– even denigrates— the mind, we’ve elevated physical games over every other kind of game and created a vast cultural mythology around pretending physical games are moral and good and healthy while video games are destructive, bad, and unhealthy. People whose bodies allow them to play physical games have access to a level of cultural privilege denied to those who cannot. People whose bodies cannot play physical games but who still want to game have more options open to them than ever before, yet all of them are considered morally inferior to physical games.
But video games are violent! So are sports. The difference between violence in video games and violence in sports is that physical violence in video games is pretend and physical violence in sports is real. Violence during games is an ongoing problem at all levels of athletics. Sports has immense bullying problems; sports fans are notoriously violent during victories, losses, and even just in the stands. Even little league parents get violent. Off the field, college athletes are more likely to commit sexual assault than other students and less likely to be convicted.
If you wish to extend “violence” to harassment and bullying, and I absolutely do, it’s undeniable there are violent aspects in video game culture, but sports culture is no better; in fact, statistically speaking, it’s clearly worse. Yet we frame sports as inherently wholesome, marred by a few bad apples, and video games as inherently worthless, alleviated by a few wholesome bright spots, simply because we value the body and its abilities, look, and “fitness” more highly than the mind.
But video games make people more violent! The problem with that notion is that violent crime has actually reduced since the introduction of video gaming, leading to the logical conclusion that video games do not “cause violence.”
The problem lies in the studies themselves. When you structure a study around video game violence, you don’t send researchers to sit in 2500 rooms for 100 hours each to watch 2500 people make their way through the Dragon Age: Origins narrative, wherein the player’s character is centered as a hero saving the world from monsters, or the Fallout 3 narrative, wherein the character must survive in a nuclear war-shattered wasteland and fight to realize the character’s father’s dream of bringing clean water to its people. The most common studies involve measuring aggression as relates to non-narrative contexts. The resulting data is completely meaningless. It would be like comparing the way people feel after watching a sophomore player on an underdog team score a game-winning touchdown in a bowl game and then immediately kneel down and propose to his girlfriend, the head cheerleader, and the way people feel after being forced to watch footage of sacks over and over and over without context.
The idea that video games are somehow more dangerous, more prone to generate violent acts, than physical games is ableist nonsense that comes from romanticizing and valorizing the body while minimizing the mind. Sure, we talk a good game about the mind, education, and intelligence, but all our attention, money, and concern are focused on the body. We pay university sports coaches huge sums of money while we pay university lecturers below the poverty level. Schools REQUIRE students to participate in physical games and BAN playing video games on campus.
One of the most powerful cultural myths underpinning the hatred of video games is the longstanding fear of technology. We have feared and mistrusted every technological advance ever, from movable type to the internet. The absolute silliest argument is that analog games such as board games are healthy, but video games are dangerous, as if the screen itself has some kind of magical power to render the game’s benefits inert. This fear and mistrust of technology are themselves arguably aspects of anti-intellectualism– fear of what the “eggheads” have unleashed upon us. Fear of science, technology, and new knowledge have been encoded into our culture at every level, from the Garden of Eden to Faust to Battlestar Galactica. Pushing the limits of what the body can do is prized and treasured as a measure of humanity’s highest worth. Pushing the limits of what the mind can do in the form of new technologies, inventions, and discoveries is deeply mistrusted, with each new advance meeting a screeching wall of resistance based on its supposed “dangers.”
The truth is, playing video games is as good, maybe even better, than playing sports. Video games– even violent shooter games– exercise your mind in the same way that physical games exercise your body.
Video games are elaborate puzzles, often within complex narratives with far more narrative content, and more complex narrative content, than a book or a film has room to hold. There are many games where the mythopoeia alone could fill several volumes.
Video games make players better problem solvers, as well as boost memory and cognitive skills. Gamers are helping scientists solve complex problems. An enormous number of modern games track a player’s in-game choices, changing the way NPCs (non-player characters) interact with the player based on the morality of their past choices. Two of many examples include Dragon Age: Origins, where NPCs on your team gain special skills as you gain their trust and friendship, and Fallout 3, where high karma results in NPCs giving you gifts and the in-game radio DJ, Three Dog, singing your praises on the air. As in life, often the morality of in-game choices is unclear, and players must live with the consequences of their actions long after it’s too late to go back and change their decisions. Many games tackle complex social and historical issues. The Bioshock series, for example, has been ruthless in its criticism of American nostalgia, juxtaposing gorgeous vintage imagery with the brutal reality of our racist, classist, and unregulated capitalist past, leaving the player to draw their own conclusions about the present.
The idea that a teenager who plays video games after school is somehow wasting his time while a teenager who plays football after school is an American Hero reflects our characterization of the body and its achievements as the most wholesome, most moral, most admirable aspect of human life. This is ableist nonsense that reserves the highest moral position in our culture to people whose physical bodies meet or exceed arbitrary standards.
“Can play football at a mediocre level” is somehow framed as morally superior to “Has beaten the Heroic King’s Fall raid on Destiny.” While I can only dream of EITHER, in theory my disability does not prevent me from completing the King’s Fall raid in the same way they prevent me from playing sports, yet my human brain still craves the complex problem solving, action, and competition of game play.
There’s nothing wrong with playing sports, but let’s step away from the silly– and ableist– notion that playing video games is morally inferior.