Video games allow us to explore what it means to be human

Video games have a near-universal reputation for being bad for us, our kids and society in general. But what does the scientific evidence have to say about all this? Author Pete Etchells has the answers.

Conventional wisdom, for what it’s worth, has long held that video games are to blame for pretty much everything that’s wrong with society. They encourage violence, isolate gamers in lonely digital silos, narrow our minds and rob us of leisure time that could be so much better spent climbing trees, fishing and playing football. Of course, we’ve got the hyperactive red-top media to blame for never letting the truth get in the way of a good story. But what is the truth about video games? What does this picture look like when we go behind the headlines and take a long, hard, dispassionate look at the scientific research and data?

This is a question that author Pete Etchells sets out to answer in his myth-busting and quite frankly surprising book ‘Lost in a Good Game’, in which he peers past the media hype to present us with the objective reality of what he (along with the data) considers to be a much-maligned pastime. Etchells, who is a reader in psychology and science communication at Bath Spa University, says: “First and foremost, what I’m trying to do in the book is to provide a corrective around some of the wider moral panics that come with video games. We see lots of stories in the news saying that video games are fundamentally and inherently bad, harmful things. And yet we don’t really have those sorts of conversations about listening to the radio or reading books.”

It’s almost as if, says Etchells, the video game has become a special media form “deserving a special form of attention. And that attention is invariably negative.” As an expert on the psychological effects of video games (who is incidentally of the opinion that the World Health Organization’s plans to classify ‘game addiction’ as a danger to public health is both based on bad science and a bad idea), “I thought it was time to be objective about this, not just in looking at the effects video games have on us, but also in looking at where these negative perceptions came from in the first place. I also wanted to look at the good things about them, and what positives we can take away from that.”

If you are of the opinion that it is simply axiomatic that video games are bad for you, you’re not on your own. But the ‘fundamental question’ is why we think this. Etchells says that one of the main reasons for this prejudice is that, compared with, say, reading or listening to the radio, there’s a much higher technological bar to entry into the video games world. Essentially, he says, the mindset that can’t engage with the complexities of getting started in the first place – downloading software, learning handset controls and so on – is prone to a kind of technophobia that instinctively dismisses the concept out of hand.

A big part of this type of consumer reticence about digital technology in general, “is a combination of lack of exposure and concern about new things that we’re not entirely sure about. Video games have been around for a long time, but if you look at something on the market today, such as ‘Call of Duty’, it’s vastly different from what games were like 20 years ago, when we were just starting to play online games with other people around the world. That was a relatively novel experience at the time, but it’s part and parcel of what games are about today.”

If we have no experience of playing games, say Etchells, to observe someone playing can create the impression that “it is a horrible experience. It looks like the players are completely absorbed into the screen – zombies drooling at this thing that’s playing out in front of them, their brains melting before your very eyes.” All this means that the observer may not realise that the player “is often actually immersed in a collaborative experience, working with others as a team. Once you understand this, the process becomes much less scary, more like an online digital version of playing in the park with your friends.”

A key point Etchells is keen to stress in favour of gaming is that the experience is far from passive. “A crucial aspect that sets video games apart from other forms of entertainment experience is that they are very interactive. If you’re watching a movie, you’re watching an actor playing out the story, being the hero in their world and environment. But there’s a sense of agency in video games that you don’t really get in other forms of entertainment media. That’s a powerful thing, because it allows you to try out and explore different types of behaviour, situations and relationships in a relatively safe space that’s constrained and artificial. I say in my book that video games allow us to explore what it means to be human.”

Etchells explains: “What I mean is that given the right sort of game you can explore different aspects of emotional life, explore stories where the character – you – can think about what your moral compass is.”

It won’t come as much of a surprise to discover that there is research suggesting that the older you are the more likely you will be to hold disparaging views about video games and the people that play them. “But you also get the same reaction from people that don’t play games. Generally, what you find is that people who do play games have more moderate beliefs about their effects on us,” while crucially, these beliefs “tend to be more aligned with what scientific research is telling us about the effect games have on their players.”

Which is a tactful way of saying that older people (or those that maintain their distance from the technology) may, in fact, be contributing to the type of ‘generation gap’ moral panic that once went with telephone usage, electronic calculators or, going centuries back, even the printed word. To his credit, at this point the 30-something Etchells expresses his certainty that, “in 20 years’ time there will be a brand-new technology that I’ll be rallying against. That’s just the nature of how these things go.” *

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