Thursday, March 8, 2012

Video Game Mania

In the last few years, my kids have graduated from GameCube to wii to Xbox360.  As the systems and the games that run on them have become increasingly complex and engaging, playing games has become their free-time activity of choice, winning out over watching TV and playing with other toys (but thankfully not over sports or reading).  This is especially true of my younger son, who logs several hours every day on Xbox live with his friends.

DH has concerns about the amount of time they spend playing, and worries about the addictive qualities of the games.  He sees the games as a cancer and holds them responsible for everything that goes wrong in our household.

While I don't want our younger son to be too focused on gaming, I can see the entertainment that the games provide.  Gaming is no longer a solitary activity - the kids play in teams with friends and constantly talk to each other through their headsets.  Winning requires planning, cooperation, good communication, and, of course, this being video gaming, lightning fast reactions.  Beyond this, I think our kids are actually better behaved with each other than ever.  They rarely fight anymore, having worked out a system for sharing the Xbox by themselves.  Despite the games' reputation for violence, I find that I have interfere with their fights much, much less since they have an outlet for their aggression.  (Before we had the game systems, they used to fight all the time -- it seemed to be their main activity, and they automatically turned to hitting each other whenever they got the least bit bored.)

It is clear to me that gaming is something that younger people adapt to quickly - even if I played as much as my kids do, I doubt that I would have their quick reflexes.  And while the love gaming isn't an entirely generational thing, it is increasingly clear to me that the biases against video games are generally from older people who haven't experienced the complex storylines and the way that one game session builds on the last in today's video games.

So I had all of these things in mind when I read yesterday's Wall Street Journal article, When Gaming is Good for You.  The article reports on recent studies that suggest that playing video games sharpens decision making, improves focus, speeds thinking, boosts creativity, boosts brain function, enhances motor skills.  Today I read through the comments from readers on the WSJ web site.  Many threads were simply arguments between the pro-gamers and the anti-gamers.  A number of them were a hoot (my favorite was by a dad who asserted that the piece must be the result of his son hacking the WSJ site).  One linked to a piece asserting that video games strengthen visual spatial skills.  (Of course another linked to articles that worry about the violence in video games.)

Of course people can say whatever they want, but it is clear that video games are here to stay.  In fact, video games have created a huge business - so important and fast-growing in fact, that The Economist ran a special report on the video game industry in December, noting that the launch of a new game now surpasses the excitement and sales that used to accompany a movie premiere or book release.  The video game market is now worth about $56 billion, more than twice the size of the recorded music industry, almost a quarter more than the magazine business, and 3/5 of the the film industry (including dvd and box office sales).
3/12/2012 update:  The Smithsonian's exhibit "Art of the Video Game" also explores the place of video games in today's culture, albeit from a different perspective.  Recognizing that even the Supreme Court recognizes that video games are an art form deserving of First Amendment protection like books, plays, and movies, this show celebrates 40 years of game design.  Chris Melissinos, who curated the exhibit, notes that video games are the most immersive medium of all, saying "In books, everything is laid before you.  There is nothing left for you to discover.  Video games are the only forms of artistic expression that allow the authoritative voice of the author to remain true while allowing the observer to explore and experiment."

3/16/2012 update: The recent Hampshire College conference points to the economic benefits of video game and digital animation companies.

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