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Opinion: Video game detractors becoming weaker, weirder
Opinion: Video game detractors becoming weaker, weirder Exclusive
May 31, 2012 | By Colin Campbell

Games have been lambasted for their negative influences for the past 30 years. Parents have fretted about this new medium, while mainstream journalists and politicians have taken advantage of these fears and concerns. But as games have moved closer and closer to the center of our culture, the criticisms have lessened in volume but increased in eccentricity.

CNN ran an editorial last week titled The Demise of Guys: How Video Games and Porn are Ruining a Generation.

Penned by Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan, it argues that men are "hooked on arousal, sacrificing their schoolwork and relationships in the pursuit of getting a tech-based buzz."

The same outlet ran an editorial late last year by former Secretary of Education William Bennett stating that games are to blame for the "decline" of men. He wrote, "We may need to say to a number of our twenty-something men, 'Get off the video games five hours a day, get yourself together, get a challenging job and get married.'"

Both Bennett and Zimbardo find it shocking that the overall educational achievements of men are declining in comparison to women, and both conclude that the culprit for this specific malaise must be modes of modern entertainment.

It's interesting to see how our culture has at first viewed video games as a joke, a fad, then attempted to reject games, before finally accepting them. Bennett and Zimbardo may be voicing the concerns of large numbers of people, but those are generally the concerns of people who are losing relevance and power, whose worldview is fading.

Reading the comments to my own response to Dr. Zimbardo's piece on IGN, I was struck by how many readers offered up passionate evidence for the good that games had brought them in their lives. There is a generation of men in their 20s and 30s, many of whom view games as an extremely important element in their upbringing and formative years, who found psychological comfort and human camaraderie in games during difficult teen years, and continue to do so.

One reader, Aubin, wrote, "I grew up in a broken household with zero good influences, I was treated poorly by family and kids in school, but video games were my escape back in the 90s and even today to some extent. I had a chance to escape this horrible life playing Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Chrono Cross. I would lose myself in those worlds. I believe those games and those worlds, their stories and characters saved me."

Increasingly, the views of guys like Dr. Zimbardo and Bennett look crankish and odd. To make a connection between the popularity of online pornography and games seems like lazy thinking, a bizarre coupling of sexual compulsions with the compulsions to succeed built into some games by their designers. These are complex human behavior patterns that deserve to be studied and compared, not thrown together as a catch-all explanation for complicated socio-economic and cultural changes that may take us decades to unravel.

It sometimes does seem a shame that the critics of video games come to the debate armed so poorly. What does it say for the idea that games are a bad thing, that a man like Jack Thompson could have emerged as its most strident and noisy culture-warrior? Thompson's profile in David Kushner's excellent book Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto reveals a well-meaning fellow with ideas firmly rooted in the 'silent majority' Nixon era. Such thinking may play well in the old folks homes of his home-state of Florida and even to the permanently outraged viewers of 24-hour news channels, but it lacks the kind of intellectual vigor required to address fundamental shifts in an entire generation's behavior patterns

There's a great story in the new book Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood, about the launch of the game Medal of Honor and how the Congressional Medal of Honor Society were extremely angry about the game's name, just prior to launch. That organization's president Paul Bucha came to the game maker's offices, Dreamworks Interactive, and met with various people involved in the game, including Steven Spielberg. The game developers were all deeply impressed with the arguments that Bucha made, and it looked like the game might be scrapped. The only argument they had was to give Bucha a demo of the game. He played it and was convinced, not by arguments or big-shot Hollywood directors, but by the experience of play. In the end, the Society endorsed the game, because they believed in offered educational merit.

This is a microcosm of the shifts in public opinion concerning games. What seems like something negative and destructive, often turns out to be positive and enriching, once experienced. More people play games, so fewer hold aggressively negative opinions about them.

Of course, those of us who read Gamasutra are going to be predisposed towards games as a good thing, and biased against people who criticize them. But also, I believe, we are receptive to strong arguments and good evidence either way. Neither Bennett nor Zimbardo nor Thompson offer much in the way of science, save a few chunks of disappointingly stringy research bobbing around in a thick stew of their own opinion.

And while research that emphatically proves that gaming is making the world a better place is also elusive, the arguments and statistics that speak for them as net positives continue to impress. Frugal Dad has an infographic this week titled 'Gaming is Good For You' that shows snippets of data such as "76% of married couples playing MMOs together said the experience had a positive effect on their marriage."

Taking a more emotional point of view, game developer Tadhg Kelly ran an editorial last week on his blog What Games Are that attempted to state gaming's emotional assets. He wrote, "Games are belief engines. Games are canvases for stories in motion. Games are a challenge and a learning activity. Games are ideas. Games are explorations both intellectual and meaningful. Games are positive. Games make life better. Games help you feel success when all around you is grey and confusing. Games are change."

It's not science, but it's also not the PR puffery or the sort of alarmist mantras that we hear from commentators like Dr. Zimbardo and Bennett who, by the way, filed their guest columns for CNN to promote new books they had written on what is going wrong with society, a genre that never fails to find its place on the shelves of bookstores.

Perhaps we need a book that seeks to demonstrate gaming effects on our lives, both positive and negative, but which doesn't rely on broader statistical analysis of failing college-grades as its central factual pillar. Just as gaming becomes a more important piece of everyone's lives, we need better critics than ones being served up.

Colin Campbell has been writing about the games industry for 25 years. He currently works for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @colincampbellx.

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Stephen Wright
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To Colin:

I am curious if you have researched the Zimbardo prison experiments and how crazy it got in those experiments. If you have researched these experiments you will understand where the editors are coming from. And why you are part of the problem they are addressing.

Zimbardo and Bennett are not saying Video games / Pornography are bad and immoral things. They are saying one of the drawbacks to them is ADDICTION. Video Game Addiction IS a bad thing that causes damage to people's life (and possibly even to their life)

They are saying to game developers that Video games can have good and bad effects on people's lives (just like all other forms of art). And that if Developers were to blindly look away from the bad things they cause they will only make the problems worse.

They key word here is People not persons though. Sociology (study of people) (which relates to multiplayer) has a lot of nasty consequences if your not knowledgeable. Psychology (study of individuals) (aka single player) generally boosts a person's morale.

For instance by totally denouncing these researchers without reading their work is a really bad habit that America and people in general needs to break. It is one of the worst forces of society at work. And while i did disagree with some of their statements some of them had a ring of truth to them.

One other is of course Binary thinking - one that all computer geeks are in danger of

Stephen Wright - attending WCSU for a BBA in Information Systems

Josh Rough
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Stay in school - you've got a lot more learning to do.

Kelly Kleider
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"... Bennett are not saying Video games / Pornography are bad and immoral things"

Bennett is saying exactly that. Bennett is not a researcher. Bennett is in the business
of selling his horrible books. He wants people to believe that the world is crumbling before our he can sell the "fix".

Here's a list of his "commentary" on CNN.

Luke Quinn
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Zimbardo should be in prison for his role in the prison experiments and allowing them to get as out of control as they did.

Ian Uniacke
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@josh, kelly, luke: Wow. Is it really that threatening to you that someone has an alternative opinion? Perhaps you should actually read some of the research before knee jerk reacting and ridiculing a person whose making a well thought and researched argument.

Amir Sharar
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I'm inclined to agree that too much of anything can be bad for a person. So I would take any study with an open mind, despite my fondness for videogames.

But I see logical errors in the Zimbardo/Duncan article that make their argument look very shaky. While it may be the case that one would need a bit more to understand where they are coming from, they did decide to pen the article that they did.

For example, to explain addiction to games they mention, "Video game and porn addictions are different. They are "arousal addictions," where the attraction is in the novelty, the variety or the surprise factor of the content.".

A clear contradiction to that is the fact that a top selling game like Call of Duty hasn't really provided gamers with surprises or much variety (I'm going to ignore their term "novelty" because pretty much anything with appeal fulfills that). In fact, the Modern Warfare series has always been more of the same, for good reason. People like it due to its familiarity, as the first MW title did many things right. One big reason for the success of the series has to do with the competitive nature of the game moreso than anything else. This competitive draw, exists in many other popular games as well, from TF2, to Halo, to RTS games like Star Craft.

Similarly, games like WoW have different features that gamers find addictive. Leveling a character up can be, as most of us know, an addictive process and it is something that game designers have exploited to increase the appeal of their game. Why is Angry Birds so popular, and why are people addicted to that game? Why do people spend a lot of their free time playing Draw Something, or Words with Friends? Zimbardo's explanation can't be applied to all games and doesn't recognize the fact that people are addicted for different reasons.

They also make the claim that, "Stories about this degeneration are rampant: " and then refer to news oddities where someone takes their addiction to the extreme. If it were truly rampant, an implied epidemic, they could have had more convincing facts to back up their argument. For example, "84% of gamers have failed marriages" or "1 in 3 gamers suffer from depression". Those numbers would be "rampant". Their examples may be a reflection of some segment of the population, but we don't know how much and they do not give us any indication. It seems like a very weak statement, and in a sense almost contradicted when they use extreme freak occurrences to demonstrate "rampant".

Here's another statement that we should take issue with, "Children with more of a propensity for aggression are more attracted to violent video media, but violent media, in turn, can also make them more aggressive."

So they make a clear definitive statement, perhaps because they can back it up with evidence, that violent children are attracted to violent imagery. Then they follow that up with a possibility, signifying that they do not have the required research to make a definitive claim. That "possibility" statement saying that children "can" also make them more aggressive. Not "will" make them more aggressive. "Will" would imply a direct connection, a cause and an expected effect, but they cannot go to that length because perhaps they do not have the evidence to back that statement up.

And before I got any further (frankly, I feel I don't have to), I have to point out that statements like "can" have always been used by fear-mongers. To imply a possibility, but not defining the actual possibility, is a common tactic. It can be used to justify anything. We see it in politics all the time.

Maybe they have some concrete evidence through study and research, but we aren't seeing it in the article. We are seeing a lot of "if X happens, Y may follow" and it never goes into the probability of Y happening.

You cannot blame article readers then, for any misinterpretation. The writers should have been more responsible in presenting their perspective if much of it seemed rather flimsy.

Again, I don't disagree with the idea that what we consume as human beings can affect us negatively, especially if it's too much of something. Much like how consuming large amounts of unhealthy foods can be bad for a person, I can see the logic in extending that to what we read, what we see, and what we do. Yes, it is very feasible that viewing porn can make some men devalue women...but I'd really like to see a study on that. I can see how someone resorting to escapism excessively can lose touch with reality, but again, show me a study. If the connection can be demonstrated, by all means demonstrate it.

Going back to the food analogy, what I see from Zimbardo and Duncan is fear-mongering akin to some Atkins diet fanatics. I contrast that to a more moderate and sobering analysis from experts who encourage us to eat in moderation. To some degree, the industry recognizes that not all videogames are for all people. The ESRB, for example, recognizes this. But it's based on more than just the fear-mongering we're seeing from these guys. An article like the one on CNN shouldn't convince anybody of anything. It was poorly argued and raises more questions in regards to their research, than provide any answers for those legitimately interested in the topic.

Kelly Kleider
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Bennett is not a researcher, I am not threatened by him, I am dismayed that his horrible ideas get so much traction. He gets the opportunity to have his opinions published because of his past involvement with government. What did he do exactly? The "Winners don't do drugs" screen on video games. His best achievement is a useless "ad" campaign. He could have used his research skills to learn something about the proliferation of drugs, but instead he used government authority to have his name and stupid slogan splashed across video game screens all over the US. He is the worst kind of "researcher" because he has a position he wants to support with cherry picked "facts". He may be considered an expert on addiction since he apparently likes to gamble...a lot. Okay that was a cheap shot... I have not said anything about Zimbardo (he does admit to being deliberately alarmist, which does undermine the severity of his argument), it is Bennett who needs to be pushed off the stage. I would love to see research and analysis from actual researchers rather than people who have a position from which they will not move. Bennett also supported the Abstinence Only crap. A position that, while ideologically pure, has the opposite effect than the intent. Instead of acknowledging the reality of the situation and taking a pragmatic view, Bennett and ideologues like him doubled-down on their horrible position. Too much policy is determined by people who shape their opinions absent facts and then attempt to coerce public opinion through the use of misleading, outdated and often flawed information. It is intellectually dishonest, in other words, lying.

"Women's earnings grew 44% in real dollars from 1970 to 2007, compared with 6% growth for men."

Bennett's attack on video games was just a side-effect of him attacking women. He states that men are in decline because women have increased their earnings 44% since 1970. He doesn't cite any source (because he cherry picked "the data"). Because women have chipped away at the gender wage gap, men are in decline, THAT is his argument in a nutshell. The raw gender wage gap in 2010 is about 23%. Bennett is concerned about men in "decline" when women are struggling to get paid the same as men.


Your turn, Ian. Bennett-is-great-and-well-thought-out defense...GO!

Bryan Ferris
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Zimbardo has been criticized, and for good reason (I'll disregard ethical concerns here, as they lend no weight to the validity of the conclusions reached). In the Stanford Prison Experiment, he put himself inside of the experiment rather than remaining a neutral observer, coloring any conclusions reached. What he essentially did was a giant case study, which you can't draw generalized conclusions from (it would be like if a pharmaceutical company grabbed 24 random people, gave them the chicken pox, administered a drug and submitted that 'study' to the FDA so that they could commercialize it). Bringing that up gives him less credibility, not more.

And were you really trying to imply that because computer geeks work with computers, which are binary at their core, they are more likely than the general populace to commit binary thinking? There are so many problems with that I don't even know where to begin...

Weston Wedding
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I just wish a man of science like Zimbardo would actually contribute some scientific, peer-reviewed literature on this subject instead of trying to cash in. Maybe he tried and couldn't get funding, or maybe his submissions didn't pass peer review.

Get some studies published and then talk to us about the effects of videogames and porn of the YOO-man mind, Zimbardo!

Eric Geer
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'Get off the video games five hours a day, get yourself together, get a challenging job and get married.'

Worst argument ever---How the hell gamer's supposed to play their games if they don't have a job? It's not the cheapest hobby around.

As for the getting married thing--marriage is slowly becoming a dying tradition--and if you think its not dying..well...its sure as hell broken...what's the divorce rate up to now?

Anyway--I will say...I am employed/married/have a house and have plenty of time to play games.(so does my wife :P)

But anyway--I never understood the argument against video games..because I as well was helped throught he years through not only video games, but card games, board games, table top games, etc. I was socially awkward and in general fairly introverted(unless I have imbibed some liquid social juice) And I didn't generally enjoy traditional athletic games that were and are so popular in schools. I did well in school, have had a few steady of jobs, and have supported my hobbies throughout the years.

If anything gaming in all forms has taught me a ton more about life than a job and having a woman. I've had my imagination expanded, my life improved, my outlook brightened, and frustrations diminished thanks to [video]games.

k s
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I second this statement.

Keith Thomson
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I found that statement funny. I'm lucky if I even get 5 hours a day to game. It's usually more like 2-3, work and family take up most of the rest of the time. I can't think of a time in my life where I didn't spend at least 5 hours or more average a day doing something other than gaming.

Bobby Bell
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This article is a lot better than the one Campbell put up for IGN. At least here he takes Zimbardo semi-seriously. I agree with the prevailing attitude: games receive the brunt (unfairly) of a lot of societyís problems, and gamers get stereotyped all the stinkiní time. That said, I donít think Zimbardo can be so easily dismissed as a hack, not like the lawmakers who are obviously looking to be champions in the eyes of their constituents against the evils of GTA and Mortal Kombat. Iíve met young men (and women!) of both stripes: those who drown themselves in games, and those for whom games are merely a source of pleasure and enjoymentÖnot the source of life itself. We should be able to take seriously any criticisms and either dismiss or consider them.

Megan Swaine
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Link/Publicity Bait.

Troy Walker
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... no possible way at all that the emasculation of men across the board has anything to do with any of these things...

cause you know, games where just recently invented and.. so was porn.

(give me a f'n break)

EnDian Neo
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Just wanted to correct some mistakes.

Video porn is not recent. The first porn films were made during the Great Depression in the 1920s.

Pornography as in lewd and sexual/sensual images are Ancient with a capital A. The Romans are famous for their wall frescos depicting sexual postures, often found in bath houses... and houses of pleasure.

I thank the History Channel.

Leonardo Ferreira
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What really bothers me is not the blaming of some toxic games here and there, but the medium of games as a whole.

The funny things is, these guys are the ignorant ones; they were the ones too lazy to make their research.

Arthur De Martino
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Hence why bother?

Let the old men rave. I want them to make fools of themselves. There is need of conflict. I feel that the more outcry for games is minor and cuckoo the easier is to dismiss these said groups.

While keeping them at their toes. Make them reach the true problems of gaming, so we can finally discuss them among peers. I'm waiting for the decryers to step it up so we can have a glorious debate.

Zach Grant
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I don't want to have kids or get married specifically because I want to play video games, sports and do other activities whenever I want. He might think that minimizing my responsibilities in life to maximize my fun free time actives is being a selfish male, but I couldn't care less what social norms people want to push on me.

Brian Tsukerman
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I'm of the opinion that this is the same tug-of-war that society has experienced with every advancement. You have the old/traditionalist/conservative view that the cool new things are destroying the foundations of our "righteous" society and that we'd be better off abandoning them and returning to what once was, forever citing the (typically few) extreme cases that "prove" the inevitable negative consequences. Then you have the new/futurist/liberal opinion that the innovation is worth the potential risks, referencing unproven possibilities and the occasional concrete positive example.

What I find most interesting though is William Bennett's quote at the beginning, that men are in decline because fewer of them are endeavoring to get a challenging job or married. I've heard the argument before, with the aforementioned men being referred to as "lost boys" by such publications as the Daily Mail, as seen here:

It's a common theme lately that I do think needs to be readily considered, since the question it asks is "what is expected from the modern man?" Is Bennett's position of "find mate, reproduce, provide" still as relevant as it ever was? Has it changed completely as women become more empowered and independent? Or is it a slow transition away from the former due in part to the latter?

- A single, underemployed twenty-something male

wes bogdan
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While i might prefer single player "story/campain" mode to constant 15 minute bouts that to an outside observer could look like ADHD spats i do also enjoy online gaming.

The trick is to get those set in their ways : rock n roll bad,games bad anything new bad to simply give it a try and before you know it wii was for kids to grandparents.

I wouldn't reccommend saints row the 3rd,gta or violent games but the best "everyone" titles like:journey,flower,flow,lbp,team ico,uncharted series ,fable,blue dragon,fez,old arcade games on xbla,mindcraft,metroid,mario and zelda,mass effect series.

Things that can be held up to indy,great book series or are abstract/arcade/8-bit are an easy sell over kill death natzi mayham which would just look like everyone lost their minds. Put batman against the movies and it could be one.

While i consider running people down in a warthog in halo a guilty pleasure driving crazy that's not what older people would see so challange them at their levels of film,books and abstract thinking....people like puzels....can't spell on a nook.

We can win people by introducing things that would impress them not apall them.

wes bogdan
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Btw if the people who are being talked about were watching football drinking beer and having pizza well that's just part of what they understand/expect of guys...which is why they must be challenged if the love star wars then show mass effect but if they like indy show uncharted crime drama show la noire or heavy rain and if batman is what they crave then introduce them.

Storytelling in games has come along way and the more people accept or know and accept that the better.

Art lover show team ico,journey and flower.

Simon Ludgate
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Videogames the cause of low interest in marriage? Pfft. I lay the blame squarely on the lack of quality women. And I challenge any single woman in the greater Toronto area to go out on a date with me and prove me wrong. :P

EnDian Neo
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Challenge and invitation all in the same sentence. You might have a killer pick up line there.

Eric Geer
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I was born and raised in the US...I married a girl from Samoa in her own country.

I will agree that it is hard to find quality women here in the North Americas.

Eric McVinney
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Gamasutra, News on Gaming and on Dating :D

Bruno Xavier
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For the golden age of comics it was all the same.
Ppl will always fear new things.

Jeremy Reaban
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And yet I think they think they were right about comics. Comics pretty much killed off the pulps. Granted, they weren't exactly high art, but instead of people using their imagination to read and visualize adventure stories, they instead have everything drawn out and simplified for them in comics.

Albert T
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I have friends in the industry, and I have friends outside. Life inside gaming is different than the life outside. Inside gaming life, you talk about games, you play games, and you think and breathe video games. Whenever you hang out, someone will grab that Playstation controller and start playing something. If you are also game developers, you also talk about how to make games better. Itís a pretty exclusive life that nobody seems to know about and can relate to fully unless you are part of it.

Life outside of gaming is different, but not better. Although there is no talk about the next upcoming game, human personality and weaknesses to addiction remains. If not games, something else will replace the addiction. The quality of the addicted people is just as bad compared to those who are addicted to video games. Does quitting video game will automatically make you an outgoing and outdoor-sports-loving individual? No. You will find the replacement for your habit, and that replacement is not necessarily healthier, possibly worse (like drugs).

Addictions are always there, whether thatís smoking, porn, gaming, or drugs. The effect it does to human are identical. Video games themselves are actually the healthier alternative compared to smoking, drugs, and porn. You could actually gain something from playing them: historical references, hand-eye coordination, inspiration, and sometimes, you can play games for a living. Can you smoke for a living?

EnDian Neo
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Your premise is that everyone will be addicted to something, which (hopefully) is clearly false. And to be perfectly clear, when I say addicted, I mean the medical definition, not the colloquial use.

Michael Joseph
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Ironically, this article is lopsided, emotional and full of anecdotal evidence and bad characterizations of gaming opponents\detractors (or let's not call them outright "opponents" can't people express some concern about something anymore without being entirely "for" or "against" that something?

I don't see how this article is any better than the writings or words of those he's criticising.

I also reject the characterization that criticisms have lessened in volume (says who?) and the detractors have grown in WEIRDNESS. That's basically just an ad hominem attack.

We we need better critics of the ctritics than ones being served up.

p.s. I think the criticism is unquestionably GROWING. It may not be discussed on CNN, but it's being discussed a lot more by the people who work in the industry. I for one am seeing more and more of it right here on the various talkbacks on gamasutra. And unsurprisingly, that criticism is not black and white. It's considered, and nuanced and balanced.

p.s.s And the veiled suggestion that people should hold their tongues and not criticise X unless they have the scientific data to back up their claim is pretty absurd.

Ian Uniacke
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I'm not sure I've ever seen so much missing the point in a single page (article and comments included).

Gaming addiction is a real thing and support for the theories is growing. Burying your head in the sand and trotting out the same tired arguments doesn't add to the discussion, it just confuses and misdirects the discussion.

Michael DeFazio
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I'd tend to agree with the claim that there are people with gaming addiction and they need help. But Zimbardo and these articles do nothing but make generalizations and shake their finger at gaming (in general) rather than identify and try to find the science and or solutions behind problem gaming/gaming addiction.

To mention Anders Breivik in this article allows it to be placed squarely in the ignore bucket.

Joe McGinn
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From Jazz music to comic books to video games, every new art form brings out the dullards who are terrified of anything new. Ignore them.

EnDian Neo
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Or to paraphrase Woodrow Wilson (or Deus Ex HR): "If you want to make enemies, try to change something."

Tobias Hoffmann
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I can relate to this guy, as it was nearly the same with me:

"I grew up in a broken household with zero good influences, I was treated poorly by family and kids in school, but video games were my escape back in the 90s and even today to some extent. I had a chance to escape this horrible life playing Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, Chrono Cross. I would lose myself in those worlds. I believe those games and those worlds, their stories and characters saved me."

Alas, the escape from reality provided by video games ultimately has prevented him from hardening up, standing up to the kids in school and getting simple human respect. Which he (as I) didnt earn cause he had better, funnier, easier things to do...

Eric Geer
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"Alas, the escape from reality provided by video games ultimately has prevented him from hardening up, standing up to the kids in school and getting simple human respect. Which he (as I) didnt earn cause he had better, funnier, easier things to do..."

Looking back--it wasn't really worth it to try to stand up for yourself in was just royal waste of time IMO--kids are evil--there is a curiosity and ignorance that pushes children to the bounds of evil--not sure why..but it is there--and to stand up to that is not worth escape where you can...but yes...there were better, funnier and easier things to do....and my guess is that lots of gamasutra readers/commenters all fall into this same category.