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.
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.