What Are Video Games Turning Us Into?
Consider Connor Schmidt: 11 years old, caramel-colored eyes, high cheekbones, dueling cowlicks. Able to rattle off Star Wars minutiae so detailed it could put George Lucas to sleep. Reads the sports pages cover to cover every morning. Out loud. Plays baseball, practices the piano, studies tae kwon do, swallows up bestsellers like Harry Potter (book 5) and Lemony Snicket (11). Wants to work for Lego when he grows up. Plays video games. Hours and hours of video games. Connor had to lobby his parents hard for many months to get a gaming console, and last summer, to celebrate a good report card, he finally took home the goods: a
The thing wasn't in the house 10 days before he was pushing the boundaries on his one-hour-a-day limit, begging for teen-rated games ("May contain violent content, mild or strong language, and/ or suggestive themes"), and longing for the latest game - the superslick wireless Nintendo DS, a dual-screen hand-held system that sells for $149 and makes the Game Boy look like, well, a kid's toy.
Connor is diving headfirst into the new American pastime; more than 60 percent of the American population has played some kind of video game. Kids are gaming younger than ever - half of all children aged 4 to 6 have played video games, and a quarter say they do so regularly. And children, boys in particular, are abandoning traditional toys like action figures, building sets, and puzzles for video games. For the first time, children starting to game today are likely to have parents who played as teenagers themselves - the Atari 2600, the first video-game console to really hit it big in American living rooms, was released in 1977; Pac-Man was born in 1980; and the totemic Nintendo console debuted in 1986. And what's new is that gamers are showing no signs of stopping as they hit adulthood; the average age of video gamers is 29, and 17 percent of gamers are older than 50. All of this digital delight has made gaming a multibillion- dollar enterprise, one that frequently beats the earnings posted by the television and movie industries. Last year, Americans spent $9.9 billion on video games, on consoles like PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube, and on hand-held systems like Game Boy and Nintendo DS, as well as on various accessories, according to the NPD Group, a market-research firm. And then there is the $1 billion that buyers paid for PC games and accessories.
Given these numbers it's no surprise that gaming is pushing boundaries, influencing everything from marketing campaigns (
With its freaks-and-geeks ghettoization firmly in the past, video gaming is the new normal, a part of life for an ever-wider range of the population. Eight-year-old Sam McPherson, from Eliot, Maine, for example, has been using a computer since he was 18 months old. He now plays Need for Speed Underground, a racing game rated "E," for everyone, on his family's computer. After work some nights, Sam's dad, Jamie, 39, hooks up online with a squadron of players from all over the world to play Ghost Recon, an interactive war game known as a shooter. To Jamie, gaming is like a night out with the guys, without going out. "I've always compared it to poker night. If it's Monday, it's 8 o'clock, then everybody's on, and I gotta go downstairs and play." Steve Mounsey, a 17-year-old senior at Beverly High School, works after school at a video-game store in Beverly, owns eight different gaming systems, and hopes to design video games for a living someday. Steve plays the ultraviolent 3-D martial-arts game Mortal Kombat, and he plays it with his mom. "She's cool with it," Mounsey says with a half laugh. "She knows I'm not going to go off and decapitate people afterward."
But what does it do to us, this national multigenerational preoccupation with shooters and sliders and high scores and monkeys playing bongos in the jungle? How does gaming affect children like Connor? Will it turn him into a violence-addicted rampaging teen? Overweight couch potato? Independent problem problem solver? Corporate tool?
In trying to unravel gaming's cultural implications, there are plenty of theories but little consensus among parents, teachers, doctors, sociologists, and gamers themselves. Still, it seems important to try, because Connor is my son, and I'm the one who bought him that damn box in the first place.
We boot up. A short animated movie plays first, giving us the back story - Carl Johnson is a young man framed for murder by a pair of rogue cops and dumped out in a very bad part of town with no ride, no gun, and almost no cash. He's hungry and, after months in prison, due for a little female companionship. Then we're off. Aided and abetted by my 30-something brother and his buddy, we career around a city that's unmistakably meant to be Los Angeles, but the Compton kind of LA, not the Hollywood variety. The sky glows a queasy orange. We yank open the door of a car idling nearby, kick and punch the driver to the curb, steal his car, and tune the radio to vintage rap: NWA. Next we smash sideways into another driver and steal his money and his gun, leaving him motionless in the middle of the road. We slow down to eye the trash-talking, half-naked prostitutes sashaying up the sidewalk. the sidewalk. A woman hops in, and the car rocks obligingly. Unfortunately, our cash is low, so when she opens the door to leave, we whack her over and over again with the butt of the gun and rob back the money we paid for her services. Blood pours from her head onto the pavement. But is she dead? For good measure, we reverse the car over her body before speeding off. The screen accommodatingly paints a set of thick black tire tracks across her back.
So goes a game of Grand Theft Auto, or GTA as it's universally known, the ne plus ultra of video games, the media's favorite whipping boy, the one conservatives have in mind when they talk about our poisonous popular culture. The game is rated "M," for mature, which it earned for "blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content, [and] use of drugs."
Yet when I stood in line to buy the latest version, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, on its first day of release last October, I waited beside a remarkable array of ordinary-looking people: preteens out late on a school night; high school jocks holding hands with their skinny, shy girlfriends; young marrieds on their way home from work; gray-haired guys in business suits and expensive shoes.
As it turns out, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas generated a staggering $235 million in revenue in its first week on the street and became the best-selling video game of 2004. Can it possibly be that all those avid GTA-ers are on track to become violent killers?
Scientists don't agree, yet, anyway, on whether violent video games cause violent actions. But what is clear is that video games can be an excellent teacher of mayhem for people, teenagers in particular, who are already experiencing mental, emotional, or societal conflicts - bullying, a violent home life, depression - and are prone to or are contemplating violence.
In 1997, 14-year-old Michael Carneal brought a stolen .22-caliber pistol to a prayer group at his Paducah, Kentucky, school. He had taken only a few practice shots with the rifle, yet each of the eight shots he fired hit someone. Three teenage girls were killed in the attack. Turns out Michael had learned his sharpshooting from video games, particularly Quake and Doom. The latter was also a favorite of Littleton, Colorado, school shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
Those kinds of "first-person shooter" games, in which the player views the action through the eyes of an on-screen character, are an efficient way to learn how to kill without holding a gun, according to research by Dave Grossman, a retired US Army Ranger who studies the psychological aspects of human aggression. Violent video games do their work, Grossman says in his book Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill, by honing the physical skills needed to shoot and hit a target while simultaneously desensitizing players to the act of killing - in essence, overriding the natural human aversion to murder.
But desensitization isn't just a worry for potential school shooters. It can affect average kids as well, making them more willing to choose and tolerate violence. "As a society, we can inoculate against aggression, but we don't have the same set of social checks and balances against desensitization," says John Murray, a visiting scholar at the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital in Boston. Murray uses MRI technology to map the brains of children as they experience violent media images. He found that though children consciously know they're being entertained, their brains store those violent images in the area reserved for significant events, the same place where events that can trigger post-traumatic stress disorders are stored. "This begins to explain why kids who watch a lot of violent images are more likely to lash out in a confrontational situation," Murray says.
Violence aside, there are other, more subtle influences to consider. Some say that gaming also affects empathy, attention, and creativity, especially in younger children. While researchers work to validate various hypotheses on those topics, teachers in the trenches in elementary schools say they don't need to wait for study results to see the impact of excessive gaming in young kids. "There are always those few that are very obsessed. You see a difference in the way they participate, in their attention," says Cheryl Hirshman, who teaches elementary school in Lincoln and has led graduate programs at Wheelock College on media literacy. "Kids who are heavily involved [in gaming] have no ability to sit still, no patience. School is not fast enough for them."
And like a lot of other specialists who work with children and teens, she worries about young gamers' physical health. "We do see overweight children and kids who aren't physically fit. They're so used to sitting and looking, they're just slower to react."
One widely reported study appears to back up Hirshman's hunch: The Center for Research on Interactive Technology, Television, and Children at the University of Texas has found that video-game use - but, surprisingly, not television - is "strongly related to children's weight status." Overweight children younger than 8 were much more likely to report spending a moderate amount of time playing video games than lower-weight kids. The relationship between weight and gaming isn't clear, though. It could be that the sedentary act of gaming causes weight gain, but it could be the opposite: that children who are socially ostracized for being heavy might be more likely to turn to games for amusement than their peers. Either way, it's not a healthy picture.
If gaming's legacy is a benumbed, overweight population of entertainment addicts apt to strike first and talk later, why don't video games have us up in arms? Two words: They're fun. It's fun to bash Pikachu off the edge of Hyrule Temple with an outsized hammer, as you can do in Super Smash Bros. Melee, and it's fun when he bounces back to life, unblemished, to die another day. It's fun to make Corey Dillon spike the football and dance in the end zone after a touchdown, as you can do in Madden NFL 2005. And to a lot of people, it's fun - in the sick-funny-in-your-face manner of a Quentin Tarantino movie or an Eminem rap - to run over prostitutes and stage home invasions in Grand Theft Auto.
Unlike television shows, video games are interactive, a distinction that seems to matter to a lot of people, parents in particular. "Anybody can sit on the couch and stare at a TV set with their mouth slightly open," says Jamie McPherson, the Maine gamer-dad. When playing video games, especially on a personal computer, as McPherson and his son do, "you're using a computer, using a mouse, using a keyboard, and you are troubleshooting," he says. "Granted, using a keyboard and a mouse is a minimal skill, but it's a skill a lot of grown-ups still have trouble with."
Most games offer at least a soupcon's worth of value with their entertainment. Simulation games, like the wildly popular Sims series, give players control over every aspect of life in a virtual city, from individuals' personality traits to transportation infrastructure - which takes no small amount of work to control. Titles like Civilization, an epoch-spanning strategy game that takes players from Babylonian villages to F15 fighter jets, are based, if loosely, on world history. Perhaps most significantly, video games have joined television and movies as a social leveler that cuts across geographic, economic, and, now, generational divides.
"The reason why my mom started letting us watch cartoons on Saturday mornings was so we would be able to have conversations with other kids, and the same went for video games," says Craig Colbeck, a 26-year-old Harvard graduate student who, as a latchkey teenager, spent many hours playing video games after school. "People always talk about how isolating the games are, but really, if you want to isolate your kid, send him outside to climb a tree. You climb a tree, you're the only one up there."
If the cliche were ever true of the lone teen outcast staring at a glowing game screen alone in a darkened room, it's emphatically not true anymore. Gaming consoles come with slots for four controllers, and in my house, those slots are rarely empty, as a rotating pack of fifth-graders socializes at decibel levels that make me long for a little treetop isolation. Multiplayer games, in which two or more people play together, are hot now, as is gaming over the Internet, either one-on-one or as part of what's known as a massively multiplayer online game, where thousands of players, or more, around the world interact within a fictional universe.
All this talk of community building across the continents is a far cry from pistol-whipping prostitutes in the privacy of your living room. Which influence will prevail? And, practically speaking, which scenario will play out when the Connors of the world take their place in the cubicle next to yours? Optimists are bullish on gamers' potential contribution to corporations. In the next five to 10 years, says Jim Ware, an executive producer with The Future of Work, an online research and education organization, companies will seek out employees who can work independently, collaborate easily, and function in small team environments - all talents gamers have in spades. "What we call the iPod generation of gamers, they've grown up with technology and learned to collaborate with one another in a play environment," says Charlie Grantham, another Future of Work principal. "This all easily translates to a work environment."
Of course, there is one teeny hitch, Grantham concedes. All that empowerment gamers have gained by exercising their innate problem-solving skills might not be particularly management-friendly. "These folks aren't going to say, 'Is this what my boss wants to do?' They're going to say, 'Let's dig in and see what's under here,' " Grantham says. "That's bad news for bosses who are control freaks."
Then there's the problem of personal electronics that become a bit too personal, says Greg Kasavin, a lifelong gamer and executive editor of the GameSpot online site. Kasavin wonders about the cumulative effects of electronics - cellphones,
Such tools "roll out the red carpet for you, but then you're in danger of thinking you actually deserve it," Kasavin says. "These things give you a sense of entitlement, the idea that everything can revolve around you." They also foster the expectation that everything is, or should be, interactive. When kids start gaming as young as 4 or 5 years old, even television loses its pull, says Michael Zey, a sociologist and author of the book The Future Factor: The Five Forces Transforming Our Lives and Shaping Human Destiny. "Kids look at the television and say, 'Why am I sitting here and not able to do anything to this screen?'"
There's something insidious about the mainstreaming of video-game culture. As I watch Connor play his new Game-Cube, it finally hits me: He doesn't look like a future school shooter or couch potato, he looks like a mini worker bee. Eyes glued to screen, oblivious to the world outside his machine, interacting at lightning speed with his peers, yes, but interacting on-screen, without benefit of eye contact or facial gestures. All of this looks disturbingly like what's known in the business world as a "knowledge worker," the ever-increasing number of us who spend the day with a mouse in hand, manipulating data of one kind or another, instant messaging co-workers, and conveying our emotions via smiley-face icons.
Is it a coincidence that leisure time and work time are starting to look alike for the more than 145 million Americans who play video games? Maybe those beloved Game Boys aren't a training ground for a gaming console so much as practice for a future BlackBerry dependency. No one's suggesting a conspiracy here - corporate America simply can't be that well-organized - but seen in this light, video gaming is more about complacency than anarchy. The next decade is expected to be tough for workers, yet members of the gaming generation might prove charmingly compliant as their hours are increased, their health benefits are drained away, and their Social Security is re-engineered out from under them. All they really want is T1-level Internet access dropped down to their desktops.
So how will this generation of gamers turn out? Marketing puppets? Worker bots? Violence junkies? The prospects are enough to induce a full-bore Luddite freak-out in parents, but Steve Jones, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago, helpfully defuses the powder keg with a little historical perspective. People, he points out, ask similar questions about influence and impact every time a new means of communication is introduced into the culture, be it books, photography, radio, movies, TV, or videotape.
"Take yourself back several hundred years," Jones suggests. "People were enormously suspicious about the printed word. Somebody's words, written down and distributed on a mass scale, were thought to be dangerous. We have these questions every time there's a new medium."
Back in our own century, a friend, a fellow parent, e-mails in a little historical perspective of his own. "Like cotton candy, recreational drugs, and teen dating, [gaming] is an experience that one needs to go through but not get stuck in," he says. "I have always treated gaming a little like a street drug. I don't want to get too involved myself, because I think I would like it too much, but I think in moderation it's probably OK."
Ah, moderation. Moderation we've done before. We did it with the pacifier, we did it with Thomas the Tank Engine, we did it with
Connor keeps his cube, and in between sessions of Super Smash Bros., he gets dragged off to the museum, the symphony, and the library and kicked out into the sunshine and the snow. It's like using the real world as a cyberculture counterpunch. Take that, Mario.
Tracy Mayor has been writing about technology since before the Macintosh was invented. Her last story for the magazine was about lawns.