*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Just what are they playing at?

by
03 August 2011

Video games today offer unprecedented levels of realism and brutality. In the first of a two-part series, Simon Hall asks how we can accompany young people into these new, uncharted virtual waters

A FEW years ago, a friend of my son lent him a Play­Station video game. This was a touching act of friend­ship, par­ticularly as we did not have a Play­Station at the time. I was glad we did not have one: the game was called Grand Theft Auto IV and it had an 18 certificate.

The game had come to the atten­tion of a wider audience when it was discovered that players could pick up a prostitute in their car and do what they liked with her, includ­ing killing her to get their money back. Of course, this was not any­thing special — you could kill anyone and everyone in this game.

The game was for grown-ups; so the (purely theoretical) banning of the game in our house seemed fair, even though my son was annoyed by my draconian parenting. He was five; his friend was six.

The company behind that game, Rockstar, has just released its latest game, L.A. Noire. Described as “a violent crime-thriller that blends breathtaking action with true detec­tive work to deliver an unprece­dented interactive experience”, the game is predicted to win awards around the world.

Promotional footage for L.A. Noire suggests that it could be a hyperreal version of classic noir movies such as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. This is most definitely an adult game. And adult games are no minority interest — the games industry is now bigger than the film industry, both in this country and globally.

L.A. Noire is a single-player game; it is an engrossing experience, like starring in your own movie. Your attention is so captured that you stop being aware of what is going on around you in the real world.

THOSE effects appear to be multiplied significantly when it comes to the world of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games. These are games where thousands of players connect via the internet and all play to­gether. The most famous of these is World of Warcraft (WoW), set in a mythological world not unlike Tol­kein’s Middle Earth.

The game has more than 11 million players worldwide, many of whom spend several hours a day fighting orcs and discovering treasure. WoW players communicate with each other through online messaging, both text- and voice-based, and have intense “virtual” relationships with fellow gamers from all over the world.

WoW has an age rating of 12-plus, which means that teenagers can play legitimately, and many do.

I once sat at the back of a church and watched a teenage boy play WoW on a laptop throughout a service, using the building’s wireless internet connection. It has been described by a leading technology website, CNET, as “the crack cocaine of gaming”.

Video games have clearly come a long way from the days of Pong, in which eager 1970s children (and parents, who experienced a kind of childlike awe) moved paddles up and down the sides of a TV screen in a very basic approximation of table tennis.

Even those of us who grew up on those early gaming machines can feel out of touch and somewhat nostalgic for the simple games of the past. I asked Paul Tapper, who has been a voice actor and pro­grammer in the games industry for more than a decade, what he felt about this huge shift. When did gaming become so adult?

“The computer-games industry is a business; so it will make whatever games are the most profitable,” he said. “The kind of games that are made is dictated by who is most likely to buy games — at the mo­ment, 15-to-35-year-old males, but gradually spreading wider through society — and what games are tech­nically feasible, and cost-effective, to make.”

GAMES are so violent at the moment, he says, partly for technical reasons: “Cur­rently, games are able to represent reality to a semi-believable extent, graphically and audibly, but the control mechanisms are still very limited. This lends itself to games set in realistic worlds, with a simple input mechanism, i.e. point and shoot.”

GAMES are so violent at the moment, he says, partly for technical reasons: “Cur­rently, games are able to represent reality to a semi-believable extent, graphically and audibly, but the control mechanisms are still very limited. This lends itself to games set in realistic worlds, with a simple input mechanism, i.e. point and shoot.”

My immediate thought was that the relentless killing in these games would surely lead to violent be­haviour by their players. Not so, says Professor Mark Griffiths, a chartered psychologist and director of the International Gaming Re­search Unit at Nottingham Trent University. I asked him if there was evidence of harmful effects.

“Obviously, there are ethical concerns about academics getting children to play inappropriate games for long periods,” he says; “so, in my opinion, there is not much rigorous research out there that proves very much about vio­lence and gaming. My basic view is that the adverse impacts are mas­sively outweighed by the positive ones.”

But what about the research we see in the newspapers and on TV, suggesting that video games make children more aggressive? “The media prefers bad news to good,” he says. “There is much more re­search saying that gaming has good, or at least no ill effects, but that never makes it into the popular consciousness.”

Defenders of video gaming point to raised self-esteem, and increases in reaction times and hand-eye co-ordination. They also highlight edu­cational benefits, including an im­proved ability to handle informa­tion; work according to rules; collaborate in a team; and communicate with others. Brain activity when playing games is significantly higher than it is when watching TV.

The most robust study, carried out on more than 15,000 adolescents in Germany, reported that three per cent of male adolescents and 0.3 per cent of female adolescents were de­pendent on gaming.

“For extreme users, there may be medical or psychosocial impacts, but for normal users that is not the case,” Professor Griffiths con­cludes.

BUT what is “normal” use? “I have three ‘screenagers’ who spend several hours a day in front of a screen,” he says. “When I was their age, I watched TV just as much, whereas my kids barely watch TV at all. I get contacted by worried parents all the time, and I have to say I think they are pathologising perfectly normal behaviour.

BUT what is “normal” use? “I have three ‘screenagers’ who spend several hours a day in front of a screen,” he says. “When I was their age, I watched TV just as much, whereas my kids barely watch TV at all. I get contacted by worried parents all the time, and I have to say I think they are pathologising perfectly normal behaviour.

“How is the child’s educational attainment? What about a social life with friends and family? Do they have other hobbies? If gaming is not negatively impacting these other areas, I wouldn’t get too upset. What perplexes me is not the number of hours children play games, but the games that parents let their children play.

“I don’t understand why parents who wouldn’t let their children watch an 18-rated movie let them play an 18-rated game. The PEGI [Pan European Games Information] age-rating system is clear and simple; no parent should be ignor­ant of what their children are con­suming.”

I wanted to talk to Christians who played video games, to see how they interpreted the move in video games away from the children’s market and towards more adult themes. I found two groups, based in the United States. Gamers 4 Jesus (www.gamers4jesus.org) provides fellow­ship and Bible study for gamers, while Christ Centred Gamer (www.ccgr.org) is a game-review site.

I wanted to talk to Christians who played video games, to see how they interpreted the move in video games away from the children’s market and towards more adult themes. I found two groups, based in the United States. Gamers 4 Jesus (www.gamers4jesus.org) provides fellow­ship and Bible study for gamers, while Christ Centred Gamer (www.ccgr.org) is a game-review site.

I asked Mike Marquardt of Gamers 4 Jesus how they square their faith with playing games based on simu­lated killing. “I don’t get a kick out of killing people,” he said, “I get a kick out of the game — the strategic aspects, and the fellow­ship.”

Cheryl Gress, of Gamer, con­curred. “I don’t play games with excessive blood and gore, and I disable that stuff when given the option to do so. It’s like a game of tag. . . Then you have the war-style games, which are a bit more realistic. I know Chris­tian gamers who won’t play these kinds of games, and I totally respect that.”

When asked about the negative ef­fects of gaming, both Mr Marquardt and Ms Gress focused on the dangers of addiction rather than of content. They recommended strict control of usage by parents and carers, and equally strict enforce­ment of age limits on games.

Nevertheless, there are clearly content issues as well. Ms Gress ex­plained that she started her website (which publishes game reviews that include ethical and theological re­flection) because she saw lots of casual occult imagery in video games.

When I asked if they believed that some games should be off-limits to Christians, both displayed the strong libertarianism of gamer culture. “Who am I to tell anyone else they can’t play a game?” Mr Marquadt said. Ms Gress agreed: “We don’t make decisions for our readers. . . and know that everyone is in a different place in their Chris­tian walk.”

The programmer Paul Tapper echoed the Bible in saying: “All things are permissible, but not every­thing is advisable.”

Everyone I spoke to, including young people, were supremely re­laxed about video games. Resis­tance is useless. Addiction is real, but the view seemed to be that being a gaming addict was more like being a telly addict than a heroin addict.

I am not so sure. My son is 11 now, and would happily play on his PlayStation all day if we let him. The level of realism, and the combina­tion of challenge and reward, all packaged up in an interactive medium, creates an illusion of control and success which the real world cannot match.

In reality, gaming is still in its infancy. I am hoping that, in the not too distant future, we will see inter­active experiences that have depth and meaning, not just brilliant imagery and endorphin-releasing gameplay.

Next week: Simon Hall visits a project that uses video games to turn round the educational prospects of some of Britain’s most disadvantaged young people.

Screengrab: protecting children

Screengrab: protecting children

The collected advice of our interviewees, if your children are gamers

Treat gaming as you would any other media, such as TV. You have a right to control what your child consumes, and to steer them towards games that are constructive and edu­cational.

Agree a maximum usage with your child, and stick to it. Children who become addicted to games will need you to help them stop playing. It is often best to save it until after homework as a reward. If it is done the other way round, home­work seems like a punish­ment for gaming.

Do not have televisions, computers, smartphones, or handheld gaming devices in bedrooms. Or at least remove items and/or power supplies at bedtime. Some people turn off the internet at 10 p.m. to control computer use.

Play with your child some­times, or watch them play. It is important that you understand gaming, and why particular games are so important to a particular child. But be aware that playing a game can be about creating a space without adults — in the same way as music and TV were for previous generations.

Try to encourage gaming as a social activity, where friends or family play together rather than on their own.

Understand the PEGI rating system and the law about games. This video for teachers is clear and helpful: http://bit.ly/krhUxp.

Understand the PEGI rating system and the law about games. This video for teachers is clear and helpful: http://bit.ly/krhUxp.

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)