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Games people play

25 September 2015

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IN THE glossy and stylish exploration Horizon: Are video games really that bad? (BBC2, Wednesday of last week), there was much food for serious reflection.

First, some myths were overturned: more players are aged over 35 than belong to any other age group; and nearly half of them are women. It ended with significant positives: games-players make the best keyhole surgeons; and manual dexterity, instant response, and attention to a wide field of vision are all greatly enhanced by the pastime.

Playing appropriate games leads to a 20-to-30-per-cent increase in cognitive abilities and general attitude among geriatric care-home residents. Some games are consciously educational, and have a legitimate place in the classroom, especially among children with learning impairments.

But the meat of the programme was concerned with the crucial ethical concern: many of the most popular games glorify extreme levels of violence, and break most of the Ten Commandments; so does playing them lead to violent action in the real world?

First, we heard from those researchers whose work demonstrated that there was indeed such a link; and then those findings were refuted by those who showed that, no, there was no link. Apart from a handful of true addicts, it was difficult (according to them) to show any harmful effects. Players are well able to differentiate between the fantasy electronic simulacrum and genuine flesh and blood. In the video years, youth crime in the United States has actually diminished; so perhaps real baddies’ attention to screen-based thrills is keeping them off the streets.

None of the psychological experiments, however, seemed to me to address the core issue: does the prolonged playing of games where you are rewarded for smashing to smithereens your enemies, where theft is applauded, and the great aim is to succeed at whatever cost, not at least blunt your moral judgement? Does it not have at least some spill-over (in addition to your greater hand-eye co-ordination, of course) into how you actually conduct your life (and wreck other people’s)?

None of this would be possible without the computer, and Calculating Ada: The countess of computing (BBC4, Thursday of last week) told the little-known story of the first programmer. Ada Lovelace was the daughter of Lord Byron, and allied her father’s intemperate genius to her mother’s mathematical precocity.

She was entranced by Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, the first computer, and wrote a book demonstrating a grasp of its potential capabilities far beyond anything that Babbage himself had realised, and including the first algorithm. She died aged only 36, and was buried in the Byron family’s vault at St Mary Magdalene’s, Hucknall.

The presenter, Hannah Fry, seemed, for all her enthusiasm, to lack the rich cultural and historical context to make the most of her account. I would have loved to hear more about Ada’s marriage, and how Regency moral laxity combined with Victorian Evangelical prudery; and her love of gambling.

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