Sep
2009

Social Games

Gaming has long been a part of our society, but today, video games have taken on an even bigger role in our lives. Are video games tools to help better our society?

I admit it, when I think of the typical “gamer,” I think of a guy in his mid to late twenties sitting in his mother’s basement, playing World of Warcraft, on X-Box Live, talking smack against his equally nerdy opponent. Well, I am wrong. While there are examples like the one I described (of which there is nothing wrong) gamers as a whole do get a bad rap. The spectrum of video gamers today can range from little girls to CEO’s of major companies. Whether video games serve to the advancement of mankind, or hinder us, is still a gray area.

Games in general have always brought people together. Major game maker “Milton Bradley” built their marketing campaign around “making it a family night” with their games. To this day one of my favorite board games is “Guess Who: The Mystery Face Game

Which I could still play endlessly. I became quite good at it, but not this good:

The point is that games have always had a place in our world, allowing us to relax, take a break from our realities, and/or grant us much needed mental stimulation. Violence in video games is swimming around in the afore-mentioned gray area. When looking at violence in video games I would borrow the slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Most normal functioning people in society have, no desire to wake up one day and start out on a Max Payne- like killing spree. I would argue that if one has a serious chemical imbalance, and that disconnection lays dormant in one’s brain, then playing a series of violent video games could trigger that spark to go out and simulate the action one has just portrayed on the TV screen.

As most people play video games they do know right from wrong. They know this is a simulation. Most would not go and pick up a gun and start a rampage like in Grand Theft Auto. My argument goes past the individual playing the game. There is a reason for the well-marked ratings system we have for movies, TV shows, and yes, video games.

When I was a kid, our first video game system was a family event. When we would play on the Atari, my dad would watch over and even join in sometimes. Likewise when we watched TV, if there was a show that was too violent, I wasn’t allowed to watch it. I was always told “when you’re older” Parents have a responsibility to the kids. Yes, more and more games are out there heavily marketed to kids. Everyone wants a Wii or X-Box or whatever. But parents cannot allow the TV, or the video game system, to become the babysitter. Parents still need to establish for their kids the difference between right and wrong. Certainly one could be conditioned to be a crazy violent video game-like character, if they had no idea of right from wrong. It’s the parents role to oversee and step in when things get a little too “adult” for our kids. As we get older we can handle more. A person in their twenties and thirties can mentally handle a first person shooter game much better than a ten year old.

Here is an example. Prior to becoming a librarian for teenagers, my girlfriend used to run an after-school program for kids between 1st grade and 5th grade. She would organize different games for the kids everyday and often played kickball. She had this one student named Finn, didn’t do much else at home other than play video games. Mom would just let him play because it kept him busy. Finn, who was about 7-years old, developed a “restart” line of thinking. When he played kickball with the other kids, and things didn’t go his way, he demanded a restart to the entire game. Most kids simply ask for a do-over, but Finn wanted everyone to come off the field, wipe the score clean and start fresh. When he did not get it he would have nasty fits. He was so used to just restarting in the video game world, he had a very hard time understanding that when he was playing a real game, with real people, he could not restart things.

On the other hand, games are also teaching tools. We start to play games at the earliest of ages because they teach us rules and boundaries. They help us perform better in society, even if we don’t realize it.

If I were to describe to you a relaxing place, where kids could go after school, to play video games – would you think I was talking about the library? A lot of today’s libraries are just as misunderstood as gamers, but that’s not the reason why video games are in libraries. Many people have the idea that their local library is a stuffy and a somewhat outdated place in these advanced technological times. Not so. Today’s libraries are widely under-appreciated for all that they are capable of doing for us, even in such modern times. Many libraries throughout the country now have departments designed just for teenagers. These teen programs often host gaming days. There are traditional board games played, but nowadays the majority are video games. Some libraries even loan out games. While the video games are not limited to just teens, that is generally the focus for the libraries. Why, you might ask? I will let the The American Library Association explain better. The following is from the gaming section of their website;

“Why should kids play video games at the library?
Lots of kids play video games at home – alone, with siblings, or with friends. The library is a safe and non-commercialized space. At the library, kids socialize with their friends and play video games while surrounded by books, librarians, and knowledge. Video gaming at the library encourages young patrons to interact with diverse peers, share their expertise with others (including adults), and develop new strategies for gaming and learning.”
“What do kids learn when they play games at the library?
Video games give kids a chance to practice reading, writing, and computing in the library’s safe environment. Popular video games, the ones that kids really like to play, are immediately engaging and make them work hard to succeed and ‘level up’. While playing these games, kids are constantly developing new strategies, predicting possible outcomes, managing multiple resources, reading and deciphering maps, tracking complex statistics, and adapting to increasingly difficult levels within the game. They learn a range of media literacies beyond basic reading that give them models for navigating our information-rich world.”

This is a prime age to get teens into the library, especially in a time when kids think they may not need such an important place. Get them in young and they’ll be devoted for life.

It certainly doesn’t stop there either. Video games can be a strong educational tool in schools as well. I was just reading today about a school in NY that built its new school year curriculum on what they call “game-inspired learning”

These two ideas really bring home the idea of “the experience economy,” as referred to in the 1998 July edition of The Harvard Business Review. The article highlights how many businesses, in our previously booming economy, were capitalizing on selling an experience, as opposed to just another destination. Meaning when you go to Disney World, it’s not just another amusement park, it’s a cherished memory. It’s an adventure. Obviously our schools and libraries are not trying to be Disney World, but with all of the options consumers have today, even schools and libraries need to compete to stay in the forefront of the consumer’s mind. As Liz Lemmon, from the show “30 Rock” says “I want to go to there.” They want us, to want to “go to there.”

When I first set out to make the case in favor of video games, I knew there were many gray areas. One argument that lands squarely in a gray area is whether video games help kids with Autism and Aspergers. Before I explain where I am coming from on this specific topic, let me make clear I have no intention of getting into any of the massive Autism or Asperger debates that already exist out there. My line of thought focuses directly with the connection of how video games are able to help kids that have been diagnosed with these two diseases. While it’s a very important discussion to be had, I am sticking to my theme of, “video games in our society”.

That being said, with regards to Autism and Aspergers, my experience is through two different families each with different, but somewhat similar cases relating to video games. I am respecting these families privacy by giving them alternate names. They are real people who have dealt with the harsh realities that comes with these diseases.

We will start with my co-worker who I will call Larry. Larry’s oldest son has Autism. According to my co-worker, games of all kinds have been amazingly helpful for his son to develop a more normal life with Autism. When he was in elementary school, he attended a school for kids with Autism and they used a lot of games to help the kids, specifically video games of various kinds. Larry’s son grew into more traditional video games which continue to help him grow even more. To teach the subjects like math, it was so much easier for the teachers to get through to them with a fun video game. The game would hold their attention, and help them to focus. Larry also said that now, when his son is somewhere playing a video game, other kids want to come over to him, ask what games he is playing and then they strike up a conversation about games. This is one of the ways Larry’s son is able to make friends.

Here is more information from the Autism Society about a specific video game that helps:

Autism Game

I also know another family who just recently found out their 12-year-old daughter has Aspergers. I will call the mom Elyse. This family has also discovered video games help this young girl as well. Elyse has explained to me that the games have set rules, and that with Aspergers, her daughter looks to understand what the defined rules are so she has an outline of what she is supposed to do. This allows her to be in her comfort zone, and also interact with others. It also lets her ask questions about life’s rules to help in her understanding. Video games have also been an entry for her to play with other kids. She gets to be more comfortable with others and she has the chance to observe them and understand and practice more social skills.

Here is an article from MSNBC about how Second Life can be an outlet for people with Aspergers, one Doctor refers to Second Life by saying “it’s a simulated environment and lets them practice social skills in a three-dimensional space.”

As I stated earlier, I wanted to keep my argument strictly to video games as a resource for these two diseases. I am obviously no doctor, and there is still a great deal of research being done on this topic. While the families I know are very much in favor of video games as a positive resource, I was shocked when I started to research this further and found that some groups are trying to blame video games for causing Autism and Aspergers:

Here is a blogger arguing that maybe this is not the case:

To date, there is no solid defined answers as to what causes autism:

I started out by saying this is a gray area for our society. Many demonize video games.

While video games can help build communication and social skills for those who need it, too much exposure to this technology can inhibit some social skills. An example of this was brought to my attention just today. During a visit to Lyndon State College, where I went to school for my undergrad degree in Television Studies, I was talking with one of my former professors about the habits of today’s students. One of the responsibilities kids have at LSC is to conduct on-camera interviews for our nightly news broadcast. When the kids are ready to begin an interview, face to face, many just stare at the subject quietly. Generally this moment of silence last a few minutes. The students are expecting the other person to start talking, as opposed to beginning the conversation they requested themselves. Needless to say this makes for a very uncomfortable interview. My former professor went on to say he is discovering that kids are so plugged-in to their video games that getting them to make real-life connections in conversations, phone calls, and even emails, is difficult. There is no computer-generated script or story, no directions to follow on screen, no help menu to try and lead someone. To help with this growing phenomenon, ironically, a new video game has been developed to help kids develop their social skills.

The Article states:

“The authors suggest that now may be a good time to reconsider how new media are affecting people. “Perhaps it is not that contemporary media use has led to a decline in civic and social engagement, as many have argued, but rather, that a decline in civic and social engagement has led to a ‘retribalization’ through contemporary media.”

To slightly counter-balance this argument, I found an article from MIT Professor Henry Jenkins trying to debunk myths about gaming.

In conclusion, there are risk with just about everything in life. If we ignore our children (especially at young ages,) and let the computer program the kids, then the wrong message could get through. We are at a crucial stage in the realm of video games. Today, video games have so much power over kids. This power can be used for good or evil, just like in the games themselves. If these video game systems are taken on as tools to help better our society, then that power will be used for good.