Guardian: Will videogames create a two-tiered society?

Originally posted 7/20/07 on

A blogger for Britain’s influential Guardian newspaper is asking, “Will playing games create a two-tiered society?” Writer Bobbie Johnson, the Guardian’s technology correspondent, writes in response to a Discovery magazine article touting the benefits of video game playing.

Studies have indicated that young people who play video games have increased abilities in reasoning, puzzle solving, and “forward thinking” (although it has been pointed out that kids who already possess these abilities may be attracted to playing video games.)

Johnson asks:

Given the increasing interest in virtual worlds and near-game environments, it’s not hard to imagine that some people will adapt much more quickly to a futurenet based around 3D – the kind of thing imagined by William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash.

But given the research mentioned, will we end up with a divided society? Imagine a future internet where games players have a massive advantage over ordinary users. Will we see a divide between the visually literate and those who just don’t (or can’t) get it?

It’s an interesting question. It’s one thing to have economic and caste inequities – but a medieval lord was no more or less intelligent than the average peasant (and not always better educated). The science of anthropology, invented in the 19th century to prove that some races were inherently better than others, instead showed by the middle of the 20th century that “racial” differences were shallow, and that intelligence has no correlation to race or ethnicity. Is technology moving us towards a world where one set of people is demonstrably more intelligent than another?

Science fiction has dealt with this question many times; Huxley’s Brave New World and Wells’s The Time Machine are the most famous examples. Technological enhancement of the human mind is a common theme in cyberpunk fiction; and as in Gibson’s Neuromancer, not everyone can afford these enhancements.

Video games don’t directly enhance intelligence. But they train the brain, and not just in ways that help a player use a computer. (And I don’t think there will be a 3D “futurenet” as described by Gibson. Why direct an avatar through a maze of pretty 3D representations of web sites, when I can just click on a name on a list? See what I mean?)

A well-designed game teaches critical thinking (the single most important intellectual skill), reasoning, prediction and communication. It heightens visual skills and the reflexes. And the game content can be as mind-expanding as any book, film or music album.

I’m concerned about economic inequities that will lead to technological and intellectual castes. But that seems to be an issue for 50 years from now. Right now, we’re seeing a large segment of society choose to limit their own intellectual growth, both technologically and otherwise, for what they errantly see as moral reasons.

My mind is so advanced, I have chosen to present my argument as a chart.

Intellectual Enhancement Counter-intellectual Response The “reason” for the response
It's-a Mario!
Jack Thompson.
Banning games.
Klebold & Harris.
Games engender violence, crime, moral corruption and asocial behavior.
The World Wide Web.  Information Superhighway.  Cyberspace.  The Net.
Internet use.
Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. The Internet is a series of tubes.  It's not a truck.
Internet censorship, tiered Internet, apathy.
Hey! I was looking at those!
The Internet is for porn, intellectual property theft, and plotting terrorism. It should be used only for business and profit. Also, it’s too hard to bother to learn how it works.
Stephen Hawking is smarter than you.  He could probably kick your ass, too.
Math, science, logic, & computer programming education.
George W. Bush wants you to know what he thinks of you.
No Child Left behind.
Shop class.  Well, carpenters and plumbers do make more than most physicists.  And more than most games journalists.
Schools should prepare kids for vocations; let the smart ones get scholarships.
Rock me, Amadeus.  Amadeus Amadeus.
Arts, music and history education.
Piss Christ.  If you don't know, look it up.
No funding; censorship of art, music, history texts.
The animatronic Lincoln at Disneyland.  He never mentions that he opposed freeing the slaves for most of his career.
Why am I going to need to know this? And teaching real history is unpatriotic.
Timothy Leary.
Winners don't do drugs!  And FBI Director William S. Sessions is a winner!
Banning development of mind-enhancing drugs.
I took my Paxil today.  That's why I'm not in the EG chat, flaming n00bs.
It’s okay to use drugs to treat mental illnesses and neuroses; but enhancing the healthy is unethical.
It's a very, very small digital camera.  Very sneaky.
Photography, sound recording.
How dare you take a photo?  In a public place?  Whaddya think, there's a First Amendment or something?
Banning photography and recording in public places, businesses.
The Rodney King video.
Intellectual property protection, privacy.
You'd think discovering the Secret of Life would cheer you up a bit.
Yes, that's Jesus.  Riding a dinosaur.  Seriously.
Ted Haggard isn't gay. It's all a big misunderstanding.
The only way to be moral is to believe the Bible is inerrant.
One small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind.
Yep. Distilled water can cure anything.
Ben Stein
If a scientific discovery doesn’t not fit with my political (global warming) or religious (cloning, physicalism, evolution) proclivities, it must be wrong.
Richard Dawkins.
Atheism, religious criticism, religious pluralism.
One of the Danish cartoons that can get you killed.
Political correctness, censorship, threats against authors and cartoonists.
Burning The Satanic Verses.
Criticizing religion is the same as oppressing the religious.

It’s one thing to have intellectual inequity forced upon you. It’s quite another to chose to hobble your own ability to think and reason, especially in a democracy. If your political, religious or ethical philosophy is rigorous enough, you should not need protection from competing ideas. If your lifestyle is successful, it should not require protection from new technologies.

If videogames were actually harmful, I would be the first to quit my job and come out against them. But I know from my own personal experience they are not; and as a writer I have carefully examined the arguments and studies for and against. The only way to believe videogaming itself hurts children is to be intentionally ignorant.

I call people who choose anti-intellectualism the “Stupid-American Community.” It’s a community that’s growing. And that’s the “two-tiered society” that worries me.

“Are videogames actually games?” and other stupid questions

Originally posted 7/6/07 on

I checked out an article entitled “Ten reasons why computer games are not games” for two reasons. First, it’s highly rated on Digg, which means it has to be good, right? And second, I was intrigued by the title.

This has to be the dumbest gaming article I’ve seen online, ever. And that’s saying a lot.The anonymous author’s point seems to be this: there are certain (largely imaginary) differences between videogames and “traditional” games. Therefore, videogames are not games.

Here are my point-for-point responses to the post:

1. Intimacy
Most computer games, including many multiplayer ones, are played by single humans behind a machine… The intimacy between the game and its user creates a potential depth of mental exploration unseen before in any medium.

This makes no sense to me at all. Whether traditional or hobbyist, any game is either played alone, or with/against other people. Every game is interactive; sometimes the player interacts with inanimate objects like playing cards or miniatures, sometimes with other people while using inanimate objects, sometimes with a computer, and sometimes with other people over a computer network.

I can’t see what the author means by “intimacy” here, unless it is exactly what he means by “immersion” below.

2. Stories are more important than rules
… computer games feature characters. Creatures that we can empathize with, in whose behaviour we can recognize our own. Unlike the pawns and dice of traditional games.

If this author is looking for stories and characters in non-videogames, I guess he’s right. They’re pretty hard to find. The only ones I can think of are: Dungeons & Dragons, GURPS, Champions, The World of Darkness games, and every other RPG ever written; Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Warhammer 40,000, and many other plot- and character-based tabletop war games; Magic: The Gathering, World of Warcraft Collectible Card Game, and other plot- and character-based collectible card games; Illuminati: New World Order, Car Wars, and other plot- and character-based tabletop games.

But of course I’m cheating. All of the non-RPGs above were heavily influenced by RPGs, after AD&D became popular. I guess my point is that RPGs constitute a massive genre of story-based non-video games. And need I add that every single story-based videogame, from the earliest MUDs and MUSHes to World of Warcraft and Gears of War, is based upon earlier non-computer-based games? Of course I don’t.

3. Immersion
Computer games allow you to step into their worlds, to become part of the events. To some extent you become one of the pieces on the board, one that acts autonomously.

This breaks down two ways. On the one hand, tabletop games can be as fully immersive and engrossing as any videogame. I don’t have to explain this to any actual gamer. If you’ve spent all Friday night and Saturday day playing D&D, without bothering to sleep, then you know that offline games are just as addictive as the online ones.

On the other hand, videogames can offer something that meatspace games cannot: virtual reality. Sure, it’s not the fully immersive virtual reality that William Gibson promised us 20 years ago; you’re still sitting in a chair staring at a screen. But there’s a world of difference between having a dungeon master explain something to you, and actually seeing it and interacting with it in World of Warcraft. In this sense, videogames are truly more immersive than offline games. LARPers try to recreate that magic, but let’s face it; they’re just playing D&D while standing up and wearing clothes from Hot Topic.

But I don’t see how virtual reality makes videogames “not games.”

4. Not (just) for children
Games are traditionally considered to be for children. … They tend to contain simple structures that are easy to understand. As we get older, the things we need to learn become more complex.

Oh, come on! Do I really have to argue this? “Games are traditionally considered to be for children.” By whom? Poker players? There have always been children’s games and adult games, going back to the beginning of time. And I hate to break it to this author, but the vast majority of people still consider videogames to be exclusively for children, despite this being patently untrue. Unless someone out there is letting their 6-year-old play Rule of Rose.

5. An artistic medium
Some people try to defend games as an age-old art form. But this is not a widespread belief. Games have their function in society but they are generally not considered very high on the cultural ladder. Computer games are different. They have an enormous impact on their users. They can lead to life-changing events.

This may be true for videogames in some circumstances, but it is also true for other games as well. The author does not try to defend his statement with examples, and I don’t blame him.

The author is once again appealing to the views of the general public, which is always a mistake when it comes to gaming. It’s true that most people don’t consider games to be “high culture,” but they don’t see videogames that way either, even when it’s warranted. Okami could be displayed in a museum; but so could the best wargame miniatures.

Granted, art and design are integral to videogames, and often marginal in traditional games. But look at any Games Workshop game, whether RPG, wargame, board game or card game – the perfect example of how excellent art can enhance a game.

I had more “life-changing” experiences while playing RPGs than I ever have had playing videogames. But that’s just me – I’m not holding tabletop RPGs over videogame RPGs or MMORPGs. I just can’t see why on is inherently better than the other.

6. Players as authors
Traditional games have strict rules. Because of this strictness, you can predict all possible outcomes of any game, based solely on analysis of the rules. Computer games, on the other hand, are much less predictable.

Ah yes, you’re perfectly right. Except for having it entirely backwards.

Computer games don’t just contain rules – they are rules. A computer program is just a long, complex series of unbreakable rules, with absolutely no wiggle room. Even a hack, cheat, bug or Easter egg follows the rules; they just mean the rules were poorly written.

Now, computer game rules are very complex, sometimes offering very many choices, some of them unpredictable. But the options are always finite – always.

In an offline game, the rules can be changed at any time; whether through unanimous consent of the players, or the authoritarian dictates of an RPG gamemaster, or even by good old fashioned cheating.

Here’s a good example: Risk. When playing tabletop Risk or Risk: 2210, players can create house rules, make and break alliances, bluff, argue and cheat. In computer Risk, one can do none of these things. A more advanced version of computer Risk might be designed to allow rules changes and alliances; but only if these functions are specifically programmed. And only to the extent that the programmers allow.

A traditional game will always have more options than a computer game; and an RPG will have the most options of all.

7. Aesthetics are more important than systems
You can play a perfectly satisfactory game with a few rocks and some sticks. It’s the activity of manipulating those objects that constitutes the experience. But computer games have such a strong desire for beauty, that they are one of the main driving forces behind the technology of the century.

This is true. But it doesn’t argue for the superiority of videogames. And it doesn’t argue that videogames are not games.

Our videogame culture is different from offline gaming culture, in that players demand exponentially increasing aesthetic technology, and publishers strive to provide it. Whether the advance of graphics and sound technology actually results in better and more compelling art is highly debatable.

Also, this need for increasingly beautiful games is not inherent to the videogame experience. It’s not the result of videogame culture. We’re in the midst of an unprecedented tech boom. Videogames, consoles and gaming PCs are very expensive, and people demand to get their money’s worth. If computing technology ever levels off, gamers’ aesthetic expectations will level off as well.

8. Persistent social context
To some extent, one could say that the social element of games only starts when you stop playing, while in traditional games, the social situation dissolves when the game ends.

So, the “social context” of a traditional game ends when the game ends, whereas the social context of a videogame ends… when the game ends. Got it.

Some people argue that only a traditional game creates an appropriate social context, and they paint pictures of fat, spotty teenage boys playing WoW for 20 hours a day in their mother’s basement. I totally disagree. Even the spotty teen is, in fact, socializing, as long as he’s playing online. If he’s not playing online, then yes, perhaps he needs to get out of the house. On the other hand, maybe we should just leave him alone and let him be happy.

9. No losing
Contrary to traditional games, computer games cannot be lost. … When people say they lost a computer game, they actually mean that they failed to accomplish a certain task. This often prevents them from making any further progress. So they give up. Nobody wins, nobody loses.

Right. So you can’t lose in a deathmatch? And you can lose in D&D? Seriously, dude, do you have any idea what you’re talking about?

Anybody who ever lost a game “…failed to accomplish a certain task.” That’s the very definition, whether the task is “achieve checkmate before the other guy” or “accumulate more kills than the other guy.”

Granted, in many video games, the player just attempts the same task over and over until they get it right. And yes, they may give up. How this is different from solitaire, for example, I have no idea.

10. Cheating is allowed
Traditional games break instantly as soon as you start cheating. But computer games often include cheat codes that allow you to have unlimited money or be invulnerable, etc.

If the game includes a cheat code, then it’s not cheating. The programmer put it in there on purpose. “Cheating” means violating the mutually agreed upon rules, whether those rules are set by a family playing Monopoly, or by the World Chess Federation, or by Blizzard’s EULA. Anyone, in any game, can cheat. But it’s never “allowed” — if it is, it’s not cheating.

As for the fun of “hacking” a game, making changes, enforcing your will upon someone else’s work – anyone can do this, in any game. And it’s much easier to do this with an offline game. You don’t need to learn coding, or own a dev kit.

In Conclusion

In my experience, both as a traditional gamer, and as someone who has been playing videogames since Day One, I have been struck by the deep similarities between videogames and other forms of games.

This is not just because so many computer games are based upon, or inspired by, traditional games. It is also because a game is a game. And no matter what medium you play in, the goals are the same.

The one genuine way in which videogames improve upon, and are different from, other games is in the creation of increasingly immersive virtual realities. One day, VR realms may become utterly realistic. In that event, whether a virtual reality constitutes a “game” will depend entirely on its purpose.

If the purpose is to challenge the user, in competition against other users, the programmers, or the user’s own talents and expectations, then yes, that reality will be a game.

Rant #3: A ‘Charmed’ Spin-Off? What the Hell is Wrong with Fans???

There’s a mobile billboard parked across the street from our offices; and, more pertinently, across the street from CBS Enterprises, a television production and distribution company.

It was placed there by a group of fans demanding a Charmed spin-off.

What the HELL has happened to fandom?

Are we so desperate for sci-fi and fantasy content, we’ll not only put up with crappy novelizations (Star Wars and Star Trek books), crappy TV movies (I’m thinking anything produced by the Sci-Fi Channel), lousy comic book adaptations (I’m looking at YOU, Jessica Alba), and execrable TV shows, but we’ll BEG FOR MORE?

Why, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, did America’s legions of sci-fi fans make themselves known by clamoring for the return of Star Trek? Maybe because many episodes of that show were brilliant, written by top genre scribes? Maybe because there had never been anything like it on television before? Maybe because it offered a hopeful future free from racism and war? Maybe because it was the only alternative to the “talking carrot” seasons of Lost in Space?

But the legacy of the successful effort to save Trek, here in the 21st Century, is that every time a sci-fi show gets cancelled, someone has to rally to save it, whether the show deserves it or not. Occasionally, the effort is worthwhile (Firefly). Other times, it’s simply baffling (Enterprise, Stargate SG-1).

Should every sci-fi show, regardless of merit, last forever? And merit doesn’t seem to have anything to do with it — where were the legions to save the live-action The Tick, a show genuinely worth saving? Or Max Headroom?

I’ve gotten a lot of grief for daring to criticize Babylon 5. But you know what? Good or bad, B5 was a labor of love by one man, J. Michael Straczynski. I think the people who worship that show are basically responding to the man and his vision. Like Chris Carter or Joss Whedon or even Gene Roddenberry, Straczynski had a message and was able to get it across. B5 may have been art of inconsistent quality, but it was art.

Charmed was not art. It was PRODUCT. It was not a labor of love. Tori Spelling saw The Craft, and told her dad, who said “hey, I could sell that pile of shit to 13-year-old girls.” Charmed was focus-group-driven pablum, pretty actresses surrounded by cheap and lazy special effects. As an “occult drama” it had all the depth of Bewitched (but none of the charm).

Christ, it’s not just that Charmed was bad. Lots of worthwhile things are “bad.” It’s that Charmed didn’t matter. At all. Nor did its creators intend it to matter. It was designed to fill an hour of network time, and lure teens with undeveloped tastes into watching commercials for skin cleaner.

My message to the people who want a Charmed spin-off: all the money you spent on that billboard could have been spent to feed the homeless, cure Cystic Fibrosis, or bring back Firefly. Try developing some discretion. The creative community can do a hell of a lot better than Charmed — and so can you.