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‘Video games allow us to explore what it means to be human’

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Video games have a near-universal reputation for being bad for us, our kids and society in general. But what does the scientific evidence have to say about all this? Author Pete Etchells has the answers.

Conventional wisdom, for what it’s worth, has long held that video games are to blame for pretty much everything that’s wrong with society. They encourage violence, isolate gamers in lonely digital silos, narrow our minds and rob us of leisure time that could be so much better spent climbing trees, fishing and playing football. Of course, we’ve got the hyperactive red-top media to blame for never letting the truth get in the way of a good story. But what is the truth about video games? What does this picture look like when we go behind the headlines and take a long, hard, dispassionate look at the scientific research and data?

This is a question that author Pete Etchells sets out to answer in his myth-busting and quite frankly surprising book ‘Lost in a Good Game’, in which he peers past the media hype to present us with the objective reality of what he (along with the data) considers to be a much-maligned pastime. Etchells, who is a reader in psychology and science communication at Bath Spa University, says: “First and foremost, what I’m trying to do in the book is to provide a corrective around some of the wider moral panics that come with video games. We see lots of stories in the news saying that video games are fundamentally and inherently bad, harmful things. And yet we don’t really have those sorts of conversations about listening to the radio or reading books.”

It’s almost as if, says Etchells, the video game has become a special media form “deserving a special form of attention. And that attention is invariably negative.” As an expert on the psychological effects of video games (who is incidentally of the opinion that the World Health Organization’s plans to classify ‘game addiction’ as a danger to public health is both based on bad science and a bad idea), “I thought it was time to be objective about this, not just in looking at the effects video games have on us, but also in looking at where these negative perceptions came from in the first place. I also wanted to look at the good things about them, and what positives we can take away from that.”

If you are of the opinion that it is simply axiomatic that video games are bad for you, you’re not on your own. But the ‘fundamental question’ is why we think this. Etchells says that one of the main reasons for this prejudice is that, compared with, say, reading or listening to the radio, there’s a much higher technological bar to entry into the video games world. Essentially, he says, the mindset that can’t engage with the complexities of getting started in the first place – downloading software, learning handset controls and so on – is prone to a kind of technophobia that instinctively dismisses the concept out of hand.

 

We read it for you

‘Lost in a Good Game’

Despite the overwhelmingly negative and alarmist media representation of video games in the media, there is a positive side to this most pervasive cultural phenomenon of the digital age. In his account of ‘why we play video games and what they can do for us’, Pete Etchells delivers a balanced account of why they’re important to us and why they might not be such a bad thing after all.

‘Lost in a Good Game’ takes us through the history and development of video games from Turing’s chess machine to mass multiplayer online games such as ‘World of Warcraft’. His arguments are shot through the lens of scientific study in order to get to the bottom of our relationship with them, as he reveals that, rather than being the force of all evil that they are portrayed to be, video games provide us with a healthy, positive and constructive place in which to live, work and play.

 

A big part of this type of consumer reticence about digital technology in general, “is a combination of lack of exposure and concern about new things that we’re not entirely sure about. Video games have been around for a long time, but if you look at something on the market today, such as ‘Call of Duty’, it’s vastly different from what games were like 20 years ago, when we were just starting to play online games with other people around the world. That was a relatively novel experience at the time, but it’s part and parcel of what games are about today.”

If we have no experience of playing games, say Etchells, to observe someone playing can create the impression that “it is a horrible experience. It looks like the players are completely absorbed into the screen – zombies drooling at this thing that’s playing out in front of them, their brains melting before your very eyes.” All this means that the observer may not realise that the player “is often actually immersed in a collaborative experience, working with others as a team. Once you understand this, the process becomes much less scary, more like an online digital version of playing in the park with your friends.”

A key point Etchells is keen to stress in favour of gaming is that the experience is far from passive. “A crucial aspect that sets video games apart from other forms of entertainment experience is that they are very interactive. If you’re watching a movie, you’re watching an actor playing out the story, being the hero in their world and environment. But there’s a sense of agency in video games that you don’t really get in other forms of entertainment media. That’s a powerful thing, because it allows you to try out and explore different types of behaviour, situations and relationships in a relatively safe space that’s constrained and artificial. I say in my book that video games allow us to explore what it means to be human.”

Etchells explains: “What I mean is that given the right sort of game you can explore different aspects of emotional life, explore stories where the character – you – can think about what your moral compass is.”

It won’t come as much of a surprise to discover that there is research suggesting that the older you are the more likely you will be to hold disparaging views about video games and the people that play them. “But you also get the same reaction from people that don’t play games. Generally, what you find is that people who do play games have more moderate beliefs about their effects on us,” while crucially, these beliefs “tend to be more aligned with what scientific research is telling us about the effect games have on their players.”

Which is a tactful way of saying that older people (or those that maintain their distance from the technology) may, in fact, be contributing to the type of ‘generation gap’ moral panic that once went with telephone usage, electronic calculators or, going centuries back, even the printed word. To his credit, at this point the 30-something Etchells expresses his certainty that, “in 20 years’ time there will be a brand-new technology that I’ll be rallying against. That’s just the nature of how these things go.” *

‘Lost in a Good Game’ by Pete Etchells is published by Icon Books, £14.99

Extract

Anyone for tennis?

A significant moment in gaming history came in 1952 at the University of Cambridge. During the process of working towards a PhD in theoretical physics, a student called Alexander Shafto Douglas wrote software to run games of noughts and crosses on the university’s landmark Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator. The program was notable because it was the first time a computer game had included graphical output to a CRT display. But it wasn’t until 1958 that a more complete first prototype of what could be considered a video game was made. That was ‘Tennis for Two’, and its creator was William Higinbotham.

Higinbotham is a well-known name in science, but not for his contribution to video games. A physicist by trade, in 1943 he began working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he would eventually lead a team of electronic engineers that would develop the electronics systems for the first nuclear bomb. Later, and more importantly, he would become a founding and prominent member of the nuclear nonproliferation group, the Federation of Atomic Scientists. In 1947, he took a job at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he was eventually promoted to Head of Instrumentation. In this role he would inadvertently develop the first true video game prototype. Every autumn, the laboratory would host a series of open days for the public. By most accounts these were dry affairs, but in 1958, in an attempt to make the visitor days a little more exciting, Higinbotham drew up plans to link a computer to an oscilloscope to showcase a simple game of tennis. Although the idea never went any further, ‘Tennis for Two’ was, in essence, a forerunner to multiplayer games arcade machines.

Edited extract from ‘Lost in a Good Game’ by Pete Etchells, reproduced with permission.

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