Computer games

5th December 2003 at 00:00
Everyone has a view on computer games. To those who hate them and want nothing to do with them, they are the devil's work, tempting idle hands and tainting innocent minds. But to gamers and other enthusiasts, they are a powerful training tool, responsible for shaping a nimble-fingered, sharp-witted generation ideally equipped to surf the digital wave.

With their faster-than-life action and often violent content, computer games have a way of dividing us, pointing up the differences between technophobe and technophile, between young and old - even between male and female.

Little wonder, then, that we take sides on the issue. But does either side have a monopoly on the truth, or do they both have a tendency to over-state their case? With the first games now approaching middle age, perhaps the time has come to consider some facts.

Press start

From the moment it became possible to interact with computers, people wanted to play with them. In 1959, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology acquired a machine called the PDP-1. The size of a large car, this "programmed data processor" was primitive by today's standards, but it did incorporate a cathode ray tube. Before long, a student named Steve Russell had written a simple game for it. He called it Spacewar, and it was probably the first computer game. Soon, Spacewar was taking more of the PDP-1's time than any other program, for it was recognised not only as a useful diagnostic tool, but also as a means of demonstrating the computer's capabilities. Oh, and it was fun. Everyone wanted a go.

As more computers found their way into colleges and universities, more people invented ways of playing with them. And as the technology evolved, so did the games. In the early days of big, expensive computers, most games involved more than one player. From the early 1970s, these games started appearing as coin-operated machines in amusement arcades and pubs. With the advent of cheaper personal computers and cheap consoles dedicated to gaming (video games are simply computer games displayed on a TV screen), the next decade saw the single player pitted against the single computer. And when, in the 1990s, it became possible to link PCs, the multi-player game came back with a vengeance.

Variations on a theme

Modern games offer the player total immersion in a 3-D world, and their thirst for ever-more sophisticated graphics is a major force driving the computer industry. Yet for all their apparent inventiveness, most still follow conventions established back in those heady early days. Whether it involves blasting an opponent's rocket ship (Spacewar was the first "shoot 'em up" game) or exploring a Tolkienesque world of treasure and trolls (Donald Woods, a programmer at Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, started that ball rolling in the 1960s with a game called simply Adventure), most genres can trace their origins back decades. Today, many of these themes come together in the massive multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG. And coming together is what the MMORPG is all about. For here, in a virtual, sci-fi world, players who may never meet in the flesh disguise themselves as monsters, mutants and heroes, and interact in a fantastical but sometimes all-too-convincing game of life.

Opium of the masses

Log on to the Amazon website and you will find a list entitled "Most addictive computer games". In the language of marketing hype, claims to addictiveness are a powerful selling point. But those concerned with child welfare have long worried that computer games, particularly those of an immersive nature, are literally addictive, and that vulnerable players can suffer lasting damage as surely as if they are taking hard drugs. Key the words "gaming addiction" into your favourite search engine and you will find any number of support groups and self-help courses.

Clearly, becoming too engrossed in an MMORPG can cause problems for someone already suffering from a psychological disorder, and such games have led to real-life murders and beatings. But most parents know that even well-adjusted children can easily become hooked on relatively unsophisticated "action" games, and many of the symptoms - compulsive behaviour, disrupted social life and displays of extreme anger when deprived of their regular "fix" - are, indeed, similar to those associated with drug addiction.

Like any other psychologically rewarding activity, game-playing causes rushes of adrenalin and endorphins, the naturally occurring analgesics that are considered addictive. Michael Walker, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Sydney, has argued that habitual gamers do not suffer true addiction, as certain key symptoms are absent.

But others, including psychologist Mark Griffiths at Nottingham Trent University, believe obsessive playing, like excessive TV viewing and even repeated tele-messaging, can be an addiction, and urges parents to be vigilant. Stephen Kline, from Simon Frazer University in Canada, agrees. He estimates that between 15 and 20 per cent of teens may be affected. A recent study in the UK found that one teenager in three played games daily, and that 7 per cent played for at least 30 hours a week.

Never mind the violence

Computer games have a bad name for their violent content. With powerful audio-visual simulation at their fingertips, any child old enough to click a mouse can now experience the sensation of bringing down a helicopter with a heat-seeking missile or raking a platoon of aliens with a laser cannon.

Many games pride themselves on explicit, bloody detail - a trend that mirrors developments in other forms of popular entertainment. Yet despite the disquiet this has caused since the first arcade games appeared 30 years ago, there has been little systematic research into the likely effects of such pastimes on the young. Some theorists believe aggressive computer games cause aggressive behaviour, while others argue the opposite, suggesting that such games channel and release aggression. Mark Griffiths has observed that young children play more aggressively after exposure to violent video games, but that the effects on teenagers are reduced or even absent.

Little Johnnie No-friends?

It's a cliche: the nerdy kid with no mates who spends all his time fighting monsters in his room. But while a box full of microprocessors can undoubtedly provide the loner with a form of companionship, research has shown the profile of the electronic gamer to be at odds with the popular image. Given the opportunity, it seems children in general, and boys especially, prefer to play computer games with their friends rather than alone.

When a team at the University of Bielefeld questioned more than 1,000 German children aged eight to 14 about their computer gaming culture, they found no evidence that frequent and regular players, male or female, were any less engaged in sport than their peers who spent less time on games, and some evidence that the opposite was true. Most participants said they played on their computers when there was nothing better to do. Nor was there any evidence that computer games replaced reading. Even the most avid gamers were keeping up other activities and interests, and the children's gaming showed every sign of being integrated into existing peer relationships.

It's a boy zone

In one respect, research findings chime with popular perceptions. Girls, it seems, really do have less time than boys for computer games, playing less often and with less regularity. They also play in different ways, becoming less intensely involved in the game, and taking more interest in characterisation and narrative. Not surprisingly, their preferred genres vary accordingly. While boys favour action and fighting, girls opt for puzzles, or games based on TV characters. Those who believe computer games give children valuable skills are worried that gaming culture alienates girls and reaffirms dominant and patriarchal conceptions of gender roles, and that this process is self-perpetuating. When the Bielefeld team extended its research to popular game magazines, for example, it found them to be male-oriented in terms of content (an emphasis on action and violence) and structure (there were no female editors and few women on the editorial staff). One software company that is attempting to redress the balance is Her Interactive (slogan: "For girls who aren't afraid of a mouse"). It has produced a series of 3-D adventure games featuring the detective Nancy Drew.

Games without pain?

Terms such as Nintendo thumb and Nintendonitis have been used by doctors since the late 1990s to describe a type of repetitive strain injury (RSI) caused by overuse of computer games. But while such pseudo-medical labels might raise a chuckle, there is nothing remotely funny about RSI, which occurs when repeated movements damage tendons and muscles. Bunny Martin, director of the charity Body Action Campaign, has found that in some classes of 11-year-olds, more than half the pupils have the first signs of this painful and potentially crippling condition. Games, she says, are designed to encourage children to chase high scores, so they don't bother taking breaks. And the problem is exacerbated when children use work stations designed for adults or children of a different age. Little research has been done on the physical effects of computer use on children whose muscles and bones are still developing. Dr Leon Straker, who is researching the problem at Curtin University in Perth, western Australia, believes we could be "on a threshold of a global disaster". Unless we learn quickly about how to use computers safely, he says, "we will see a lot of children disabled from using them". Some human rights lawyers believe schools could face legal action unless they take precautions, such as installing fully-adjustable furniture.

But much of the damage is likely to be the result of children playing computer games at home. Nintendo issues warnings with its games, urging children to take a 10 to 15-minute break every hour, to stop and rest for several hours if their hands, wrists or arms become tired or sore, and to stop playing altogether and consult a doctor if discomfort continues.

"Failure to do so," the company warns, "could result in long-term injury."

Dumb and dumber

Like all popular diversions when they first catch on, the playing of computer games has been seen as part of a "dumbing down" process. Novels and tea, bingo and jazz have each given cause for concern in their time, and the appeal of computer games to developing minds makes them especially suspect. Some fears are less easily brushed aside than others, arising as they do from specialised areas of research. One example is the suggestion by neuroscientist Susan Greenfield that the standardised information received from computers could lead to "standardised brain connections" in young children - a claim that appears to substantiate worries expressed by the National Association for Primary Education about the use of computers before key stage 2. In an even more alarming report, Professor Ryuta Kawashima and his team at Tohoku University in Japan, have suggested that young gamers will become more violent than their parents - and not because of the content of the games. By mapping neural activity, they showed that teenagers playing a Nintendo game were using only those parts of the brain associated with vision and movement, whereas students doing simple maths appeared to be using parts of the frontal lobe. The lack of frontal lobe stimulation worried the scientists, as this part of the brain continues developing for the first 20 years of life, and is responsible for self-restraint. Computer games, they concluded, will make society more violent.

The stimulation game

It goes without saying that playing with computers familiarises children with information technology, making it likely that they will easily acquire the sort of skills they are certain to need in a digital age. But nobody who ever saw a four-year-old straining to read words online such as "continue" and "register" (to play) will be in any doubt as to the unique power of the computer game to stimulate young minds in more traditional ways.

Indeed, barely a week goes by without some new study claiming that gamers consistently outperform non-gamers in a variety of activities. And the list of skills involved is seemingly endless. Researchers have reported benefits in literacy and numeracy, cognitive skills, logical thinking, visual attention, spatial representation, strategic thinking, prediction, problem analysis and solving, determination, flexibility, persistence, planning skills, negotiating ability, team-building and collaborative skills. "The truth is that games are all about learning," says Richard Millwood, the deputy director of Ultralab, a research team at Anglia Polytechnic University in Cambridge. "Can these skills be transferred? I think the answer is yes." In his 1997 book, Children of Chaos, Douglas Rushkoff sums up children's computer gaming culture as "a mixed playing ground of inter-related connections between the real, the digital, the physical and the magical, equipping children with the skills of survival in a fast capitalist world".

Work and play

The story of computer games began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when a student mixed work and play, and it was at MIT, four decades later, that educationists and multimedia experts assembled to chew over the thorny issue of games in education (see resources). Is it possible to harness the irresistible magnetism of an immersive 3-D adventure game, or are the pleasures many games offer - the escapism, the violence, and what one speaker called the "skewed morality systems and anti-social impulses" - incompatible with educational goals?

Those who would distance games culture from the classroom argue from a variety of standpoints. Computers are tools, not toys, say some. Gaming comes under children's personal pursuits and should be kept separate, say others. And there is a widespread belief, summed up by one man in the MIT audience, that "almost all educational games suck", as they end up being neither good games nor good education.

Ellen Strain, an assistant professor of film, video and multimedia at Georgia Tech, was more optimistic. Many of the pleasures games offer - immersion, challenge, reward, immediacy, a dialect of repetition and variety, physical and mental engagement, and multi-sensory stimulation - could be applied to educational software, she told the conference. "What I call the breakfast cereal approach has, in many cases, won out over the idea that educational content always waters down entertainment value, and vice versa. A popular breakfast cereal can have sugar and fibre, cartoon characters on the box and calcium, and we can design educational games that Mikey and his education-minded mother like." If Ellen Strain is right, the game is only just beginning.

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