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net.wars: Game night

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 30 January 2010


Why can't computer games get any serious love? The maverick Labour MP Tom Watson convened a meeting this week to ask just that. (Watson is also pushing for the creation of an advocacy group, Gamers' Voice (Facebook).)

Wendy M Grossman

From the dates, the meeting is not in response to claims that playing computer games causes rickets.

Pause to go, "Huh?"

We all know what causes rickets in the UK. Winter at these crazy high latitudes causes rickets in the UK. Given the amount of atmosphere and cloud it has to get through in the darker months, sunlight can't muster enough oomph to make Vitamin D on the skins of the pasty, blue-white people we mostly have here.

The real point of the clinical review paper that kicked off this round of media nonsense, Watson rants, is that half of all UK adults are deficient in Vitamin D in the winter and spring. Well, duh. Wearing sunscreen has made it worse. So do clothes. And this: to my vast astonishment on arrival here they don't put Vitamin D in the milk.

Blame tech!

But, hey, let's blame computer games! And yet: games are taking over. In December Chart-Track market research found that the UK games industry is now larger than its film industry. Yesterday's game-playing kids are today's game-playing parents. One day we'll all be gamers on this bus. Criminals pay more for stolen World of Warcraft accounts than for credit card accounts (according to Richard Bartle), and the real-money market for virtual game world props is worth billions (PDF).

But the industry gets no government support. Hence Watson's meeting.

At this point, I must admit that net.wars, too, has been deficient: I hardly ever cover games. As a freelance, I can't afford to be hooked on them, so I don't play them, so I don't know enough to write about them. In the early-to-mid 1990s I did sink hours into Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Minesweeper, Commander Keen, Lemmings, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Doom 2, and some of Duke Nukem. At some point, I decided it was a bad road.

When I waste time unproductively I need to feel that I'm about to do something useful. I switched the mouse to the left hand, mostly for ergonomic reasons, and my slightly lower competence with it was sufficient to deter further exploration.

Reaching the limit

The other factor: Quake made it obvious that I'd reached my theoretical limit. I know games are different now. I've watched a 20-something friend play World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto; I've even traded deaths with him in one of those multiplayer games where your real-life best friends are your mortal enemies. Watching him play The Sims as a recalcitrant teenager (is there any other kind?) was the most fun.

It seemed like Cosmic Justice to see him shriek in frustration at the computer because the adults in his co-op household were refusing to wash the dishes. Ha!

For people who have jobs, games are a (sometimes shameful) hobby; for people who are self-employed they are a dangerous menace. Games are amateur sports without the fresh air.

And they are today's demon medium, replacing TV, comic books (my parents believed these rotted the brain) and printed multi-volume novels.

All of that contributes to why games get relatively little coverage outside of specialist titles and writers such as Aleks Krotoski and are studied by rare academics like Douglas Thomas and Richard Bartle.

Mental fitness

Except: it's arguable that the structure of games and the kind of thinking they require – logical, problem-solving, exploratory, experimental – does in fact inspire a kind of mental fitness that is a useful background skill for our computer-dominated world.

There are, as Tom Chatfield  (one of the evening's three panelists and an editor at Prospect) says in his new book Fun, Inc, many valuable things people can and do learn from games.

And in fact, that's the thought with which the seminal game cum virtual world was started: in writing MUD, Bartle wanted to give people the means to explore their identities by creating different ones. It's also fun. And an escape from drab reality. And a challenge. And active, rather than passive, entertainment.

The critic Sam Leith (who has compared World of Warcraft to Chartres Cathedral) pointed out that the violent shoot-'em-up games that get the media attention are a small, stereotyped sector of the market that deliberately insert shocking violence recursively to get media attention and increase sales.

Limiting the conversation to one stereotypical theme is the problem, not games themselves.

HP Saucy?

Philip Oliver, founder and CEO of the UK's large independent games developer, Blitz Games, listed some cases in point: in their first 12 weeks of release his company sold 500,000 copies of its The Biggest Loser TV and 3.8 million copies of its Burger King advertising game.

And what about that wildly successful Wii Fit? If you say, "That's different", there is the problem.

Still, if game players are all going to be stereotyped as violent players shooting things… I'm not sure who pointed out that the Houses of Parliament are a fabulous gothic castle in which to set a shoot-'em-up, but it's a great idea.

Now, that would really be government support!


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).