A review of The Video Game Debate:

Unravelling the Physical, Social, and Psychological Effects of Digital Games

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Philip Miletic is a writer, editor, and a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo. His research interests include auto/biography, affect, 20th-century American literature, and media studies. He writes on video games, too, but does so through some poetry: mother2earth and world 1-1co-written with Craig Dodman.
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When I told a friend that I was reviewing The Video Game Debate, I was asked, “What debate?” I briefly explained––perhaps too generally––that the “debate” in the title referred to all that talk about whether or not video games are good for us. You know, whether video games make us lazy or prone to committing violence or are rotting our brains or making us antisocial weirdos, etcetera, etcetera, that kind of stuff. My friend responded, “I thought that debate was over.”

So did I.

I hadn’t really thought about all of the scares surrounding video games. I haven’t really encountered them much, if at all, for quite some time. I no longer have my parents and teachers suggesting I should take a break from video games and go outside, or my dad’s routine comment, when I had been playing a game for “too long,” if I had “mastered” that game yet, or my mother’s repeated concern about Goldeneye: “all you can see is the gun the whole time!”

Now, when I visit home and bring some games to play, my family sits with me and we talk. My mom sometimes points out how good or how awful the graphics are and my dad still makes his comment, now with a lighter air to it. No concern, no worry; no nightmares realized. Playing video games has become acceptable in my family’s household.

And perhaps this is more or less what my friend has experienced, hence the bafflement towards “debate.” Maybe this is more or less what a lot of people my age who are now on their own have experienced? As Nicholas D. Bowman points out in his essay in this collection, we have, after all, lived through the peak of the moral panic towards video games. These panics have their origins with the emergence and eventual dominance of mass media such as radio, cinema, television, and, in the latter part of the 20th century, video games and the internet. Even crosswords were thought to corrupt individuals, particularly women, “distracting them from their economic or domestic duties” (25). For video games, the moral panic began with games like the violent 1976 Death Race and the pornographic 1982 Custer’s Revenge on the Atari 2600. The peak hit in the 90s and early 2000s, from Doom and Mortal Kombat to the Grand Theft Auto series (and Bowman adds Manhunt).

Because I and others within my generation lived through the thick of this debate, we have shrugged off these concerns. I think of that scene in the Simpsons episode “Itchy and Scratchy Land,” wherein Lisa says to Bart, “I wonder if this violence really does desensitize us?” followed by a Scratchy robot crashing through the screen and spurting blood without either Bart or Lisa flinching. Sure, maybe the violence of all those video games that inspired the moral panics desensitized us to violence. But all of that exaggerated and unqualified moral panic also desensitized us to the nuances of the effects and affects of video games on us.

via GIPHY

 

My point throughout this review is that The Video Game Debate by Rachel Kowert and Thomas Quandt is an important and tightly cohesive collection of essays. The collection achieves its goal in approaching the debate with a breadth of nuanced perspectives to the public and academics alike. The volume consists of ten essays that have a narrative arc to them. The first two essays are concerned with establishing historical context, followed by seven essays focused on the topics and issues these moral panics have revolved around such as addiction, violence, health, and social effects. The concluding essay reflects upon the prior essays, tracing the commonalities and overarching thread between them all.

At first, I was a bit skeptical of the fact that the editors’ “primary aim was to produce a book that could be used to inform scholars, clinicians, policy makers, and parents about the state of research within the field.” It’s not just one awkward tightrope that they’re trying to balance, but several: academics, politics, and the public. But Kowert and Quandt have assembled an anthology whose writing is consistent, clear, and smoothly balances between all of the discourses that it participates in. Most importantly, The Video Game Debate got me talking; it put me beside myself, and my initial reactions to the word “debate” quickly dissipated.

Take this conversation.

I asked my partner, who has taught elementary school children, whether or not she believes that games cause children to behave violently or aggressively. I had just read Mark Coulson and Christopher J. Ferguson’s “The Influence of Digital Games on Aggression and Violent Crime” in the collection, so the topic was on my mind.  The conclusions they draw do not lead to a definitive answer, but they do conclude with an obvious point: “the likelihood that VVGs [Violent Video Games] cause societal violence is minimal” (71). But their study opens up a lot of unclear research: the effects of violent video games on aggressive behaviour are dubious; is it violent content, or could frustration and competition lead to aggressive behaviour? The research often doesn’t take account of the fact that individuals respond to violent video games differently, and Coulson and Ferguson propose that perhaps we should rethink the concept of “violent video game” altogether because the term is so generalizing.

My partner responded to my question with a yes and a no, humming and hawing. Definitely a yes and definitely a no. Like Coulson and Ferguson’s essay, she says it really depends on the individual. She’s experienced aggressive behaviour first hand related to video games, but she has also experienced the exact opposite. Yet, she found it shocking that a good portion of the kids she was teaching one day said they played Grand Theft Auto V. More than one of the kids said they played with their dad, and one kid quickly followed it up with “HEADSHOT!” and laughed. I wouldn’t panic if I found out my kid was playing GTA V, but I also wouldn’t, uh, sit down and bond over headshots with them. And it’s exactly that concern and not knowing the effects (because of poor research) that Coulson and Ferguson discuss. Like my partner, I will paradoxically answer yes and no.

But that discussion led to the fact that this is only partly a parenting thing. Part of it is the gaming industry and its marketing, and part of it is also cultural attitudes. We really pondered this question: What are some recent AAA video games that are rated E for everyone and not by Nintendo? There are games we came up with that we could recall after a long, let-me-think-about-it-over-sleep pause. But they are few and far between.

John L. Sherry’s “Debating How to Learn From Video Games” and Gillian Dale and C. Shawn Green’s “Video Games and Cognitive Performance” partly illuminate and provide nuance for this dilemma regarding the sparsity of AAA games for everyone. Together, these essays also suggest that research has proven that games––all games––are excellent educational tools and do improve cognitive performance, yet lasting improvement is understudied. So, why the lack of AAA games that are educational and/or for everyone? Sherry says, games can “provide the types of learning environments that education researchers dream about, where children can interactively explore the world individually or in groups” (117). But educational games don’t sell well, or at least companies that are not Nintendo don’t believe they sell well. Sherry relates a personal correspondence with Microsoft and Electronic Arts, both of whom are only willing to invest in an educational game “after someone proves that they are profitable” (128). Well, that’s great. It also doesn’t help that educational games aren’t that good, Sherry admits, which is a result of a lack of interdisciplinarity in educational games. If there is going to be a “shining star of the educational game world” (118), there has to be greater communication between those working on design and those working on the pedagogy in educational games. The problem, Sherry argues, is that educational games are either fun but not really pedagogical or not fun at all but successfully pedagogical.

At this point, I hope you’re sharing some of the furrowed browed epiphanies that I had while reading this volume. But what this review can’t really communicate (without being painfully thorough) is how complex these issues are. What may be obvious to us about video games and their effects is really a complex set of factors that we experience but are not able to reflect on and articulate. The Video Game Debate helps to clear up and complicate (i.e., making less obvious) some commonly accepted worries and concerns that still linger around to this day, or ones that were shrugged off long ago.

Back in the day, I used to be a cashier at a grocery store. Like any cashier, after some time at a grocery store I had become good at packing groceries swiftly and efficiently, which would prompt customers to comment on how swift and efficient I was. “Thanks,” I would reply. “It’s all thanks to Tetris.” At the time I was playing Tetris pretty frequently because it was my partner’s and my favourite game to play together. But the reply was my polite snub to the common conception that video games were a waste of time and didn’t do you any good. And it turns out my snub now has some scientific backup (and extends beyond the grocery store). As I mentioned above, Dale and Green’s essay argues that Action Video Games (AVGs) in particular are proven to improve, however slightly or temporarily, cognitive performance. Throughout their essay, they argue that AVGs in particular increase attention performance, such as monitoring and tracking objects (hence my awesome cashier bagging skills), memory capacity, and problem solving skills. They even add that AVGs aid in slowing down the cognitive decay of getting old, can have applications toward the treatment of amblyopia (lazy eye) and dyslexia, and have been shown to improve the visuo-spatial demands of surgeons and the skills of pilots. While these studies still need to track the long term effects, Dale and Green demonstrate that AVGs have a “clear influence on a variety of cognitive processes, and have been shown to have numerous implications for practical real-world training and rehabilitation practices” (145). What does need to be done, however, is to look into the cognitive effects of different genres of games, especially RTSs which are understudied. Again, a lot of past research has been prone to generalization, muddling the quality of research.

Something that is still a primary concern today as it was in my hey-day, and is getting increasingly worse, is the fear of games affecting social life.  As Rachel Kowert succinctly puts it in her essay, “fears about the medium’s ability to produce a generation of socially inept, reclusive individuals continue to rise” among the public and academics (110). Fears are getting worse because of the affordances of the latest consoles that support online play, increasing the scale of people playing online. But Kowert’s essay and Frans Mäyrä’s “Exploring Gaming Communities” dispel those fears, although they are careful not to say “it’s not a problem.” While there are some instances of people becoming addicted and shutting out those around them, these instances are a handful and not unlike those involving other kinds of addictions. And that’s just it; online play is like offline play: it can lead to positive social outcomes or it can lead to negative social outcomes. Once again, it depends on the person. Both these studies argue that research shouldn’t necessarily separate offline and online relationships; As Mäyrä nicely puts it, “As online and offline lives are increasingly intermingled, games and information technologies continue their proliferation, and various game-like services muddle such distinctions as play versus work, or game versus real life, it will become increasingly difficult to differentiate gaming communities from other social relationships in the future” (172).

Throughout all of these ten essays is an underlying complication of answers to simple questions, each essay either concluding with contradictory observations or inconclusive results. This is not a weakness of the collection. In the past, during the peak of moral panic towards video games, a lot of researchers tried to find quick simple explanations to those simple questions, like “are video games okay for my kid to play?” The thing is, and The Video Game Debate wonderfully demonstrates this, is that there is no black and white answer. We have to “move beyond simple explanations,” Kowert and Quandt demand in the title of their essay. “[W]e have to live with seemingly contradictory observations: Games can be beneficial and harmful at the same time, they can improve and damage health, they can fascinate up to worrying addiction-like effects, but also bore users, have notable aggression effects, or remain completely ineffective” (186). The thesis of this book, though, in response to what other previous studies in the social sciences in game studies have not done, is to consider “The game and genre, the player, and the context” (186).

In other words, the “yes and no because depends” leads to a really good answer. Because that’s where discussion begins; it leads to discussions around certain games and genres, being particular and specific to avoid “glaring overgeneralizations” (187); it leads to discussions about certain individuals, what types of individuals are prone to certain negative and certain positive effects of video games; and it also leads to discussions about the variety of contexts in video game play: “Situation matters! Interaction (between players) matter! Stage of life matters! Playing environment matters! Social context matters!” (188). The Video Game Debate demonstrates that the kind of response that my friend and I initially had when first reading the title of the book was reductionist and overgeneralizing. After reading the book, I realized stuff about myself as an individual who plays games and about my relationship to games. It caused me to pause and reflect, to discuss and share. And in my discussions, I didn’t come to a satisfying answer. Rather, I wanted to keep the debate going.