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Answering the 10 arguments against games

Games have been attacked by the press and legislators for causing real-world violence; the IGDA's Daniel Greenberg, Professor Ian Bogost, and Mike Capps, formerly of Epic, addressed the issue.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

March 27, 2013

9 Min Read

"There's a tremendous amount we can do, but first the industry has to come to a consensus," said Daniel Greenberg, who is both a writer for games and the head of the IGDA's anti-censorship SIG. In the wake of the Newtown Massacre, he's appeared on numerous talking head shows defending the industry, and he penned that open letter to Vice President Joe Biden we all read. At GDC, he joined Professor Ian Bogost and former Epic Games and ESRB member Mike Capps to discuss the industry's perception problems among the media and society at large -- and propose some solutions.

Perception 1: Violent Games Cause Violence in America

"Poll after poll shows people believe this even though there's not a shred of evidence to back it up," said Greenberg. And though support for this supposition is eroding, it's merely mutating, he said: "the fallback position is that video games have 'effects,' mysterious dangerous damaging effects, not just on children but on [all] people." The good news, said Capps, is "the facts are really clearly on our side." Capps also said that since games have such a huge presence in the world of media, the industry has a "great platform" it can use, but isn't. "How do we use that as a way to educate? We're not part of the problem, but we can absolutely be part of the solution." The problem, said Bogost, is that to average people who aren't familiar with the medium, the phrase "violent video games" is like "sweet candy" -- "it's just the way they are." In Bogost's view, "we need to recognize this perception of violence being synonymous with video games." He said that many people, "immediately after complaining about that they'll pull out their phone and play Angry Birds" -- they have to be made to undestand the breadth of what's out there. "I've started saying 'imaginary violence' instead of 'violence,'" Greenberg noted. "It changes the entire frame of reference that the interview is forced to deal with."

Perception 2: Attacking Games is Politically Advantageous

Capps pointed out that though this perception is definitely true, every time a politician goes after violent games, he or she loses, and loses badly (recently even at the Supreme Court level.) Because it plays well, we have to recognize that despite these losses, "there will be people getting started on going after the game industry" even now. "That's the most important lesson -- this works. The idea that it shouldn't work is a losing battle," said Bogost. "The reality is that what we need is a way to reframe the uses and understandings of games so that this attack doesn't work anymore." There's also, Bogost argued, "a set of inconsistencies we can identify in the way that politicians talk about the area that surrounds games." On one hand, a politician might say "games need to be controlled and they're dangerous," but on the other hand might say, "we want to invest in STEM education so that our children can have better jobs in areas like the video game industry." Point that out.

Perception 3: Games are Just About Killing; They Don't Have Anything Meaningful to Say Anyway

"If you think about this, it's kind of true," Bogost said. "Many games are violent... it's reasonable at some level to come to this conclusion. There's a justification for the general public who is unfamiliar with games that this stuff is gross." In his view, one solution is to have "a more diverse stable of games" -- "and I don't mean that someone made a weird game... I mean big budget games that get press and people think of as video games." "If you think about the way other media work, there's this array of properties," he argued. The movie industry isn't defined by one type of movie, because people understand this. Greenberg is optimistic that the Obama Administration's openness to the positive aspects of games means that the industry can move the conversation forward by creating great works. "We have an administration that is finally not anti-game and can help us make a difference," he said. "It's incumbent on us to take that ball and run with it and go much further with it."

Perception 4: Games are Made by and for Stunted Adolescents, Loners, and Losers

"The tribal identification of the gamer... is very stigmatizing," said Capps. People naturally think "we don't want to be part of that tribe." In Bogost's view, "they probably shouldn't call themselves that -- we need to really abandon this awful useless term called 'gamer.' You can understand why people don't want to join that club." He urged developers themselves to "stop thinking about gamers that way."

Perception 5: Games Refuse to Grow Up

In Capps' view, one major problem is not with the content of games, but the behaviors of audiences. There's a lot of "vitriol that goes between game players, developers, publishers... We need to be one group!" In his view, this is players saying -- regarding the defense of games -- "I'm gonna hope they do a good job" but when it comes to any other issue -- say, SimCity's launch -- "I'm going to tear them down the whole time they're doing it." "We all have to solve it together, not rage at each other on forums and Twitter," he concluded. "I can't think of an industry that is more maligned but has more truth on its side," Greenberg pointed out. Many industries have to bury the facts, but games have unbiased research done about them that shows positive effects. Bogost pointed out that there's an idea that "we just need to wait until the president is a gamer and everything will magically solve itself," but in reality, "that doesn't make any sense." If games don't grow as a medium, there's a good chance that the potential "gamer president" could drift away from them before adulthood. He also suggested mimicking "the way the high tech industry talks about itself and presents itself" -- "if you think that Google's not evil and Facebook wants to change the world for the better, more power to you."

Perception 6: Games are Just the Products of Corporate Media Profiteers

"The interesting thing about the games industry compared to other media industries is that to the outside it appears to not care about much besides profit," says Bogost. Other industries are more philanthropic; other industry leaders make fortunes, leave, and then donate to charity. Game leaders leave and start new studios to make the same kinds of games they have already made. While "there is much of this cynicism inside other industries" -- he knows that other industries are just as money-grubbing -- "somehow they manage to present this front" of not being so singularly profit-focused. "When you think about the games business as compared to other industries... it's generally greedier in a lot of ways. It doesn't support any research or educational initiatives," Bogost said. "Warren Spector gave a great talk at DICE about how, 'I'm the 50 year old guy now and I have to start giving back,'" Capps mentioned. "We don't have enough examples of that in our industry."

Perception 7: Media Coverage of Games is Focused on Controversy

This is not just games -- as Greenberg pointed out, the media's slogan is "if it bleeds, it reads." In his recent foray into speaking on television, he was aware that "they were definitely asking me questions to try and bait me and get me to say terrible things about video games." Bogost pointed out that "the most important starting point is the death of mass media has been greatly exaggerated... normal people watch Good Morning America and read People, and they don't know what Kotaku and Rock Paper Shotgun is, and they never will." The bad thing is that "the people who read these magazines get the same message" about games and violence -- but the good news is that you can put forward another message. "All you need is a story... you don't even need a game. You just need the right kind of hook to present games in a different way," he said, and journalists will bite. "The media is ready to cover this stuff. You have to go out and talk to them and present work in a venue that will get attention."

Perception 8: Game Makers aren't Connected to the Rest of Culture, Media, and Society

"There is a whole world out there beyond games, and maybe we should pursue more of that world all of the time," said Bogost. "The most successfully interesting games tend to emerge from a conversation that occurs between games the medium and the world."

Perception 9: Game Ratings are Confusing and Ineffective

This perception? Easily combated, Capps argued. There is "90 percent understanding of the ratings," and "GameStop fires managers of stores who sell games" to minors, he argued. "We're actually much more effective with the ESRB than the MPAA rating system has been in the past."

Perception 10: Games Have no Social Value

First, Greenberg argued, "not everything has to have a social value. I don't think that creative people [in other media] need to start out by saying 'What's my social value in my novel,'" for example. He also argued that many mainstream games do have social value -- "there is a tremendously unappreciated social value in games" like Dishonored, which lets you play without violence, or BioShock, which grapples with real-world concepts. Beyond that, reasearch suggests that violent games "release stress that can lead to aggression," which is another entirely different type of social value outside of the creative worth of a game. We need to "take a look at what we've got and appreciate how much" we already have, Greenberg argued. Bogost was more critical of the industry: "it's hypocritical to fight for free speech and then have nothing to say," he said. In his view, it's about attracting more types of people to develop games, so the games we make will be more diverse: "by creating a more diverse set of developers we have more voices," Bogost said. "It would be nice to have games that said more than the sorts of things we see them saying, so why don't we try to increase the kinds of people?"

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