Videogames, like other forms of entertainment and art, are valuable not only because they’re fun but also because they can make us think differently. But this is a double-edged sword. If we want to argue—as I do—that the medium of games can make us better, more thoughtful, or more skillful people, don’t we also have to admit that they can also effect a change in the opposite, negative direction? Popular media coverage of the effects of videogames tends to focus on the violence issue, though also on the influence of videogames on (comparatively) subtler attitudes about things like race and gender. A recent study, for instance, suggested that playing as a black character makes white gamers more racist (though many argue that the study is flawed). So, do videogames make us callous, racist, and sexist?
My short answer, as an advocate of gaming, is yes. Games can influence us toward crude racist and sexist attitudes and callousness toward violence. But I don’t think this influence is major, I don’t think this influence is the norm across most videogames, and I don’t think that games are particularly good at doing this without the help of players.
Games are expressive. What games say (dialogue, plotlines), how they present themselves (are violent acts in video games made to look attractive or horrible?), and the rules and procedures that govern their worlds (is there only one right choice or strategy? Are women treated as characters or objects?) express attitudes about the world and how it works. If your only forms of interaction in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare are to run and/or gun, that’s how you’re encouraged to think about solving that games challenges. If, like in Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Dishonored, you also have a stealth option, violence becomes a strategic and/or ethical choice. The attitudes expressed by game design, writing, and acting can be persuasive, just like those in a film, play, or book.
And yet, like with those other media, simply experiencing a game with potentially negative depictions of actions and attitudes does not turn players into mindless racist, sexist killers. The effects of expressive works on users/audiences are subtler than that. They vary based on the user’s receptiveness to being influenced, which depends on personality and also personal situation at the point in life when one encounters a game. The effects also vary based on the persuasiveness of the game. They vary based on medium, to some degree, which is why a new medium like games (or, a hundred years ago, cinema) elicits a new round of freak-outs.
A new medium involves engaging with ideas in a new way, so it affects us a bit differently – we’re directing the actions rather than just watching them. And with a new medium, audiences will initially be less sophisticated in our ability to understand and account for its means of persuading or moving us. Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous “Daisy” attack ad in the 1964 presidential campaign was so shocking in part because the public was not used to negative attack ads that aimed for emotional rather than logical persuasion—a genre that became ubiquitous after the success of “Daisy.” This is behind the worries people have about games—playing rather than watching will make them more influential, especially for impressionable new (and young) players.
Videogames will not destroy society. Their effect will be modest, and I am not at all convinced that it will be more bad than good. Very few people will be moved to massive changes in their attitudes or actions by videogames because the vast majority of us are capable of separating reality from imaginative fiction and acting accordingly. The few who are not able to are potentially dangerous not because of videogames but because of their root psychological state, and the answer is not to ban or massively restrict all potential influences. A society in which only “wholesome” entertainments are allowed would be a repressive and stifling place that would not be the better for its safeguards. Arts and entertainment allow us to work through troubling issues in safe ways, not only when they’re taking themselves seriously, like in Spec Ops: The Line or Hush, but also through flippancy and escapism—Call of Duty is fun partly because it puts you in control, Dead Rising rewards resourcefulness, Grand Theft Auto V agrees that sometimes you just have to throw up your hands and accept that the world is crazy. Gamers don’t walk away from with the impression that the ways we have our player-character behave are good models for living real lives.
Authorities have always worried that expressive works are dangerous, either to those authorities’ power or to a vulnerable society. The fear hasn’t gone away over the millennia because it is not baseless. Works of art and entertainment can give society, or groups within society, that little push into a new way of acting or thinking, though it’s very hard to pinpoint when or to what extent it occurs. But when this effect is cumulative and significant, I suspect that it is far more likely to be in positive rather than negative directions, simply because with the negative, we almost always know better, so the negative in games is unlikely to come as a revelation. The benefit of expressive works is that they get us to think in new ways and see new perspectives, and frankly, I think there are more new positive ways of thinking than negative. We already know the negatives. The challenge is mainly avoiding the temptations of slipping into lazy habits of thought and action, not avoiding discovering them for the first time. So while—as I’ll go into in a later post on sexism and racism in games—the negative effects of games remain worth thinking about on an individual level, they are, I believe, less likely than the positive effects to have a cumulative effect on society.
Written By: Brandon Perton