Monday, May 23, 2005


gaming is a tax on the mind

I've long been fascinated by, but skeptical of , computer gaming. Fascinated, because gaming promises so much: immersion, participation, engagement. Skeptical, because gaming seems to deliver so little in the way of social or mental stimulation.

I was interested to see an unusual display of self-reflection by the chief lobbyist of the US gaming industry, Call for radical rethink of games . He nearly admits what many of us think: that gamers are social bores. Gaming enthusiasts have too much time of their hands. There is nothing to discuss with others in a computer game: it is all reaction, no reflection.

What bugs me about gaming is what makes it compelling to its fans. Gaming is hegemonic: it demands your total attention, like a cult. You are wired to the box, thumbs and eyes nervous extensions of the game engine. Like most cults, computer games are fascinating only to the true believers. Outsiders only see the same nonsense repeated again and again.

Television has long been decried as the "idiot box", and in many cases it deserves such derision. But unlike computer gaming, TV doesn't demand much from you. Indeed, gamers boast that gaming is participatory, rather than passive like television. But if something is going to be stupid, I'd rather it be passive. Computer gaming offers a worse alternative: ritualized stupidity, encoding one's behavior. One can't look away from a game, or hit the mute button, and expect things to continue on. It demands complete, and uninterrupted attention.

By their nature, most games are meant to be frivolous. I believe mindless entertainment is in fact necessarily to mental health. But computer games take mindlessness to a new level. One can hold a conversation while playing cards, or daydream while doing a puzzle. Computer games, however, are simply Skinnerian conditioning. The mind is frozen out of the action.

It is sad that computer gaming has achieved so little worthwhile. With worthwhile content, it could have a powerful effect for good. Instead, it is just nonsense. I won't say it corrupts minds, but I will confidently say it does little to enrich them. Everything I have seen from the apologists computer gaming tends to compare gamers to people who are even sadder, socially and mentally. People genuinely want particiatory activities, but what they get is trigger-sensationalism instead. The much ballyhooed "participation" offered by gaming is a bit of a scam. People realize that pressing buttons does not mean that something significant is happening. Even "interactive" museum exhibits are starting to draw criticism for their shallow use of "participation" when little meaningful experience is offered.

The fundamental question is: how has computer gaming enriched individuals and society? What common values has it advanced? . The Games' lobbyist is right: it is time to rethink games.

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