Video games become a powerful weapon in the hands of those for whom a disenfranchised citizenry is a benefit.
By Adrian Duyzer
Published February 15, 2006
Free will - actually, the illusion of free will - is the best thing about video games. The ability to choose, to act, and to experience the consequences of decisions is what makes video games stand out from movies and television.
"I started getting into video games when the passive television pill just got too hard to swallow," a friend of mine explained when I asked him about his gaming addiction.
I know what he means because I've played my fair share. The best action games, many created with multi-million-dollar budgets, are as gripping as any thriller. Engrossing strategy games are like Risk or Monopoly come to life, with animated units, fiery battles and a level of complexity that far exceeds chess.
The result is entertainment that can eat up a lot of time: adult gamers in the US spend on average 7.5 hours a week playing them, a significant amount that seems understated compared to what I've witnessed.
Children play them too, "an average of 13 hours per week for boys and five hours for girls", according to Dr. Phil's website. Dr. Phil probably hopes kids will drop the controllers and get hooked on television instead, but as video game quality continues to improve the opposite is likely.
Anything that takes up this much time is bound to have consequences. Many researchers have voiced concerns over the possible effects of violent video game content, especially in children. These concerns are frequently taken up by legislators looking for easy votes.
Examining violence in video games is important, but many other issues remain largely unexplored.
It would be a mistake to attribute the rising popularity of video games to their steadily-improving quality and level of sophistication. The popularity of video games is actually closely tied to the degree that they allow the player to act freely.
Most video games can be separated into two broad categories: games where the player takes the role of an individual character who is part of the game world, and games where the player takes the role of a manager or decision maker who is not "in" the game but controls those who are.
Action, adventure and role-playing games, like the Super Mario series, Halo, and Final Fantasy, fit into the first category. Strategy and sports games fit into the second. (The exceptions are computerized versions of games like pinball, poker and chess, which aren't really video games at all, since they exist just fine without computers.)
In each type of game, the player has broad capability and freedom of action. In sports games, the player decides the plays and executes them on the field. In strategy games, the player decides who to go to war with, what troops and armaments to build, what strategy to adopt and what tactics to use.
In action-adventure games, the player decides whether to advance under fire or retreat. Whether to shoot a way out, or use explosives.
Compare this authority to the average person's life. Many of us, perhaps even most of us, feel deprived of this ability to decide, act, change, even influence, not to mention blow things up.
We work in companies where what we say and do has little if any effect on the course of the organization. We live in cities where decisions are made behind closed doors, without our knowledge, let alone our participation.
The situation is worse nationally and worst internationally. When the World Trade Organization, with prompting from nations like Canada, decides that Europe may not ban genetically-modified foods from their countries, Europeans realize they can no longer even decide what ends up on their dinner plates.
Seen in this context, video games become virtual enfranchisement for a disenfranchised citizenry.
Taken a step further, video games become a powerful tool in the hands of those for whom a disenfranchised citizenry is a benefit.
Is this overstating the case? I don't mean to depict the video game industry as malignant and I'm not suggesting a conspiracy. Instead, video games need to be placed in context along with established and powerfully influential media like television.
Video games are interactive and television is not, but there are other similarities between the two. Neither have much to do with art.
I can hear angry video game enthusiasts protesting already, but hear me out. Think of a novelist. She considers society and reflects on life to create her art in the form of fiction. It is a personal expression that becomes a reflection of society.
Video games, although they may be created by wonderfully creative individuals, lack this personal kernel of artistry. They are either conceived by someone who is more concerned with an activity - game play - than artistic expression, or they are created by companies who set out not to create art, but to create best-selling games. Products.
Because these products do involve creativity and even artistry - a video game may not be art, but parts of it certainly are - video games are still reflections of society. But they are warped reflections, visions of society seen through a corporate lens.
The worst are blatant propaganda. America's Army, the official game of the U.S. Army is an online multiplayer game where players engage in "simulated missions in the War on Terror". Bizarrely, no matter what team you are on, you are always American and your enemies are always terrorists. Switch sides mid-game and you're still a G.I., but your former teammates are now masked guerillas.
Battlefield 2 is another enormously popular multiplayer game where players fight against each other in Middle Eastern settings. Americans battle brown-skinned soldiers who shout in Arabic and belong to the fictitious "Middle East Coalition".
As Americans, British and Iraqis kill each other in a savage conflict in Iraq, tens of thousands play out a similar conflict on computer screens, firing simulated weapons and blasting each other with virtual explosives. For fun.
What does this say about our society?
If a disengaged citizenry is the goal, video games are the perfect complement to television. Watching television satisfies the desire to do nothing. Playing video games satisfies the desire to do.
The American Revolution was not a cause that swept up all the citizens of the American colonies at once. The actions of a determined, motivated few, people who were willing to risk their lives and their freedom, set off the Revolution.
I can't say for certain that many of today's revolutionaries are leading revolts and climbing the ramparts in simulated worlds instead of the real one, but I do know that there are millions of talented, intelligent people who are pouring their passion and creative energies into games.
My favourite video games are all multiplayer. Playing alongside and against other people is a far more compelling experience for me than playing against a computer.
I have seen firsthand the amount of time and energy that people dedicate to improving their video game abilities. I'm not just talking about reflexive hand-eye coordination, I'm talking about coordinated strategies that involve highly specialized roles and cleverly designed tactics that are pulled together using voice communication.
Take a look around the Internet and you'll find countless discussion forums and blogs where video game strategies and tactics are designed and endlessly debated.
The end result? Proficiency or failure at something that is at best enjoyable entertainment and at worst utterly pointless, along with personal relationships developed with other players that are generally transient and superficial.
This paints a depressing scene, but it's not the entire picture. There are games that maintain a higher quality, that come closer to art as a truthful reflection of society, that tell a story worth experiencing. And the video game industry, as corporate as it is, still encourages far more art and more creativity than many other billion-dollar industries.
What remains to be seen is if video games can break free of tired cliches (games about World War II, for example) to tell different stories in different ways, or if they can transcend their status as, at best, harmless wastes of time to become something more.
It's not impossible to conceive of a game where creativity is enabled to the point where player creations completely unforeseen by the game developer are possible. Creations that are worth something on their own merits instead of creatures of a simulated and ultimately pointless world.
And it's not impossible to conceive of a player community that fosters genuine relationships instead of endless bickering over play styles or preferred character archetypes ("mages suck!").
It just hasn't happened yet.