Video games are an important entertainment industry and common leisure pursuit, played by people the world over. However, video games continue to be deeply controversial. Playing video games is often viewed as mainly the activity of adolescent boys, and games are seen as isolating and antisocial, creating a generation of socially dysfunctional and unfit children. Worse still, it is alleged that the often high levels of violence in many video games encourage heightened aggression in the vulnerable young minds of those who play them.
The origins of digital gaming can be traced back to the 1950s, but it was not until the late 1970s and 1980s that digital gaming began to develop as a common leisure activity. Today, video games are a major global industry. Global game sales exceed $48 billion, with the largest game market still undoubtedly in the United States, where game sales in 2008 reached nearly $12 billion. A recent poll by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) suggested that 42 percent of all Americans planned on purchasing at least one game in the following year. Game sales are now comparable to cinema box office takings, and today more video games than books are sold in the United States and United Kingdom.
Video Games and Gender
Contrary to popular belief, video game playing is not restricted solely to male adolescents. The ESA suggests that 82 percent of video game players are over the age of 17. Though digital gaming is by no means a level playing field when it comes to gender, the ESA suggests that 47 percent of gamers are female, and in Johannes Fromme’s study of over 1,000 German schoolchildren, almost a third of girls (and 55.7 percent of boys) claimed to “regularly” play digital games; it has been suggested that in Korea women make up to close to 70 percent of gamers (Krotoski 2004).
However, statistics on game-playing patterns, particularly in relation to gender, can hide continuing discrepancies and imbalances between the gaming patterns of men and women. Studies suggest that, on average, women continue to be less likely to play video games than men, and those who do play tend to play a lot less frequently than their male counterparts. In particular, these discrepancies are much greater for adult men and women. This is most likely because women’s leisure time continues to be more restricted and fractured than men’s and because video games continue to be created and marketed primarily toward men and feature stereotypically masculine themes, such as violence and male participation sports, with female characters often absent or sexualized within games (Crawford and Gosling 2005). Technology also continues to be primarily controlled by men (such as the placing of game machines in “male” spaces, such as the bedrooms of brothers), which means that game machines and gaming are infrequently seen as belonging to women within households.
Gaming as Violent
It is evident that violence or violent themes and action are present in a large proportion of video games, with some of the most successful and popular games such as the Grand Theft Auto series or God of War involving high levels of violent content. Games are now being used for military training and recruitment, such as America’s Army. Because of this, some express concern that violence in video games can lead to heightened aggression. In particular, due to the interactive nature of gaming, some authors suggest that violence in video games could be more damaging than that seen in television and film. While television viewers are (largely) passive, video games often require players to actively direct the (in-game) aggression, and hence the aggression and violence is more “participatory” (Emes 1997). However, the relationship between violent games and gamers (as with violence on television and viewers) is far from conclusive. In particular, such research has been heavily criticized for its inconsistent methodologies and small and unrepresentative sample groups. It has also been criticized for overestimating the ability of games to influence the specific attitudes and behavior of individuals or groups and for seeing gamers as passive and vulnerable to representations of violence within games (Bryce and Rutter 2003).
Gamers as “Mouse Potatoes”
A further criticism often leveled at video gaming is that it is an antisocial and isolating activity, producing a generation of passive “mouse potatoes.” However, this wholly negative attitude toward video gaming continues to be questioned in ongoing research. One study of over 200 London schoolchildren found no evidence to suggest that those who regularly played video games had fewer friends (Colwell and Payne 2000). Gamers are not “absent,” but rather constitute active participants within the games they play. Digital gaming is an expression of human performance and can be a very sociable activity—with gamers playing each other online, meeting at conventions, and, more commonly, playing with friends or family members. In particular, research undertaken for the Interactive Software Federation of Europe suggests that 55 percent of gamers play with others.
Likewise, the argument that playing video games can negatively affect levels of sport participation has been challenged by several authors. For instance, Fromme’s study of German schoolchildren found no evidence to support the assertion that playing video games reduces a child’s participation in sport. On the contrary, his survey produced some evidence to suggest that daily use of digital games was positively associated with increased levels of sport participation. Similarly, a study of U.K. undergraduate students found no evidence to suggest that playing video games could have a negative affect on patterns of sport participation, but rather that sport-related video games could actually inform and increase both the interest in and knowledge of sport of some game players (Crawford 2005).
Video games have also grabbed the attention of researchers eager to understand the interaction between gamers and the games they play. However, different researchers and authors have adopted different approaches to studying video games. In particular, it is possible to identify a divide between theorists (such as Murray 2001), who have sought to understand video games by drawing on and developing a film and media studies approach, and those (such as Frasca 2003), who adopt a more psychologically influenced focus upon patterns of play (a perspective called ludology).
Adopting a media/film studies approach to video games does not simply mean that video games are viewed as interactive films, but it provides certain tools to help gain a more in-depth understanding of video games. For instance, some argue that games can be understood as a text, just as any other media form, such as a book, television show, or film. This text can then be studied to look for meanings, both obvious and hidden. From this perspective, it is also possible to study the narratives (stories and themes) within games in the same way we can with film or to study the rules and conventions of gaming using similar tools to those employed in understanding poetry.
However, some question whether video games can be understood as a text in the same way as older media forms (such as television, radio, and cinema), because, unlike these, video games are not set and rigid but can vary depending on how the player interacts with them (Kerr, Brereton, and Kucklich 2005). This is a similar argument offered by a ludology approach, which suggests that, while traditional media (such as films) are representational (i.e., they offer a simple representation of reality), video games are based on simulation, creating a world that gamers can manipulate and interact with.
Nevertheless, the degree of flexibility within a game should not be overemphasized. In particular, the degree of interactivity a gamer has with, or over, video games has been questioned by numerous authors. For instance, new technologies (such as DVDs) are frequently introduced and sold to the market using the selling point of their increased interactive qualities. The user’s level of control or interaction with the medium, though, is still restricted by not only the limitations of technology but also the aims of the designers and manufacturers.
A limitation with early studies that draw on both film/media and ludology approaches is that, in many cases, gamers were frequently seen as isolated individuals rather than understood within a wider social setting. However, there is an increasing awareness of the need to include an understanding of the role and importance of gaming within its social setting, such as how people talk about games with friends and family, how they fit into leisure patterns and everyday lives, and how they can inform some people’s identity and sense of who they are (Crawford and Rutter 2007).
Video gaming today is a major leisure and cultural activity, engaged in by many people all around the world, often taking up a sizable proportion of their leisure time. As with any cultural activity, it is impossible to categorize this as either wholly good or bad. Video games are often violent and can be sexist, homophobic, and racist—as can any media form, such as film, music, and literature. However, video games are also an important industry; they allow people to relax and can be a source of conversation and identity for many. It is therefore important that we understand gaming within a wider social and cultural setting—sometimes as shocking, sometimes awe-inspiring, but more often a relatively normal and mundane pastime engaged in, and discussed, by many.
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