Persuasive Video Games
Some games are undoubtedly like junk food. They are designed to be enjoyable and moreish. But we need to get beyond these blanket worries to understand what the real attraction of video games is if we are to guide children to healthy habits.
Understanding what video games have to offer children in a broad sense, enables us to make informed choices about the place we want them to have in our children's lives. We need to understand the surprising content games offer, the craft required to play them and the wider context they are played in.
The Surprising Content of Play Video GamesThe breadth of topics and themes addressed by video games is much broader than we might at first realise, as a flick through the Gaming Recipes pages at the back of this book will demonstrate.
We all know about FIFA’s football challenge, Call of Duty’s wartime power fantasies and Minecraft’s block-building survival. But less well known are games like Journey, which embodies the importance of companionship; Concrete Genie, which offers hope beyond bullying; Florence, which uncovers the beautiful fragility of relationships; or even Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which offers a first-hand understanding of psychosis.
Writing and speaking about new video games for newspapers, websites and broadcasters every day for the last ten years has made it abundantly clear to me that there are games about pretty much every topic. Some of these are a new way for children to engage with important subjects while others offer adults a fresh perspective on the world in which they live. Games address these themes in ways that books, films and television can’t.
When a child steps into the shoes of a shop owner in Toca Life: Town, their imagination is sparked in a different way from when they play with toy tills in the living room or read books about shopping trips. When they play A Fold Apart, they get a first-hand experience of what it’s like living far away from someone you love. Or, playing Portal, they get an embodied understanding of how the physics of momentum works unlike any learning they might do in the classroom.
The breadth of this content and the unique experience of encountering themes in this way explains why children love to play video games so much. But more than this, it cracks open the door to this world in which games can be a positive part of family life, and even of interest to adults.
This final point is the hardest to communicate: that games may offer content of interest to parents and carers themselves. We assume games are too hard, juvenile, costly, frivolous or time consuming to grant them time in our adult lives. The reality is that there are accessible, mature, affordable and short games with content that provides a unique way to engage with topics as diverse as bereavement, environmentalism, relationships, homelessness, childhood memories and even adoption.
Clearly, this breadth of content needs to be handled responsibly, as not all topics are suitable for all ages. Understanding and experiencing gaming content for ourselves enables us to make informed choices about which games our children should play. It also gives us a first-hand enjoyment of this new medium so we can consider which themes and topics may be beneficial and appropriate for our children, either on their own or in shared play with us.
The Craft Required to Play Video GamesAnother defining aspect of games is the level of craft and skill required to play them. Contrary to popular opinion, video games are hard work. As Ian Bogost, professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, writes in How to Talk About Video Games, ‘you don’t play a game to experience an idea so much as you do so in an attempt to get a broken machine to work again’.
Steven Johnson, in his book Everything Bad is Good for You, highlights our blind-spot about the benefits of this video game work when he says ‘we urge parents to instil a general love of reading in their children without worrying as much about what they’re reading – because we believe there is a laudable cognitive benefit that comes from the act of reading alone, irrespective of the content’.
For Johnson, there is a similar intrinsic benefit in playing games that’s easy to miss. The complexity of modern games requires players to tackle grown-up tasks and balance complex systems on multiple levels. Taking this online extends the work further as players must deal with other people and evolving environments.
It is achievements from this mental labour – like the satisfaction of learning field-craft for nature photography, musicianship for playing an instrument, or the nuanced grammar required to speak a new language – as much as the content of a game, that keep players coming back for more.
‘We hear a lot about the content of games: the carnage and drive-by killings and adolescent fantasies. But we rarely hear accurate descriptions about what it actually feels like to spend time in these virtual worlds.’ This, Johnson says, ‘makes it difficult to discuss the meaning of games in a coherent way’.
The two, perhaps competing, ideas – that video game content covers diverse, interesting and unusual themes while at the same time requiring hard work to operate – offer insight into why children enjoy the games they play. It’s a combination of fascination with the content and the effort required to access it.
While it’s good to want children to play games with interesting and engaging content, this insight enables us to see that even seemingly mundane or repetitive games can be fertile ground for building important and rewarding skills and traits.
The Wider Context of Video GamesThe effort required to access video game content is hard to decipher as an outside observer. Whether it’s shooting, fighting, racing or endlessly jumping, gaming interactions can seem inane or negative. However, James Paul Gee, a literacy researcher who has looked deeply into video games and education, writes in What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy that ‘video games do not have effects good or bad all by themselves … Technologies have effects only as they are situated in different contexts’.
When a child starts playing a video game – particularly a large, commercially successful one – they encounter a new world: the game itself and how to get good at playing it; the dialogue, jargon and etiquette of other players; the mythology and lore of the game that has evolved over the years; the videos and websites about this particular game and celebrity professional players.
Video games that are played with other people, either in the same room or online via an internet connection extend this context further. These games offer a chance for community and friendships to develop as players meet online, collaborate, compete and communicate with typed messages or with headsets and microphones. This is extended further with conferences and exhibitions where the community finds tangible expression.
It’s this ‘affinity group’, as Gee calls it, that defines how players interpret what is happening on the screen. This community context of gaming is as much an influence of how long children spend playing as moreish game design. Agreeing fare and healthy boundaries includes consideration of this wider world of the game. Finding games with appropriate content for your child also involves helping them engage with, understand and interpret its wider context.
Discovering this opened my eyes to why video games were so important to my children. It was not only the experience itself but the wider activities and communities. I could appreciate the hours they spent researching the physics of momentum and collision to improve their Rocket League play. I could understand their fits of laughter watching fan-made Red vs Blue animations, made using the Halo characters. I was no longer worried that my daughter’s notebook full of diagrams and plans about her next Minecraft castle was a sign of obsession.
My role in this area of their life changed. It was no longer to stop them playing for too many hours, or getting too obsessed, but to help them capitalise, understand and evaluate games in this wider context.
ConclusionUnderstanding the wide range of content that games have to offer, the craft they require to play, the context they are played in and how this is positioned alongside other aspects of childhood has enabled me to discover this world of video games that my children enjoy.
This world is not what I imagined it to be. And my reaction is mirrored in other parents and carers I’ve worked with. Whether from an understandably narrow view of what games are – perhaps because video games have changed so much since we played them growing up ourselves – or simply because of how our children imaginatively interact with them in unexpected ways, we need new ways to make sense of this new gaming world.
This article was first published in the Taming Gaming book.
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