Hyperrhiz 15: Reviews and reports

Rachel Kowert and Thorsten Quandt (eds.), The Video Game Debate

Sara M. Cole

The Video Game Debate: Unravelling the physical, social, and psychological effects of digital games. Rachel Kowert and Thorsten Quandt, Eds. Routledge, 2016. 195 pp. (paperback) (9781138831636)

A collection of authors provide overviews of the current states of video game research, specifically addressing the common presumption that the effects of digital game play are violent thoughts and actions. This text leads readers from the creation of video game technology through varied means of studying games and players, and ultimately to the current conundrums we face in this complicated field. Kowert and Quandt have brought together the works of eleven additional authors in order to “open the door to richer conversation and debate amongst students, policy makers, and scholars alike.”

Speaking effectively to such a broad audience may initially seem to be the greatest challenge of this type of text. Concepts are built upon one another in such a way that a parent or teacher with concerns about video games’ effects on childhood development, for instance, will not feel overwhelmed while still addressing the complexity of studying this topic on a level that is relevant to scholars and professionals. This text lacks the kinds of detailed and rigorous academic approaches that might be better suited to readers already highly familiar with interactive media studies, digital anthropology, play theory, or the field of human-computer interaction. Though assuming a novice audience, The Video Game Debate serves as a helpful update on current arguments and trends in video game studies for 2016. In the ever changing landscape of not only video games themselves, but our means of analyzing these rapidly progressing technologies, more edited volumes such as this should be produced and more often.  

The book begins with a historical overview of technologies that people now refer to by the blanket term “video game,” including the origins of basic simulations after World War II, like Tennis for Two and OXO, which eventually led to competitive games that were commercialized as arcades and home consoles in the late 1970’s. These games are distinguished from multi-user dungeons (MUDs), also developed during those decades, in terms of their play orientation. The goals of most video games, much like competitive sports and games like chess, are tied to a long cultural history of play that mimics or even prepares for war. MUDs, however, developed with a narrative focus, providing an interactive adventure tale as the player communicated with others (humans online or computer-generated characters) through predominantly text-based displays. The global reach of modern narrative-focused gaming, MMORG’s (massively multi-player online role-playing game) such as World of Warcraft, demonstrates that these story-based interactions (though often still reliant on combat scenarios as the primary plot device and risk/reward system) are also a dominant part of what we consider to be a video game. These distinctions set the stage for defining what video games are and who plays them, which helps to initiate readers who might fear that video games are the first or only entertainment medium to feature combat, competition, and violence.

Understanding research about societal issues related to video game play requires first establishing these basic concepts of what video games are. With a foundation in place, the book moves directly to a discussion of moral panics that have erupted during the evolution of digital gaming and as computer-mediated activities became prevalent in many countries. Common discourse about the effects of video games stem from media-fueled panics that position gaming as a threat to society based on moral beliefs rather than strictly scientific results. Video games are part of a long history of cultural fears — religious, philosophical, and very often mass media-based (concern over privacy of the telephone in the late 1800’s, the moral impact of criminal or violent film content in the 1920’s, reading comic books, watching too much TV, and so on).

Providing this longstanding history of similar reactionary behavior is effective. Video games can be more easily viewed by the author’s intended audience, the concerned parent or policy-maker, as a complex means of mass communication that cannot be judged by simplistic or easily comprehensive means. Furthermore, recent empirical studies are provided that demonstrate when gamers are disgusted by images/activities on the screen (these might be violent or otherwise upsetting), they are then less rather than more likely to have interest in participating in such activities in their real lives. Health effects of video game play are explored in terms of child/youth development: building identities and learning to work in groups, effects on mental health such as ADHD and depression, and physical health applications such as pain management and learning/improving behaviors (such as avoiding drunk driving, smoking, or poor food choices).

The authors repeatedly address the influence of digital games on aggression and violent crime, as it is the subject most often cited in relation to video games by media outlets, politicians, and other concerned parties. The natural occurrence of aggressive behavior and the tendency of human beings to engage in problem solving (often for fun) is described in detail. The correlational data collected in research linking games to increases or decreases in violent behavior is insufficient. By breaking down the complicated nature of this unanswered question, do violent games or other media cause violent behavior, readers will be better able to assess the information presently available and hopefully less likely to feel comfortable jumping to conclusions or rash generalizations. A check-list for evaluating evidence is provided for the non-academic reader to assist in this process.

The concerning issue of gaming addiction and internet gaming disorders is often omitted from texts whose focus tends to address the most vocal outcry of anti-gamers (causal violence), but is well documented here. The study of video game and internet addiction disorders suffers from a lack of consistent and standardized testing criteria as well as sampling biases. No clear conclusions are drawn by the authors, but their overview of recent publications is a useful starting point for understanding the potential risks of excessive or compulsive video game play.

The benefits of online gaming are also outlined. Social spaces for playful interaction across geographic boundaries are lauded as freeing spaces that afford increased interpersonal communication and relationship building. This is in contrast to the common concern that video games result in isolation from the “outside world” and therefore have negative social impacts. The social benefits of video game play are linked to learning and serious games. Video game use in educational settings implies possibilities for increased cognitive performance in others aspects of life, including improvements in perception, attention, memory, and many high-level executive functions of the brain. They may assist in forms of rehabilitation of vision or cognitive abilities, dyslexia, and any number of professional skills. The inclusion of these chapters furthers their intent to demonstrate the vast benefits of the medium in contrast to the relatively unproven concern of violent outcomes of video game play.

The book concludes with an exploration of gaming communities — who are the people the other chapters have been talking about? What are the characteristics and potentials of the social groups formed through video game play? The opportunity for socialization and in-group participation in gaming communities has evolved rapidly, and will continue to change as online communication becomes more readily available to larger portions of the global population and as the forms of that interaction evolve.

The limitations of any book like The Video Game Debate lie in the impossibility to address the full scope of all digital interactive entertainment media in a single volume, even through a single analytical lens, let alone a discussion of the various approaches scholars and practitioners take in attempting to understand the influences of video games. Though this text does not address in detail mobile games, indie games and mods, or alternate reality gaming, it does focus on the most familiar (and therefore most criticized) form of what a “video game” can be, and addresses the most familiar critique head-on: does video game play cause violence in society? The editors admit that any such collection of essays serves primarily to further blur the resolutions we have built so far in terms of the physical and psychological influences of video game play. The rapid, fluid progression of interactive technologies requires constantly updating our methods and subjects of research. The overview of key topics provided in this text is necessarily limited, yet essential to begin the conversation about why this subject is such a challenge. Especially for those relatively unfamiliar with the history of video game research, Kowert and Quandt’s book provides a critical function — sharing foundational and up-to-date information about a complex subject so we may start an ongoing conversation with a more diverse group of readers, writers, and players.

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