People approach games differently: Some people want to play games as a means of recreation. Others do it professionally. For some, games are associated with a life spent in parents’ basement eating Cheetos. We ought to be responsible gamers. Games are a creative medium: they provide a framework, but allow a player to create their own story within that setting. Roger Ebert said that for most gamers, “video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.” I want to address three missteps here.
One misguided implication is that people would actually do those positive things if they weren’t playing video games (they would probably be eating fattening foods, watching mindless television, sleeping, or performing boring tasks far beneath their mental capacities in order to get money to keep fueling their fattening foods, mindless television, and videogames). The choice is never seriously “Play Halo or read a great work of literature?” or “Another game of League of Legends or attend a community event in the park?” Those who would choose the latter do so and find themselves free to engage in recreation and videogames another time. Those who are inclined to choose the former are usually looking for ways to avoid the latter choices anyway and will find some other excuse if videogames aren’t available.
The second implication is that video games cannot (or do not) make us cultured, civilized, and empathetic. I think it unlikely that either Saints Row 3 or Call of Duty accomplishes any of these goals, but do games with moral choice systems make us debate ethics? (Deus Ex: Human Revolution still makes my mind reel and has been a good starter for a lot of interesting conversations.) Do MMOs and DOTAs teach us cooperation, coordination, teamwork, planning, and communication? Do Real Time Strategy games teach us resource management and managerial decision making? Well… a lot of the time, maybe not- but I wonder why they do not, because it doesn’t seem to be the game’s fault. I win more League of Legends games when my team communicates and cooperates- the game just rewards that kind of behavior. Many RTS players focus enormously on their resource management and building decisions- again, because the game is more likely to reward you with a win if you manage the resources well. (See: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/escapist-expo/6318-Games-in-Non-Gaming-Jobs)
The final implication of Ebert’s statement is that culture and civility is of greater value than whatever videogames do provide. I don’t know what he might mean by “culture,” but I suppose it’s related to positive human expression that accentuates and facilitates the human experience. While toxic behavior abounds in some video games, I maintain games tend to reward civility and positive teamwork more than trolling. But I wonder if he grasps the value of hand-eye coordination and typing practice and user-interface flexibility that videogames train us in. As our world becomes increasingly digitized and technology becomes increasingly sophisticated and complex, I’m inclined to think that this sort of “play” becomes important for humans the way that “play” is important for animals. Wild animals “play” to sharpen skills (often, either fleeing from predators or chasing prey). Playing videogames may be that sort of practice on technology: learning to cope with different interfaces, making settings and controls work, and figuring out how to best use the parameters of the programming to accomplish a particular goal or task. Maybe Ebert is right that videogames aren’t 19th or early 20th century embodiments of culture- but maybe culture changes.