Thursday, March 12, 2009

Learning from video games

Yesterday a 17-year old boy in Germany grabbed his fathers gun and went on a rampage in which he shot 16 people, before being shot himself by police. Today you can read the first explanations that violent video games were found in his room. I'm sure by tomorrow some politician will ask for violent video games to be banned to avoid such tragedies in the future. Video gamers tend to shrug this predictable reaction off. Pretty much every 17-year old boy has access to video games, and a large percentage of those games are violent. If of millions of teenage players of violent video games all over the world only very few run amok, the games can't possibly be the cause, or can they?

Earlier this week we had an interesting discussion on the psychological effects of video games. A reader mentioned that games were the oldest medium of teaching, long before schools were invented. So can we really exclude video games from the learning process? Can we say that there is no way that violent video games teach children to regard violence as a possible solution to problems?

One thing to consider here is that playing video games is only one medium among many that promote violence. If you managed to isolate a teenage boy from violent video games, he would probably still be seeing violent movies, see violence on the TV, or read violent comics. If a 17-year old boy is only watching Dora the Explorer and playing with pink ponies, he probably would be regarded as retarded. And given that the same boy on turning 18 can join the army and fight terrorists in Iraq, the idea of completely shielding him from all images of violence until then is utopian.

Behavior is influenced by both genes and environment, although there is an ongoing debate on how big exactly these two factors are. There is good evidence that boys are more violent than girls, and that this has genetic origins. Even if we regard violence as something bad now, in the previous millions of years of evolution it was a trait that improved your chance of survival. So it can be argued that violent video games and other media are just an outlet for violent genetic predispositions. Better let the kid shoot virtual monsters than hurt real people.

Of course video games engage us emotionally, and those emotions can encompass anger and hate. Muckbeast sent me a link to an article about MMOs causing real world violence, where people started fighting in the virtual world and then carried that fight over into the real one. But again there are just a handful of cases among millions of MMO players.

So I would say that the lessons that video games teach us are more subtle than just seeing violence and apeing it in real life. Humans are able to grasp much deeper lessons than that. There is some evidence that the reward structure of video games has had an influence on the reward expectations in real life of a whole generation which grew up with those games. Instead of just banning violence from video games, we could use those games to show the negative consequences of violence. MMOs can be used to teach the positve consequences of cooperation. As games evolve from simple shoot-em-ups to telling more complex stories and having more complex interactions, the influence that these games can possibly have on learning could be used in a positive way. Not by making overly preachy games nobody wants to play, but by making fun games which just happen to also teach you lessons for life. Already some people claim that managing a guild in a MMO is good practice for real world managing positions, although I'd say that while it might help it certainly won't be sufficient qualification. Games like Sim City can teach people about basic economics and dealing with interdependabilities and limited resources. And games like Fable can teach people that their behavior has long-term consequences.

So in summary I'd say that there is some influence of video games on behavior, although it isn't as simple as some politicians would like it to be. And far from being totally negative, learning from video games can often be good for the players. As video games mature, even violence in video games is being shown in more nuanced ways, not just as a simple solution without consequences. It is that mature treatment of difficult subjects we should demand from video games, not the simple removal of all content that could possibly offend somebody.

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