By David Tadros
For years a debate has been brewing in several state court systems on whether video games should be regulated, starting with a law restricting the sales of violent video games to minors. These propositions for regulation have always been deemed unconstitutional and have always been thrown out of court, until recently when California decided to escalate this concern to the United States Supreme Court. At first glance, this would truly seem as though it would be a great thing. Who would want minors to play violent video games? The concern here is deeper than the regulation of video games; it would mark as our nation’s first regulation of an art form. This argument has left the Supreme Court with the some concerns such as; what is art? What sets video games apart from movies, books, and music? What values do video games offer to society? Why should video games continue to be protected?
When debating if video games are a legitimate art form one must first consider what “art” is – imaginative and creative expression. By general art standards, video games undoubtedly fall within this criteria, which leaves the question, are video games of a worthy value or are they a waste of time? The answer is video games are as much a waste of time as literature, movies, or music. Some video games will leave you emotionally connected; some will leave you wondering why you played them in the first place. These examples parallel the same chances anyone takes when reading a book, watching a movie, or listening to a piece of music. In short, video games are an artful experience that one can learn from, become immersed in, form emotional bonds with, and, most importantly, enjoy, and therefore, video games should continue to be protected by the first amendment.
According to a New York Times article written by Adam Liptek, California is petitioning a law that would charge one-thousand dollar fines to stores for every “violent video game” sold to a minor. The article defines violent games as “those in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being’ in a way that is ‘patently offensive,’ appeals to minors’ ‘deviant or morbid interests’ and lacks ‘serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value (Liptak, “Justices Debate Video Game Ban”). Who has the right to deem something as having serious artistic value?
Currently there is no nationwide laws against minors purchasing tickets to see a movie that is rated R, purchasing a CD with explicit lyrics, or purchasing books depicting violence. Romeo and Juliet, the famous Shakespearian story taught in high schools across the nation, is an example of what is arguably a violent book as it depicts two teenagers committing suicide, yet this literature is considered art. The way the sale of media has been regulated is not on a government level, but rather at the industrial level. Distributers have theater companies sign legal documents that hold their theaters liable to following the MPAA’s, Motion Picture Association of America, rating system. If theaters violate this contract they place themselves in danger of losing the rights to show certain movies (Motion Picture Association of America). Video games are not unlike movies in the sense that they too have a rating system by the ESRB, Entertainment Software Rating Board. Stores like GameStop must follow these ratings when selling video games to minors, or they would be in danger of losing the rights to sell the media.
The usefulness and artistic nature of video games has been questioned since the creation of the technology. Since the days of the “Atari 2600,” when indie game developers started creating pornographic video games, to the controversial release of “Mortal Kombat,” which led to the ESRB rating system that is in place today, video games are constantly being attacked. As the technology grew, more video games entered the realm of realism and incorporated 3D rendering (Kent, 117). This new technology led to more interactive game experiences, but also led to more realistic violent and sexual acts. “Grand Theft Auto IV” was one of the handfuls of games in recent history that led to more controversy, and some even say that it influenced California’s proposed law. Video games are often described as violent, distracting, and a negative effect on children. The media has painted the picture of the negative effects of video games, but hardly do they ever talk about the positives of using video games.
One of the many misconceptions of video games is that it “rots your brain,” basically meaning that playing video games uses up brain cells for no substantial purpose. Some people may not realize that video games stimulate the mind and have benefits beyond their entertainment value. An article recently written by Michelle Trudeau for NPR.org describes some of the positive effects that video games have on gamers. Trudeau’s article talks about a study conducted by brain and cognitive professor, Daphne Bavelier, which showed the effects of game play on a subject’s vision. Bavelier recruited non-gamers and trained them for weeks in gaming. At the end of the experiment, her subjects were told to return home and stop game interaction. This specific experiment proved useful since they found that the eyesight of subjects had strengthened. Subjects were now capable of seeing sharper shades of gray and also smaller print sizes than non-gamers. These effects, Bavelier stated, “last up to two years” (Trudeau, “Video Games Boost Brain Power, Multitasking Skills”). In situations where improved eyesight would prove useful, this aspect of being a gamer may actually save lives. Imagine a gamer becoming a military trained sniper. In dark lighting situations, due to his past with gaming, his eyesight may be improved so significantly that it may save his life. This is one of the many benefits of playing video games.
Many people see the current youth generation as the “multitask generation,” and video games have proved to be a contributing factor of the development of multitasking. Every day gamers are put into situations where one wrong move will lead to losing the game. Constantly gamers place the pressures of multitasking upon themselves, without even breaking a sweat. Bavelier’s study showed that subjects had higher attention spans due to gaming and their multitasking skills had increased, leaving subjects more capable of jumping from task to task than non-gamers. Bavelier described the results of the study stating, "we see that typically in people that don't play action games, their reaction time lengthened by 200 milliseconds, which is something like 30 percent, but in gamers, it lengthened only by 10 percent,” (Trudeau, “Video Games Boost Brain Power, Multitasking Skills”). This same NPR article also went on to talk about gamers having an increase of brain activity over non-gamers. Lauren Sergio, neuroscientist of York University, conducted a study that showed that non-gamers would have to use more of their brain for certain skills where gamers would only use a small percent. This study also showed higher hand eye coordination in gamers (Trudeau, “Video Games Boost Brain Power, Multitasking Skills”). These studies help support the idea of children playing video games more often in hopes of developing stronger brain activity and multitasking skills. These benefits will not only help them while they are gaming, but in real world experiences where faster reaction times are vital.
Video games have also recently showed their value in the area of education. Much like we use books, movies, and music in our classrooms, the future seems particularly bright on the prospect of the use of video games as educational tools. Recently President Obama has also seen the significance of video games with the introduction of the national STEM education program, part of “Educate to Innovate.” STEM, “promotes a renewed focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education.” Part of this program focused on rewarding game developers who took the initiative to create educational video games (National Stem Video Game Challenge). This program not only gives developers a reason to create educational video games, but also proves that the government has a significant interest in the media and the idea of using it for education. As classrooms grow more and more tech ready, video game consoles can lead to a whole new learning style and escalate interactivity and creativity to new levels. Instead of simply reading or writing about a subject matter, video games would allow students to use what they learned and practice in real world situations, but in a safe and controlled virtual world.
Many video games consist of puzzles that stimulate the mind, and story narratives that parallel the real world. Video games such as these prove that not every video game must be designed for educational purposes to be useful for classroom work. Wabash College Professor, Michael Abbott, has proved this theory. In an article written by Patrick Klepek for Giantbomb.com, Klepek interviewed Professor Abbott about his decision to add the video game “Portal” to his syllabus. Portal is a video game in which players take part in the “portal gun” testing process. These portals allow the player to solve puzzles by shooting an entrance portal on one wall, and an exit portal on another in an attempt to use these portals to navigate through the testing grounds. Professor Abbott teaches the course “Enduring Questions” at Wabish College. Part of the course discusses Dr. Erving Goffman’s theory on the different personality “faces” each human being has. The two faces are described as, the face people want others to see, and the face that only the person themselves know about. Abbott felt it was fitting to use “Portal” as a virtual demonstration since the games villain, GLaDOS, is a prime example of this theory (Klepek, “Intro to GLaDOS 101”). Throughout the game play GLaDOS comes off as an emotionless computer program that treats the player as if the journey is a typical one that has an eventual ending. Through the games progression, the player realizes that GLaDOS has developed a personality of her own and does not intend on letting you ever leave the testing facility. Abbott describes the experience stating that the game “really provoked a lot of interesting connections between the Goffman text and GLaDOS as a character, as a personality, and the way that the environment is an extension of her and her personality” (Klepek, “Intro to GLaDOS 101”). One of the most interesting parts of Klepeks article was how Abbott described his student’s initial hesitation to the assignment. Just as many other people see video games, Abbott’s students felt that there would be no academic worth to playing a video game for class. Abbott stated that his student’s outlook on “Portal” quickly changed after his students progressed deeper into the game (Klepek, “Intro to GLaDOS 101”). This is proof that even those who are the most reluctant in inviting the thought of video games as an educational tool can in fact learn much from what video games have to offer humanity.
One of the biggest and most interesting things video games have to teach us are moral values. Many role playing and open world games test your morals as a feature of the game. One such game, “Fallout” – an open world game set in the wastelands of post-apocalyptic America – actually rewards or deducts points from your score depending on your moral choices. These moral choices vary from picking a certain dialogue option to killing someone. Throughout the game, the choices you make effect how other characters interact with you. Henry Jerkins of PBS.org agrees with these points stating, “Many current games are designed to be ethical testing grounds; they allow players to navigate an expansive and open-ended world, make their own choices and witness their consequences,” (Jenkins, “Reality Bytes”).
At this point, the evidence stands quite firmly on the usefulness of video games, but that still leaves the other side of the argument, are video games art? Art is a very loosely defined word, and what can be defined as art has been a topic of discussion since before the days of Leonardo Da Vinci. The different types of art that most can agree on are visual arts, such as paintings, sculptures, and photography, movies, literature, and music. The great thing about video games as an art form is it takes elements from each of these and creates a new media. With each video game made a large amount of visual design is needed. Game designers create the character models, backdrops, and environments. Storywriters create the overall narrative and dialogue. Composers create the musical themes of each part of the world. After looking at the credits of a video game today you could deduce that, long gone are the days of small teams creating an 8bit game, production teams are as big, if not bigger, than some movie projects. Between the world and character creation – visual art, the dialogue and story – literature, and the compositions – music, the only thing differentiating video games from movies is the interaction between the gamer and the game itself. This aspect of gaming leads to an entirely different art form all together, one that we may let slip away if California’s law passes.
Many others agree that video games are a legitimate art form. In his article, “But Is It Art?” Jona Tres Kap cites multiple art museums with exhibits that focus on video games. Kap argues the same subject, “Are video games art?” Kap points out that art is any form of expression, he goes on to argue that video games convey emotions, “more strongly than other more traditional forms of media.” Kap agrees with aforementioned points on video games as a “hybrid” of different medias, but argues that they are the strongest in the form of literature and “storytelling.” He argues this point further stating that video games contain “more expressive” and “impressive” ways of storytelling than any other media. He ends his article implying that he would not be surprised to see video games in more art museums in the future, (Kap, “But Is It Art?”).
Video games are becoming more and more recognized as an art form every day, although some may like to ignore it. One great example of video games as an art form is the upcoming exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum entitled, “The Art of Video Games.” The exhibit is said to demonstrate the history, evolution, art, and visual effects of video games from the 1970’s to present day (The Art Of Video Games). This exhibit will show the world the artistic value that video games provide and will hopefully inspire more people to accept video games as a legitimate art form.
Many people do not believe video games have any considerable value or are a true form of art. Some of these people believe that video games are only provoking violent behavior, especially in children and teenagers. Violence is all around us, from the news to movies, but no such link to an increase in violence is due to video games. In fact, recent studies show that there are no connections between video games and teenage violence. These studies also show that video games promote a non-violent behavior showing that people take their aggression out on the video games rather than on others. Henry Jenkins, an MIT professor, stated that, “90 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls” play video games. If video games cause such an increase in violent behavior, based on this statistic, the majority of children would show violent tendencies. In fact, statistics prove otherwise. Jenkins argues citing federal crime statistics showing that the rate of juvenile violence is “at a 30 year low,” (Jenkins, “Reality Bytes”).
Some would argue that video games promote anti-social behavior, but this just is not true. For example, if a friend passes a level of a game that you are having difficulty with, you may communicate with each other to aid each other in the progression. You may also share your experiences with the game and see how they differed. Also, with such technologies as “Xbox live” and the “Playstation Network,” you have the ability to connect and play online with many different gamers from around the world. Henry Jenkins also tackles this topic stating, “almost 60 percent of frequent gamers play with friends. Thirty-three percent play with siblings and 25 percent play with spouses or parents,” (Jenkins, “Reality Bytes”).
Many times video games are used as the blame for childhood obesity as no real physical activity is involved. The video game industry has evolved so far that this may be a problem of the past. With new technologies such as the Xbox 360 “Kinect,” the player becomes the controller. No longer are gamers confined to the couch to play video games because the “Kinect” requires gamers to get off of the couch to utilize its game play. This new technology senses entire body movements and uses these motions to control on screen avatars. Games have been released utilizing this technology and some games aim the game play towards exercise programs that are both intense and fun. Some games are even capable of measuring body weight. This new technology helps keep everyone physically and mentally active while still enjoying the fun of video games.
One of the most interesting arguments against video game play is the notion that it affects the mental growth patterns of adult males. Kay Hymowitz uses this as an example in her essay, “Child-Man in the Promise Land.” Hymowitz describes how many young adult males use video games to prolong their childhood. She also states that young adult males who play video games may be crippling their likelihood of reaching their full potential (Hymowitz, 367). This argument is proven incorrect by a study that shows video games actually prepare gamers for careers. In a study posted on CQ Researcher by Sarah Glazer, evidence shows that video game simulations are useful for a large array of job training such as army training, pilot training, and surgery training. Glazer’s article also shows how video games teach simple strategies for the work place such as, those who arrive win first, learning from mistakes, and always trying again. The article also mentions, “A Federation of American Scientists” who are “urging government, industry and educators to take advantage of video-game features to help students and workers attain globally competitive skills,” (Glazer, “Do Video Games Prepare…”). By playing video games, gamers are not prolonging their childhood, but are preparing for adulthood.
Before the Supreme Court makes their final decision on the future of video games, they must realize that video games are a worthy art form worth protecting. Video games have so much to offer to the world, and as long as we continue to protect them the art form can continue to grow and develop more breakthroughs. We run the risk of breaking down the entire video game industry if this California law passes. The fear of stores being fined for improper sales of their merchandise may lead them to stop carrying certain games. Game developers, in fear of losing their retail sales, would cease the creation of new, boundary pushing game experiences in fear of falling into the laws definition of “violence.” This law not only affects the video game industry, but the very fiber of our nation’s foundation. America continually proclaims that we are the “land of the free,” yet here we are in danger of losing a freedom that has been set in place since our nation’s creation. If this law goes through, who is to say that the music or movie industries are not next on the list for regulations? This would be a stepping-stone for the loss of more than just video games, but the government regulation of all media.
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