Why now, more than ever, video games deserve your respect

You name it, games have been blamed for it. Will the age of coronavirus change how we value video games, forever?

Considering the diligence demonstrated by the World Health Organization in having what they call “gaming disorder” classified as a behavioural addiction, the recent announcement of the Geneva-based organisation’s #PlayApartTogether campaign – an effort to use the gargantuan influence of video games to bring people together within the era of COVID-19-enforced distancing – has looked a little bit… well, y’know… hypocritical. They’re not alone in that. There’s a lot of it about.

It’s less than a year – since May 25, to be precise – since the term “gaming disorder” was added to the WHO’s 11th revision of its International Classification Of Diseases. That comes into effect in January 2022. But what is it?

“[It is an] increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities,” the United Nations agency responsible for international health writes in a document that’s known as ICD-11.

The criteria outlined in ICD-11 for someone having gaming disorder is worded in similarly ambiguous language. There isn’t, for example, a set timescale of ‘over play’ that might help a person know if they qualify for said disorder. Instead, it looks to the impact of excessive play time: players with an inability to stop playing even though it interferes with other areas of their life. This takes into account such factors as family relationships, school, work and sleep. It recommends that, before diagnosis, these problems would be in effect for at least a year or more.

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A study conducted in the 80s suggested that Space Invaders was a “leading cause of family violence”. Credit: Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

As ever, small thinking means big issues go unexplored. The question of why people might be excessively filling their time with video games rather than playing in moderation, isn’t answered. Nor are the effects of unemployment, poor schooling, societal loneliness… we could go on. For all of us who’ve played games for any significant period of our lives, we’ve endured these kinds of doddery smears on our favourite pastime before.

It often feels like all of society’s ills can be attributed to video games in some shape or form. It’s always been so. Right back in 1983 – write Patrick M. Markey and Christopher J. Ferguson in Teaching Us To Fear The Violent Video Game Moral Panic And The Politics Of Game Research – the US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop was already suggesting that shoot-’em-up games like Asteroids, Space Invaders and Centipede, were “a leading cause of family violence”.

And yet evidence for the cognitive good of playing video games in moderation constantly falls on the side of having considerable benefits. It’s believed, for example, that exposure to prolonged gameplay can significantly assist brain growth within developing adults.

Case in point: the German psychologist Simone Kühn conducted an experiment in 2013 in which her subjects were asked to play 1996 3D platforming classic Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes every day for two months. The group were sent for MRI scans. Kühn discovered that the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and cerebellum in all the test subjects had all grown significantly.

But it’s also less than a year – since August 5, to be precise – since the President Of The United States Of America blamed video games for a weekend of gun violence in the US (in El Paso, Texas on August 3, and Dayton, Ohio on August 4) that killed 31 people.

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Since schools shuttered, Minecraft has helped educate and entertain children at home. Credit: Chesnot / Getty Images

“We must stop the glorification of violence in our society,” Donald J. Trump told assembled reporters at The White House. “This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence. We must stop or substantially reduce this and it has to begin immediately.”

The claim that video games lead to real-world violence accelerated with the tragic murders at Columbine High School in 1999. The claim has since been repeatedly tested, studied and debunked, and yet it’s never quite gone away. Turns out that two young people – much like the other 150million Americans who do so too – played a video game from time to time.

“There’s absolutely no causal evidence that violent video game play leads to aggression in the real world,” says Andrew Przybylski, a researcher at Oxford University who has been studying the psychological effects of video games for more than a decade, in the wake of Trump’s comments.

“The guy is uninterested in figures that show 60 per cent of Americans are daily gamers, yet not 60 per cent of the population are shooting each other,” wrote the journalist (and frequent video game player) Van Badham in The Guardian in the aftermath of one of America’s most tragic weekends. “Or that 45 per cent of American gamers are women, but 96.2 per cent of mass shooter incidents are committed by men. Or that 70 per cent of American parents say video games have been good for their kids.”

Since COVID-19 shut down the globe, many who’ve previously used video games as a punching bag for more complex, societal problems have shuffled backwards in their views. The WHO’s aforementioned #PlayApartTogether campaign, for example, sees 18 video game companies, including AAA publishers Activision Blizzard, Microsoft and Sega as well as live-streaming giant Twitch, coming together to pool their enormous reach – and crucially, sizeably youthful audience – to deliver information that may well not cut through more traditional forms of media.

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Unity Technologies is making its game development platform free for three months. The company’s engine powers games such as Ori And The Blind Forest, pictured here. Credit: Unity Technologies

Many companies are giving away titles from their catalogue in an effort to keep people inside. In-game safety protocols reminding players of the importance of social distancing, regular hand washing and the like are now cropping up, in play, across a host of gaming’s biggest titles.

Some organisations are even offering resources to anyone who’s ever thought they might like to make a game. Unity Technologies, owners of the Unity engine – which is responsible for powering hit games such as 2015’s beautiful Ori And The Blind Forest – is making its Unity Learn Premium game development platform free for three months. This is all some turnaround from where we were 11 months ago.

“It’s never been more critical to ensure people stay safely connected to one another,” Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick said in a statement accompanying the announcement of #PlayApartTogether. “Games are the perfect platform because they connect people through the lens of joy, purpose and meaning. We are proud to participate in such a worthwhile and necessary initiative.”

Whether it’s EA Sports animating the forthcoming NFL Draft, Minecraft entertaining and educating cooped-up children while their schools are shuttered, the world’s Esports leagues keeping competitive action going or Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons providing a safe, connected safe space for tired and scared minds to escape into – right now, video games are being asked to do much of the heavy lifting in keeping society from falling apart.

If things ever return to what they once were, it sure would be nice for video games to be remembered for all the good they can do.

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