By Nigel Warburton
This review originally appeared in The TLS, whose website is www.the-tls.co.uk, and is reposted with permission.
“What is it like to be a gamer?” Unless you are prepared to commit hundreds—perhaps thousands—of hours to honing your skills in video games such as World of Warcraft, Mario, Tetris, Grand Theft Auto IV or The Sims, you are unlikely to appreciate the sophisticated pleasures such interactive worlds can provide. Nor will you understand the motivation of the men, women and children who spend so much of their lives within them. If you have never experienced the poetic game Passage—an abstract representation of some of life’s essentials that is in its simplicity more profound than much contemporary art—how can you pronounce on the nature of video games?
Received middlebrow opinion is that the frissons such pursuits produce are distinctly lower pleasures. Video games—unlike chess and bridge—are deemed escapist, and at best distractions from what really matters in life. At worst they are turning a generation into pale antisocial creatures with repetitive strain injury and a propensity to engage in real violence. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, described these alleged victims as “blinking lizards… without ratiocination, discovery or feat of memory”. Video games are supposed to be doing what Plato warned mimetic art would do: they are corrupting those who play them and leaving them mistaken about what truly matters in life.
Fun Inc.: Why Gaming Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century
By Tom Chatfield
Pegasus, 288 pages
If reading a poem in the persona of an immoralist coarsens the spirit—as Plato believed—think how patrolling a virtual urban wasteland as a psychopath with an automatic gun at your hip might affect you. Video games are widely dismissed as addictive time-killers that will reprogramme your brain and ultimately stupefy you. Tom Chatfield [the author of Fun Inc.: Why Games Are the 21st Century’s Most Serious Business], himself an enthusiastic and eclectic gameplayer, has written an informed and intelligent case for the other side.
Many prejudices about the people who play these games stem from ignorance about how the industry has evolved since the 1980s and 90s. Once the target audience consisted almost entirely of solitary geeky men; now roughly 90 per cent of Western adolescents play them. A surprising 40 per cent of videogame players in the United States are women. The games have changed too. The majority of the most popular, such as The Sims, are violence-free, and shirk the “seek-avoid-kill” model so often seen in arcades. Some, such as the popular Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training for the handheld console the Nintendo DS, are overtly educational, and give immediate feedback on performance. Many teach strategy and cooperation as a side effect. Others, of course, we know, merit their “18” certificates.
Chatfield is highly sceptical of the idea that interactive violent games engender violence in ordinary life. The evidence he adduces suggests that this is too crude a causal story to be plausible. It turns out that the huge increase in the number of people playing games with violent content in the past two decades has coincided with a decline in violent crime in the United States and the European Union, rather than the increase critics would have predicted. The reasons for this may be complex, but it’s a fact that should allay some fears. Far from acting as triggers for violence, games might even prepare players to deal with it. Chatfield quotes Judge Richard Posner’s reaction to an attempt to restrict children’s access to violent arcade games in Indianapolis: “To shield children right up to the age of eighteen from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming. It would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it”. Games can undoubtedly amplify certain human tendencies; Chatfield emphasizes how they build on our desire to learn, our delight in problemsolving, our sociability and our rivalries. He grants that they aren’t a panacea, and can’t teach us how to live, but because they are on the whole fun to play, and have many individual and social benefits, they can help us to be happier and even perhaps to live better.
Whether or not you share Chatfield’s optimism, Fun Inc. should help to block the fear-mongering generalization—the riffing on prejudices—that has passed for insight on this topic in broadsheet comment pages. If critics of game-playing can’t bring themselves to enter these worlds themselves, to learn first-hand what they are talking about, they should at least read this insightful book.
Nigel Warburton is senior lecturer in philosophy at the United Kingdom’s Open University. He was a founding member of the Humanist Philosophers Group. His most recent book is “Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction,” 2009.
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