Games Are Not Dangerous Enough!

[These are the notes of my talk in the game studies “rant” session of DiGRA 2011 conference, 16 September, 2011. A word of warning to the reader: taken out of their original context, certain understanding of the ambiguous operations in the concept of ‘irony’ might be reguired here.]

  • Over the recent years, I have sometimes been contacted by representatives of media, by educators and certain government representatives to comment on the various dangers of games. This mostly happens when something tragic or nasty has happened that might be connected to games, for example a school shooting incident. Particularly the alleged violent media effects are an issue in this context, and the suspicion seems to be that such effects are especially powerful forces in the connection of games. The logic goes that since there are games where one can simulate actions that look like shooting, the game must lower the threshold to do the same with real guns.
  • While preparing my comments and answers to these discussions, writing meta-reviews of research, it has become clear again and again that one can find mutually incompatible research that looks valid and scientific and that seems to support both statements like “No, games are not dangerous, they actually empower gamers in society” and “Yes, they in fact stimulate aggressive thoughts and behaviours”. Much of the results of this kind of research is already determined by the research goals and methodology, e.g. controlled laboratory experiments versus looking at the social life and cultural uses of games from more qualitative perspective.
  • You will find what you are looking for. When I try to provide information like our survey data that tells us that among the younger generations there are so many game players (e.g. 93 % active digital gamers among 10-19 year-olds in Finland) that it would actually be more of a news if a young person who commits crimes would not be a gamer, than the opposite – almost no one seems to be interested.
  • As noted elsewhere in this conference (e.g. in the Eric Zimmerman’s opening keynote), the history of academic discussion surrounding other art forms is rather different. Partly out of certain frustration, my position today is: “Are Games Dangerous? – Games Are Not Dangerous Enough!”
  • First into some comparisons from the field of the literary studies, where my old academic background was situated in. In his interesting study, The Surprising Effects of Sympathy (1988), professor David Marshall shows us how classic, eighteenth century authors (Marivaux, Diderot, Rousseau, and Mary Shelley) were focused on certain “effects” of their texts, and how the critics and the authors already of that time were aware of the ambivalence that surrounded e.g. witnessing the spectacle of someone suffering, and were dealing with it. No reason to go back to Aristotle and the theory of tragedy here.
  • The relation of simulated, or mediated violence and suffering has traditionally been one of the lasting areas in the discussions into the epistemology and aesthetics of many art forms. Yet, the dominant understanding that has mostly prevailed is that it is the responsibility of artists to try and make us experience the alternate realities that fiction and media in general make possible, and that it is (mostly) not within the proper domain of the justice system or educational institutions to limit the expressive potential of the arts, as long as the operation of art remains in its institutionalized frame (e.g. in art gallery).
  • There has been discussions of course, like the alleged copycat suicides that followed the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe (but to my knowledge, Goethe was not put to court for writing his dangerously influential novel) – more recently the Finnish visual artist Ulla Karttunen was actually convicted (but not punished) in court for setting up ambiguous commentary of child pornography in an art gallery, where she had reproduced some images that were freely available in the Internet. The taboo surrounding children was there testing the institutional protection granted by the gallery and fine art context, ending in certain kind of double condemnation/release sentence (judgement without the punishment).
  • Even while literature appears to hold potential to change the thinking, values and behaviours of individuals quite profoundly, our society seems quite capable and happy to go along and accept that mostly literature and the fine arts are allowed to operate within the relative frame of expressive freedom, much to prove the institutionally strong and established position of literature as a “fine art” and high culture.
  • The real problem is not that games have effects; any form of art has effects. The real problem with games is their current weak institutional and cultural status.
  • It is actually somewhat interesting to try and test the potential impact and value of a form of art by looking into how it has been subjected to censorship, e.g.  under totalitarian regimes that aim to control the life and thought of their population. Book banning, for example is widespread and almost every country appears to have a history of trying to limit what gets published in printed press.
  • Even the ritualistic events of book burning testify to the dangerous power that many religious groups, political organisations (like the Nazi party) have perceived in books. Also images have been often censored and banned, as well as music, or lyrics.
  • But have we yet testified enough the fires of game burnings? (As an aside, the only really symbolic thing that comes to my mind is the Atari game burial, where truckloads of unsold game cartridges were claimed to be crushed and buried at a landfill in New Mexico in 1983 – but this is an act of self-destruction by failed industry, rather than the result of acts of real aggression or outside oppression.)
  • We have numerous laws in different parts of the world that either rate, or regulate the availability of games on the basis of age groups, like the European PEGI system, or ESRB system in the USA and Canada. This is good thing in many senses. Restrictions and censorship should be seen as a positive development, as anything that is forbidden, will be ever more tempting, and stimulating. Those young people who really are driven to experience what these, so called “adult games” have to offer, will find ways get them in their hands. They might be actually disappointed in some cases. Simultaneously, and for equally valid reasons, the rating systems hopefully send the right signals to the parents of small children: they need to pay real attention to the actual contents of the games, not only set time limits for gameplay, or use gameplay time as a household currency (something that we have also witnessed in our research).
  • Suppression of a cultural form is also a stimulus for all of us for making the case: why we need games, or what their real potential is.
  • Thinking for example the court processes in the US, and how much energy has been spent arguing for or against games – are games an expressive medium, protected as free speech; can games be conclusively proved to be the cause of aggression or crimes? As yet another step in these convoluted processes, in June this year, the US Supreme Court made a decision that declared that video games can be afforded the same constitutional protections as visual art, film, music and other forms of expression. But no doubt the international debates surrounding games will continue.
  • There are a couple of lessons from linguistics and cultural anthropology that may shed more light on the particular dangers games are associated with.
  • George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist, has written in his book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things (1987) about our fundamental need to organise our experience, and about the embodied basis of our metaphors – in Aboriginal thought women, fire and “dangerous things” belong to the same category, due to how myth, thinking conventions and experiences link them in this system. In our cultural categorization adult and child are placed in different categories, and games, relating to play, relate also directly to children, thereby making anyone who promotes “dark play” as an expressive category within game culture into a person who immediately appears to threaten children.
  • Cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas has even earlier put forward the classic analysis of pollution and taboo in her book Purity and Danger (1966): phenomena that fall between our cultural, conceptual categories should be avoided, since they are dangerous – if there is cognitive dissonance (need to hold two incompatible ideas at the same time), the controversial subject is also declared as dangerous.
  • From this perspective it is promising to note that games well may have the potential to be the “dangerous things” of our culture: they inhabit the borderlines of that I have called ‘core’ (actions-based gameplay) and ‘shell’ (digital, representations-based media). The duality of “inhabited representation” and “self-driven gameplay” appears still a confusing phenomenon in our late modern society, hard to position either in the category of “things controlled by media”, or among “things controlled by active subjects”.
  • Yet, it is precisely in this confusing dualism that I believe the promising, dangerous potential of games lies. While playing, we can both interact with “pre-written scripts” and cultural symbols of various kinds (so an artist can use games as a medium) – and also focus on our own performance, the effects of our decisions and simulated consequences. In this unique combination, games have the potential to make us reflect on our actions, understand better how to effect the complex systems surrounding us, and vicariously set ourselves to the positions of others.
  • This conference has hold several examples of developments that games might be in the process of experimenting with their full, dangerous potentials. As we saw in last night’s board game panel, even the idea of making War on Terror into a game appears controversial to some – board games are categorically associated with children after all, and children should not be provided with a game that explores themes of violence and evil, right?
  • The experimental live action role games, as documented in the recent book Nordic Larp (edited by Jaakko Stenros and Markus Montola) suggest some directions where games can push us, show some (aesthetical, social, political) limits they can cross.
  • The Dark Room Sex Game by Copenhagen Game Collective has clear potential for being controversial and getting banned if it would be offered for sale through mainstream video game distribution channels – it promotes exploration of sexual themes through game form, which must be particularly dangerous, right?
  • As a more extreme example, the experimental live action game “Gang Rape” has been analysed by Markus Montola (see his DiGRA Nordic 2010 paper); this is a game that could also be seen as a social psychological experiment where participants are forced to commit a simulated (non-physical) gang rape, thereby hopefully understanding the dynamics and the nature of particularly brutal form of violence better. Bad, bad game, quite obviously. I am not sure I’d like personally play such thing, nor should everybody necessarily play such games, but I think that if games as an art form should definitely go to such directions. Hopefully there will be more game burnings some day. Or, alternatively, more genuine understanding, appreciation and respect to the surprising powers of games as an interactive, expressive art form.
  • We obviously need games that will be as hated, as used, as widely censored as e.g. D.J. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, for example, before we should take games seriously (I am perhaps giving a bit of a new definition to “serious games” here…)
  • Art is provided with the institutionalized status of having non-utilitarian value in itself, in exploring the full potentials of art form, and for providing alternative perspectives and critical commentary on our various realities – hopefully we will see both game studies and game design push game culture more into such “dangerous direction” in the future.
  • – Thank you.

Author: frans

Professor of Information Studies and Interactive Media, esp. Digital Culture and Game Studies in the Tampere University, Finland. Occasional photographer and gardener.

4 thoughts on “Games Are Not Dangerous Enough!”

  1. A lot more could be said, e.g. about game industry’s insistence on the “it’s harmless entertainment” direction, or about the definition of “adult games” in terms of graphical violence or sextuality, rather than complexity or depth of moral dilemmas games put their players into. But maybe another time.

  2. I had noted down this comment during your rant…
    “Let’s abolish all games, and let’s see whether crime rates decreases… or increases exponentially as humankind loses its ability to vent its frustration into the virtual world of make believe”

  3. “We obviously need games that will be as hated, as used, as widely censored”
    We’ve had those already. What about historical ocassions when gambling / chance based games have been censored? What about the christian attacks on RPGs? What about the german laws that blocked Doom until very recently?

  4. Jonathan, thanks, a good comment. – Nathan: sure, as a veteran RPG gamer, I am also well aware of these incidents. What I am actually trying to achieve with this (emphatically ironic) piece is stimulate someone to think the “dangerous” aspects of games in a bit different manner. Maybe games are not dangerous primarily in the manner they are commonly perceived – but rather lightweight in their impact as compared to some other forms of media? Maybe we should be critiziging mainstream games for not being dangerous enough, for not pushing to the full potentials to challenge our dominant world-views, routine habits of thought and behaviour? Yes, it might not actually be necessary to get even more persecution or suppression of games to make advances in their art form, but it is also an interesting line of thought that sometimes in the areas where tyrants, fundamentalists and political extremists find source of concern, are also areas where we can find signs of true artistic value and impact, don’t you think?

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