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Video Games

Their appeal and influence in the world of today

It has been said that visual triggers in the brain respond to programmed responses that we acquire from our every day interactions and that that is the deciding factor in our visual appreciation of art. (Csikszentmihalyi 1995) There has been a new trend for some time now in which human beings surrender themselves to simulated experiences that very closely correspond to the challenges we face in everyday life, namely video games. It is true that these experiences are also amplified via the fantastical programming we receive from the television, book and film media. Yet there is a reason video games have an edge and that edge lies in their interactive capabilities. In this essay I will explore why video games have risen to success in modern times and how that influences the lives of those who partake in such fantasy realms.

Reason for success
In the article, Is Google Making Us Stupid, Nicholas Carr states that the use of the internet has led humans to expect instant satisfaction and that this is stripping away our abilities to think and concentrate.  (2008)  He also states that people have come to rely on “quick wins”, efficiency and immediacy instead of traditional experience. Isn’t this even truer of the culture inspired amongst video gamers?

They huddle in packs, forsaking what other people consider as socially acceptable, “cool”, “hip” or any other description of popularity used at the time in that geographic location.  At the cost of not developing other social skills or acquiring new abilities that can be used daily they choose to overcome smaller measurable achievements, which only hold value in their own minds. Just like a group of drug users or a street gang, they live by the standards of what others like themselves see as acceptable. This reflects the fact that games influence people just as much as Csikszentmihalyi claims art creates aesthetic values for society. (1995)

User participation will become an essential part of software interaction. (Margoulin 1995) Games are a large part of this phenomenon and they mimic our daily interactions. This enables us to easily understand most possibilities in the fantasy realm we enter and allow us more apparent freedom of interaction with the software than most users would perceive on a software application such as Microsoft Word.  Margoulin also states users often do not use the applications to their full abilities because of a lack of knowledge about the software. This is not true in the case of video games. Users spend far more time searching for every single possibility and hidden secret when playing games. The possibilities get exhaustive and are explored to the point where the balance of fun and work is swapped around completely. The user who started playing for fun will labour for hours in order to find all the secrets and attain the achievement, even if it is only a silent internal one.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow said, “art helps reconcile ancient biological instincts with the artificial rules we have developed for organized life.” (Csikszentmihalyi 1995)  This might have been disproved in the article, but are simulated experiences helping us cope with our animalistic instincts by hunting, expressing aggression, foraging for food or dressing up a family in a fantastical world?

I would argue that this is very much the case. Research among Uzbeks showed that learnt properties are ultimately what we use to organize our visual and emotional experiences and don’t follow any set biological instinct. (Csikszentmihalyi 1995)  These simulations seem to be the ultimate art we can identify with. The act of running, talking, interacting and surviving seem to be the epitome of equilibrium between our survival instincts and the daily tasks we are considered to perform in society. The content of the games themselves certainly warrant them as a form of art. Besides labour being poured into every technical aspect, there is an abundance of visual, audio and musical art forms at work within such an application.

Margoulin describes the freedom users have in modern software as “Token user control”. (1995) This is because users are only given control within boundaries. The gaming industry has however been able to narrow down certain target markets which also narrows down the expectations of that audience to ones that the suppliers can cope with.  A good example can be found in Gender differences. Studies have found that our stereotypical sexual roles change the ways in which we perceive the world around us. (Csikszentmihalyi 1995)  This is reflected in video game design. A user would not expect to be able to choose different outfits or a day-job for a character in a bloody fighting game such as Mortal Kombat. A user would also not expect a character to rip out a machete and run around hacking other characters to death in a game like The Sims any more than you’d expect excessive blood and violence in a children’s game such as Mario Bothers.

There are however games that attempt to corner many markets. Soul Calibur 4 is a violent fighting game, yet it gives users the ability to build their own custom characters with clothing, abilities and physical builds which offer millions of possible combinations and variations.

Csikszentmihalyi  states that the experiences in art must be tailored to the cultural influences of society. (1995) Therefore we need familiar circumstances and expected values in art in order for that art to be appreciated by the majority of the public. We therefore find that more than 90% of the users of a game like Punch Out, which features boxers fighting, will be male. And in the same way more then 90% of a game like Dance Dance Revolution, which features people jumping on colored arrows to match a pattern on screen, will be female. It should also be noted that the act of playing these games looks absolutely nothing like the act being copied, despite the attempts to make them similar.

Modern ignorance
Socrates said that the invention writing would make people who collected knowledge quite ignorant. They would be “Filled with the conceit of wisdom yet lacking in real wisdom.” (Carr 2008) Great examples of a parallel in gaming are the advanced users of a game such as Guitar Hero. Many children, especially some exceptional cases, play songs on the game with incredible accuracy and speed. Sometimes with a greater degree of proficiency than professional full-time musicians who are many times their age. Yet the skills are plastic and not useful. Though those skills might help the individual to later acquire some real life potential in the same skill such as playing the guitar for real, the application is vastly different and the user will have a lack of knowledge and possibly of motivation due to the lack of predefined small measurable challenges and goals like the ones in the game. The real world has infinite possibilities and the challenges take more time and skill to complete. The question of whether a challenge has been completed is also open-ended in the real world and there will always be others who are more successful at something, or that individuals might perceive as more successful. As an example, could Bill Gates consider himself as more successful than Steve Jobs? Could Steve Jobs do the same in relation to Bill Gates? No one can say.

Relying on our identification with the subject matter
In a study, described by Csikszentmihalyi, a person who is sensitive to art and esthetics is described as actively appreciating the art by participating and joining the act of creation rather than relying on the artist’s ability to make it transcend the barrier between the artist and the user. (1995) Is it possible that this is the sole enjoyment we find from these simulations? Becoming part of something we might actually call art? It is possible that we all strive to break free from the daily concerns of a job and labour that most of the people on the planet cannot escape from and games offer us that chance. They also offer us the chance to be more powerful than our environment just like the characters we idolize is books, movies, and comics.

Csikszentmihalyi also describes the relationship and feelings a user developes in relation to an art work or cherished possession. And states, “Without such feelings life is not worth living.” (1995) Similarly in gaming, are we attracted to these real feelings we get from these false environments? And are we really living at all then? It is not a questions one can easily answer but rather a conclusion that allows each person to decide the answer for him-/herself within the context of his/her own life.

Influence on routine and society
Aristotle claimed that the pleasure of perception comes from balancing monotony and confusion. (Csikszentmihalyi 1995)  This might have been disproved in the context it was used in, but consider that this is exactly what we are doing when we immerse ourselves in our computer worlds. Often monotonous day-jobs and expected routines are broken up by unpredictable wild adventures and quests. Are these “instant” experiences dumbing us down and helping to make us more docile and content?

With the invention of clocks people were and possibly still are disassociated from human events. We perceive time and our lives as mathematically measurable sequences. We stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock. (Carr 2008) While reading this it would seem that games are doing the same things to us, replacing our real-life achievements with measurable achievements that do not in most ways get carried through to our every day lives. This leaves everyday ambitions and non-measurable achievements by the wayside.

Thanks to the brain’s plasticity this also happens at a biological level and changes the way our brains work internally. This is similar to the way the Internet has affected our thinking ability. (Carr 2008)

Victor Margoulin mentions that in expanding the boundaries of software applications, the expectancy we have of products and our dependency upon them is increased. This might not be a good thing. Especially if  you apply that model to video games.

In this essay I have looked at possible reasons for the success of video games and why they continue to become more popular. There are now video games that have made more money in the first week than any music album or movie ever has in the same amount of time. We have also explored the effects they might have on our minds and on our way of life by comparing games to other related topics as discussed in the papers referenced. As stated by Carr (2008) it is entirely possible that the concerns I have about the effects of video games will prove insignificant in relation to the possibilities games and their technology might open up in the future. There have already been vast applications of the same technology for flight simulations, excavation equipment simulations and medical simulations. Just beyond the horizon there could be a great secret locked up in this seemingly harmless pass-time which has shown how it can negatively influence the users who partake in such “fleeting” satisfactions. 

Phil Helberg

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