What Are Video Games Turning Us Into?
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Then there's the problem of personal electronics that become a bit too personal, says Greg Kasavin, a lifelong gamer and executive editor of the GameSpot online site. Kasavin wonders about the cumulative effects of electronics - cellphones,
Such tools "roll out the red carpet for you, but then you're in danger of thinking you actually deserve it," Kasavin says. "These things give you a sense of entitlement, the idea that everything can revolve around you." They also foster the expectation that everything is, or should be, interactive. When kids start gaming as young as 4 or 5 years old, even television loses its pull, says Michael Zey, a sociologist and author of the book The Future Factor: The Five Forces Transforming Our Lives and Shaping Human Destiny. "Kids look at the television and say, 'Why am I sitting here and not able to do anything to this screen?'"
There's something insidious about the mainstreaming of video-game culture. As I watch Connor play his new Game-Cube, it finally hits me: He doesn't look like a future school shooter or couch potato, he looks like a mini worker bee. Eyes glued to screen, oblivious to the world outside his machine, interacting at lightning speed with his peers, yes, but interacting on-screen, without benefit of eye contact or facial gestures. All of this looks disturbingly like what's known in the business world as a "knowledge worker," the ever-increasing number of us who spend the day with a mouse in hand, manipulating data of one kind or another, instant messaging co-workers, and conveying our emotions via smiley-face icons.
Is it a coincidence that leisure time and work time are starting to look alike for the more than 145 million Americans who play video games? Maybe those beloved Game Boys aren't a training ground for a gaming console so much as practice for a future BlackBerry dependency. No one's suggesting a conspiracy here - corporate America simply can't be that well-organized - but seen in this light, video gaming is more about complacency than anarchy. The next decade is expected to be tough for workers, yet members of the gaming generation might prove charmingly compliant as their hours are increased, their health benefits are drained away, and their Social Security is re-engineered out from under them. All they really want is T1-level Internet access dropped down to their desktops.
So how will this generation of gamers turn out? Marketing puppets? Worker bots? Violence junkies? The prospects are enough to induce a full-bore Luddite freak-out in parents, but Steve Jones, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago, helpfully defuses the powder keg with a little historical perspective. People, he points out, ask similar questions about influence and impact every time a new means of communication is introduced into the culture, be it books, photography, radio, movies, TV, or videotape.
"Take yourself back several hundred years," Jones suggests. "People were enormously suspicious about the printed word. Somebody's words, written down and distributed on a mass scale, were thought to be dangerous. We have these questions every time there's a new medium."
Back in our own century, a friend, a fellow parent, e-mails in a little historical perspective of his own. "Like cotton candy, recreational drugs, and teen dating, [gaming] is an experience that one needs to go through but not get stuck in," he says. "I have always treated gaming a little like a street drug. I don't want to get too involved myself, because I think I would like it too much, but I think in moderation it's probably OK."
Ah, moderation. Moderation we've done before. We did it with the pacifier, we did it with Thomas the Tank Engine, we did it with
Connor keeps his cube, and in between sessions of Super Smash Bros., he gets dragged off to the museum, the symphony, and the library and kicked out into the sunshine and the snow. It's like using the real world as a cyberculture counterpunch. Take that, Mario.
Tracy Mayor has been writing about technology since before the Macintosh was invented. Her last story for the magazine was about lawns.