Thursday, 12 November 2009

Put that Gameboy away and go and read a book.

After listening to a deeply unsatisfying debate on on Radio 4's Today programme, I was tempted to write about violence with regards to Modern Warfare 2, but I honestly think there's been enough comment on that this week and I'd do well to leave it until the dust has settled and I can write something that draws on my research rather than my irritation.

So I decided to revert to the original plan, which was to examine the phenomenon of thirty-year-old commuters who play video games on hand-held consoles on public transport. I admit that I approached the subject with a fair amount of disdain, for what sort of grown-up plays games on the train? Grown-ups should be reading books, right?

When I started writing however, I realised that my petty prejudice actually opened up far more interesting questions about the place games occupy in the lives of gamers. My attempts to write this article ran as follows:

Initially, I decided that anyone who has a hand-held console (such as a Gameboy, Nintendo DS or a Playstation Portable - PSP) past the age where they can quite clearly afford a television, full-sized console or a PC should be playing on one of those. Like many people of my generation, my first platform was a Gameboy because it was cheaper than a large console and television, and the family DOS computer could just about manage "Solitaire" and not much else. Gameboys were the only option. Aged 13, I saved up my Christmas money, got a Playstation and never looked back. Why on earth would anyone need a smaller version of one of these besides not being able to be away from a screen for more than an hour?

Well, I realised, because hand-held consoles aren't just smaller versions of larger ones. Some games just lend themselves to the hand-held medium. The Nintendo DS, successor to the Gameboy, is bought by an increasing number of adults thanks to its focus on puzzle and "Brain Training" games which you can fit in a pocket. Alright, I decided, as long as they're playing Mystery Detective, I suppose that's alright.

So then I turned upon people who have PlayStation Portables (PSPs). As quite a large proportion of games available for the PSP are similar to those available on the full-sized console (and are generally a bit less cerebral than those available for Nintendo DS), I felt it was safe to condemn their owners for spending their train time slaughtering zombies as opposed to doing something more improving.

Like what, exactly? Well, reading of course! Reading what? Confessions of a Shopaholic? This book compelled me to keep spluttering to anyone who would listen: "why would anyone read this nonsense?" before sheepishly realising that I, too had read it. Time well spent, eh?
And how do I know that the guy playing Crash Bandicoot isn't just having a little down-time before he goes home to read Tolstoy or practice the piano or cook a meal for his wife or volunteer at a homelessness shelter? Why do I care what he does on the District line? 
I care because like all behaviour that troubles me, it points to something I try to deny about myself. 

    When I see someone playing Monkey Ball on their iPhone, I feel annoyed, and although I try and convince myself it's as a result of disdain, it is in fact envy. Envy because I can't afford an iPhone? No. Everyone has priorities, and I'm sure that if I spent less money on other frivolities such as smelly cheese and real ale and kebabs and taxis and XBOX games I could get an iPhone if I wanted. No, this envy I speak of is of a more immediate nature. I want to be playing Monkey Ball NOW because I am tired and lazy and all I have in my bag is a book.

    Not that I'm a masochist. If I were to choose a life without Monkey Ball or a life without books, I'm afraid I'd have to let Aiai the monkey roll off into the ocean for good (waaaaah!). Books (in general) fill me with questions and anger and laughter, whereas Monkey Ball is frustrating, and after 2 hours playing it by myself, I wonder where the time went. So why, exactly, on the tube, do I want to play Monkey Ball rather than read the book I have in my bag? Simple.


    Oh yes. (For a list of other things that grown-ups won't admit are fun, e-mail me, but don't use your real name.)

    It is precisely for this reason that I do not have a PSP or a DS. I know that if I did, I would simply never read. I do not have the willpower to look at a book and a Nintendo DS lying side by side and pick up the book more than three times out of ten. Which, considering the fulfillment that I consistently get from books, seems ridiculous. 

    But it's not, it's human nature. I remember my science teacher trying to teach us about resistance at school, and telling that electrons are just like children, they adhere to the law of universal laziness. 

    We all know that without willpower and foresight, short-term gratification will always win out over long-term gain, which is why we do so many of the best things in life, despite them not being very good for us. 

    Fine wine and good cheese aren't especially beneficial, and it would be a bad idea to make them the cornerstone of your daily breakfast, but they are instantly gratifying, and they provide the kind of sensual pleasure that makes life worth living. Video games are easier and more easily pleasurable to slip into than a complex novel or essay, so it's easy to see why given the choice between the two, I have to exercise willpower to opt for the latter, despite its greater long-term gains.

    Now that is an overly simple analogy, and I could be here for hours trying to equate different foodstuffs with different intellectual stimulants, but from it emerges a very simple point, and that is that video games, like all things, are best enjoyed in moderation. If that means you play games on the tube rather than having an XBOX than fair enough. 

    Now that's the conclusion that I eventually drew, and it's a sensible one, but there is another question to be asked. Why is it seemingly so easy to play them too much?

    The media doesn't tend to dwell on stories of people who are hopelessly addicted to reading books or learning to play a musical instrument (as they gleefully do with World of Warcraft addicts). This is because reading books and playing musical instruments are largely seen as productive pursuits that in some way enrich the individual. It's hard to argue with this (though, you know, everything in moderation!). 

    On the other hand, it's difficult to say whether video games are beneficial to their players in any practical sense. Steven Poole puts it quite well when he says that "squabbles between psychologists as to whether video games enhance visuo-spatial one motor skills are largely unresolved. The only thing that everyone agrees on is that playing video games makes you better at playing video games".

    And it's true. The sheer quantifiability of a player's video game success (you either won or you didn't, in most cases) means that trying to achieve a higher level of success can become compulsive. Although games don't tend to have "scores" so much these days, there are still plenty of ways to measure skill. 

    Find all the secrets in the level. Unlock all the costumes. Do it in the fastest time. And let's not overlook XBOX Live's "Achievments". 

    These relate to certain criteria in every XBOX game (complete a level, find some gold, fall off the highest building in the game) which when fulfilled, grant the gamer an "achievement". This means that when you are playing Grand Theft Auto IV and you shoot 100 pigeons, you get an achievement. "See!" you say, "see, I haven't just been sitting on the sofa doing nothing all day, I have achieved something". 

    Then you want to achieve something else, so you play for another hour until you do. Further to this, XBOX Live is the online XBOX network, so you can see precisely how many achievements you have in relationship to everyone else. Given that playing a game means that you're competing against a computer anyway, why not compete against thousands of other gamers?

    Many other games feature "unlockable content", in which certain costumes, weapons, characters and art are only available once you have, say, found enough secrets within the game. Although getting a hilarious new hat for your character is a awesome, it's more exciting because it is a mark of success. The hat isn't really any different from getting a high score in Super Mario or Captain Comic. It's a marker of game skill. And how do gamers become more skillful? They spend more time playing games.

    When you read a book, you don't get more book by reading the book more efficiently, or faster, or identifying more metaphors, and you don't get prize for reading more books than anyone else. Although the worth of video game rewards are illusory, they are visible and quantifiable in a way that the rewards of reading (although arguably greater) are not, which makes them compulsive. This doesn't make them bad - it's part of their charm, but it highlights a further barrier that video games straddle. They may be both art as well as toy, but they're also entertainment as well as vice. 

    The unique sensory potential offered by games thanks to their immersive nature is both their great strength and their slight danger. Perhaps Bart Simpson offers the best advice when he tells himeself to "be in the game but not of the game". To fully enjoy them the gamer must surrender to them, suspend all disbelief and immerse himself in their alternate reality.

    To me, this makes them something to be admired and examined rather than feared. I still go to beer festivals to try all kinds of brews and learn about what makes them taste the way they do even though I know alcohol is an addictive poison. A huge amount of care and artistry has gone into making my (analogy alert!) pint/game, and I'm not about to stop enjoying either of them because too much might be bad for me. Video games, and indeed ale are part of the rich artistic sensual emotional tapestry of my life, and I wouldn't give them up for the world.


    1. Someone needs to buy Mary a Kindle. It looks like a Gameboy with all those fun buttons... Perhaps you could even programme it to reward you with stuff after each chapter!

    2. i keep trying to comment and either it is deleted or won't come up... boo. love the blogs, keep em coming x