What’s Happening With Video Games?
FROM Japan to the United States, from Europe to Australia down under, a new craze has taken hold of millions of people, young and old, by storm. With bizarre names like Pac-Man, Asteroids, Space Invaders, Battlezone and Donkey Kong, video games have landed themselves not only in amusement arcades but also in corner drugstores, supermarkets, gas stations, fast-food parlors and nearly everywhere else that people congregate. Their beeps and booms and colorful lights have captured the fancy and imagination of a new generation of players to the point of obsession.
Last year in the US, coin-operated arcade video games alone grossed a staggering five billion dollars. That was double the take of the movie industry, or three times the receipts of professional baseball, basketball and football combined. At a quarter a game that sum of money translates into 20,000,000,000 games. And to play that many games took a total of 75,000 man-years. On the home front the sale of video games that can be played on home TV sets is estimated to be in the neighborhood of one billion dollars a year; and it is anyone’s guess how much time is spent in playing them.
It is not difficult to see that anything of this magnitude is bound to have some far-reaching effects on the participants. And surveys show that 90 percent of the participants are male and 80 percent of them are teenagers. Another study shows that nine out of every ten teenagers have visited an arcade to play the games. What this means is that even though home games are getting ever more popular it is, by far, the coin-operated, arcade-style games that have the strongest attraction, and teenage boys are being affected the most by these games, whatever their effects.
Is There a Brighter Side?
Many analysts feel that video games have a positive effect on the players. “For so much entertainment, we are programmed just to sit,” says a psychology professor. “With these games, you can input. The player has a lot of control. And control is especially important for teen-agers.” Another expert says that “the fantasies in computer games allow people to fill emotional needs not filled otherwise.”
Others feel that video games are beneficial because, after all, we are in the computer age, they say, and the earlier we can introduce children to the concepts and techniques of the computer, the better they will be able to master the real thing later. The games are intellectually stimulating, they further point out, and sharpen the player’s mathematical skills and eye-hand coordination.
Undoubtedly, computers and computer games do have immense potential as teaching tools. They are becoming familiar sights in classrooms, from primary schools to universities. But, even here, experts in education do not share the enthusiasm shown by computer programmers and manufacturers. They see most of the programs currently being used as nothing more than expensive textbooks, and they question whether the heavy investment involved is really worth it. In any case, there is a world of difference between the use of computers in schools and what is happening at the video-game arcades.
Reactions to the Games
Other than the obvious appeal to teenagers and its commercial success, the proliferation of arcade video games has triggered reactions ranging from strong parental protests to outright government bans. In the Philippines, President Marcos officially banned the games and gave owners two weeks to destroy them. In West Germany, anyone under eighteen is not allowed in the arcades. In Brazil, importation of any arcade video machine is strictly prohibited. And in the US, lawsuits involving these games are before the Supreme Court.
Why such strong reactions to what appears to many people to be nothing more than a fun game?
Reasons for Concern
First of all, there is the question of money. The major part of the vast sum of money spent on arcade video games comes from teenage players. It is not uncommon for boys to change twenty-dollar bills into quarters at the arcade change booth more than once in one evening. Many of them readily admit that it takes up to fifty dollars to master any game that requires enough skill to be challenging. The obvious question is: Where do they get all that money?
Angry parents say that their boys simply skip lunch and spend their lunch money, and time, at the video-game arcades. An irate mother in an affluent suburb of New York blamed the games for increased juvenile crime. “Children snatch purses and gold chains for money to put in these machines,” she said. In South Auckland, New Zealand, a police sergeant reported catching a gang of fourteen-year-olds raiding the neighborhood, stealing money left for the milkman. “Those kids admitted they wanted the money to play the space invaders machines,” said the sergeant, “and there are many similar instances on our books.”
Even the players themselves feel the immense power these games have over them. They openly admit to being addicted, hooked. “It’s like a drug,” said an “arcadian,” as regular players at the arcades are often called. “You see the same people here week after week. I’ve tried to wean myself. I’d like to have back all the money I’ve spent.” Part of this “hook” is built into the games. “You want to develop a healthy level of frustration,” says the designer of one of the popular games. “You want the player to say, ‘ . . . if I put another quarter in, I might do better’.” In fact, most games are programmed in such a way that as the player’s score goes up the game becomes faster and harder. The situation is not unlike dangling the carrot in front of the donkey—it’s always almost within reach, but not quite.
This kind of psychology can be particularly damaging to children. A newspaper columnist commented that watching children play the games reminded him of “compulsive gamblers, sitting for hours on end, pumping quarters into slot machines—the mentality is the same.” So it is not surprising that Gamblers Anonymous has spoken out against video games on the basis that obsessive and compulsive habits can begin to develop in children as young as ten years of age. And that is when children begin to be attracted to the video games. “The games begin to fascinate a child at the point in the child’s development when mastery and control become the most important issues—at 8, 9, 10,” according to sociologist Sherry Turkle.
Another source of concern has to do with the very nature of most of today’s popular video games. As the names suggest, the overwhelming majority of them are war games. They work on the kill-or-be-killed instinct, they are violence-oriented and they promote aggression without mercy. At the same time, these games cater to instant gratification. “The more you can titillate your emotions,” says a professor of communications, “the less tolerant and patient you are going to be for things that don’t deliver as fast.” Thus, in a letter addressed to the editors of The New York Times, the writer argued that current commercial video games “pander to the basest instincts of man. They are cultivating a generation of mindless, ill-tempered adolescents.”
Many video-game arcades have grown out of onetime pinball parlors and pool halls. Though the sounds and sights are different, the atmosphere remains largely the same. Outbursts of bad language, fits of anger, screams and kicks when a player loses his game are common occurrences in such places. More seriously, however, Time magazine reports that “homosexual cruising is a problem in Amsterdam’s arcades. In Stockholm, the games are associated in the public mind with teen-age hoodlumism involving drugs, prostitution and illegal hard liquor.” When fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds are thrown into such an environment for hours on end, day after day, the results can be disastrous.
Well aware that many parents are becoming concerned over what the arcade video games can do to their children, enterprising manufacturers have turned out home versions of these and other computer games for children of all ages. While such home games may protect children from the undesirable elements at the arcades, the effect is largely the same. Besides, children soon find out that these are stripped-down, slower versions of the real thing. The lure of the arcade is as strong as ever.
To Play or Not to Play
Whether video games are here to stay or they will come and go as other fads have done, only time will tell. But the fact is that there is much more than meets the eye about these games. What starts out as innocent fun turns out to be an addictive, compulsive game that controls the players—mind and body. Responsible parents, therefore, must consider whether video games are suitable entertainment for their families, to what extent they will go if allowed to play them and whether the investments in time and money can be better used in other areas of family life. They would do well to acquaint themselves with the facts and decide what their families should do.
[Blurb on page 16]
“I’ve been playing these games for five years,” says fourteen-year-old David who earns his money pumping gas. “I’m definitely addicted to these video games. I realize it’s a waste of money; but I enjoy myself, and it’s my money; I earned it”
[Blurb on page 17]
“The whole world ceases to exist when you’re playing,” says Mickey who grew up playing these games and now manages video-game arcades. “You can forget about everything and live the life of Buck Rogers, overcoming technology”
[Blurb on page 18]
‘I take all my frustrations out on this machine,’ says twelve-year-old John who spends his allowance perfecting his game. ‘When I do real bad, I hit the machine. I blame the machine, not myself. I want to be among the top players. That’s my goal’