Spector: Industry must recognize both good and bad effects of games

Warren Spector talks about the not so clear cut issue of media effects, and reveals he's about to start a new job

So a new Grand Theft Auto recently hit the shelves, and whenever that happens I'm hit with a wave of mixed emotions, brought on by the inevitable combination of great tech, strong design and reprehensible content.

If history is any guide, my ambivalence is going to be overwhelmed by the adoration of gamers who see in GTA X the apotheosis of gaming ("10 out of 10!") and the scorn of non-gamers who will use it to lob grenades at us ("Video Games Cause All Violent Behavior on Earth!")

Also, if history is any guide, anything I say about GTA is going to get twisted into a pretzel of illogic only casually related to what I actually believe, so I think I'm going to try to float a little higher and talk a bit about game effects arguments and how I'm feeling about them these days.

Take what follows as musing about Games and Media Effects, generally, not about a game (okay... GTA V), specifically. Okay, here goes...

Affectations and Key Questions

As a designer, director or producer, I know before a line of code is written or a pixel drawn, what my intentions are for a game. And, typically, my goal is to get people thinking about some topic or other. I've never gone into a game thinking I wanted to influence people's behavior or get them to act in a particular way.

In Deus Ex, the key question was "Do right and wrong, good and evil, exist in the real world? And, if not, how do we make tough calls about how to interact with people, institutions and events that call into question our interpretations of good and evil?"

In the old Ultima games, the question was "How does one live in a world built on a foundation of reasonable but arbitrary values - the 'virtues' - and how do you exemplify those virtues even when doing so makes your job (saving the world) more difficult?"

"For some time now it's been gaming's turn in the cultural crosshairs. We're the ones blamed for all the things earlier media supposedly caused. Sigh"

For all their differences from DX or classic Ultimas, even the Disney Epic Mickey games asked some pretty "deep" questions. Specifically, "How important are family and friends to you, and what do you do when feelings about family and friends make solving problems (saving the world) harder?"

Note that I'm not saying in any of these cases that we did a great job asking those questions, or allowing players to answer them, but in all these cases (and more) the games were designed to ask fundamental questions of morality and ethics. They weren't, in other words, simply exercises in escapism (whatever that means), outlets for competitive urges or delivery mechanisms for pleasurable adrenaline rushes.

Media Effects? Bah! Humbug!

That's as far as I've ever gone in terms of media effects thinking. I never intended to - and don't think I ever did - create a game that provoked specific real-world behaviors. To my mind, there's a world of difference between getting people thinking and causing them to act. I've always rejected the media effects notion, regardless of the medium being blamed for all of society's ills.

If one's own observations of life as actually lived aren't enough, history puts the lie to the idea that media are the direct cause of any specific behavior:

Early on, novels were blamed for damaging people by encouraging them to read about life instead of living it. And dime novels, with their lurid content, were hit with many of the same criticisms heaped on games today.

From their birth until very, very recently, movies were blamed for every social ill imaginable - a situation that became so dire, Hollywood in the 1930s embarked on a self-censorship effort simply to avoid government controls.

More recently, many of you reading this will remember a time when comic books, pinball, television and that evil known as "rock n roll" music spelled the end of western civilization as we knew it.

For some time now it's been gaming's turn in the cultural crosshairs. We're the ones blamed for all the things earlier media supposedly caused. Sigh.

On the one hand, we could all just sit back and wait for the hysteria to pass - I mean, once everyone became a film fan, a TV viewer, a rock music listener, a reader, it became awfully hard to say with a straight face - "That thing we all do... um... er... well... it turns people into monsters!... Not me, of course, or you... or those 200 million consumers who are just fine... But THEM... THEY... THEY'RE monsters and it's all Mario Kart's fault!"

It's ridiculous, right? You want to argue that there's bad taste aplenty in media? I'm with you. The content of a lot of movies and, yes, games like GTA, offends me on a personal taste level. But effects? I never bought the idea of direct effects, always felt it was silly, always argued against any hint, any whiff of it. Until recently.

Survey says...

For decades, media effects researchers have conducted study after inconclusive study pointing to a direct and pernicious effect on human behavior based on the amount and kind of media people consume.

Individual studies aside, I've always been struck by how easy it is to summarize the aggregation of the findings of these studies - and by how completely aggregation undercuts the fundamental arguments the researchers hope to make.

Here's about all anyone in the media effects field (not just games) has ever been able to say:

Some people will be affected in some ways at some times by exposure to some amount of media content defined in some way as violent or sexual.

"As much as I rejoice - as we all should rejoice - that public opinion is swinging our way, with science leading the charge, I'm oddly troubled by scientific support of our wonderfulness"

Whew! There's a solid basis for setting public policy, eh?

Silly, right?

Maybe not. Recently, things have gotten a whole lot less silly, as some studies have gone a bit further, in pretty convincing fashion. The irony is that those studies have been aimed not at proving someone's belief that games have negative consequences but, rather, revealing that games might actually have a positive impact on players.

Science to the Rescue!

To be clear, I'm not talking about the articles citing the utility of games in improving the performance of surgeons, like this one or this one.

These are interesting articles that point to the beneficial effects of virtual practice and the power of games to enhance things like manual dexterity. But there's more, and more interesting stuff to talk about.

I'm also not talking about the growing evidence that there's a connection between actual combat and video game combat - especially between drone piloting and flight sims. Leaving morality aside (sadly), there is some evidence that gamers and "real" fliers display comparable levels of ability when it comes to controlling remote-piloted aircraft.

Finally, I'm certainly not talking about the various "brain training" games out there that seem to most researchers as being of dubious value, at best. (See this article for a somewhat jaundiced view of that subject.)

No. What got me thinking about video game effects (other than the release of GTA V, which always brings the media effectsers out of the woodwork!) was seeing several studies, all trumpeting specific, positive cognitive, rather than behavioral, effects associated with game-playing. Recently, I started seeing study after study saying, in essence, "games are good."

You could have knocked me over with a feather.

One study, described in the New York Times and elsewhere was headlined, "Minecraft, a Child's Obsession, Finds Use as an Educational Tool."

Teachers and parents are recognizing that Minecraft - like many, maybe most, games - has innate features that simply allow players to learn about science, history, languages and ethics (to say nothing of psychology, economics, politics and a host of other topics).

It isn't so much that game creators can, should or do create games that apply traditional pedagogical methods to impart knowledge; it's more that Minecraft and others offer a platform more effective than any we've ever had, for self-directed learning. You can't build something, share something, experience something in Minecraft (et al) and not learn something about yourself, about others and about the world. There's real power there.

But, cool as that was, even Minecraft-as-classroom didn't inspire me to write this column. The article - the study - that floored me was one cited in Nature Magazine that talked about games having the power to rewire players' brains.

Let me say that again: Games. Rewire. Brains.

Talk about eye-opening. I was thrilled that there was some scientific evidence that games can positively impact the lives of the elderly by rewiring their brains to function differently and better. Who wouldn't be thrilled about that?

Yes, there were caveats that the game used in this study of elderly multitaskers was designed for that specific purpose. No, the study results may or may not say anything about traditional, commercial games. I get all that. Still, I take this study as evidence that there are things about our medium none of us ever expected.

We touch people in ways that have nothing to do with the enriching power of narrative, little to do with the medium's unique power to offer each player control over his or her own experience and even less to do with our medium's obvious potential as a teaching tool. The power of games described in this study - the power to rewire the brain (I get a charge every time I type those words) - seems both unique and innate, something creators have no control over (not that we'd want to), something that just happens naturally.

So We Won, Right?

So, does all this happy talk about games mean the Effects War is over, at least as far as our medium is concerned? Of course not. At the same time I was reveling in gaming's new-found respectability, the New York Times ran this piece on media violence.

Seriously? Reading this, all I could think was, "Hey, kids, return with me now to the wonderful world of yesteryear when media were bad for you, bad for the world, just bad, bad, bad!"

Some things never change. People raised on existing media will always fear (and blame) new media they don't understand.

But what's different now is that the argument about effects isn't between social scientists who say "media cause violence" and humanists who say "you're joking, right?" Nor is the argument between adults and kids. This time, there are adults on both sides... there's science on both sides... and here's where things get dicey for me.

"I do think we have to address the good and the bad our medium might do to consumers"

As much as I rejoice - as we all should rejoice - that public opinion is swinging our way, with science leading the charge, I'm oddly troubled by scientific support of our wonderfulness. There's both joy and terror in studies that point to direct, causal effects attributable to the playing of games - even when those effects are wholly and unarguably positive.

Terror? A strong word. But not, I think, an inappropriate one. You see, as soon as we say, "Games can have these positive effects," we have to be prepared to hear in response, "Doesn't that mean they can have those bad effects, too?" And the only answer I can come up with is, "Um, yeah, we do have to acknowledge that possibility."

Embracing science in defense of our medium empowers our detractors to do the same in attacking it. Far from ending the debate between humanists and scientists, the embrace of science by both sides in the debate simply means the debate will rage on in even more strident terms, driven by the seeming certainty data all but demands.

Now, I'm never going to be convinced that games are "bad" or that media cause anything much in particular. However, I do think we have to address the good and the bad our medium might do to consumers. Speaking personally, I can tell you I've always tended to ignore critics while shouting from the highest hill how terrific our medium is. The speed and zeal with which I embraced the evidence that I was right took me by surprise and made me stop and think that maybe the people I'd been shouting at all these years might have a point, too.

Which brings me back to the place I started. I've always acknowledged that games, like all media, affect some people, in some ways, at some times. The innate qualities of our medium have an effect. The content we deliver and the gameplay we provide have an effect. We pretend otherwise at our peril. As a long-time pretender (on the topic of media effects, at any rate!), I'm turning over a new leaf. I intend to think long and hard about the content I provide and the manner in which I provide it. And I'm going to spend a lot more time taking seriously the evidence on both sides of the effects argument.

And that brings us back to Grand Theft Auto V... Wait... What? I'm out of space?... Well, maybe some other time...

One last thing before I call it quits for this month - I'm actually calling it quits, at least insofar as writing a regular column for GamesIndustry International is concerned. I've really enjoyed writing the six columns I did this year. I can't express how much I've appreciated the forum the editors gave me, or the thoughtful interaction I've had with readers.

Unfortunately, I have to call it a day. See, I'm about to embark on the next phase of my professional life. I have a new gig starting soon, one that will occupy most, if not all, of my time in the days, weeks and months ahead - I can't say much right now, but you'll hear plenty more in the months to come.

Thanks for sticking with me this year. Talk to you again soon.

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Latest comments (18)

Eyal Teler Programmer 8 years ago
It's been a pleasure reading your columns, and I'll be sorry to see them end. Must say I'm now somewhat of a fanboy. :) I wish you good luck with your new job, and hope that you'll still find the time to post thought provoking articles, even if less frequently.
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Lukas Arvidsson Artist 8 years ago
I think it is obvious that "media" can affect people. Advertising is delivered through media. And advertising affects us. Educational media affects us and the way we think, otherwise schools wouldn't work! Media and entertainment is generally a part of culture and culture does affect us too, although its effects may not be as obvious and works over long time.

Another interesting aspect of media is pornography that I think is discussed way too little. Especially that it is extremely available now days and is consumed massively. There are studies showing that pornography can have very real effects for heavy consumers with an altered dopamine release cycle as an effect that might not always be wanted. What is interesting here is that it is the altered reward cycle that is the primary problem for the consumer rather than the actual content of the pornography consumed (although it might not have been produced in an ethical sound way).

It has also been argued that the ever expanding myriad of fetishes that pornography offers is more an effect of that the brain starts to crave for "new" rather than a specific fetish, and hence the ordinary reality with ordinary people can become boring and pale in comparison (since it cannot offer the same level of newness). It is also an example of how media can rewire the brain.

When it comes to video games I think the real reason that people are generally not that affected by the content of the games (even almost all games involve killing and physical violence in some VERY extreme way) is due to everyone taking it in as entertainment, just as movies. Even tough you might learn a thing or two from the characters in the game or movie, generally you discard most of the other stuff as silly and something that belongs to the plot and not real life. I think generally that people are quite good to discard content that they voluntary consume. GTA V is (ridiculous) entertainment with almost no connection to the real world (How many "people" do you kill while playing through?), and I don't think people have any problem seeing that, either sub consciously or consciously.

I don't think games have affected culture in any significant way. Games have not changed or altered important parts of culture such as the image of the ideal man or the ideal woman. It has not made us want to live in a different way or alter our life choices. Compared to movies and to some extent music games have not have had that kind of significant cultural impact that can truly affect people.

I am more concerned about effects as playing heavily that can be compared to the effects of pornography. Some free-to-play games and MMOs are a bit shady in this regard. I have heard from many friends that they truly regret time spent on these activities and some can show the same "symptoms" like heavy pornography users that reality can become cumbersome and boring in relation to the easiness of the game experience.

If games can have a negative impact to society I think the negative effect is that some people might have problem with balancing the short term rewards offered by games versus the long term reward of studying, making friends or saving their money. In some extreme cases this can be a genuine problem (teens neglecting studies, making friends, and/or exercise for playing games excessively) but for the most time I think that it is not. But engineering games for maximising the addictive properties of them is something that is very interesting to discuss the ramifications of.

As an extreme example of my reasoning, I think that World of Warcraft has "ruined more lives" than GTA V ever will (addiction vs content).
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Eyal Teler Programmer 8 years ago
Very interesting comment, Lukas. I think that World of Warcraft has also engendered more relationships than GTA V ever will.

I agree regarding casual games. They are designed to be addictive, and that can be a problem.
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Show all comments (18)
Jason Avent Studio Head / Creative Director, TT Games Publishing8 years ago
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Emily Knox Associate Designer, CCP Games8 years ago
But what's different now is that the argument about effects isn't between social scientists who say "media cause violence" and humanists who say "you're joking, right?"
Usually when I've read about this topic (and often why I avoid it these days) is because it often devolves into your description above, a dismissive attitude on both sides of this discussion is common, the arguments dismissing games as capable of having a negative effect frustrated me because it will never be possible for us to measure how big or how small an impact specific items of media, or games, will have on an individual.

I previously thought acknowledgement that the mere possibility is there is good, because it accepts a degree of responsibility for the content you create, and shows some compassion, but after reading your piece I feel simply accepting both positive and negative impacts are possible (especially if we can see tangible results - such as the multitasking skills piece) is a better way of looking at it.

I will miss your columns, they've always managed to make me stop and think!
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Renaud Charpentier Game Director, The Creative Assembly8 years ago
Good luck on your next adventure Warren, many folks here, including me, are waiting to play your next game... cos that has to be a game, right? (no, I am not trying to extract some hints here...)
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Jack Pochop Studying Telecommunications, Indiana University8 years ago
As someone who has read, studied, and participated in experiments dealing with the harmful -- and, of course not-so-harmful -- effects of media for several years, it unfortunately comes down to the bias of the researcher. People will, one way or another, find the data they sought out from the get-go.

The networks will always handpick the data that supports their bombastic claims about media violence and its infinite tether to games like GTA and Mario's deep inconsideration for the flora of the Mushroom Kingdom. Games enthusiasts will always sarcastically shove these comments aside, embracing studies like the one Spector has brought to the table (Minecraft in the classroom).

Gamers and critics of our medium will be quick to compare games to film, advertising, and television, but the fact of the matter is that our medium is much more engaging (literally asking more of our minds and bodies) than bystanders' mediums like TV and film. We put the controller into our hands, vicariously experiencing the thrill of force feedback and -- for a very short time -- the rush of adrenaline that our virtual experiences give us.

Television leaves room for media multitasking like twitter, mobile web browsing, laptop use, and even handheld gaming. Console games leave room for just games -- a single-tracked intake of media which we have come to disregard in an age where multitasking is a norm.

Who's to say whether this concentrated intake of games is for good or for bad. Until TV, film, and other mediums step up to the level of engagement that games give us, (it is my belief that. . .) we will not know the extent to which games affect us.
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Thomas Dolby Project Manager / Lead Programmer, Ai Solve8 years ago
Been a pleasure reading your articles, Warren.

In regards to the content, I'd say there hasn't been much of a budge on the debate of games causing violence because each side is afraid to concede any ground to the other. We in the industry and those who just love games don't see the opposition coming in seeking to understand the new medium and to control it in a way that benefits all, all we see is far right wing lunatics trying to outright ban the very things we enjoy and in the industry's case, earn a living on.

Quite frankly it just seems that we can't trust the opposition to treat any bad news fairly and with respect, all we expect is "See! I told you so! We need to ban it!" instead of "this is concerning, let's figure out a way to manage how people consume this". I think there needs to be more conversation from both sides on how we would tackle the problem if games do have negative effects while discussing how we can enhance the positive effects they can bring. Games have nothing to lose by carrying on as they are, so there will never be any ground seceded if they stand nothing to gain and all to lose.

Society only stands to lose out if we refuse to fairly study the effects, both positive and negative, and to further our understanding of the things we consume daily on an international basis. Those who see in black and white are doomed to misery and ignorance. This shouldn't be about "stopping kids from playing those murder simulators" or "shutting up those morons who've never played a game in their lives", it should be about discovering more about a huge and incredibly powerful new medium.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Thomas Dolby on 8th October 2013 1:42pm

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Shehzaan Abdulla Translator/QA 8 years ago
To summarise. Up until now we have heard to the point of nausea of studies telling us games are bad (or can have bad effects though maybe not necessarily influence someone to bad behaviours). Recently we have seen a change in that trend that says the opposite (that games can have good effects though maybe not necessarily influence someone to good behaviours).

When you look at the upshot you can see that if you acknowledge that games can have good effects you have to (even if begrudgingly) acknowledge that the reverse must also necessarily be true.

My thoughts: I think the debate on whether the effects games have (being positive or negative) is now past us. For better AND for worse we have to accept there are effects and take responsibility for that.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Shehzaan Abdulla on 8th October 2013 7:01pm

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Keldon Alleyne Strategic Keyboard Basher, Avasopht Development8 years ago
Usually when I've read about this topic (and often why I avoid it these days) is because it often devolves into your description above, a dismissive attitude on both sides of this discussion is common, the arguments dismissing games as capable of having a negative effect frustrated me because it will never be possible for us to measure how big or how small an impact specific items of media, or games, will have on an individual.
@Emily: that's always been my thought as well, especially with regards to considering the potential positive effects as well. It's really not about taking sides of for games and against games otherwise the discussion will always degenerate rather than produce anything conducive.

Whenever discussion is about sides it fails to be rational.
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very thoughtful article.
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Neil Young Programmer, Rebellion Developments8 years ago
As someone who has read, studied, and participated in experiments dealing with the harmful -- and, of course not-so-harmful -- effects of media for several years, it unfortunately comes down to the bias of the researcher. People will, one way or another, find the data they sought out from the get-go.
Even if that is an issue with much of the existing literature on the area, it's not an insurmountable problem; all sorts of research rely on such bias being factored out.
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Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee8 years ago
Its a fair point, media does affect our behaviour for better and for worse. I find it a real shame that the scales are tipped towards negativity in the press when it comes to games, particularly mature games targeted specifically at mature gamers.

The arguments are unbalanced from what I've seen over the years. That said, it doesn't mean we should lose the ability to self reflect on our output and the impact it may have on individuals or society as a whole.
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 8 years ago
Opera, Ballet, Movies, Books, Recorded music, TV soap operas etc etc must all recognize both good and bad effects of their output.
We are just another form of intellectual property entertainment.
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Marty Howe Director, Figurehead Studios8 years ago
I agree Bruce, been like that for centuries. Maybe its because video games are such a new medium (relative to others) its under scrutiny, under discussion etc.
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Tat Wei, Yeap Master Degree in Environmental Planning. 8 years ago
One of the best articles in weeks, a sword can serve to protect as it can serve to destroy, and the one that held the sword handle are non other than the gaming audience. A game developer might do their best to churn out a great game with a great depth, but how many audience truly get that?

This have to do with human mindset which had been widely 'guided' by popular media today.
To me this gaming dilemma pose the same questions with the good classic: Plato - The allegory of the cave
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Bryan Robertson Gameplay Programmer, Ubisoft Toronto8 years ago
This is completely unscientific, just my personal intuition. But my feeling is that games don't wire people into performing real-world acts of violence, because peoples' internal mental model of real-world violence is completely different from their internal mental model of what's happening when they play a video game.

Sure, some aspects of aiming and firing a gun in real life might be very similar to doing so in a video game, so it might give you a little advantage doing something like clay pidgeon shooting, because you already know how to do things like leading targets to compensate for travel-time, etc. But video-game violence isn't like real-world violence at all.

In fact I think it would be very difficult to make a game where most people would conceptualise what's going on as real violence.

Think about it, you'd probably think nothing of pointing a gun at an NPC in a game, but I think the vast majority of people would feel extremely uncomfortable pointing an unloaded or fake gun at someone who is unaware that it's not loaded.
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Shane Sweeney Academic 8 years ago
Violence, long hours immersed in worlds? I think these will fade away as the real problem slowly emerges. I think Gamification is something the industry needs to be wary of, it could eventually smell of a "Big Tobacco" type class action that could end badly for the worst offenders.

Good game design is not the same as effective gamification design. Just as F2P via monetizing good game design isn't the same as monetizing effective gamification. Their is no such thing as good gamification design, just effective gamification design.

Gamifying a fun experience provides an evolutionary hook to draw the player even further in. However we can gamify a poor game design or even almost no game design at all. Perfecting the monetization of effective gamification will inevitably lead to *someone* producing a massively addictive product that will cause more problems than gambling.

I see it as inevitable that a poor game designer will eventually be bold and exploitative enough to cause real harm to its players, and we will see a series of lawsuits leading to regulation around the practice.
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