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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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Warren Spector


Warren Spector is a veteran game designer best known for his work on System Shock and Deus Ex.