On National Video Games Day, Assessing the Unintended Impacts of Gaming

It’s not easy to get your PhD revoked, but that’s exactly what happened to Jodi Whitaker, a professor at the University of Arizona who received her degree from Ohio State in communications. Whitaker, whose work specialized in violence and aggression in media and video games, supposedly found that there was a correlation between playing such games and real-life marksmanship skills. Her findings could not be replicated, however, and the article in which her claims appeared was later retracted. Then Ohio State trustees voted to revoke her degree entirely.

For her part, Whitaker is going back to the drawing board, trying to replicate the study. But she needn’t bother. The things that we really want to know about video games today aren’t whether they improve hand-eye coordination, but the way in which they affect our interactions with each other as people. So today, on National Video Games Day (no, I’m not kidding, that’s a thing), maybe we could take a break from examining these irrelevant studies and instead think about the way that these games affect our humanity.

“Living with my brother is like living with a ghost. If you leave out a sandwich it might not be there later but you won’t see him, only his shoes. When I see him… I’m like who are you because he is inside his game. He is obsessed with this game like he prefers to be there.” These are the words that Diana writes about her twin brother Aidan in a journal for her high school English teacher, Nina. The three are all fictional characters in Allegra Goodman’s new novel, The Chalk Artist. But for anyone who knows a child—usually a boy—who has been sucked into the world of MMPORGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games), the description will ring true.

Goodman, who has a journalist’s eye for detail, paints a frightening picture not only of the lives of young users of these games, but also of the producers. Nina’s father, Victor, is actually the owner of a highly successful company called Arkadia that creates the games. The name is a brilliant combination of the Greek vision of a pastoral utopia and the dark, dirty mall arcade with kids hanging around staring at Pac-Man as the sun shines outside.

While Nina has long realized the harm that these games can cause—and has devoted herself to teaching poetry to working-class kids instead—her father has found ways to justify his enterprise. “Millions play, her father always told reporters. In every population of this size, you’ll find a couple of crazies. That’s what her father said after the mall shooting in Connecticut, the massacre in Norway. Gaming is like the world. No one can prove gaming causes violent crimes. It’s not what gaming does to you. Gaming is what you bring.”

But then it turns out that Arkadia does more than sell games to unsuspecting teens. It also hires people to troll chat groups, talking up the games, offering users early versions of the game, encouraging fans to pull sometimes illegal stunts in order to show their loyalty to the game. It’s not just what kids bring to the game. It’s what the game bring to the kids—and what the game brings is threatening the humanity of its players.

Goodman’s other insight into the world of gaming involves Nina’s boyfriend, Collin, an artist whom she introduces to her father and who eventually gets hired by him. Prior to illustrating for Arkadia, Collin’s preferred medium was chalk. While his mother and his friends are always amazed that he puts such effort into drawing pictures that are erased almost immediately, the alternative of permanence offered by the online world turns out to be much worse.

What Goodman’s novel (and a good deal of recent research about the effects of gaming) suggest is a far more complicated picture of what this increasingly popular pastime is doing to us. The conventional wisdom that gaming is harmless (or even beneficial) is wrong. It’s not all fun and games.

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