What every parent should know about the Internet (6) -Internet gaming
A few years later, as I carried out postgraduate study into the uses of artificial intelligence, the height of research included developing software versions of the game of chess.
One interesting programme called ELIZA sought to simulate a Rogerian psychotherapist. ELIZA mostly rephrased the user’s statements as questions and posed those to the ‘patient’. For example, ELIZA might respond to ‘My head hurts’ with ‘Why do you say your head hurts?’ The response to ‘My mother hates me’ would be ‘Who else in your family hates you?’1
In the mid 70s, games started appearing for the home, the most memorable of which was the game of PONG, a computer version of ping-pong.
Things developed rapidly and were spurred along with advances such as the Sinclair ZX80 and Spectrum computers. By the mid 80s, games were gaining a real entry into people’s homes with some 20,000 titles (mostly games) having been released for the Spectrum.
Some concern was already being expressed at the amount of time children were spending playing computer games, though non-computer games such as Dungeons and dragons were still popular, and no less controversial. The concern was over the depiction of witchcraft and game role-playing ‘in which the protagonists create and control the actions of a cast of characters’.2
Fast-forward 30 years
Thirty years later, gaming technology has progressed beyond recognition. Today’s games involve the life-like realism of 3D computer-generated environments. The best selling game World of warcraft involves realistic battle action in a multi-player scenario, with hundreds of thousands of simultaneous users joining in from around the world (though each game may only have a few dozen players).
From modest beginnings, worldwide sales of games are now estimated at $50B (£33B) growing to nearly $100B by 2015.3 In the US, 68 per cent of households own video games, with an average ‘gamer’ playing 18 hours a week.
Interestingly, the average age for a gamer is 35, of which 60 per cent are male.4 Games come in all shapes and sizes, and now include parental ratings from ‘suitable for everyone’ to ‘mature themes’.
One recent example of a game with ‘mature themes’, based on Dante’s Inferno, allows users to explore all nine levels of hell. One gamer said he ‘loved the voice of Lucifer’!
Many games now require users to join teams. Winning teams are those most effective in developing strategies and cooperation between players. In other words, they require the same type of real-life skills found in industry (or the battlefield).
Some game consoles, such as the wildly successful Nintendo Wii, have opened up a new world of opportunities. Families get together to play games of ‘tennis’ against each other. Millions of people have purchased the ‘Wii fit’ to help them lose weight. Game consoles have even been installed in nursing homes to allow residents to challenge others over the Internet at bowling!
While serious gamers may sneer at the seeming simplicity of the Wii, another online phenomenon has been the arrival of massively popular Facebook games. An estimated 30 million people play the game Farmville every day!5
Zynga, a start-up founded in 2007 – creator of Farmville and games such as Mafia wars – claims to have more than 100 million unique monthly users for its social games on Facebook.
All its games are simple two-dimensional titles that are popular because friends can play each other. Commenting on Mafia wars, Time magazine explained that ‘you don’t play Mafia wars alone. Your friends on Facebook who also play Mafia wars make up your family. They help you with your business and fight with you and send you gifts. The bigger the family, the better for business’.
The same is true with Farmville, a game in which players plant and grow crops on a virtual farm surrounded by virtual neighbours that are also Facebook ‘friends’.
The games cost nothing, though players can purchase items with real money if they want to speed things along. It seems, therefore, that some games can have beneficial effects, in providing relaxation and developing skills of strategy or coordination.
But there is also a dark side to gaming. Not only are some games clearly inappropriate for Christians of all ages, but others can induce compulsive or addictive behaviour in some people. The world’s first game-addiction clinic opened in Amsterdam in July 2006.6
There is also the much-studied question of the impact of violent games on children and adults. A study by the American Psychological Association concludes that ‘fantasy violence is often perceived (incorrectly) by parents and public policy makers as safe even for children.
‘However, experimental studies with college students have consistently found increased aggression after exposure to clearly unrealistic and fantasy violent video games. Indeed, at least one recent study found significant increases in aggression by college students after playing E-rated [suitable for everyone] violent video games’.7
There is no doubt that adults and children should stay away from games promoting gratuitous violence or sexual themes. These are simply inappropriate.
Granted that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is sometimes full of violence (see Judges 3:21-22; 4:21; Deuteronomy 2:34), we must realise that such episodes were sanctioned by God himself for good reasons (2 Timothy 3:16). They are not there to entertain us.
We should realise that children often don’t see things in the same way as adults. They only see a game, while adults focus on the more sinister side. We should also remember that a seeming ‘addiction’ in our children may be no more than a passing fad and something they will grow out of. Nonetheless, there are real dangers.
One study speaks of games blurring ‘the boundaries between reality and fantasy, leading people to engage in immoral or anti-social activities, or … leading young people to paganism or Satanism’.8
Another study for the Centres for Disease Control, published in the American journal of preventive medicine, found among adult gamers ‘a higher BMI [increased weight problems] and a greater number of poor mental-health days’, as well as other negative physical and mental health issues.9
We should remember that gaming is much like other leisure activities, such as watching television or going to the cinema. All of these come with dangers and require self-discipline. There are three practical steps that we can take to minimise the dangers.
First is pay attention to labels! Games, like movies, come with ratings. These should be read and considered. Second, know what your children play. Placing a game console or computer in an open area, rather than allowing a child to play it in a bedroom, is always wise.
Better still, play the game with your child! Game consoles such as the Wii encourage family participation. This will turn gaming from a negative ‘you can’t do that’ into something positive together.
Third, limit the time. For some, the danger of addiction lies just under the surface. This applies to both adults and children. Setting a time-limit on recreational activity (of any sort) is always a good principle.
These principles will become increasingly important in the future, as games become much more immersive, blurring the line even more between fiction and reality. An example is ‘Project Natal’, a game console that includes not only a motion detection device but also facial and voice recognition, and many other things.
In an online demonstration, a subject can be seen interacting with a computer as if it was another person, even ‘passing’ a drawing over to the computer to have it comment on it.10 ‘Milo’ is a digital ‘being’ that can recognise face and voice, and with which people can have a ‘conversation’. Milo can even ‘see’ emotions, and respond in kind.
While the technology may be exciting, Christians need to be ever-vigilant. Not only should we take care we do not get absorbed into the unreality of a virtual world that seems better than the one we live in, we must also understand that for many people this kind of escapism will become a drug they cannot do without.
In contrast, we know that the answer lies not in escaping the world, but in turning to the Lord Jesus Christ, who alone can support us in this world and who will one day take us to the place where there will be no more need to escape reality (Revelation 21:4).
In the next article, we will consider Internet gambling.
1. A good description on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ELIZA
2. From ‘Role-playing games and the Christian Right’, Journal of religion and popular culture 2005 (www.usask.ca/relst/jrpc/art9-roleplaying.html).
4. From Essential facts about the computer and video game industry 2009; Entertainment software association.
6. Video addiction, Laura Parker; GameSpot (www.gamespot.com).
7. ‘Violent video games: myths, facts, and unanswered questions’, Dr Craig A. Anderson; Psychological science agenda, science briefs, October 2003.
8. ‘Role-playing games and the Christian Right: community formation in response to a moral panic’, David Waldron; Journal of religion and popular culture, Vol. 9, Spring 2005.
9. ‘Health-risk correlates of video-game playing among adults’, James B. Weaver III, et al; American journal of preventive medicine, Vol.37, issue 4 (October 2009).
10. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_txF7iETX0 and www.youtube.com/watch?v=2g_U02Pz0P4
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