Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Ethics - The impact of computer games in society

By Dave Johnson

Some years ago I got back into contact with an old friend (who we'll call Chris), who I'd previously had a disagreement with. At that point we had not spoken for two years, and when we met up again it was a wonderful, yet nervous moment. The reason for our disagreement had been over the person that he had planned to marry. Without being too detailed, I felt that she was just not right for him and was taking advantage of him in a lot of areas. So after a final argument, I pulled out of his wedding plans and we didn't speak again for a long time.

I mention all this because it was his story when we met again that I found amazing. He revealed his marriage had lasted three months and ended in divorce, sadly followed by the death of his older brother from a brain hemorrhage. His friends drifted away. His job suddenly felt meaningless.

Feeling lost and depressed, my friend completely retreated from the world into his hobby of online gaming. At the time World Of Warcraft was beginning to become prevalent, with new players joining by the thousand on  a daily basis. Chris, feeling empty and void established a daily routine. Everyday he would routine home from work, eat a small meal then get online. He would play until 3am the next morning, sleep for 5 hours then get up for work. This routine was exhausting his mental and physical health yet the thought of his gaming fix kept him going.

Then something strange began to happen. Being a regular daily player, the others online would begin to expect to see him around a certain time of day. Small talk began on the message boards which slowly turned into more fully formed conversations. Friendships began and trust was gained. Slowly, Chris began to talk more and more freely between quests and raids. The clan he was in became his family, support and network. At the same time due to Chris's achievements in the game, he rose to prevalence within his clan. Led by Chris, new players joined them and his online family grew. The real, outside world remained as bleak and depressing as ever yet the online world was thriving, exciting and full of possibility. Chris was hooked and there was no daily substitute for his gaming fix. He was tired, listless and disenchanted by life, yet his online comrades kept him going. Then they began to meet and socialize in real life. Chris re discovered life, human interaction and the feeling of happiness again, even though it had cost him much.

All things must eventually come to an end. In Chris's case he knows where to draw the line and can recognize warning signs. It helped that the game was beginning to wane for him. So 6 months and many battles later, Chris didn't turned the game on one day. In fact he never turned it on again. He saw that it had been his support, his friend, his lifeline and that he had learned to socialize again through it. He had won not the game, but real friends, probably the greatest prize there is. Now it was time to return to the real world, wiser and happier and spiritually richer than he was before. The game had served it's unexpected purpose.

Some years later Chris has remarried and has two young children. He still plays games because like many, he believes they have a value. Now it is to relieve the stress of work and family life and he has been able to get his children sharing his hobby His story has both positive and negative aspects to it, and as such represents good arguments for and against games playing.

The negatives

Many gamers suffer from sleep deprivation and lack of productivity
 due to an addiction to what they are playing

Excess playing time
Chris's story is not uncommon. But what is perhaps a little unusual about it is Chris's ability to control it to stop. Many are not so restrained or fortunate. We read stories in the papers and see on the news all manner of articles where games are demonized. They are often blamed for the ills of society where violence and anti social behavior are at fault. We hear tales of people caught up cycles of continuous gaming behavior that lead to poor performance in life and in the workplace. This is brought about by players clocking up thousands of hours of game time that deprive them of sleep. There have been reports of high school and college students not attending their classes due to games addiction. In one example, a couple left their young child to die whilst they played in the internet café next door.

Of course excess playing time can also result in a whole host of physical ailments. These can include carpal tunnel syndrome, stiff neck, sore back, headaches and dry eyes. Also it stands to reason that because a player is sitting in one place for long periods of time, they may not be getting enough exercise. This number of risks that this carries are obvious, including excess weight gain and an overall weakening of the muscles. Insomnia is another very real risk since an over stimulation of the brain can result in sleep loss at night. This in turn can lead to depression and weight loss which has the knock on effect of poor performance in the players' life and study or workplace.

Anger issues and a lack of social skills are sadly the problem of many gamers 

Separation from reality
One of the many attractions of the gaming world is the idea of escaping from reality, if only for a short time. Such escapism can stimulate imagination, promote learning and social skills and result in a balanced, intelligent individual. The themes of many games can however, often deal with some extreme or dark subject matter. Games with themes of murder, theft, racing, warfare or violence often carry a warning on the box to let players know that they should be mentally equipped to cope with the subject matter.
There have been numerous cases of players attempting to copy games in real life, often resulting in tragic consequences. The game 'Manhunt' saw your character  trying to survive in dark, violent, often strange situations. A publicized murder in the UK was committed by a man who claimed to be obsessed with the game. Other games such as the Grand Theft Auto series have been banned in many countries as they encourage online violence that could easily be played out for real.

Medical research that has been carried out at the Institute for Medical Psychology Center for Humanities and Health Sciences in Berlin shows that "there is only weak evidence for the assumption that aggressive behavior is interrelated with excessive gaming in general."

However, other doctors disagree. They believe that the role a player takes in a video games violence is that of an active aggressor, rather than a passive onlooker. Dr. Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University, strongly believes that there is a danger that this can carry over into real life.
In terms of online gamers view and understanding of social moral codes, it would be easy to argue that the online world is not a place for the faint hearted. Homophobic slang, sexual and racial insults are commonplace in a gamers world. Obviously it is very easy for people to mentally assess themselves fit when buying the game. But whether the player falls prey to being responsible for offensive behavior or is on the receiving end, mental scars or effects will be obvious.

Many gamers become isolated from others through a compulsion to play alone

Social Isolation
For people with anxiety or interaction issues, the idea of being in a room playing a game or talking when they want to online is an attractive one. Many console gamers can sit for hours on end and not speak a word to anyone. Their social skills become underused and they deteriorate. Indeed many PlayStation players agree that when the PlayStation Network temporarily went down a few years ago, it was the best thing that could have happened. Millions of players were forced to meet up with friends and play games in the same room. They are reported as having forgotten the simple buzz of conversation and banter, and the social element that many online games miss out on.

Many people fall victim to only engaging with social activities when they absolutely have to, only interacting if necessary.

Conversely, many MMO gamers rate their online friendships as being more valuable than offline ones. They feel comfortable being part of an extended online circle who all communicate in a language that is understood only by them. To counter this, many others advocate trust in online as a good thing but difficult to judge. Their is no substitute for meeting people face to face and learning to evaluate others through evidence rather than instinct.

Gamers families can often pay the heaviest price when the users' hobby becomes all consuming

For many it will be those around them pay the price of the hobby, as well as the gamer. Relationships can suffer, families can split and children can be particularly badly affected. Indeed this is often the case because parents are often completely unaware of the content of the games that their child is playing. If there is already an obvious level of immaturity in the individual, this negative impact can manifest itself in anger, aggressive, racial and homophobic behavior or even trying to 'act out' scenes from the game. This leads to destructive behavior that impacts the home, outside world and society at large.

Sometimes a gamer can also become so consumed by a game that they want to talk about nothing else. This is likely to drive a wedge between themselves and loved ones.

In terms of the cost to themselves, people who are thought to be suffering from video game addiction may ignore their responsibilities. This can also include their responsibility to themselves.
Signs of this can include unhealthy weight loss, dehydration, basic hygiene, changing their clothes regularly and brushing their teeth.

Though in recent years games have become more prevalent in education, there are still many drawbacks to the medium. Games that cater to subjects such as Maths, English, Art, Cookery and Mental Gymnastics cannot answer any questions that a student may have. They are very much 'What You See Is What You Get', being unable to expand or elaborate on something that a student may find as a point of interest. It can also be extremely difficult for the student to see the game as being an educational tool and not just 'another game'. Furthermore this idea can be backed up when we consider that what gets learnt in a game can rarely be applied to real life. Understanding every day things such as the plot or text of a book, the perfection of instinct and taste in cooking or even analyzing a utility bill are things that a game is unlikely to cater for. Because of this many gamers will probably always deem these as entertainment and are unlikely to consider them as serious educational tools.

In terms of young children and games, they are often receptive to new ideas when learning on a game. But when they enter the traditional classroom environment which often requires greater concentration, it can be difficult to adapt. This is because they have been conditioned to believe in an environment that is fast paced, action packed and visually quite grand. A childs' classroom often struggles to compete with the bright visuals, catchy music and sense of escapism that a game can provide. As such a childs' attention span can diminish significantly when faced with traditional learning methods such as books. As the writer R.F Mackay says in in the article "Playing to learn" :

"We may think we're pretty smart, but in fact we have very little notion of how humans learn. Kids know: They play games. Until, that is, they go to school. That's when the games stop. And often, so does the learning."

The positives

Hand eye co-ordination
There is strong evidence to attribute increased hand eye co-ordination development to video games. Patients that need to rehabilitate have shown to recover far faster using games such as Wii Sports. The virtual representations of Golf, Tennis and Bowling promote the recovery of major muscle groups, cerebral and muscle memory and physical co-ordination. It should also come as no surprise that when the Wii was launched, one of the major buyers were old peoples homes. The opportunity to gently exercise the body as well as cognitive faculties came as welcome to residents who were previously unable to go outside.

Similarly, a study conducted by a surgeon at Beth Israel State Hospital in New York found that surgeons who played games out performed their peers. They were found to make far fewer errors in the operating room.

Computer users who play games have also been found to navigate around the monitor screen quicker. Studies show that on average they point and click 100 milliseconds faster than novice users.

More everyday skills that benefit from the activity include the common task of driving. Drivers with a video games background have better spatial awareness, can track objects faster and isolate dangers.
Indeed, there have been numerous examples of drivers saving lives through trained, instinctive thinking and quick reflexes. This is an example of a driver attributing his survival to video games. Scroll down in the article to view actual dashboard camera footage of the incident :


Jane McGonigal, a designer and developer who believes that gamers hold the key to world problems

Thinking and strategy
 Problem solving,  developing a plan and finding a way past a problem are all ways that video games excel over other forms of medium. Games developer Jane McGonigal strongly believes that gamers hold intrinsic qualities that could hold the key to solving many world problems. She is thinking beyond the actual games like "Halo" and "Angry Birds" to look at the behavior of gamers and why they make such good candidates. She establishes her argument with some convincing points. Jane tells us that the 21st century world in which we live is far more real and dangerous than any game. We face natural disasters, poverty, disease, war, climate change and social and economic problems. Her solution is to pose these problems to the online gaming community since they are natural decision makers and problem solvers. They are also all connected to a community of vast ideas and vast diversity including a rich bank of ideas

Jane goes on to argue that the average person feels disconnected from their workplace, seeking stimulation and challenge elsewhere. The global community currently racks up a staggering 71 billion hours a week playing games, which if channeled towards world crises could solve a lot of problems. They are also creative, coming up with think-outside-the-box solutions on a daily basis.

An acceptance that they will fail is also a strong characteristic. It means the average gamer is relentless, striking at a problem again and again until they yield results. She sums up her thesis by stating :

"If presented with real-world problems, the 1 billion gamers on the planet are ready to collaborate with scientists, economists, pathologists, and various experts. However, as she said, "it's up to us what challenge we want them to tackle next."

Future impact
Many individuals in society, myself included, suffer from depression. It is a terrible illness, since the sense overwhelming feeling of hopelessness can eat away at you, creating feelings of hopelessness and despair. It is comforting in many ways then that while the media often blames gaming for the ills of the world their are some who defend it. Studies have shown that gaming activities can actually make people feel better about themselves. Experts say it is to do with the level of challenge games represent, adapting to the player so achievements are always within reach. This type of challenge makes us feel good, since we feel as though we have earned any rewards (such as in-game experience points or unlocking a new level of game play). Players can often perceive these achievements as hard work. Therefore when they are attained we feel as though we genuinely earned them, adding to our self esteem.

Game developers and scientists are now uniting in the hope they can tackle depression, a major cause of disability. This is especially prevalent amongst young adults. Statistics show that up to a quarter of young people will have experienced a depressive disorder by the age of 19. Due to shortages in trained councilors and the reluctance of some young people to seek traditional help, this means that fewer than a fifth of young people with depressive disorders will actually receive treatment.

screen shot 2012 05 07 at cinema 640.0 300x300 Playing at a better future: Could video games improve your life?
A screenshot from SPARX, a game for
recovering depressives
A research group led by Professor Sally Merry at the University of Auckland have developed a game specifically for this purpose. The game is called SPARX and is a first person action/adventure RPG. Players are charged with the task of restoring colour to a drab, gloomy world. To this they have to kill creatures called GNATs (Gloomy Negative Automatic Thoughts), which upon dying will restore colour and vibrancy to the environment.

The idea of the game is for the player to learn to interrupt and readdress negative thought patterns. At the beginning and end of each level, a character called a 'guide' explains what the objectives are, gauges the players mood and gives them a challenge to complete outside of the game environment. SPARX monitors how the player is doing, and if they are seen to be struggling refers them to a clinician. A trailer for the game is available by visiting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlvtX5K1PSs.

Current research statistics for the game are impressive. Results show that  SPARX has helped reduce anxiety, depression and hopelessness in young gamers. 60% of players completed the game whilst 86% played through the first 4 levels with many saying they would recommend the game to their friends. This strongly suggest that the game could be a way to treat people who do nat have access to traditional therapy, or those unsure of traditional methods.

From a completely different standpoint, the economic angle, games design has created a multi billion pound industry with jobs and opportunities. There are now more job roles than ever, ranging from art workers, designers, programmers through to marketing and PR positions. Additionally, many games consoles programming and hardware dictates how products are designed outside of the games market.

Impact on mainstream application development
Back in the early days of computers, users were expected to have a level of technical knowledge and experience before they could even operate one. Many operating systems were text based, relying on users to have a knowledge of code and command inputs to get the computer to work properly. Early games such as 'Pong' and 'Space Invaders' developed hardware such as joypads and joysticks. They were also among the first to have developed graphical user interfaces. These inventions allowed the user to interact easily with the program on screen and began an easier relationship between people and machines.

This early design in interaction was originally attributed to games, but has gone on to develop and become present in many everyday devices. The most recent inventions of the past 10 years, touchscreen and wireless technology were originally designed to increase the user experience in games and interact in an intuitive, fluid manner. Having been inspired by the gaming industry, many everyday items now feature the exact same technology to the point where the consumer fully expects it. DVD players, TVs, tablets and smartphones are just are a few of the many products with user movement capability and wireless networking built in to them. Cables have become a thing of the past.

In terms of developments by games for games, products such as the Wii sensor and Kinect now make the  player into the controller. Advancements in the field allow the computer to react to the player by literally reading their body movements.

Surgeons are now being trained to perform better using advanced game software

A final example of how games are impacting the world is how they are being used to train professionals in jobs. Surgeons are now given realistic onscreen simulations to complete. According to the article 'The Future Of Games: Can Games Impact Your Life?' by Slaton WHite :

"During 2001-2003 Rosser JC Jr and his researchers conducted a study about video games improving the reflexes and overall skill in laparoscopic surgery. (2.a - pg. 154) They compiled the results of the study in an article called The Impact of Video Games on Training Surgeons in the 21st Century. 33 participants were recruited and were submitted to tests and skill before and after they played 3 video games that were chosen specifically for this study. (2.a - pg. 154) Overall the 33 participants scored 33% better on a skill test called Top Gun. (2.b) Participants that played more than 3 hours a week scored 42% better. Many surgeons now play video games that require precise movements similar to those used in laparoscopic surgery in order to keep their ability and reflexes high"

Similarly soldiers are taught awareness, combat strategy and field training in first person style shooters.  Games present an opportunity to develop essential skills in what could be life threatening situations. The benefits do not just stop at professionals either. The game 'Capable Shopper' by Jennifer Ash, Zach Barth, Peter Mueller, other students, and the Adult Services Division in Albany aims to teach everyday skills to the disabled. The game has two parts to it, one with a lsit of dishes they can prepare and the other with a grocery store. Players must find the ingredients they need by navigating around the store. The game was hugely successful, leading them to install the game permanently at the Center for Disability Service’s Adult Services Division.

Gaming can be a social activity that bonds people and brings lifelong friendships

Emotional Benefits
It is fair to say that games have become an art form in their own right, on a par with book, films, TV, radio, music and art. The best games these days aim to tell stories that educate, inspire, entertain and inform. They get us to explore and see the world through new eyes, retaining information long after the game is over. This is achieved in conjunction with striking visuals and the use of sound to create stirring music or memorable sound effects. Every effort to connect with the player on an emotional level is made, so that on completion the game will live in the memory.

Emotional connections are also made through the use of competitive online games and high score listings. From my own experience, some of the best game experiences I have ever had have been through playing online with my brother. Working in a team to fight zombies, solving puzzles together and sharing advice, experience and equipment have all helped us bond. There have also been times where through games such as Rock Band my whole family have been able to join in the fun and spend time together. The majority of my family are not gamers and quite different in their hobbies so it was nice to do something that everyone could share and enjoy in. These are some of my experiences, but they are by no means unique. Players the world over find friendships through games everyday. They communicate as a community, inform and support one another. Since the early days of man, games have been there to help us understand each other, learn and laugh together.

The modern day equivalent of high score listings and leader boards spurs us on to better our abilities and challenge the world around us. We compete together and against one another, and as such learn social skills as well as gaining insight into others. Indeed as I write about in my blog posts 'Making History', games should be educational. Not only being educated about ourselves and what we can do, but our very world - its' past, its' present and its' future. Through the age old medium of stories, gaming offers us the chance learn about history, current issues and concerns for the future.

There are however elements of peer pressure in this education. For example the latest online games by Rockstar often require the forming of gangs or posses to succeed. This obviously requires several friends to own a copy of the game which is potentially expensive. But the quality of the games and the memories that are stored by playing with friends live on forever, which to me is worth the price alone. In contrast to this there are so many free-to-play alternatives through sites such as Facebook or downloadable apps that peer pressure need not be an issue. Players can choose to tailor their gaming hobby to their level of disposable income.

Skill trees in 'Skyrim' allowing players to create unique characters

The endless customisation options of 'Skyrim' allow players to create
 unique characters and compare skills and achievements

Similarly single player gamers can get their friends in on the action too. In game achievements, trophies, secrets, easter eggs and of course completing the game are all experiences that players can compete to find. Levelling up in games is also a great way to introduce competition between single players. Skills, abilities, equipment and perks are all elements game developers use to make no two players alike. Competitions can be created by comparing characters and game advancement, extending longevity and adding to the fun.


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