What every parent should know about the Internet
Part 6 - Internet gaming
by David Clark
I remember programming my first game using a teletype and punch tape for storage around 1977. It was a computer version of the then popular Mastermind game and ran on a computer that filled a large room and required a dedicated staff of people to keep it going. Today, a hand held smart phone has more power and significantly more memory capacity than this venerable relic. A few years later, as I carried out post-graduate study into the uses of Artificial Intelligence, the height of research included developing software versions of the game of chess. One interesting program, 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-1970s, 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 later the Spectrum computers. By the mid-1980s, 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 about the time that children were spending playing computer games, though at the time other non-computer games such as Dungeon and Dragons were still just as popular and no less controversial. The concern was not only with the depiction of witchcraft in such games, but also with role-playing described as games “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 life-like realism of 3D computer generated environments. The bestselling 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% of households own video games, with an average ‘gamer’ spending 18 hours per week playing. Interestingly, the average age for a gamer is 35, of which 60% 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 9 levels of hell. One gamer said that 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 that are found in industry (or on 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 startup founded in 2007 that created Farmville and other games such as ‘Mafia Wars’, claims to have more than 100 million unique monthly users for its social games on Facebook. All of its games are simple two-dimensional titles that are popular because friends can play them with 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 neighbors who are also Facebook ‘friends’. The games cost nothing, though players can purchase things with real money if they want to speed things along. It is clear, therefore, that some games can have beneficial effects, providing much needed relaxation and developing skills of strategy or coordination.
The psychological impact of games
There is also a dark side to gaming. Not only are some games clearly inappropriate for Christians of all ages, others can induce compulsive or addictive behavior in some people, with 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 we (adults and children) should stay away from games that promote gratuitous violence or sexual themes. These are simply inappropriate. It should also be noted that the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, is full of violence. Some of this violence is sanctioned by God Himself, and at times is described in excruciating detail (see Judges 3:21-22; 4:21; Deut. 2:34)! While violence in Scripture is always there for a reason (2 Tim 3:16) and is not there to entertain us, we should also remember that children often do not see things the same way as adults do, seeing only the game rather than the more sinister side that we may be aware of. We should also remember that what we may think of as an addiction in our children may be no more than a normal passing fad, part of a normal developmental process and something that 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 from the Centers 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 specific practical steps that we can take:
- Pay attention to labels! Games, like movies, often come with ratings. These should be read and considered.
- Know what your children play. Placing a game console or computer in an open area rather than allowing the child to play in their room 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 that you can do together.
- 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 between fiction and reality. An example of this is called “Project Natal”, a game console that not only includes a motion detection device but also has facial recognition, voice recognition, and many other things. In an online demonstration 10 , a subject can be seen interacting with a computer as if it were another person, even ‘passing’ a drawing over to the computer to have it comment on it. Milo is a digital ‘being’ that can recognize 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, we need to be ever vigilant as Christians. Not only should we take care that we do not get absorbed into unreality, into a virtual world that seems better than the one in which we live, we must also understand that for many people this kind of escapism is a new drug that 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 (Rev 21:4).
In the next article, we will consider Internet gambling.
Comments from ET readers on this series can be posted on David Clark’s blog (http://parentsandtheinternet.blogspot.com) or sent via email to ParentsAndTheInternet@googlemail.com. Where possible, posted contributions and emails will be answered anonymously in the final articles of this series.
1 A good description of ELIZA can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ELIZA
Read other articles in David Clark's series on internet information for parents:
Last Update: 2013-08-12 16:41