Playing a winning game

The danger and opportunity of video games

Kim Cunio

Science and technology, Health, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The World

11 July 2018

Video games might be a threat to the adolescent mind, but the gamer’s skillset opens the door to incredible innovation, writes Kim Cunio.

The recent classification of gaming as a disorder by the World Health Organization is one of those modern dilemmas that invites dogmatism. Although many of us played video games when we were young, gaming is very different now. The level of realism is astounding and children, many of whom start playing these games while very young, can find reality opaque next to the heightened sensorial experiences of a video game.

In the UK, the National Health Service now treats gaming addiction as a disorder and the recent launch of a Centre for Internet Disorders will probably be replicated in Australia.

These tales are not new; similar stories were told of pinball machines in the 1960s and arcade games such as Space Invaders in the 1980s. Each generation seems unable to understand the leisure choices of the next, and those same parents who criticise gaming embrace a different suite of new technologies such as voice-recognition apps on their smartphones.

More on this: Gaming policy in cyberspace

It is difficult to ignore the parents who anecdotally express despair at the recent release of Fortnite, a game that works on every platform from computer to phone. Fortnite is a supreme killing game, where one player has to kill a host of other characters. It is slick, immersive, and has even affected the US Baseball league, with Boston Red Sox pitcher David Price missing a recent game to carpal tunnel syndrome attributed to excessively playing the game.

Drone interfaces used by the US military, which are designed to emulate the user experience of a video game, show us that our clear and present danger is not wholly imagined. The US military recruits gamers for this type of warfare, which is conducted in bunkers with video screens enabling remote operators to kill half a world away.

Proponents of this side of the argument present an intractable position: video games can potentially ruin young lives and desensitise us to life and death itself for a brief period after gaming. Long periods of gaming can damage health and wellbeing.

On the other side, however, gaming may increase brain elasticity and prepare students for the digital age. Although the majority of games are ‘shooters’, an array of astonishing developments in virtual reality and puzzle-based games has made it possible to conceive of a video game as a completely holistic universe – witness Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One.

Video games have also completely disrupted the entertainment industries, dwarfing recording and even films as a means for associated artists to survive in the gig economy.

A game can take up to two years to develop. It is story-boarded in the same manner as a film, yet it allows the player to linger and construct their own narrative in a space that traditional screen practice cannot emulate. For example, a player in a Lord of the Rings game can navigate Middle Earth and construct their own narrative in a manner that is more similar to reading a book than seeing a film.

More on this: How the digital age changed Taiwan

In my field of music a new craft is being developed right now. At the ANU School of Music, we teach students to write multi-layered music where each musical line works with all others in a composition, providing an almost limitless set of parameters to be explored through a coding environment.

This is a frontier land of composition where the latest technologies partner traditional classical techniques.

Game-like interfaces are also increasingly prevalent in a number of training areas. Many of us are familiar with the idea of an aircraft simulator, but microsurgery is another area where video game skills can be a distinct advantage. Game-like consoles control complex machinery and the skills of the gamer might be instrumental in future cyber security.

What then, should be our policy response? On one hand, we need to take very seriously the social effects of video game and screen addiction. It has the potential to disrupt the lives of teenagers who are already subjected to a barrage of digital information, including an increasingly digitised classroom.

The role of technology in education needs a mature and dispassionate debate that responds holistically to the huge increase in time spent on screens by young people for both work and leisure. Longitudinal studies must be undertaken to record the effects of gaming and screen time on millennials.

At the same time, we have to foster a transition from gaming as mere recreation to a coding skill set that can be taught and replicated. We can tap into the love of games to train a generation of students who can author within the digital environment and create the immersive experiences that so many crave.

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