Monday, June 16, 2008

So Just What are Video Games Good For?

Despite the massive popularity of the video game medium, society seems far from ready to afford game developers, their products, and even gamers themselves much attention. If anything, video games are the subjects of derision and skepticism in news media; violent video games are often blamed for inspiring the tragic Columbine shootings. The Academy Awards are broadcast to a live television audience of millions of viewers and gain the attention of mainstream news networks everywhere, but gaming awards attract no such attention. It’s not uncommon to meet someone who sees video games as nothing more than a mindless and shallow diversion; others treat it as nothing more than a child’s toy. Some even condemn video games as overly violent, addictive, and even downright evil. Even Catholics fall prey to this line of thinking from time to time, and as much as I disagree with their assessments, their criticisms aren’t without merit.

When video arcades first appeared in America 2 decades ago, Pac-Man, a game starring a yellow amorphous blob with an insatiable appetite for white dots, was the epitome of the video game medium. Game players controlled Pac-Man, directing him (via a trusty joystick) to consume all the white dots onscreen while simultaneously dodging the assaults of multi-colored poltergeists.

It’s certainly quite a, well, um… unique concept on paper; I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who immediately dismissed the game as a silly and nonsensical, if harmless, diversion. Yet arcades, filled with Pac-Man machines, among other things, quickly became an American pastime: more than just a way to spend spare quarters, arcades became hang-outs for people of all ages, and despite the occasionally seedy types that could occasionally be found loitering at these locals, something about these games was clearly drawing people together.

Games continue to have this same effect today. While arcades are now nearly extinct, games live on, and games can be both intellectually and even spiritually enriching activities whether played unaccompanied or with friends and family.

Whether played competitively or cooperatively, many games offer a chance for fellowship in the same way that board games and sports do. My brothers and I have many fond memories of playing games like Tales of Symphonia, where teamwork was an essential ingredient to completing the game’s many challenges. Racing games like Mario Kart and Burnout provided us with endless laughs and nurtured in us a healthy competitive spirit. Classic, family-friendly board games like Monopoly, Risk, and Chess have “virtual” equivalents playable on a PC, a handheld game machine (such as the Nintendo DS), or a “home console” like the Xbox 360. Sports fans can purchase video game versions of nearly every game imaginable, from the ever-popular Madden football series or the more obscure World Championship Poker games.

Critics often level the charge that video games promote laziness and an unhealthy lifestyle, but recent games such as Nintendo’s Wii Fit actually attempt to promote healthy living (a nuance of Catholic teaching often forgotten in contemporary society). While Wii Fit has become a media darling within recent weeks, games designed with fitness in mind are hardly anything new. Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution - a game equipped with a “workout mode” that tracks the amount calories burned as you dance - has been used in physical fitness programs in public schools.

Games often spur rigorous intellectual stimulation, as well: The Civilization games, for example, not only foster an interest in history, but teach players the importance of strategic planning and prioritization of duties. During my younger years, I learned a great deal about the importance of the rainforest and its many natural resources from the Amazon Trail video games for PC. Classical music junkies (or anyone, for that matter) might want to check out the XBOX 360 game Eternal Sonata, which attempts to retrace the steps of Polish composer Frederic Chopin in his last moments on earth (albeit with some “artistic license” thrown into the mix).

Of course, with all the benefits video games can offer, it’s important to remember that, like all media, games can be used for both good and evil. Games like Grand Theft Auto and Scarface allow players to go on virtual killing sprees and generally fail to supply any redemptive narrative to justify the actions taking place. And even the very most enriching video game is potentially addicting – and an addiction is in no way conducive to bringing forth God’s kingdom on earth.
In the end, like all morally neutral activities, the operating principle with video games in conjunction with an authentic Catholic lifestyle is "In Medias Res" – moderation in all things. This explicitly Catholic principle has applications in almost every aspect of daily living, and video games are no exception.

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