The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Be the Game Boss

Well, at least now I know why I did it.

On December 31st, the four-year-old PC I used almost exclusively for gaming up and died on me. I turned it on to find that it wouldn't load Windows XP and made a strange clicking noise for several minutes before telling me the second hard drive was fried. Shortly afterwards, the mother board joined the hard drive in its demise. I knew then it was dead. I'd added a second hard drive, upgraded the RAM and the video card, but a new mother board was beyond my capabilities.

By January 1st withdrawal and depression started to set in. By January 2nd, I was out buying a new PC, just for gaming. I felt silly at the time, but now I know I was just fulfilling a psychological need.

Psychologists at the University of Rochester, in collaboration with Immersyve, Inc., a virtual environment think tank, asked 1,000 gamers what motivates them to keep playing. The results published in the journal Motivation and Emotion this month suggest that people enjoy video games because they find them intrinsically satisfying.

"We think there's a deeper theory than the fun of playing," says Richard M. Ryan, a motivational psychologist at the University and lead investigator in the four new studies about gaming. Players reported feeling best when the games produced positive experiences and challenges that connected to what they know in the real world.

The research found that games can provide opportunities for achievement, freedom, and even a connection to other players. Those benefits trumped a shallow sense of fun, which doesn't keep players as interested.

It turns out that not the only benefit of gaming. It can help pediatric burn patients get better, improve visual perception and boost productivity, help treat ADHD, reduce surgical errors, and is generally good for the brain. (Witness the whole Brain Age craze.)

But, lest I be accused of painting to rosy a picture of one of my favorite pastimes, there is a downside when it comes to some games. They can be addictive, according to some mental health professionals. The first season of the A&E network series Intervention featured a guy who was addicted to video games. Video game detox clinics have opened up in Amsterdam, China , and South Korea. In South Korea, a four-month-old baby girl died after her parents left her home alone to go gaming at an internet cafe, and a 28-year-old man died after gaming for 50 hours with almost no breaks. In Russia, a teenage boy died of a stroke after a 12-hour gaming session, and a 13-year-old Chinese boy allegedly jumped to his death while imitating a scene from a video game. Finally, according to a recent study, video game violence can affect kid's brains, specifically areas dealing with emotional response and self-control.

So, it shouldn't come as a surprise that there's been a spate of attempts to legislate the availability of games to young people, in states including Louisiana, California, and Massachusetts. Utah is next on the list, with a proposed bill that would define video game violence as "harmful to minors." And, closer to home, D.C.'s handsome new mayor is backing of on his attempt to regulate video game sales to minors in the district.

Mayor Adrian Fenty has backed down in his crusade to keep the “Grand Theft Auto” videogame away from D.C.’s kids. In 2005, the then-city councilmember introduced the Youth Protection from Obscene Video Games Act, a law that would have set up massive fines of $10,000 for retailers and big fines of $1,000 for anybody else — even parents — who provide violent or obscene games to minors.

The bill essentially would have given the weight of law to ratings by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which deems certain games inappropriate for people of certain ages. Constitutional scholars testified before the D.C. Council that the bill was an affront to the First Amendment. The D.C. attorney general sent a warning letter. Similar bills across the country were going down in flames under the scrutiny of federal judges.

… Fortunately for the children, Fenty decided to listen to the lawyers and all the restrictions were dropped. Now there’s no chance the city will have to pay attorney fees (as other jurisdictions have) to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the powerful videogame-industry lobbyists responsible for shooting down bogus statutes across the country.

The D.C. Council quietly altered the bill and passed it as the utterly harmless Consumer Education on Video and Computer Games for Minors Act, which will create a consumer-education program to help parents understand videogame ratings.

Of course, as the article points out, it's not just the violence. As the whole "Hot Coffee" scandal over Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. More recently the discovery of same-sex kissing in Bully, by the same company that created Grand Theft Auto, caused another round of round of objections. Because teenagers obviously aren't going to have sex, think about having sex, or even know they can have sex unless they see it in a video game first. To which I respond: Oh, grow up.

Grow up, because that's what gamers are doing. They — we, actually — are becoming a more mature (and female) demographic.

Over the past four years, the number of people aged 45 and over who buy games for personal use has risen by more than 40 per cent, while the figure for women gamers is up by 67 per cent. Meanwhile, sales to men have increased by just 4 per cent.

The over 45s contributed an additional GBP 81 million to the market last year, while women purchased 15 per cent of all games bought for personal use.

Although 57 per cent of titles bought will be played by gamers aged under 20, only 22 per cent are purchased by people in that age bracket – with the remainder bought as gifts.

And grown-ups don't want their games, or any of their other entertainment content, restricted or made more difficult to get. That's the problem with just about any contemporary entertainment medium, whether it's the television, movies, or video games. They're accessible to too wide an audience to regulate effectively at the consumer level. Thanks to the internet, they're more accessible (you can now download newly released games directly to your computer if you have a fast enough internet connection, and that's not counting BitTorrent), and to a people across various demographics, from teenagers to gaming grandmas. It's hard, if not impossible, to regulate one group's access (kids) without somehow adversely affecting another group's access (adults).

I think most grown-ups, and I say this as a parent with a four-year-old at home who's old enough to notice what Daddy's doing on the computer, don't want to live in a "rated G world," where everything is "kid-friendly" by law. I like to think I'm a responsible parent. We regulate Parker's television time, and have managed to avoid violent programs (and commercial children's television). We started doing that around the time he started indicating that he was paying attention to what was happening on the television. Around the same time, I changed my gaming patters, saving anything violent or that might be "scary" for a toddler until after Parker went to bed. That is, if I had time to game at all during his waking hours.

I haven't written about gaming in a while, but it remains an interest of mine. There are long stretches of time when I don't play any computer games but the itch always returns, often in a moment when I don't have anything else demanding my attention or want a temporary escape from something that is demanding my attention. Or, when I'm taking a break from blogging, as I did over the holidays. Then I dive into various virtual worlds.

This time it was The Sims 2, The Movies, and World of Warcraft that kept me occupied. That's partly because I haven't played them in a while, and because two of them have expansion packs due out soon, which brought them back to mind. The Sims 2 will get Seasons in next month, and Warcraft will get The Burning Crusade this month. And, yes, I'll get both.

But I'm not playing just because the expansion packs are coming out soon. There really is, I think, some psychological benefit I experience. With The Sims 2, I get to kind of live out various things I don't in real life. Maybe I get to play out "what ifs" about how things might have been if I'd made different choices or had different circumstances. Or I get to play with the idea of a job or career I'd probably never actually have, or accomplish things that I wouldn't in real life.

In The Movies, the kid in me who wanted to grow up, go to Hollywood and be a movie star, gets to live out some aspect of that dream, even if the adult that I am today hasn't and probably never will. In Warcraft, and in similar games, I play a female warrior character who's way more aggressive than I am, and as powerful as I'd sometimes like to be.  And I think that's healthy inasmuch as it's an extension of an inner life, or a projection of an image of myself I'd like to hold on to, and maybe even incorporate into my real life in some ways.

But speaking of expansion packs, I'm reminded of an experience I had while shopping for an expansion pack for The Sims, and overheard a kid trying to convince his mom to buy the same one for him.

It was a few years ago. I was standing in the middle of Electronics Boutique, at a D.C. area mall, perusing the shelves and trying to decide what — if anything – to buy. At that time, Electronic Arts had just come out with a new expansion pack for The Sims, called Hot Date. The name was a hint at what the the expansion offered. The characters in the game, called Sims, now had the ability to "play in bed" (now a standard feature in the 3D sequel to the original game, Sims 2).

I’d bought the expansion pack and tried it out, but hadn’t thought much about it until I overheard a conversation between a mother and son who were standing nearby while I perused the shelves. The kid really wanted the expansion pack, and I figured he must already have the game. He lied somewhat unconvincingly, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he tried to convince her that there was nothing unobjectionable in the game. The mother was less than certain she should buy it for him, and was looking at the box trying to make heads or tails of it. The kid, meanwhile was rushing the mom along, hoping she’d buy it and just give up trying to screen the game before he played it.

I was torn. I wasn’t a parent at the time, but I felt pretty sure if I was I’d want to take the time to screen what computer games my kid played. At the same time I sympathized with the kid, who probably knew enough about sex that he didn’t need protection from a computer simulation of it (particularly one that takes place under the sheets with the non-existent "naughty bits" [pixeled out]. (Sims don’t have genitals, a fact revealed by a "nudity hack" that circulated among the online community of Sims enthusiasts.) I must have looked like I was listening to the conversation and knew the game they were talking about. The kid looked at me as if asking for help. I gave a look I intended to say "you’re on your own, kid." And left the store.

For the millionth time, it's called parenting, and it affects your kid's brain even more than computer games. It means paying attention to what your kid's reading or watching, and playing. Or at least to the degree possible. Don't send your kid into the store to buy a game. Go with them. Look at the box. Don't just hand your kid a credit card to buy a game online. Look at the site. Read the description. Maybe even download the game demo and play it yourself. You won't get all the content, but you'll see enough of it to get an idea of what it's like. And if nothing else, read the ratings on every game that comes into your house. If it's not downloaded, then the ratings are printed right on the box.

And if you upgrade to the newest version of Windows, it's going to be even easier, since Microsoft has included parental controls for games.

With Vista, parents for the first time have powerful, easy-to-use,
practically unhackable tools to control and monitor just about
everything their children do with the home computer, online and off.

Sure,
there have been third-party watchdog programs out there for years. But
they are often clunky, difficult to configure and simply by virtue of
being third-party programs can be easy for tech-savvy youngsters to get
around. With Vista, Microsoft has for the first time built a robust set
of parental controls directly into the operating system, not just for
gaming but also for Web browsing, file downloading and instant
messaging.

So let’s say you want to let your child play games
that have been rated T for Teen by the Entertainment Software Rating
Board (like, say, World of Warcraft), but not games that have been
rated M for Mature (like, say, F.E.A.R.). Just a few clicks.

Want
even finer control? Maybe you’re fine with fantasy violence but not
with simulated gambling. Vista lets you easily decide what your
children can play based on dozens of “content descriptors.” Now your
child can play The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth II
but not Stacked With Daniel Negreanu. (Similar settings for Web
browsing would block most poker sites.) As a parent you can also block
games altogether and also set hours of the day when the computer may
not be used at all.

It's not perfect, and will probably be hacked by some highly motivated kids (and patched by Microsoft afterwards), but it sounds like it will make it easier to do what parents are supposed to do anyway, and more effectively than any law any legislature can pass (or any court can overturn). 

None of the games own, for example are rated any higher than "T" for "Teen," due to mild violence and "suggestive themes." For example, in The Movies you can include scenes that would probably earn a PG-13 rating if they were in an actual movie. And, of course, your Sims can flirt, kiss, grope, make out, and "play in bed," which is the Sims euphemism for sex, and something they can also do in their hot tubs, cars, and photo booths. (In all cases, though, the action takes place under the sheets, under the water, behind the curtain or car door, and the genitals that the Sims don't actually have are pixeled out, unless you've downloaded the latest "nude patch" hack. It's out there, trust me.)

And the gay content is what you make it. In The Movies your same-sex actors will perform love scenes if you cast them opposite one another in a romance. (And "playing gay" doesn't seem to effect their box office drawing potential in the game.) I've made a few myself, and posted them online. Here's part one and part two of a series I did, as a kind of gay version of The Handmaid's Tale. (There may be a part three if I can rescue the game files, including the actor files, from my old computer.)

The Sims will form their sexual orientation based on which gender you have them interact with.
If you want a gay sim, have them socialize with same sex Sims, and eventually flirt there way up to making out, and all the way up to "playing in bed" and moving in together. Even your teenage Sims can get on the action, to a certain degree. They can't "play in bed" or do the other things that grown-up Sims do, but I just had a gay teen Sim (with two Dads, of course) experience his first kiss with another boy he brought home from school. Same-sex Sim couple can even exchange rings to solemnize their unions, and even adopt children. (I don't think they can actually get married, though. However, in their simulated world they don't have any fewer rights or protections than opposite sex (are Sims heterosexual?) Sim couples.

Of course, to know all that you have to play the game. Even if you're a parent. Especially if you're a parent. You've seen the commercials exhorting you to "be the TV boss"? Well, it's time to be the game boss, too.

5 Comments

  1. Have you read “Everything Bad is Good For You”? (ISBN: 1573223077). It’s not exclusive to video games, but makes the “pop culture is making us smarter” case pretty well.

  2. Terrance gaming is in your blood. Your dad was a gamer. Dad love to play pinball when he was a youngman. He said he was pretty good at it. Dad also love myster stroies. I think that’s why you, Gail,and I like CSI and Law and Order. It’s ju in the blood!

    Love
    Norris

  3. When I was growing up, the deal was that once I graduated from college, my parents would buy me an entire console gaming system, from televison to every game on the market. Until that time, however, we weren’t allowed any, and only a few educational video games made it onto our computers (Oregon Trail, by the way, had five 5 1/4″ floppies in 1987).

    When I finally graduated from college, Ma offered me the setup or the cash. I took the cash and went to Japan on my own for 16 days.

    When I was 24 and putting myself through graduate school, I purchased an XBox. I don’t play as much as some of my friends, but I’m definately a gamer now. I think my parents did the right thing in keeping me away from them when I was younger, because one of the things about ADHD is that you can go into hyperfocus and, oh, say, play Halo campaign mode for 16 hours straight (which I’ve done before on accident).

    I also have to plug Child’s Play, a charity I’ve been involved with for the last few years. It’s basically a bunch of gamers who get together every December and purchase toys for pediatric hospitals on four continents.

  4. I agree with you–except about the “Hot Coffee” scandal. Parenting and screening your kids’ games relies heavily on disclosures from the game companies, and on ratings; you can’t expect parents to buy and play through every part of every game before they let their kids buy them. Putting ‘secret’ content into a game goes absolutely against the idea that parents should make informed choices.

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