Jon Radoff’s recent defense of games, “Six Wonderful Things About Games” managed to raise my hackles. In this article, he rehashes a number of contrarian, Everything Bad Is Good For You type assertions (which book is indeed cited in the original post) regarding the theoretical benefits of games: they make people smarter, inspire curiosity, build creativity, aid in socialization, and can even end war. However, he makes the mistake of positing these benefits as present-day real benefits instead of potential benefits.
The basis of Radoff’s arguments are all things that games can do, fictive best-case scenarios where every gamer takes an interest in military history and experimental physics and creates based on their game experiences. It ignores the reality that the majority of gamers take a passive stance towards entertainment, using it merely as a pastime in the place of broadcast television. This premature switch from the subjunctive to indicative mood is more than intellectually dishonest – it draws attention away from questions that we necessarily need to ask of the videogame medium to help it advance and to have its inevitable place in peoples’ lives become meaningful.
For games to grow into a medium that is, on average, more than a primarily passive consumerist entertainment, we must avoid making disingenuous laudatory statements and administer a thorough and honest interrogation of what sort of behaviors games currently inspire, what we’d like them to inspire, and how we can bridge the inevitable gap between the reality of the first answer and the ideals of the second. Only then will we be able to take a focused look at how we can actually engineer games to live up to the potential of what they can inspire in their fanbase.
Below are brief point-by-point rebuttals:
#1: Games can make you smarter
Everyone learns through discovery and exploration, but discovery and exploration is bounded in games.
#2: Games can excite people for high-paying careers
Doesn’t, um, high pay excite people for high-paying careers? When is a high-paying career a Good in itself?
#3: Games Inspire Tangential Learning
Games inspire shallow tangential learning the same way non-interactive media inspire tangential learning, and I’d love to see numbers showing that games inspire a larger number of their consumer base. How many fans of the show Rome took a serious interest in Ancient History? Fans of Rome: Total war?
#4: Games can enhance creativity
How may couch potatoes make their own movies? How many gamers follow through produce meaningful mods? Game mods are also generally bounded by in-built and in-bred game mechanics and themes.
#5: Games can foster advanced social skills
Granted, leading a clan can foster advanced skills for dealing with teams/organizations. This is a limited band of the social spectrum and, again, not every gamer gets a leadership position in a guild/clan, nor does every gamer play games that facilitate that sort of organization.
#6: Games could help end war