Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Are They Really for Children? A Look Into the Notion of Games as Toys

The Today Show, the most popular morning news and talk show, featured a segment called “The Other Side: Getting a Guy’s Perspective on Love,” hosted by the 53-year-old talk show personality Donny Deutsch. While closing out the segment, Deutsch and his female colleagues received a question from one woman confused about male tendencies, asking “What’s up with men and video games? Do you think it’s OK for men to play video games in their 30s and over?” The concern immediately elicited laughter from the female hosts, with Deutsch adding a decisive “No, that’s weird.”

Most are familiar with the long-standing stigma of computer games as children’s playthings. Given the present state of the medium, however, this seems to fly in the face of reality and the opinions of many.

The gaming industry’s regulatory organization, The Entertainment Software Association, has conducted several studies that don’t lend much credence to this idea. According to the statistics they provide on their web page, not only does 72 percent of American households play video games regularly, the age of the average gamer is 37 years old, with 12 years of gaming experience. Additionally, they list the age of the most frequent video game purchaser as 41.

These numbers are reasonable given a quick look at the software itself and its hardware. Although a new Sony PlayStation 3 is now relatively affordable at $279.99, the cheaper model originally offered at launch was a staggering $499.99. Its software and that of its most direct competitor, Microsoft’s Xbox 360, are customarily priced at $59.99 upon release. While the Nintendo Wii and its software are considerably cheaper, those with easy access are logically still adults with disposable income. Younger gamers no doubt still enthusiastically save their allowances or small wages in anticipation of new hardware or software, but that alone could not account for the potential profitability of a release. Regardless of this information, the idea of gaming as a sign of immaturity, particularly male immaturity, lingers on.

This notion’s origins are a less dubious matter. The medium was popularized in the 1970s by arcades, a lucrative and ubiquitous business that has all but evaporated from the American consciousness. Although adults did frequent these establishments, children with free time and small amounts of money to spend in bursts were the primary targets. The advent of the home console made it more convenient to play on a regular basis, in addition to only spending a specific amount of money all at once. This moved most of the financial onus of gaming over to parents.

This period and the following decades also saw fundamental shifts in the entirety of the American social landscape. Author Kay Hymowitz, in her article “Where Have the Good Men Gone” for the Wall Street Journal, cites the increased importance in college education as a catalyst for several now-established norms. “Between 1960 and 2000, the percentage of younger adults enrolled in college or graduate school more than doubled,” states Hymowitz. “In the ‘knowledge economy,’ good jobs go to those with degrees. And degrees take years.” With tuitions in the tens of thousands, social and financial independence is delayed, as most students must continue to rely on their parents in order to pay for school. Hymowitz coins the term “pre-adulthood” for this newly established stage in maturity, which finds both men and women delaying marriage, committed career choices and finalized identities until their 30s.

The adulthood that, according to Hymowitz, imbued men with “fortitude, stoicism, courage, fidelity,” has been pushed out of the average male’s twenties, diminishing what she describes as the appealing parts of their masculinity.

The advent and mythos of pre-adulthood has surrounded and developed with video gaming for decades, the latter now synonymous with former. Pre-adult men in school or at the bottom of the workforce trying to work their way up are portrayed as immature, unable to effectively interact with the opposite sex, and are frequently prey for depictions of immature gamers.

This relationship to the pre-adult concept is also underscored by the medium’s maturity itself. In terms of age, computer gaming is still in its infancy compared to other art forms. When asked if she considered the medium an art form, local Northeastern student Michelle Gillard produced a “no,” reinforced with laughter. Despite hundred-person teams with hired writers and professional musicians working on multi-hour scores, many Americans still refute the idea of games providing intellectual stimulation. The evolution of the medium, spanning both simplistic games such as Space Invaders to narrative-heavy titles such as local Quincy studio Irrational Games’ BioShock, is denied by many.

In the opinion of David Cage, founder of Heavy Rain developer Quantic Dream, the maturity of the medium is also undermined by developers themselves. He bemoans what he sees as a lack of creativity amongst his peers in a report from, stating “what do you do in video games? You shoot. You kill…you do physical activities…the consequence of all this is that video games become, most of the time, meaningless.” The idea of gaming as a primarily male activity also hinders its image, although the ESA’s statistics also state that 42 percent of gamers are female. Tram Tran, a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, thinks it is fine for females to play computer games from time to time, “but an avid female video gamer is weird. Because most video games are targeted towards males anyway! [It] seems funny to me when a female knows so much about Call of Duty or Halo because I would expect it to come from a male.”

When asked about her opinion of video games as an art form, however, Tram replied: “Video games are an expression of artistic creativity. I don't know how much time goes into making the video games but I can imagine that it takes a lot of skill to design [them].

The questions of maturity, origin and, ultimately, merit make this a complex issue with no one explanation or solution. The medium, in addition to lacking artistic credit from large portions of the American populace, has been lumped into a larger discussion on social ills and the postponement of adulthood in the case of many modern youth. Titles such as BioShock, Mass Effect and critical darling Ico continue to challenge the idea of computer games as entertainment for children, looking for inspiration from its closest cousin, film, to tell intriguing stories and provide meaningful experiences. The stigma remains intact but will continue to come under attack from gamers and developers alike.  

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