Below is an essay I wrote on July 13, 2008 while at Emily Carr University, critiquing visiting lecturer, Ian Verchere’s discussion on the impact of video games on our lives.
Can We Survive Without Being Video Game “Literate”?
On the thirteenth of May, 2008 writer, visual artist, and creative producer Ian Verchere gave a talk to the “Interdisciplinary Forums” class at the Emily Carr University in Vancouver, British Columbia. His talk was spurred by the week’s class reading, a selection of Paul Gee’s book “What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy”. Gee points out that producers “potentially make better consumers” since they have a deeper understanding of the particular social practice, so it was fitting for Verchere to address the subject. He has a successful career producing games and is a faculty member at the new Centre for Digital Media Masters of Digital Media Program.
The week’s reading argues that video games, as a multimodal text that mixes words and images, constitute as a form of literacy. Gee argues that “in the modern world, print literacy is not enough. People need to be literate in a great variety of different semiotic domains” (19). He continues on to state that it is difficult to convince people who are unfamiliar with video games to believe they are a valid semiotic domain as these people simply think that games are a “waste of time” (19). Verchere continues this discussion by declaring “in order to survive, you have to learn new domains” and stating that knowledge of games is vital as they are “a form of communication”. His statement brought up the issue that humans must adapt to new technologies in order to excel in many environments, both working and social ones. I observed he discredited any opposition to this fact and in his short talk provided little evidence to concretely prove that we are all required to be literate in games in order to function in society at this moment. However, he does allude to the possibility that games will be more involved in our everyday lives in the future.
In noting how much games’ appeal and form has changed in the past two decades, Verchere points out how games are no longer associated with a select group of young male adolescents as when games first became mainstream in the 80s. The major demographic for video game users has changed considerably to an almost equal gender ratio and the current average age of 34, with ages ranging from small kids to adults according to recent studies (“2010 Essential Facts”). Even the elderly, a once near dormant market, are starting to warm to it with Seniors Homes across North America quickly adopting “Wii Game” nights (Wischnowsky). Perhaps this is due to our changing attitudes about the benefits of games and the fact that games themselves have evolved from their primitive earlier forms.
Initially, the majority of games were quite simple. One of the most popular fore-runners consisted of a black and white pixilated ping pong game where the objective was to keep the ball from hitting the player’s side of the wall. The player would either play against another player or the system’s artificial intelligence. Other commercially successful games were developed such as “Pac-Man”, a limited colour console game in which the player moved a circle around a screen to eat dots and avoid ghost-like characters, and later “Super Mario Bros.”, a game in which the player moved a human-like character sideways across a landscape to collect points and to kill enemy characters to reach the end of the game. With each year, games were progressively advancing in content, visual quality and interactivity. However, since these were some of the only widely known games, the publics’ prevalent association was that games were only an easy and thoughtless way to pass the time.
Verchere had an unfortunate awakening to this reality in 1992, when he failed to market a Mario game existing outside of the bubble. His game “Mario’s Time Machine” featured the popular Mario character who taught the player history facts as the game progressed. He argued that his game was panned by critics due to the fact that people could not accept games as being educational. Not only were they not considered a valid learning environment, but as Verchere points out, they were portrayed by the media “as enablers of ‘The New Sedentary Child’” and as a major cause for obesity. Verchere stated that this is just a scapegoat attitude and games could be a possible solution.
This attitude of mistrust was exemplified in the case that Verchere pointed out where an American gym teacher brought a “Dance Dance Revolution” game into his gym class. This game features a gamepad in which the user jumps on in various sequences, depending on the music tempo and the instructions on the screen. The result in this gym class was that those who were not good at sports and out of shape lost weight and enjoyed the process of being active. However, as soon as the superintendent found out, he banned the game use in the gym along with a letter that stated it was “an idea whose time will never come” (Verchere). His prediction came out to be incorrect, as the game “Dance Dance Revolution” is being now more readily utilized and accepted for use in physical education programs in schools across the United States (Schiesel).
Comparing the current state of video games to the art form of cinema, Verchere stated that games are where cinema was in the 20s. The art of the moving picture had emerged, largely influenced by the Russian filmmaker Eisenstein’s discovery of the power of juxtaposing images, and it became a new form of visual literacy that was impossible to communicate in theatre or still photography (Verchere). In this, I share his optimistic vision. Now that video games are a multi-billion dollar industry and can allow the hiring of highly educated and trained employees, the realm of possibility for artistic expression has expanded considerably. No longer are players bound to play games with simple pixilated 2D environments and mechanical sounds by sitting down and pushing buttons on a joystick. They are now able to interact in lush detailed 3D visual and sound environments with advanced controllers, playing alongside friends next to them or at the other side of the world through the internet.
To conclude his talk, Verchere goes off into a tangent about the current marketing tactics used by game companies to garner cash from the game consumers. Although interesting to me as this may be the career path I will be entering into as a 3D animation artist and someone who has played computer and video games since her early childhood, it veers from the original topic and left little time for questions from the lecture attendees. I got the impression that those who were not interested in playing games themselves were neither convinced by his implication that they needed to, nor trusted the medium. In the following seminar class discussion, topics that were brought up included the adverse addictive quality of games and their possible ability to altar the way humans think in a negative way. The seminar leader Phil Smith alluded to a study by scientists that pointed our neurons are being changed the more we use digital devices such as computers, as found in the article “Does Google Make us Stupid?” (Carr). However, upon reading the aforementioned article which stated scientists have found that “even the adult mind ‘is very plastic.’ Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones.”, it contained no factual information that this new media is harmful for the brain besides Carr’s insistence that we now have a short attention span, unlike people of the past.
Both sides of the argument; one that we need to be familiar with video games to survive, the other that video games are harmful, have little grounding evidence. This is due to the fact that video games have been around for such a relative short amount of time and nothing can be yet be conclusive. One thing is for certain, video games are developing at a rapid pace and being used by a growing percentage of the population. We may not all have to be familiar with them to live, but it will be increasingly difficult to avoid and ignore them altogether in our daily lives.
“2010 Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry.” 3 August 2010. Entertainment Software Association (ESA), theesa.com. <http://www.theesa.com/facts/pdfs/ESA_Essential_Facts_2010.PDF >.
Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” July 2008. Atlantic Monthly. <http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google>.
Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Schiesel, Seth. “P.E. Classes Turn to Video Game That Works Legs.” 30 April 2007. The New York Times Company. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/30/health/30exer.html?_r=2&ref=health&oref=slogin&oref=slogin>.
Verchere, Ian. “Video Games as a Semiotic Domain. Seriously.” Lecture. Art History 333: Interdisciplinary Forums. Emily Carr University of Art and Design. Vancouver. 13 May 2008.
Wischnowsky, Dave. “Wii bowling knocks over retirement home.” 18 February 2007. Chicagotribune.com. <http://ezinearticles.com/?Video-Game-Demographics&id=352934>.
Tags: Dance Dance Revolution, Eisenstein, Pac Man, Paul Gee, video games