Is It 'Just a Game'? What Parents Should Know About Video Games

Eugene Provenzo Jr. is a professor of education at the University of Miami and the author of the groundbreaking 1991 book Video Kids: Making Sense of Nintendo (Harvard) and the forthcoming Children and Hyperreality: The Loss of the Real in Contemporary Childhood and Adolescence.

His work has appeared in numerous professional and popular journals, and in the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre, he provided testimony to Congress on the links between violence and video games.

He spoke with Register correspondent Francis X. Maier about simulated reality and its effect on culture.

In Video Kids you wrote, “Video games provide important insights into the values we hold as a culture.” What is different about today's computer and video games, compared with 12 years ago?

The technology's much more developed. Today's games run on massively powerful graphic systems that are essentially reality simulators. Rather than looking in at a game from above and outside, today we're actually part of the program. We participate in it. That means a much more intense, interactive, realistic game environment where we almost live inside the box or on the screen rather than in the real world.

I think that's part of a shift throughout the culture toward substituting the simulacra, the simulation, for the real. We take saccharine instead of sugar. We have cyber-sex instead of real sex. Instead of visiting St. Mark's Square in Venice, we visit the Disney World interpretation of it in Florida.

In a sense, we live less and less with real people and real things, and our technologies, including our games, serve as a kind of insulation.

How big a problem has that become during the past decade — the confusion of the real and unreal?

One of the curious things about contemporary Internet use is that people rarely need to step out into their neighborhoods anymore. More and more of daily life is being mediated by our tools, but reality is reality — it's direct.

When we put our experiences through machines, we filter them, and we get a skewed view. We see things in a way that's obscured by the simulacra we've created.

Why would we want that — because it's safer than the messiness of real life?

Sure; we think it's simpler, cleaner and safer. But of course, some serious deceptions creep into that approach, because simulated reality allows us to experiment with things we really shouldn't be toying with. We've created very realistic games where it's acceptable to go out and murder people. And that can encourage a taste for other forbidden fruit. The average person would probably never engage in a violent sexual act. But he or she might try it in a simulation, just to see what it feels like.

For example, in the video game Grand Theft Auto 3: Vice City, the player drives into town, picks up a prostitute, throws her in the back of the car, has sex with her, then beats her up and steals her money. I find that objectionable, and it's very dangerous behavior even in a “game.”

I also don't know many women in the real world who look or act like video game females — the stereotyping is pretty extreme.

That goes back to my point about simulation filtering reality. A character like Lara Croft in the game Tomb Raider is a hyperinflation, a distortion, of the female form. Her body and her sexuality are completely unreal.

By the way, not all violence is bad. I don't have a problem with the violence in films like Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down. That kind of violence strikes me as profoundly moral because we get a sense of real people suffering the real consequences of violence. But in a movie like Natural Born Killers and in a lot of violent video games, we're seeing a hyper-reality, a hyper-violence that distorts the pain and tragedy that always come with violence.

What effect do video games have on children's social and learning skills?

Well ironically, from the research I've seen, video games can enhance social development when they involve players interacting with other players. That's the direction games should be taking, especially online games, instead of games where kids play against the computer alone, in isolation.

Video games can actually extend social discourse and logical skills, so I'm not opposed to them in principle. I just think we've got a lot of bad ones. The problem with “first person shooters,” aside from their violence, is that they all have basically the same content — shoot the bad guys or the monsters.

What do you think of massively multi-player, online role-playing games — those persistent alternate realities like Lineage, Ultima Online or EverQuest, where if you log off the game, the fantasy world continues without you?

When they're running really well, like EverQuest, they can be remarkable. Who wouldn't want to live in an alternate universe and avoid the messy one we're in right now?

We have the real possibility in the next couple of decades —- and by the way, I'm looking forward to this when I'm 80 years old and my eyesight and hearing are gone — of living in a very nice simulation, going out to a simulated dinner in a beautiful simulated restaurant with my wife.

What's your advice to parents in guiding their kids about video games?

Most parents wouldn't dream of handing their kids the money to buy a copy of Hustler. But they'll do that with a video game and say, “Well, it's just a game.” It's not just a game. Every video game is a cultural artifact that has specific lessons built into it, and it's also intended to serve a very specific audience level.

As much as possible, parents need to be involved in the purchase and the playing of these games with their kids. That doesn't mean they have to be present every time their children want to play. But they do need to review each game with their kids and talk to them about the values the game represents. They need to be exactly aware of what their kids are buying — and most parents aren't.

Francis X. Maier is chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver and special assistant to Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. He served as editor of the Register from 1977-1993.

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