When I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed, there’s something about zoning out into Mario Kart’s easy-to-play-hard-to-master, three-button gameplay that relaxes me. It’s not that I’m imagining my coworkers exploding from a blue shell or pretending that a cheating ex is knocked off the Rainbow Road into the empty loneliness of space. For me, the physical act of pressing three buttons on a controller (or handheld, because it’s a new era!) and watching Baby Luigi soar through anti-gravity puts me at ease.
The Devil Is In The Details
At a time when there’s increased scrutiny and negative opinions about video games, in America, we should remind ourselves that there are also benefits to digitally turning off the stresses of the day and that while the medium may have ‘questionable’ material, the industry as a whole should not be punished.
While Mario Kart’s effects on me might be anecdotal, there is tangible evidence to be found in science. In 2009, scientists at East Carolina University took up the challenge of measuring a player’s electroencephalography (basically brain wave) changes while playing casual video games. In their study, 134 participants played a combination of Bookworm Adventures, Bejeweled II, and Peggle as the scientists studied their mental behaviour. Not surprisingly, “the results of this study clearly demonstrate the intrinsic value of certain casual games in terms of significant, positive effects on the moods and anxiety levels of people suffering from any level of depression.”
While these games are tonally far from the cavalcade of gore that the President saw in the now infamous video about violence in video games, his talk about video games has been all-encompassing of the medium. He said: “I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence in video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.” Full stop. He doesn’t qualify which video games he’s alluding to but refers to the industry as a whole.
While these talks continue and the US grapples with how to approach an increasing amount of violence in communities, it’s important to remember that video games are a medium and, just like any other medium, contain content that is mature and sensitive. To speak about the industry as a whole discounts the positives and I worry, if talks continue to be so non-specific, it could eventually hurt the growth of the industry. No one wants that.
This fear isn’t unfounded though. With almost poetic symmetry, comic books encountered a similar scare in the mid-50s. At the height of comics like The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt, the US Senate began looking into how the content of these books affected their audience. What arose was the Comic Code Authority (think the ESRB for video games). They released a set of guidelines that a comic must follow in order to have their approval, among them rules like “no comic shall use the word ‘horror’” and “scenes dealing with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.”
They weren’t tactful with their rules, but instead targeted broad categories of violence and supernatural with an almost careless approach. In fact, the rule was so broad that the CCA discussed whether it was okay for an author with the last name “Wolfman” to be mentioned within the pages of the book. Yes, really.
Imagine if similar broad rules were put in place today in the video game industry. GTA would be the first to be banned, Activision’s biggest title could be Skylanders, and even Lego Harry Potter would cease to exist.
Ok, while this is a hyperbolic picture of the future, it’s a warning that if discussion about video games becomes more about the fear of the medium itself, the industry may face more victims than just the ultra-violent games. It’s always important to stress the positives and remember the benefits, on the other hand, we need to shine a light on questionable content while discussing censorship. So, we need balance, common sense and specificity.