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Computer games: Facts and fiction

CNET News.com's John Borland says the chorus of moralistic clucking about the dangers of gaming threatens to drown out a balanced consideration of the social phenomenon.

Nearly 5,000 people, most of them young men or teenaged males, spent last weekend in Dallas killing one another in the bloodiest fashion possible.

Aside from the occasional caffeine overdose, however, every one of the participants walked away without a scratch. A few even returned home with tens of thousands of dollars in prize money.

The event was QuakeCon, an annual gathering of computer gamers sponsored by id Software, the company behind "Doom," "Quake" and "Return to Castle Wolfenstein." And it also offered a fine example of why so much of the current fuss over video-game violence is just as wrongheaded as it was two decades back, when former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop began complaining about "Space Invaders" and "Missile Command."

The trouble is that computer and video-game critics have never paid enough attention to gamers themselves, the people who are supposedly sitting glassy-eyed in front of their screens, soaking up harmful lessons taught by irresponsible, profit-hungry game companies. In an increasingly censorious legislative environment, where many lawmakers want to ban or restrict sales of violent games, this lack of understanding is worth pointing out.

What critics consistently miss is that gaming is very much a social and community activity. This is true every time two fifth-graders rush home from school to play "Zelda" together. But on a broader scale, gaming's socializing effects are even more evident at an event like QuakeCon or at any of the hundreds of smaller LAN (local area network) parties that spring up in suburban garages and rented hotel rooms around the world every weekend.

Gamers there play in teams, learning how to work together just as tightly as any football squad might. Many of the kids who play "Counter-Strike" or other shooting games into the wee hours of the morning wouldn't ever be voted "most popular" at any high school--but in these circles, they've found kindred spirits and a support network that might actually keep them from reacting more aggressively to the outside world.

Ask Dennis "Thresh" Fong, who for years was the best player in the world of "Doom" and "Quake," some of the most violent games of his time. "I've been to so many LANs, so many tournaments, and I've never seen a fight," he told me. "I've spent time with the hardest of the hard-core gamers there are, and I've never seen any signs of violence."

Some research says violent games make kids act more aggressively. The findings are worth taking seriously, but they also must be looked at with a critical eye. The results seem to make simple common sense, having little to do intrinsically with gaming itself.

The trouble is that computer- and video-game critics have never paid enough attention to gamers.
One oft-cited study, for example, had college students play either "Myst," a meditative, slow-paced game of puzzle-solving and exploration, or "Wolfenstein 3D," a fast-paced shooting game in which the player has to think and shoot quickly in order to stay alive. The Wolfenstein players proved to be somewhat more aggressive afterward, the researchers found.

But that's what adrenaline does, regardless of the medium. Try the same test on me after spending 15 minutes writing haiku in a Zen rock garden, and then again after another quarter-hour writing a news story on deadline with an editor standing over my shoulder. No doubt my adrenaline would be off the researchers' charts. How that short-term spike translates into the rest of a person's life depends on the socializing effects of everyday influences such as parents and peer groups--including other gamers.

I'm not an uncritical defender of violent content in games. I agree that it can contribute to a "coarsening of the culture," as says National Institute on Media and the Family founder David Walsh, a sensible voice among critics. I also worry that these and any other addictively fun games persuade kids to spend fewer hours on more thoughtful forms of entertainment such as reading, the same way football and baseball can.

Critics take games too literally. They watch violence on the screen, and they equate it to real violence.
But it's important to understand how gamers are actually experiencing this medium. Critics take games too literally. They watch violence on the screen, and they equate it to real violence. In real life, gamers are pretty good at telling the difference between digital avatars and their classmates, and act accordingly.

What I'd love policy-makers and game critics to do is spend a few days with gamers at an event like QuakeCon and pay attention to the kinds of strong community bonds that develop as a result of team play and ordinary human interaction. What I'd like critics to do is stop shooting their mouths off first and asking questions later, if ever.