There are two worlds within gaming: that which is viewed through the lens of a gamer, and that which things appear to be from the outside. As gamers we rarely give much thought to this other perspective, yet can we really be surprised when our hobby is grossly misrepresented in the media? Last week I wrote an article on the subject of violence in games, so today I'd like to talk to you all about some of the other misconceptions surrounding the uninitiated, and what we can do to combat them.
The first main misconception is who plays games. There is an overwhelming bias out there that video games are for children; this is partly Nintendo of the 1980's fault, as they intentionally marketed the NES as a toy to avoid the commercial stigma against computer games at the time. And while kids are no longer the primary audience for the vast majority of developers (we actually kind of suck at handling that demographic,) unfortunately the mindset has stuck. At the same time, however, that market of boys grew up, so now we also have the mindset that video games are something only young men play. Existing simultaneously, these two perceptions produce a weird disconnect. "Games are for children, but don't let yours play them because none of them contain age-appropriate content!" "All gamers are 20 somethings who are immature because they play with things meant for children." In fact, I argue that today's prevalence of the idea of the Man-Child is a direct effect of this attitude.
There are a lot of people who would never consider the idea of playing a game; it is a notion far more common and expected when compared to someone who objects entirely to watching television, spending time online, or even reading. For instance, my own mother lists Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead as her favorite television shows. By all means she has the genre interests of a gamer, yet whenever I bring up the subject she immediately shoots it down. She simply cannot picture an individual of her peer group playing video games. And it saddens me whenever I hear someone say "it's a waste of time," or that the medium as a whole is "not for me."
As annoying as apathy is though, nothing irks me quite like the belief that games are something harmful. If it isn't violence, it's addiction. While problem gaming does exist, I would say it is nowhere near as common or as serious as some make it out to be. It's not a chemical addiction, but rather an issue of impulse control, which could manifest through so many different behaviors that probably isn't worth singling out games. Problem gaming is a symptom, not a cause.
Often I see talk of hard limits on "screen time," as if pixels are somehow a toxin which one attempts to limit their exposure to. Personally, I find the it's-time-not-spent-doing-physical-activity argument to be very weak, because while it is important to devote a little bit of time each day to exercise, all you really need is about an hour each day. Yet I see these limits being placed as low as one or two hours a day (that's not even enough time to watch a single film, how do you even?!) As a kid I naturally would pick one or two activities for the day, and then engage myself for hours balancing my interests out over a longer period of time, so to me this concept of "Start doing one thing, but then have to stop and start something else, and never have enough time to get into it," is utter horse crap. I believe if you have fulfilled your obligations for the day, whether they be physical, academic, or economic, then you are entitled to spend your own time as you see fit.
And yet it is actually not so hard to consider the lens of the uninitiated. When we look at someone playing a game, we see the world they are inhabiting and the experience they are engaging with. But the outsider does not look at the game; they see only the face of the player, sitting in front of a screen for an extended period of time. They do not make that connection between the player's face and their spirit. In their eyes, the game is no more than a set of flickering lights and beeps.
Which brings me to the last main misconceptions about games. Are games art? Many will dismiss this claim, based on the first misconception that games are little more than toys. They saw the flashing pixels in the 70's and 80's, of Pong and Pac Man, and haven't bothered to look since. They are simply unaware of the depth and beauty that can exist in the medium today. Of course it is no surprise when one pictures the "sound bite" clips of guns and blank faced teens from the media's reserve of stock footage, the word "art" does not exactly come to mind. Even among gamers, it is a messy question, as "art" is hard to define, and the definition of "game" itself carries implications that are rather difficult to mesh with such ideas. Instead, we should be asking different questions. Are games Significant? Do they have Value? If we can say yes to these, then that should be enough.
So what can we do about misconceptions? The answer is education. Explaining things in detail as I have done above is a start, but while it's possible to convert a non-gamer with words alone, it is exceedingly rare: as the saying goes, "seeing is believing." Unfortunately, simply seeing is usually not enough when it comes to games. Imagine you are trying to describe the depth of film to someone who has never seen a movie. You try and convey its experience in words alone, but ultimately fail because only the art of cinematography can capture its essence. Explaining games comes with a similar problem; often we try showing them footage of a game, or having the watch alongside us as we play. This is the wrong approach. To truly communicate a game to someone, you have to put the controller in their hands.
So tell me what you think. Do you have any experiences with misconceptions? Do you know anyone who might enjoy games if they gave the medium a chance? Will we one day be rid of these misunderstandings? I'd love to know!