Monday, September 2, 2013

The Worst and Most-Profound Thing in Gaming

Obviously, he's for the Horde
Scrolling through my Twitter feed the other day, I happened upon a tweet from Mr. Adam Holisky (@AdamHolisky), managing editor of WoW Insider. He was taking questions for the website's "The Queue" feature, a daily Q&A column. Having just enjoyed a conversation with a friend about the history of video gaming, I thought it would be great to take the conversation to the WoW collective.

I asked:

"What's the worst moment in video game history? Or, the most profound?"

My friend and I were talking about the near-perfection that is Final Fantasy VII. We mused about how Nintendo hilariously and tragically blew their licensing contract with Squaresoft, and how ironic it was that the game was released on the Sony Playstation, the system that was to be the Super Nintendo CD. We wondered if Square-Enix will ever get it's head on straight and re-release the game with updated visuals and music and how readily we would take it all in all over again. He laughed about our freshman year at college, when he "accidentally" deleted my FFVII save point as we raced to see who could beat the game first. I described the memory as "one of my low points" in gaming. I jokingly threatened him with shower-room violence at one point, even. He didn't think that was very funny.

It was that conversation that sparked the question I asked Adam. I thought it was a good one, and so did he.

Holisky dropped the question into his article a few days ago. His answers, along with the 327 or so in the comments section, reference events that impacted the video game industry as a whole or that were far more intimate, involving a player's personal experience and perception of grander. The read is entertaining and thought-provoking, and got me thinking about what my own opinion and answer would be.

Is it Nintendo's poor decision to axe Sony's development of the Super Nintendo CD? That decision did eventually lead to the release and rise of the Sony Playstation, Microsoft's entrance into the console market with the Xbox, Sega's departure, redefined gaming's landscape, breadth and scope and a total restructuring of the industry's use of memory and general hardware. To say Nintendo's decision was "monumentally-awful" is an understatement.

Squaresoft's decision to jump ship in the wake of Nintendo's blunder is pretty impactful, too. It sent a clear message to console makers, defining a developer's role and driving power in the marketplace. It also gave the proverbial finger to Nintendo and their (other awful) decision to stick with game cartridges when optical drives were becoming the medium of choice for software manufacturers.

And what about Final Fantasy VII, all by itself? It was the first title to use full-motion computer-generated cut-scenes embedded within the gameplay and thus completely changed the way games are made and played. And the story, characters, and the score - oh man, they were damn near perfect.

Squaresoft's masterpiece, Final Fantasy VII
A number of other items or events came to mind, too. The Super Nintendo's controller, in some way, inspired the design of almost every video game controller to follow. The Internet and hardware progress brought high-quality graphics and co-op play home, essentially killing the arcade scene. Super Mario 64 and Tomb Raider introduced us to epic 3D console gaming. Ultima, EverQuest and Warcraft gave millions upon millions a home within a home.

Needless to say, I was highly uncommitted to an opinion, if not a little confused. So, as I so often do when I have a problem to solve, I turned to my friend alcohol to help me relax and think. I popped open a vanilla belgian stout and got to thinking about it. And man, did it take me back.

I began playing video games as a toddler in the early 1980s. My cousin had an Atari 2600 that I played so hard, I swear I dreamed in poorly-processed 8-bit graphics for the years that followed. That Christmas, I tore open a shiny new Nintendo Entertainment System - a gift from my parents, complete with R.O.B. and the Zapper light gun. Many games followed: Duck Hunt, Excitebike, Kung-Fu, Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Contra, Ikari Warriors, etc. I slayed dragons, saved princesses, the world, and more impressive still, knocked out Mike Tyson on my 7th birthday. My cousin with the Atari was there, and he was super jealous.

I was a gamer in the purest sense, and if you stuck around outside my living room window long enough, you would indeed hear me roar.

As I grew out of the NES and on to other platforms throughout my formative years, the cycle continued. New systems. New games. More money. More time. Naturally, my parents became increasingly bombarded with the "don'ts" from concerned family, friends and even my pediatrician and the American Medical Association. These comments included things like "don't let him just sit there, he'll get fat!" and "don't give him that much T.V. time, it'll rot his brains!" And of course, there was the always-awful "don't let him play video games, because he'll kick the dog, punch the pregnant lady in the ovaries, rob the adult video store, steal grandma's pearls, start fights at school and put a horse's head in your bed!"

Scorpion's Fatality, Mortal Kombat
Okay, not that last one, but there was worry that, as a gamer, I would devolve into an unsocialized, inattentive, and violent member of society. And not just me, but everyone who played video games and were exposed to things like Mortal Kombat's fatalities, Counter-Strike's "headshots" and pretty much everything in any Grand Theft Auto game every made. The thinking being that the instant gratification and feedback reinforcement presented in video games results in a negative impact on attention span and increased impulsivity, and where viewing and engaging fantasy violence increases ones incidence of violent behavior.

That perspective, quite simply, is not accurate. That's not how the human psyche works. Our brains are far more complex than what simplistic theories give us credit for - they completely ignore all other variables that impact behavior. These include upbringing, personality, culture, socio-economic status, baseline mood, history, etc. And in thinking about this inaccuracy, it hit me: THAT is the worst thing to have happened in video game history. And by "thing," I mean any and every moment when a gamer is demonized - when video games are cited when attempting to explain an individual's awful, illegal and even homicidal behavior.

This happened with every major media-covered massacre within the last 20 years, including Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary, the theater in Aurora, Colorado, and last year's mass shooting in Norway. While investigating the latter, specific attention was given the murder's gaming habits: he played Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 "for practice" and World of Warcraft for 16 hours a day.

From a psychological perspective, this avenue is ridiculous. All the talk of impulsivity and violence among the gaming populace is based on conjecture and anecdotal evidence. Put another way, there is no scientific evidence that supports the hypothesis that video games have a direct, positive correlation with real-world violent behavior. A professional in the field recently stated as much, as do many who reacted to the investigation in Norway. Simply stated, there is no definitive link between video games and real-life violence. Period. Shower-room threats, maybe. Actual, physical, real-world violence? No.

And people are starting to get that.

Looks like that kid up top went to medical school - well played
As gaming and "gamers" proliferate through mediums such as iPhones and mobile Android devices (which could themselves be on a "most profound" list), a greater understanding of gaming culture has emerged. Players who play Call of Duty do not aspire to rampage. Farmville players still buy their carrots at their local supermarket. And instead of focusing on the potentially negative impact exposure to fantasy violence may bring, researchers are keying in on the benefits video gaming can produce. For example, recent research tied surgeon skills to their gaming habits, stating that the "best surgeons play video games," operating more quickly and with fewer errors than their non-gaming counterparts. Other research presents the connection between video gaming and increased critical-thinking skills, creativity, and collaboration. Even Forbes has got in on the action, discussing video gaming and intellect.

And this change of perspective - this wonderful realization that video gaming has so much more to offer and in stark contrast to the demonization it has fallen victim to over the years - is quite possibly the most-profound thing that has happened to the industry. Personally, I always knew it counted for something, and my parents must have, too. As a gamer that experienced success, my confidence and self-esteem was boosted along with my critical thinking and creativity. I came home with many friends, a solid GPA and a clean record - I have always given gaming credit. It's nice to see that science agrees.

I, for one, have never been more proud to put my gamer tag on display. I hope the same for you.

Game on, friends.