Confessions of a videogame junkie


'Videogames' by Chris JohnstonSo this is Christmas. Another year has passed and again Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft are doing battle for our precious dollars in the mighty entertainment behemoth that is the videogame industry. You too can strap on a plastic guitar to be a rock star in Guitar Hero, become an interplanetary hero blasting away an alien horde in Halo 3, or ply your trade as an up-and-coming thug in Grand Theft Auto 4.

Now more than ever, as the realities of our changing economy hit home, the digital lives we create in videogames seem far more appealing.

Last week, I almost caved in. I found myself wriggling through a Christmas rush at a local shopping centre, rationalising the potential purchase of a new Playstation 3.

Yes, I admit: I was once a videogame addict. In the 1980s I spent untold hours in front of the television playing Last Ninja 2 on my Commodore 64. Ten years later I upgraded to a PC, and to fighting the beasties of Duke Nukem 3D and Diablo as I chugged down too many coffees, Mars bars and packets of salt and vinegar chips.

Later, I progressed to a console and played Wipeout and Tekken 3 endlessly on the first evolution of the Playstation. Even now, running five nights a week, I blame my portly body on my former addiction to these digital gaming pleasures.

A new Playstation 3 costs almost $700. This is a considerable chunk of cash. If you factor in other expenses like games (around $100 a pop), extra controllers, hard disks, broadband access and online gaming fees, then time spent hacking and slashing a few digital cronies can prove very costly indeed.

It makes you wonder how much it's really worth to play virtual tennis when you can walk to the local park to kick around a footy for free.

Such pricy gaming technology tends to be a very exclusive form of entertainment. Only those with enough cash can afford to experience the eye-popping visual candy of a next generation gaming machine.

The consumerist nature of videogames requires a reality check. Cheaper forms of multimedia technology, for example, can be used in positive and interactive ways that don't cost the earth. They also have the potential to enrich our lives far beyond the immediate thrills of gaming for entertainment.

As researchers at the Inspire Foundation and ORYGEN Youth Health have found, the internet, access to broadband and the use of mobile technology provides great opportunity for the improvement of the mental health of young people experiencing social, economic and cultural marginalisation.

The relatively low cost of the internet has been important for newly arrived and migrant young people as a means of staying in touch with family and friends they have left behind in their homeland.

The Youth Research Centre's Young People, Wellbeing and Communication Technologies report, commissioned by VicHealth, identifies 'digital storytelling' as an overlooked way of using multimedia technology to include, engage and strengthen young people.

Combining digital and face to face interaction, it uses increasingly affordable technology, such as digital video cameras, to produce micro budget films that create spaces for new voices. In this sense, young people have the chance to harness the power of digital technology for their own political, social and creative agendas.

Videogames aren't evil. They're fun, creative and part of the cultural landscape of our times. They create artistic and employment opportunities and provide new avenues for storytelling and creative expression.

In 2007, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image showcased a selection of winners and nominees from the Sundance festival for independent games, a refreshing taste of DIY gaming culture working innovatively with conventional genres and formats.

Sometimes videogames are even a safer way to exercise — you don't need to head out on the streets after dark to get fit with a Nintendo Wii.

Interactivity, and the combination of media formats like film, animation, sound and music, have always been videogames' strength. This mode of interaction and communication can be applied in non-commercial and socially constructive ways for marginalised, disadvantaged and other 'fringe' communities, such as engaging with youth in migrant and refugee communities where communication that is visual, oral and aural is preferred.

When Christmas rolls around, however, and we are tempted to splurge on a sleek and shiny videogame console, our money might be better spent elsewhere. For the cost of a Playstation 3 we could buy a cheap digital camera, pay for broadband access and then shoot and upload our own stories instead of living through the costly pop and fizz of commercial gaming products.

That way the worlds we create and inhabit in virtual spaces could be intimately bound with the world we live in on a day-to-day basis, and multimedia technology can continue to address real social issues and problems, not just the entertainment needs of a select few.

And if the gaming bug does bite, there are plenty of free games available online. Not to mention Galaga on the arcade machines at the local pub — for about a dollar a session. That's what I call a cost effective digital fix.

Ben O'MaraDr Ben O'Mara is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Community, Ethnicity and Policy Alternatives (Victoria University). His work explores the use and application of information communication technology in the promotion of culturally sensitive messages of health and community wellbeing.

Topic tags: ben o'mara, videogames, commodore 64, duke nukem 3d, playstation 3, nintendo wii, halo 3, guitar hero, grand


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Existing comments

It's interesting that the most popular video games are now the most interactive ones - ie. the karaoke or guitar games, and even the online multiplayer games. Where once video games tended to encourage people to be solitary and isolated, now they are facilitating social interaction. The consoles have moved from the teenager's bedroom to the living room.
Joseph Vine | 15 December 2008

The best Dr O'Mara can come up with for the unoccupied youth is state sponsored storytelling. Perhaps Rupert Murdoch's Boyer lectures might be a good starting point for Dr O'Mara's own personal development as a lead in to generating policy suggestions that would help Australia's real development!
peritech | 20 December 2008