'Depraved' videogames get serious

Taking over from where rock music, movies and gangsta rap left off, video games have become the new poster child for moral decay in today's society.

In the last few weeks alone, the media has labelled games as 'murder simulators', linked them to depression and addiction, held them accountable for childhood obesity and quoted Australian politicians who believe games do little more than deliver 'depraved sex and extreme violence' to minors.

To be fair, not all games are about plumbers and princesses and I admit to having an issue with the level of content found in a number of games currently on the market. But what grieves me about these headlines is the way in which they ignore a whole other aspect of games.

Look beyond the sensationalism and stereotyping, and the world of gaming that I inhabit includes altruism and philanthropy. It's a place where individuals and companies are, to use a gaming term, 'collecting hearts' and changing lives.

One particular arena where games are making this impact is in physical and psychological rehabilitation and therapy.

'Wii-hab' (the use of the Wii console in rehabilitation) has seen success in stroke therapy, increasing coordination, has improved the quality of life of residents in nursing homes, and also produced 'striking results' with people suffering from Parkinson's Disease. In an eight-week study conducted by the Medical College of Georgia in the US, significant improvements in movement, fine motor skills and energy levels were experienced by all participants, and there was a decrease in their levels of depression.

Equally, 'old school' games such as Space Invaders have been repurposed to aid adolescents with anger issues. Last month, researchers at the Children's Hospital Boston incorporated the use of a heart monitor to increase difficulty in controlling the game as the patient's heart rate increases. Players are encouraged to manage their heart rate and calm themselves down, preparing them for dealing with stressful situations in real life.

Elsewhere, games such as Earthquake in Zipland have been developed to help children of divorce work through issues, controllers have been adapted to allow the physically disabled to engage in stimulated play, and MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) and virtual worlds, such as Brigadoon Island in SecondLife, have provided spaces for people suffering from Asperger's Syndrome and autism to find encouragement and understanding.

Being the father of three-year-old triplets, two of whom are autistic, the use of gaming technology to reach into their 'private' world offers yet another avenue of hope.

Then there are 'serious games' that extend into the area of pre-awareness and social education. Designed to make a difference in the lives and minds of its players, serious games have been developed to educate about work safety practices and the complexities of humanitarian aid, explore the negative effects of terrorism and counter-terrorism, and, with Australian web based game Reach Out Central, provide practical information and support services for troubled youth.

One of the most successful serious games is HopeLab's ReMission, a third person shooter that not only teaches young people about dealing with cancer, but has also helped with increasing the success of treatment.

Charity fundraising is another arena. Blizzard, the maker of MMO World of Warcraft, recently created exclusive in-game pets, and is currently donating 50 per cent of the proceeds towards the Make-A-Wish Foundation. While charity publisher OneBigGame has more than 15 games in development to raise funds for its charities, starting with Zoe Mode, a puzzler for the Xbox Live Arcade.

By way of community example, two gamers in the US founded Child's Play, a charity where 'gamers give back'. Set up in 2003, the charity is now supported by an array of international events and has raised in excess of five million dollars. Funds go towards improving the lives of children in over 60 hospitals worldwide, including the Sydney Children's Hospital and Brisbane Mater Children's Hospital.

Lastly, there's the educational component. Games such as Drawn to Life and Beaterator are being utilised by schools in the US and UK as tools to encourage greater interest in art and music. While, last week, tech-savvy Silverton Primary School in Melbourne was recognised by Microsoft's Worldwide Innovative Schools Program for its innovative use of technology, which included the use of Nintendo DS and Wii games consoles in the classroom.

Considered en masse, even the examples above bring a great deal of levity to the debate surrounding the role of video games in society, flipping the script on the media's notion that if games are such effective and compelling 'murder simulators' then their capability to be used for good is similarly exponential.

But what's most exciting is that the altruistic heart of gaming has only really begun to beat over the last few years. As gaming proliferates and continues to cross generations and mature as an industry, the number of gamers, such as myself, wishing to explore their relationship with games beyond the entertainment value is set to skyrocket.

Where that ultimately leads is yet to be seen. But I, for one, look forward to being part of that brave new expression.

Drew TaylorDrew Taylor is a game reviewer and features writer with The Salvation Army's National Editorial Department. He previously worked in the marketing department of an international video game publisher and has been widely involved in the development of game culture in Australia.

Topic tags: videogames, Wii-hab, wii, second life, reach out central, remission, space invaders, earthquake in zipland



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Existing comments

Thanks Drew, your explanation of the good that video games can achieve is most informative.

Also, it shows the need for censorship classifications and parental supervision.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 25 November 2009  

It is a great pity that so-called Christian games are such poor quality. The ones I have seen are trite, theologically vapid, psychologically inane and just plain badly put together.
Is there hope?

The Rev Gwilym Henry-Edwards | 25 November 2009  

an absolutely fascinating piece -- this is why God invented journalism, so that we can have eyes opened to stuff we didn't know about stuff we thought we knew. But didn't.

Brian Doyle | 25 November 2009  

Thanks for the article Drew. I know that many of us recoil from areas of life that have become associated with problematic behaviour, but you have helped illuminate an area of endeavour that is leading to liberation for many who are less able. I have become interested in gaming because I see how it can simulate scenarios to teach. My only difficulty is with the cost of producing this stuff. I hope in time costs will reduce as technology becomes more accessible, much like the proliferation of video production with the advent of state of the art editing and special effects have made producing this medium an everyday event.

Vic O'Callaghan | 25 November 2009  

Thank you, Drew! As a 73 year old grandfather I have been concerned at the amount of time (and money) my grandson (15 yrs) spends on video games. His parents seem less concerned. Thanks to your article I can see a lot of my concern is based on sensationalist fear-mongering media reports. Now here's a question I'd like to see answered - Why is the media so dominated by bad news?

Uncle Pat | 25 November 2009  

The altruistic view may be the world of gaming you inhabit Drew, but the vast majority of gamers are less into this perspective and more into the depravity, whether conscious or unconscious of this aspect. I applaud your attempt to highlight the positives but I don't think the media are being sensationalist on this matter. Indeed, because of cross-ownership and cross channel content sharing and distribution, the "media" are one of the beneficiaries of the gaming industry and are not sensationalist enough in bringing to the surface the anti-social and destructive elements of this phenomena.

Tom Cranitch | 25 November 2009  

Gwilym: I completely agree. Christians, on the whole, have dropped the ball with regards to using video games as a tool of evangelism. Hope depends on us getting more involved and taking advantage of low-cost, high-yield platforms. Flash-based games, the iPhone, homebrew DS, in-game content creation (such as LittleBigPlanet and the upcoming Kodu for X360) are all great opportunities. The real mistake made by most Christian developers is that they forget faith is about relationship and a journey, and less about 'rules'. Most games are horribly didactic. If you are interested in how to do it right, check out the original Drawn to Life game (DS) and Lock’s Quest (DS), both by 5th Cell. Neither are particularly overt, but their 'message' is unmistakable.

Vic: see above.

Pat: it’s good that you feel that way, but it still pays to be vigilant about what he plays. As I mentioned in my article, there is still content that I don’t believe is appropriate for 15-year-olds, despite the fact that game publishers and the OFLC has classified the games MA15+.

Drew Taylor | 25 November 2009  

Tom: (Firstly, see my comment to Pat.) That said, I’d like to think that the opening line of my article puts some of what you’re saying in perspective. I grew up with the likes of rock band KISS and films such as Rambo: First Blood Part II being painted as the new ‘low’ in social values.

(Interestingly, there always seems to be a focus on what the entertainment world is doing.) But like music and film, video games are simply a medium and a tool. For every MA15+ game out there, there’s another ten G and PG games, most of which are simple entertainment. Like any tool, games can be used for good or harm. My aim was to show the less publicised side of that aspect.

Drew Taylor | 25 November 2009  

The high state of stress the games put the players in actually does physical harm over extended periods. All that teeth grinding and grimacing (for hours) creates migraine headaches for the player that are actually caused through the set of the jaw and teeth. Doctors and dentists are now regularly being presented with adolescent boys who have literally locked jaws with their primordial fears and though passively sitting before the glowing screen are wearing the physical scars to prove it. I guess I'd really rather they kicked around a football in the yard.

Larry O'Dea | 25 November 2009  

This is good news to me, Drew. Back in Jurassic 1985 to 89 I lived in the UK doing my PhD in theology. In a funny set of circumstances the university found that I had an engineering background which included programming - gotta love Fortran, BBC BASIC and Modula 2.

When the local college of occupational therapy approached the university to help set up some computer awareness with their students, and to help develop therapeutic software for their clients, the university didn't suggest one of their own staff, they suggested me.

So I took on teaching computer programming to people who thought they were going to be taught how to put elderly and immobile people into the bath. There was a team of three of us and we did some good stuff in working with patients with gross motor issues, using tablets with a map overlay for them to walk their fingers to the local shops, that sort of thing.

One class I had for intro to computers had some difficulty with my Aussie accent for a start, and thought they were at the wrong place because nobody told them about the computer modules. Unfortunately for that group, I was their first ever class at the college - something that nobody had told me either.

It was all very simple and other colleges thought we were a bit loopy. However, St. Loyes College in Exeter was the biggest OT college in Europe and we did get some ripples flowing into the industry.

Fast forward to my son's teenage years when he and another boy we fostered for a while would sit in front of the TV with the Playstation and kill everything in sight, steal cars In Miami or somewhere and crash them in the most bizare fashion, and generally cause me to be one of the those parents who wondered how to lift these boys out of their seats and get them into the back yard with a cricket bat.

I'm pleased for the catch up on the use of computer games for therapy, for positive self expression, for decent social engagement, and all the other things that you write about.

Kim Miller | 25 November 2009  

Larry: you'll get no argument from me about the need for a balanced lifestyle. Getting outside and exercise should be an important part of all our lives. Honestly, I haven't heard about teeth-grinding as a side-effect. Do you have any links to research or reports regarding it?

Kim: are you still into programming? The discussion regarding the use of games as a tool for evangelism is still wide open.

Drew Taylor | 26 November 2009  

Great article, very thoughtful.

It's also worth noting that regardless of the content of video games, most users are in the 25-30 age bracket. These aren't children that need to be protected from content - these are consenting adults. It's interesting that the media would choose to perpetuate this misplaced belief about gamers. Personally I don't have a problem with game classification, but ask yourself this: what else is justified in the name of protecting children?

Edwina Byrne | 27 November 2009  

My son was playing those war hero games addictively and he had a sleep walking episode where he dived off our second story roof thinking he was in a computer game. He was that pumped up with adrenaline and he had no idea what he was doing. He just missed smashing his head on concrete; we would have thought it was suicide if he had died.

These games are so dangerous as they get into the kids' psyches.

helene | 27 November 2009  

Edwina: a great point, and one I'm often bemused by in many discussions about video games. In Australia, the average age of a gamer is believed to be somewhere between 28-32. I'm turning 40 in a few weeks.

Drew Taylor | 27 November 2009  

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