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“How Much is Enough?” Science, Journalism, and the Way We Think About Video Games.

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There is a habit that has been said to cause damage to the eyes, the brain, and the general nervous system.  Experts have linked it to insanity, sterility, and premature death.  It was thought to damage people’s morals, corrupting them with its addictiveness and inciting them to infidelity and other evils.  Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe once wrote that, “this kind of stimulus, unless counterbalanced by physical exercise, not only wastes time and energies, but undermines the vigor of the nervous system.”(1)

What was this dangerous habit?  Reading novels.

It seems silly now, but in the 17 and 1800s, reading fiction was considered a dangerous vice.  These days, it’s a virtue.  We recognize the power and value of books, and do everything we can to convince our children to read.  Maybe there are books out there that aren’t enriching.  Not all books are appropriate for all people.  Maybe some contain dangerous ideas.  But not all novels are the same, and the condemnation of the entire medium is laughable.  And yet…

And yet, two hundred years later, we’re doing the same thing: condemning an entire medium as dangerous and morally corrupt.  This time, the medium is video games.

A recent Daily Mail article(2) has the Real Women of Gaming in an uproar.  The title practically screams at readers: “Don’t let children play video games for more than TWO HOURS a week or it will damage their social skills” (emphasis theirs).  Now, the Daily Mail is not exactly the first source I, personally, would go to for reputable news, but it is a mainstream media outlet with a huge readership.  If for no other reason, we should take the article seriously because it could influence the attitudes of millions and inform the ways our global culture views video games in general.

The subject of the inflammatory article is a study published in the Annals of Neurology.(3)  Only the abstract of the AoN article is available to the public, but the differences between the study itself and the way it was portrayed in the Daily Mail are apparent, even without the full text.  The abstract states: “The weekly time spent gaming was steadily associated with conduct problems, peer conflicts, and reduced prosocial abilities.”  Fernandez’s wording is a little different: “Playing video games is good for children’s brains – but only if they play no more than two hours a week.  More than this increases the likelihood the child will get into trouble at school with their teachers, fight with their friends and have reduced social abilities.”

It’s important to note that Pujol et al. only found an ‘association.’  This is what science does.  It collects evidence, looks for patterns, and notes when those patterns are similar.  What scientific studies do not do is tell us why patterns are similar, why they are associated.  Pujol et al. conducted an observational study, rather than a randomized controlled trial, so their results tell us even less.  We don’t actually know that playing video games for more than two hours per week causes disciplinary problems and reduced social abilities.  It could be that social and discipline problems cause children to play more video games.  It’s also possible that they’re both caused by the same external factor, something that the study didn’t measure.  The inference that gaming ‘increases the likelihood’ of behavior problems was Fernandez’s alone.

Conclusion-drawing is a problem endemic to scientific reporting in mainstream media outlets, made that much worse by the fact that the public do not have access to primary sources.  Scientific publications are locked behind paywalls.  Often, the only way to access them is be associated with a university or research institution with a subscription to the journal or to pay upwards or $50 per article.  This means that the only science news that many of us have access to has been filtered through media outlets that exist to sell advertisements, and therefore twist scientists’ words, making them more controversial and less truthful.  “Associate with” doesn’t sell ads.  “Increases the likelihood” can.

The significant findings in the study itself were cognitive benefits associated with video gaming.  Children who played for up to two hours had increased reaction time and neuroimaging showed that they had higher levels of neural connectivity: in non-scientific terms, their brains grew.  That ‘brain growth’ wasn’t increased for children who gamed for more than two hours per week, but harmful associations were only present in the children who gamed for 9 or more hours per week. Yet, the headline “Don’t let children play video games for more than TWO HOURS” implies something very different.  Just like the “This common household item may KILL YOUR CHILDREN…more at 11” school of local evening news, it takes advantage of parents’ fears for their children to ensnare eyeballs and increase ad revenue.  It’s not exactly what I’d call ‘ethical.’

There is another reason Fernandez’s article made me and the other RWoG admins so angry, but without access to the full article it’s hard to tell whether the fault is in the original study or simply the Daily Mail’s interpretation of it.  The problem is this: the authors of both articles seem to be drawing generalizations about the risks and benefits of all video games based on the few games that the children in the study happen to already play.

While there was no information in the abstract regarding what games they were playing, Fernandez writes, “The most popular games in the study included Super Mario Brothers, FIFA and Wii Sports.”  They are all games that rely heavily on motor skills, so it’s no wonder that the subjects showed improvement in that area.  But there are games that exercise other parts of the brain.  I’d like to see children who play sports games compared to children who play creative, sandbox games like Minecraft, or puzzle games like Portal.  Many online and multiplayer games are highly social.  The comments associating video games with ‘reduced prosocial abilities’ particularly grate me because I do the majority of my socialization through Guild Wars 2.  The cooperation, teamwork, and, yes, social aptitude that players build raiding in MMOs translate not only to the workplace but to life in general.

The video game is a blossoming medium for storytelling and creativity.  The best games, from the elegant to the complex, contribute as much to our culture as any book or film.  I’m continually astounded by the range of games available for our consumption, and by amazing new titles released every year.  And yet, much of our culture sees games as a monolith, and a dangerous one at that, rather than something to be celebrated.  Fernandez’s article simply perpetuates that kind of thinking.  It’s time we started thinking for ourselves.

 

References:

  1. Golden, Catherine J.  2003.  Images of the Woman Reader in Victoran British and American Fiction.  University Press of Florida.  Gainsville, FL.
  2. Fernandez, Colin.  9 September 2016.  “Don’t let children play video games for more than TWO HOURS a week or it will damage their social skills.” DailyMail.com.  Url: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3781728/Don-t-let-children-play-video-games-TWO-HOURS-week-damage-social-skills.html
  3. Pujol, Jesus et al.  22 August 2016.  “Video gaming in school children: How much is enough?”  Annals of Neurology.  Abstract can be found at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27463843

More Gamers are Noticing how Out of Touch the Mainstream Gaming Press is

 

TT_NotTheFandom

Whatever your opinion of the events and controversy in gaming has been over the last three years, it’s hard to deny that the mainstream gaming press (and some non-gaming press) has come out of it looking worse for wear.  Gawker, infamous for printing vapid articles and putting up a sex video from Hulk Hogan, lost 7 figures in advertising when a staff member thought he was being funny saying nerds deserve to be bullied.  Then Hogan came along and now Gawker, as well as all of their subsidiary media, is being auctioned off to pay for the lawsuit.  More readers are becoming disillusioned with the sites they read, whether it’s a site claiming PCs cannot record games, or how apparent it’s becoming that many people who write about games just aren’t that good at them, or don’t play them at all.  Should a reviewer have a passable skill at playing video games?  Well, authors are expected to have a pretty good understanding of literature to write, mechanics should be able to drive a car, and we do hope that someone telling us how to spend our money is at least competent in the related field.  Even Wikipedia has become questionable with its practice of determining reliable sites.

Probably one of the biggest indicators that the big games media has lost touch is with their reviews:  how many times have you seen a game rated a 9 or a 10 only to play it and find that it’s garbage?  Or a game the critics pan for one reason or another, only to discover a gem?  The latter isn’t as common, but take a look at the recent release, No Man’s Sky.  On Metacritic it’s holding a decent score from the media of 71 for PS4, while users are giving it a 4.9 failing score.  On Steam, as of this writing, it’s sitting at about 40% negative reviews out of almost 38,000 since its release just a few days ago and some of the positive reviews include food recipes and a thumbs up for the refund button working.  To make matters worse, it looks like Metacritic is getting flooded with fake perfect reviews of the game.

Even the new-wave of YouTube ‘journalism’ isn’t immune to the problems we’ve been seeing.  A big case recently was against Warner Brothers paying YouTubers to give positive reviews.  While Pewdiepie was named in the press release from the FTC, he was not actually one of the offenders though a lot of our high profile media outlets reported it that way.  EA has also been accused of paying for good reviews, and until recently guidelines haven’t been very clear.  With more focus on ethics, and the FTC taking a more solid stance on ads and disclosure, it’s now becoming a little more important that reviewers let us know when money or gifts are involved in the process.  In the case of Ubisoft giving reviewers free tablets, some refused, some disclosed, but some did not.  It has gotten better over the last couple of years, but it will be a long time before these outlets earn that trust back.

The Warner Bros case above brings to light another issue with our games media, and that’s in how they report the news.  It seems that  many of these sites would rather be the first to print a mistake than be the second to print the facts.  Whether it’s laziness, an agenda, or simply incompetence is often impossible to tell.  With Pewdiepie, they simply ran with the fact he was mentioned in the FTC release, but failed to verify if he did a review, or if he disclosed the fact it was a sponsored video.  A few minutes of searching, and maybe an email to the target of their articles could have saved them, and Pewdiepie, a lot of grief.  Worse can be when they print accusations that are unproven, and turn out to be untrue.  These accusations can often ruin a person’s career, or seriously impact them negatively.  Max Temkin, co-creator of Cards Against Humanity is one such case, falsely accused of rape, but our games media is quick to point out how he was wrong in defending himself the way he did.  Falsely accused… and he is in the wrong for how he responds.  Another case involved Brad Wardell of Stardock Games, again falsely accused of sexual harassment.  The law suit was eventually dropped, and the accuser apologized, but that didn’t stop the media from writing up so many articles that to this day people still think it was true.

Also, how often do we hear how awful gamers, and the gaming community are?  From our own media!  I know I’ve talked about this here, and elsewhere, many times so I won’t beat this horse too much.  This is just a huge pet peeve of mine and it needs to stop.  Yes, absolutely there is a small group of morons that say stupid things, usually directed at women.  They are not even close to being a big enough number to represent the gaming community.  Our games media is doing a wonderful job of building a false perception of gamers, just like the regular media, and religious nuts did back in the 80s and 90s.  I know, I was there.  Go to a convention, look around, do you see any haters?  I was at GenCon just a couple weeks ago and there were over 60k people there.  I didn’t once see anyone yelling about there being too many women, or minorities.  I didn’t see anyone being told they don’t belong, or forced out.  60k people!  If the gaming community was so full of hateful, neckbeard, shitlord misogynists you’d think I’d have seen at least one person acting that way.  You know what I saw?  I saw a beautiful group of geeks, from all walks of life, all genders, ages, colors and creeds sharing in what they love.

Our community is awesome!  The games media would have you believe there’s some majority movement to keep women from gaming, and whether they like it or not it’s simply not true.  I know too many women gamers to even remotely believe they’re being kept away.  If anything is keeping women from getting into gaming it’s the constant barrage of negative articles telling them how scary it is and how mean everyone is.  You know what’s making men more bitter than anything else?  The media telling everyone how awful we are.  Of course, geek guys are going to be a little weird around girls.  Most of us are introverts, and the rest are scared we’re going to be accused of something just for saying hi.  Look at the articles that spew just that sort of crap.  A guy said hi, wanted to talk about a game they were both playing, but “Stop hitting on me…”

Bottom line, the games media needs to be watched with both eyes open, and everything they print measured against several sources.  Even me, in all the places I write, don’t take for granted that I’m calling out fellow journalists for bad behavior.  Don’t take my word for anything, read as much as you can and make sure you get all the information.  I would never intentionally write something that’s false, and I do strive for ethical and unbiased reviews, but I might make a mistake, and I hope you’ll call me on it when I do.  Take those opinion articles with a grain of salt, and the news articles too.  Talk to your fellow gamers before listening to the media telling you what our community is like.  They’re doing a great job of dividing us, don’t let them.  We made this community great before we even had a games media, and we can keep making it better without them.  Let them know that we don’t need them and maybe, possibly, they’ll get the hint and start actually doing their jobs.

Xbox’s Clubs Feature, the Gender War and Games Media Profits

Xbox’s Clubs Feature, the Gender War and Games Media Profits

TT_NotTheFandom

I originally wasn’t going to write about this new feature, because it didn’t seem like such a big deal.  It’s just another social media type platform for a game system.  In a way it is no different than the clans and guilds that formed around PC games, many of which I’ve been a part of myself.  Generally a clan is a group of people who enjoy the same game, or group of games, get together on Ventrilo or Teamspeak, and chat in their own website forums.  Xbox’s clubs feature is basically that, hosted on the console’s Live platform.  It will let people form their own club, select interests and tags, moderate, chat, share game videos, and basically share their interests with other gamers.  It does also allow you to filter out the clubs you don’t want, avoid the players you want to avoid.

Unfortunately some of the games media have dropped the ball on this, with headlines like “Xbox Live Is Getting A ‘No Trash Talking’ And ‘Females Only’ Mode” from Kotaku were slightly annoying, then I saw Microsoft Wants to Make Xbox Safe for Gamers Who Aren’t White Men” from Bloomberg.  First of all, the ‘modes’ offered by this are far more complex than ‘Females Only’, which screams the opposite of inclusive.  These modes, both LFG and Clubs, will allow gamers to join groups and find games with a wide variety of criteria.  Examples from Microsoft include:

Henshaw used the example of “parents who can only game after 10 pm”, “mic required”, “gender inclusive” and so on, as examples of tags people can attach to their Club, to seek like-minded players.

While I’m not a huge fan of separating the community, I have far less issue with these new features now than I did when I first read some of the games media’s reporting on it.  My first instinct was, that’s what the mute button is for.  I mute people all the time on games I play.  Not the smack talkers, or the people taking jabs at me, but the real jerks, yah I’ll mute them.  That’s not what these features are about though, despite what the major game’s media is making it out to be.

That second headline, from Bloomberg, is what convinced me to write this.  That headline, and the article that follows, is so condescending on many levels.  First, the implication that anyone but white men are somehow less capable of dealing with the jerks online.  Are women and minorities delicate flowers that must be sheltered from mean words online?  This seems to be predicated on the idea that white men are somehow safer?  Like we don’t get harassed, insulted, and verbally abused online?  If Dina Bass did a little research, or was honest with her premise, she’d know that everyone, white men included, get harassed online.  If she doesn’t know this, or isn’t capable of the level of research it takes to find a poll related to her topic, why is she writing for Bloomberg?  If she does know, why did she dismiss it in order to write such a biased article?  In either case the media is simply dropping the ball in reporting these features from Xbox, and perpetuating a gender war in the gaming community that they continue to profit from.

Following that up, the second line of the article from Bloomberg says:

The company is creating safe spaces for people who’ve felt uncomfortable or endured abuse at the hands of other gamers online.

This is not what Microsoft is doing, though it is a result of what is being done.  One result among many.  It’s more honest to say that the company is creating a way for gamers to interact specifically with groups that share their own interests.  They are creating a way for everyone to pick who they want to play with, not just ‘people who’ve felt uncomfortable or endured abuse’, but then again knowing that everyone has felt uncomfortable or endured abuse, maybe Dina is correct without knowing it.

The problem now is the popular games media has created this environment where everything has to be about gender, and a perfectly benign and inclusive feature (that helps people segregate themselves, yah strange I know) is now tied to this constant gender issue the media is pushing.  It’s creating rifts in the community that don’t need to be there, and isn’t helping heal the ones already here.  It keeps people on one side of the fence or the other, with many caught in the middle just wanting gamers to game.

Like I said, when I first read these headlines I thought they were actually creating a mode that was going to be called ‘females only’.  The misinformation in the media made me not want discuss this because it seemed so asinine that it wasn’t worth my time.  Then I went to Microsoft’s site, read about the feature from the original source, and realized I should have done that first.  It’s a difficult habit to break, to ignore the media and go to the source.  Even as a writer and journalist it’s something I have to consciously do, so I know how easy it is for people to take everything they read in the media as factual.

Yes, there are assholes online.  I run into them on a regular basis when I play FPS games.  It’s nice to be able to mute the ones that get out of hand.  I’m told that the Xbox community can be worse than the PC players, though I personally have no frame of reference.  If people want to be able to separate themselves into smaller cliques based on interest, more power to them.  It’s not going to solve the issue of assholes online, and it won’t make the community better, it will just split us into smaller groups.  I do know for sure, however, that the media is only making things worse and that’s a sad state of things.

We gamers really need to do more ourselves to keep our community growing, getting better.  It’s become more clear over the last few years that the major games media has no interest in actually helping.  Like the news organizations beating the political drums of one side or the other, the games media is only interested in keeping the drama going so we’ll keep on clicking and fighting.  We must stop reading their headlines and believing everything they post.  We have to stop letting them divide us into classes and groups, we’re better than that.  Gaming has always been a great community, and it can keep getting better if we stop paying attention to the drama profiteers who only want to make a buck.