The March publication of the Byron Review, the government’s first official investigation into the effects of electronic media on children, offered an opportunity to examine what is potentially being gained and lost in the increasing ubiquity of electronic, interactive entertainments. Instead – dazzled by the quite astonishing sales figures and controversial content of recent games releases like the notorious Grand Theft Auto IV – most mainstream accounts of video games since have tended to be either a dazzling stream of featurettes hailing their ascendancy, or bitter dismantlings of any and all of their claims as culture.
In this month’s cover story, I look at some of the complexities of the culture of modern video games, and the astonishing divide it has carved out between those generations born either side of the computer era. I remember reading newspaper articles about video games while I was just starting at secondary school, fifteen years ago. It was, usually, bewildering. Here were writers publishing serious pieces in the national press who simply didn’t seem to know what they were talking about. They had clearly never played any of the games they were writing about. And their concerns were bizarrely unconnected to everything I thought I knew about the sociable, intensely absorbing activity of playing games on computers and consoles. How, my friends and I wondered, could anyone take such absurd objections seriously?
Fifteen years later, I’m still playing video games and I’m still bemused by the way they’re discussed. But I no longer think that the objections many people raise against them are absurd: under even the most hysterical rhetorics are, usually, reasonable concerns about social change and continuity, the loss of certain kinds of experience and learning, and the moral and aesthetic limitations of “on-screen” culture. What amazes me, rather, is the lack of a serious, mutually well-informed debate about a phenomenon that is likely to be a dominant cultural force in the 21st century: an industry that’s already bigger business than cinema or physical music sales, and that is likely soon enough to overtake videos, DVDs and even books.
There’s never been a more important time to attempt to comprehend the future before it simply becomes an ill-understood, exploitative present. I hope you’ll join in the discussion on this blog.