A timely piece in the Times this weekend saw John Cornwell meeting with brain scientist Susan Greenfield to explore the thesis of her forthcoming book, The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century—namely, that electronic gaming and online culture are “creating a hedonistic, mindless generation.”
It’s timely because tomorrow sees the release of what’s almost certain to be the best-selling video game of the year, and also its most controversial: Grand Theft Auto IV, an 18-rated entertainment in which your avatar’s central task is to win cash and reputation in a parallel NYC by jacking cars, beating pimps, extorting money, etc.
My copy is on order, and I eagerly expect to be revelling in this world within 24 hours, as I have with all the previous GTAs (as notable and loved for their slick soundtracks and atmospheric visuals as for their nail-biting gameplay). But am I being turned into a dopamine-addicted zombie as I blast away? Am I going to get violent at work? Or, more pertinently, are young and impressionable others going to succumb even while my mature sensibility is merely titillated?
I think the answer to all these questions is a resounding no; partly because they’re rather silly questions to ask, at least in the form that many po-faced media commentators are posing them. The interactive worlds presented by electronic games are a profound and transforming experience, and something unprecendented in many ways. They have their dangers, which should not be underplayed; but we understand these dangers poorly, and often fail sufficiently to distinguish them from the better-known tribulations that television, cinema and print have bred (or, for that matter, from the rather more pressing social pathologies associated with poverty, lack of education and suchlike).
One important analogy does stand. Like these other media, electronic games have a complex, creative and highly sociable culture of their own; and, as ever, most analyses conducted from the outside are destined to be both simplistic and (more importantly) simply to look ridiculous to those on the inside whose intellects most need to be mobilized. I look forward to reading Greenfield’s book, and to engaging with the furore that’s sure to roll out along with GTA IV. But I suspect I’ll find myself looking elsewhere afterwards—probably into the online communities and forums devoted to games themselves—for discussions that get to grips with what the future has started to look like, and with…