One cannot get far in discussing computer games without being overwhelmed with one of two discourses that threaten to preclude any other thought or commentary. The first is whether computer games are art, which is a line of inquiry that I would rather slit my own throat than seriously pursue. I am entirely unqualified to judge, as I don’t know anything about art. The second is, roughly, the conversation about attention, addiction, or education. The conversation is largely one carried on by boosters or detractors, disproportionately either educators or, even worse, psychologists, trying to argue about whether videogames help or hinder the teaching of important skills and habits. Are they addictive? Do they teach certain reasoning skills? Do they destroy attention spans? Can they be used to make learning fun? (protip: learning is not fun, evidenced by the fact that no one in our culture seems to be willing to do it) This conversation carries on treating computer games in a manner that is fetishistic, ie it asks no differentiating questions about what computer games, or videogames, or whatever, are. Are those stupid, payment-driven phone-games good for kids? (no) Are RPGs or strategy games good for kids? (probably no, to be honest)
The conversation also asks no differentiating questions in that it assumes specific differentiations without reflex. Typical of a research program carried out by experimental psychologists at second and third-tier institutions, no critical analysis of the subject matter seems relevant: the only operation is to inherit a set of categories already in circulation and then to use those categories as an unreliable measuring stick for a body of mostly meaningless “data.” If you haven’t examined the categories, how can the resulting product be “data,” by any rigorous definition? From the number of my peers that I see wasting away on social media at libraries and coffee shops for two or four hours, I am going to come out and say that there is something certainly corroding people’s minds, and born out by the fact that Americans are mostly idiots that it must be widespread. The almost-imperceptible flashing of screens or their unearthly light seems to be addictive. As for the games? They are neither radically novel nor undivided in character. If it seems like some people are wasting away like gamblers playing videogames, it is because they are, because wasting away playing games isn’t new.
In the discourse on whether or not games are good for you there is no attempt to understand the thing, its history, the diversity of its potential meanings. There are New York Times op-eds about whether “videogames” are good for kids, bandying about studies in that useful way that op-eds tend to. But what are these “videogames?”* I cannot answer that, in toto, but I can at least try to write about their substance. I will try a couple of written genres, ie analytical essays, critical reviews, narrative history, &c, and perhaps something will feel like it gets to the heart of the matter. The point isn’t to exculpate “videogames,” that is to say, to it is not an attempt to point the finger at Facebook so that videogames can go without criticism. My concern is that to the extent that dismay is necessary when examining videogames, the question of whether sitting in front of the Xbox is addictive may be insufficiently damning. It does not cut to the heart of something more broken in our culture by failing to put the games into a broader circulation and to see, in context, the substance of what they are.
*There are even comparatively incisive or imaginative studies, but to some degree they fall prey to a similar issue. “The Worlds of Herman Kahn” has a fantastic chapter on Cold War war gamers at the RAND corp, but again there isn’t a sustained analysis of the games, per se, there is a sustained analysis of the war gamers, even if the book, and the chapter within it, is fantastic. We will cover this later, when we cover the history of Cold War war gamers as both hobbyists and defense researchers, because they are of central importance in any study of games in American culture.