Videogames and Australians

It would be incorrect to assume Australians have responded to the phenomenon of videogames in the same way other nations have. In a sense today’s contemporary gameplay is a global network of servers and players whom preference certain games or genres. However, despite the ease of access to international information about videogames, childhood, parenting and school, very little information is based on national evidence and is not one single progression of discussion, study or debate – but a multitude which often have little in common aside from the term videogames.

I argue that videogames are essentially grouped into three periods of study and interest. Each period of study has seen increasing diversity and technological advancements of videogames and gameplay. I make a point of also separating videogames and gameplay because they evoke quite different conceptions and emotional reactions in both adults and children.

The first period is pre-2001. I realise that between the mid 1970s and 2002 videogames made many technological and cultural advances, but in terms of study, this period was concerned mostly with what games are, what play is and the effects of video games on society. It followed a long tradition of viewing media with suspicion and conducting experiments with small groups of participants to try and guage how playing certain games (mostly violent and sexualised) altered the behaviour of the sample subjects. As numerous scholars have argued, the methods used to do this are suspect and they made many assumptions, demonised and simplified games to the point of being little more than an erant-interactive film. Despite the claims from clinical science, it has not been shown to lead to real-life violence in any predictable way.

The second period is between 2001 and 2009. This is essentially because this period of scholarly interest and research began to look more deeply at the assumptions being made about videogames. In the literature, you will find many respected media, sociology, game and educational academics began to write about and discuss new dimensions of games and critically appraise the ongoing claims about aggressive and habitual behaviour in real-life. People like Marc Prensky, Jasper Juul, James Gee, Henry Jenkins and James Seeley Brown expanded the field of research (and potential research) well beyond the realms of science, economics and mathematics. This era also is the foundation of the majority of ongoing debate about videogames in popular culture. It plays out in newspaper, magazines, television and websites on a daily basis.

The essential question is usually: Are videogames bad for childhood development (and therefore society) and what should be done about it.

The answers probably lie in the third period of research and study of videogames, which can best be described as beginning. In Australia and prior to 2008, videogames were treated in national studies as a leisure activity. In that regard a videogame was treated like a trip to the movies, playing a game of soccer, listening to music or reading a book. It was not treated as a media-text with unique properties. It was not investigated in the public domain in association with or in preference to the kind of media-choices that families take in their stride in 2014. Most significantly, it was not treated as a form of literature nor something which was used in education or the workplace.

We therefore know very little about videogames and Australians right now. We have seen reports of statistics, but these often focus on simple demographics and size of the market. This is unsurprising given the close association some scholars now have with the games industry — and how secretive the game industry is about their data and their customers players.

In 2008 we knew that most parents were not overly concerned about aggression, violence or so called addictive qualities of video games. We also know that those parents with children aged 12 and over we considered to be the first generation of children to have grow up with access to video games and that over half had played video games as a child and continued to do so using a computer. Again, no specific details on the type of computer or game and even less about consoles and handhelds.

We can’t compare todays figures with older figures because there have been significant revisions to how videogames have been classified and how questions have been asked at the national level. For example, videogames are now considered part of children’s ‘screen-time’ use, but as most parents know — that use varies as does children’s access and the type of games they can play at any given available time. No data is being collected on the use of screen time or games in education, despite the billions of dollars of educational technology funding lavished on teachers and school systems since (weirdly) 2008.

What we do know is that the media presents videogames in ways intended to gain the attention of parents: either as customers or to perpetuate the same ‘media effects’ panic which has been rolling though popular media since the 1930s. We do know that all children and the vast proportion of adults play video games of one sort or another in the home, where as the vast majority of teachers and students (identity switch) do not. It strikes me as bizarre that some teachers are now expressing new interest in game-based-learning as though our culture has not already embraced it as media entertainment and used it to make sense of the world from the inside out for a very long time.

Videogames are a prolific and much enjoyed form of media entertainment in Australia. Despite ongoing media panic, Australians have not had the level of negative emotional reaction to videogames as might have occurred in other nations. We can’t assume that data and facts from PEW (American Life) can be generalised to Australia in the way the Aussie Dollar is a bit like the US Dollar.

We don’t need to hide from teaching and studying games, and games don’t have any excuses to make. The fact that Australians are highly likely to engage with complex, computational problem solving from pre-school onwards despite un-ambitious and media-conservative educators and narrow media ownership whos dislike of games is obvious — is quite remarkable.

So if anyone questions why you’d want to use videogames in school or home it is fair to say that as a media-text we see far more value in them than media reports broadly admit and far less danger than they claim.