A libertarian inclined blog for teachers and learners of all ages. Comments, emails and links to other educational stuff welcome.

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Next entry: Scottish confusion
Previous entry: Stephen Pollard on posh but post-modern Boris Johnson
Thursday May 29 2008

Tom Chatfield discusses computer games:

When Mogwai isn’t online, he’s called Adam Brouwer, and works as a civil servant for the British government modelling crisis scenarios of hypothetical veterinary disease outbreaks. I point out to him a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, billed under the line “The best sign that someone’s qualified to run an internet startup may not be an MBA degree, but level 70 guild leader status.” Is there anything to this? “Absolutely,” he says, “but if you tried to argue that within the traditional business market you would get laughed out of the interview.” How, then, does he explain his willingness to invest so much in something that has little value for his career? He disputes this claim. “In Warcraft I’ve developed confidence; a lack of fear about entering difficult situations; I’ve enhanced my presentation skills and debating. Then there are more subtle things: judging people’s intentions from conversations, learning to tell people what they want to hear. I am certainly more manipulative, more Machiavellian. I love being in charge of a group of people, leading them to succeed in a task.”

It’s an eloquent self-justification - even if some, including Adam’s partner of the last ten years, might say he protests too much. You find this kind of frank introspection again and again on the thousands of independent websites maintained by World of Warcraft’s more than 10m players. Yet this way of thinking about video games can be found almost nowhere within the mainstream media, which still tend to treat games as an odd mix of the slightly menacing and the alien: more like exotic organisms dredged from the deep sea than complex human creations.

This lack has become increasingly jarring, as video games and the culture that surrounds them have become very big news indeed. In March, the British government released the Byron report - one of the first large-scale investigations into the effects of electronic media on children. Its conclusions set out a clear, rational basis for exploring the regulation of video games. Since then, however, the debate has descended into the same old squabbling between partisan factions. In one corner are the preachers of mental and moral decline; in the other the high priests of innovation and life 2.0. In between are the ever-increasing legions of gamers, busily buying and playing while nonsense is talked over their heads.

I recall similar debates about television.  With telly the argument was pretty much pleasure versus “goodness”, measured by some other standard.  So if you think pleasure matters (I definitely do) then telly is great.  If not, then not.

The most obvious impact of television was simply the things that people didn’t do, as a result of watching television instead.  Such as: keeping an eye on or open for criminals, whether out in the streets or at home.  Crime always goes up in a country when television arrives, and since this happens so very quickly, it’s hard to regard it as resulting from any deep psychological damage, just to the change in the crime environment.  Not that there necessarily aren’t deep psychological effects, just that the obvious impacts are so much more obvious.

With games, what is surely new is that kids have independent access to their individual games machines, and can carry them around with them.

As for the intellectual impact, I don’t see how the damage could possibly be greater than the brain damage allegedly caused by television to some people, and especially to children who do nothing except watch telly.