Understanding the way Xbox games tap into our appetites is a relatively new science. Given that XBox and similar consoles have only been around for less than a generation that’s maybe not surprising. They’re still studying philosophy, and that’s as old as science itself. But there are increasing numbers of researchers turning their attention to what it is that makes gaming such a compelling pastime, and what the effects of growing up as a gamer might be. These might be interesting.
Of course the games producers have been doing this with a different focus since day one. Their interests are the bottom-line boosting concerns with what sells and why it sells and how to go about generating more sales. That’s just the way business works – and with the games industry worth several billions worldwide, there is no getting away from that business-minded of the business. But academics who strive to understand what it is that underlies that commercial success are, more and more, turning to us as gamers as evidence of the social and psychological causes and effects that are involved.
Much of what they conclude we might see as a no-brainer. Serial studies have found, for example that games players tend – in general terms – to be male and they tend to be younger than older. DUR! Sometimes you have to wonder what those guys get paid for, but there are more interesting insights to be had.
For example, there was a study done in 2003 that showed that the older a player is the less likely (because the default is males!) to play games with a component of violence. That’s an interesting fact in itself, and although it wasn’t part of the study in question it’s easy to see that fantasy and imagination are more in play in the younger demographic than their elders. Fantasy and violence go together quite well. Anyone who has had any actual experience of violence, or who has developed a mature sense of empathy, is likely to be less able to see it in the same decontextualized fantasy manner as the kids do.
The same study also showed that adolescent gamers were more likely to be playing games at the expense of school or work. This, again, is one of those facts that at root has nothing to do with gaming as such. It’s just the way kids are. They probably said the same thing about playing football, roller-skating or playing darts once upon a time
Other studies, such as this one from the Journal of CyberPsychology and Behaviour, take things a step further and talk about ‘addiction to the internet’ which is the sort of old-school fear of technology that saw the Luddites galloping around the countryside smashing automated looms in the 19th Century.
One of the things that bedevils serious study of gaming is that fact that it is so associated with younger players. That means that anyone older – and academics tend to be older rather than younger – is apt to see developments in that sector as somehow undermining the established order of things and to see each and every behaviour as a sign that the world is going to the dogs. It’s not, but if you’re a middle-aged man with a career invested in understanding how digital technology works, it’s probably not that easy to keep up with the pace of change. It’s much easier to argue that the world is heading towards a sticky end, and besides that, it’s an argument that is much more likely to go down well with the even older academics who decide what gets published anyway.
Against this backdrop the sports games scene is, in a sense, one step more respectable since it is a representation of some sort of reality, as opposed to the more easily dismissed fantasy or fiction-based genres. It’s not easy to persuade a middle-aged man of limited imagination that Call of Duty can be a stimulating intellectual exercise. He just won’t see it like that.
Of course some games are more intellectually demanding than others. For example, football games such as FIFA 15 involves far more in the way of tactical appreciation than was the case with earlier iterations. Conversely, straightforward point and shoot exercises – of which darts is probably the most obviously sports themed – offer considerably less of a challenge.
But as with so many of the arguments in this area, the question hinges on the use to which the game is put and the rubric against which it is measured. As a strategy game, darts doesn’t have much to offer. It’s essentially a race by indirect means. You start at one place (as numerically registered as the starting score) and you race your opponent to get to zero. Along the way the only subtlety involved is how you might manufacture a finish (darts ordinarily requires a double to finish to being able to arrive at a suitable even number is the key requirement).
So, there is little to celebrate darts for as a tactical thinking game. But if we take a less jaundiced view, there is a lot to be said for darts in this gaming context. As much of the more recent academic writing suggests, the use of games within an educational setting has much to commend it. Anyone seeking to develop their mental arithmetic, for example, will find darts a highly useful educational resource.
There is, furthermore, a crossover to the televisual viewing of sports and – by extension – sports betting with the likes of betfair and other online sites. It is notable, for example, that online sports games have more to do with the experience of sports spectating than actual participation. The example of FIFA 15 represents a prime case in point. The visual point of perspective is that of a mediated spectator rather than that of a first-person participant.
This is not to deny the prevalence of first-person games elsewhere, it is, rather to illustrate the displaced engagement that gaming entails. Even the most realistic war games don’t involve any physical pain, after all.
More tellingly, what is happening as a result of the popularity of gaming globally is the generic gamification of online culture. Sports betting is one manifestation of this, but it can also be seen in a host of entirely non-recreational environments. And ironically one of the areas in which gamification has been most eagerly taken up is in the field of education.
With ‘user experience’ (UX) now one of the buzz phrases of the IT industry across the board it isn’t hard to see just how far the effects of our gaming culture have seeped out into the mainstream. Whether it is an online betting site, an educational app designed to enhance the schooling of math or science, or simply a means to generate a level of customer engagement on a shopping site the logic of games has spread a very long way.
As generation Y matures and as they (we) take our gaming habits with us into our maturity, there will, no doubt, be further studies showing just how the world is being reshaped in our image. In the meantime, the bottom line – for us as players at least – appears to be that there is nothing to be ashamed of in playing – and enjoying playing – on our Xboxes. No doubt it will be a while before all those academics catch on. By the time they do, who knows where we may have got to?