The Guardian view on video games: computer generated worlds are influencing real ones | Editorial

“It’s possible to play games with no ulterior motive, but I do think they provide a place where we can actually be vulnerable and more open to the full spectrum of human emotions,” the author Gabrielle Zevin told the Guardian ahead of the launch of her 2023 bestseller. Zevin’s absorbing novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow examines how video games can ease suffering, challenge assumptions and forge human connections through alternate realities, eschewing the common misconceptions of them as childish or violent.

Gaming allows players to immerse themselves in experiences that they have not had or would not have otherwise. While those virtual experiences have their limits in conveying the reality that they are simulating, gaming – being more social than ever before – has developed a more participatory, even empathic culture, as Zevin understands. This should be better understood as video games increasingly influence our reality.

Last year’s second biggest film, The Super Mario Bros Movie, was based on a Nintendo game. For entertainment that combined commercial and critical success, look no further than HBO’s TV award-winning series The Last of Us, based on a 2013 video game. The industry is blurring the fields of education, leisure and work. The penetration of video games is remarkable. Since 2017, Nintendo has sold 132m Switch consoles, and the launch of its new handheld console is this year’s biggest consumer electronics story. Household names are not standing still: Apple’s latest iPhone is so powerful it can play big-budget titles hitherto only found on laptop computers. Netflix offers iconic games such as Grand Theft Auto.

There is a dark side to gaming. A 2019 analysis of gaming platform policies suggested a worrying lack of safeguards against sexual exploitation. Out of 40 popular apps considered, 29 allowed anonymous sign-ups and self-declaration of age, meant to protect children from malicious actors. The UK’s online safety bill should see the highest privacy settings on games as default for children.

Roblox is a popular user-generated game platform that 70 million people – mostly children – log into every day. However, the Washington Post reported in 2021 that its voice chat was being used to disrupt experiences with slurs and lewd noises despite age checks. Whether the new UK measures will protect children more effectively remains to be seen. When the pastime was more niche, gamers were associated with a particular demographic of young white men. As the diversity of the playing population has increased, that identity has changed – though not without an alarming and abhorrent backlash at times. By 2020, gamers had their first trans lead character. Most gamers are repelled by the racism and misogyny that is being spread through networks.

Life-like graphics as well as immersive and captivating stories have produced stunning works of art. The arrival of Life is Strange in 2015 was a landmark event, revealing that episodic video games, delivered online, could be as compelling as episodic TV. Its narrative arc comes through the (female) main character’s conversations and players resolving her moral quandaries. Despite their technical and artistic achievements as well as their reach, video games remain estranged from high culture: Zevin observed that many reviewers of her book felt the need to state that they had never played one, but still enjoyed the novel. An activity enjoyed by so many deserves better understanding and recognition.


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