The Medium is the Message: Books, TV, and Video Games

Flying over Germany right now, I just finished the section in Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason on the corruption of faith, finding another interesting point that I’d never thought about that gets to the heart of the video games in society debate.

Al Gore describes a rock-paper-scissors triangle of Fear-Reason-Faith to describe the corruption of government. Fear responses drives away Reason, Faith calms fear, and Reason discredits Faith. He claims reading is a Reason-centered medium. He credits the rise of the Enlightenment to the printing press, the rise of books, and the resulting rise in Reason. Likewise, he claims TV is inherently a Fear-centered medium, blaming the recent rise in Fear-based government in part on the dramatic rise in TV use. Gore’s criticism of the Television medium is centered around its activation of the body’s Fear response. The emphasis on constant camera changes to engage the attention, high drama, violence, and traumatic empathy hit all of our evolutionary Fear buttons to keep us watching advertisements. The most Reason-reaction-based Television shows I can think of are Charlie Rose and C-Span, shows that share almost nothing with CSI and Lost.

I find Gore’s argument insightful, and got caught up in wondering where video games fit into this. Video games are displayed on TVs as well. Is this a justification for video games being part of the problem? Are games inherently bad? There are almost too many game types to consider them one medium, so I considered the one most similar to these Fear-driven shows: violent First-person shooters.

First-person shooters, like Call of Duty, Doom, and Halo, deliberately strive for reptilian Fear – things leap from the shadows, you are constantly reacting to small twitch motions, violence, and danger, even death! The initial responses are definitely Fear driven. This is in part why these games are so frequently targeted for being “too violent”. But playing these games over time this Fear diminishes. People learn that bullets don’t hurt all that much in the game world. The penalty for death is just another chance.

There is a process of learning here. To fit the analogy, the player learns Faith from the repetition that the Fear-based actions are deceptive, and then can use Reason to overcome the challenge. “Bullets kill me!” “Wait, each time I’ve been hit it’s only hurt a little.” “Ah, I have 10 bullet hits to use to my advantage.” We can see this explicitly in the clinical play of competitive first-person shooter gamers, who analyze the systems and maps for every advantage and are trained to stay calm throughout the match. In the past, I’ve actually encouraged my friends to play first-person shooters when they are scared by them, to get over their Fear and to be able to react calmly in similar situations. It seems that these games may be putting us through the crucible of Fear, but they are actually training us to overcome Fear and learn to Reason, a skill that Gore would greatly prize.

Obviously not every game starts from such a Fear-driven place as Doom 3. Many do use Fear in less obvious ways, such as timers or choices with unknown consequences. But many games strive to minimize this evolutionary Fear. I’m hard-pressed to think of Fear responses in Braid, for example, but it still has the reversible death.  Solitaire has just the intuitive fear of failure. And all of the best games seem to evolve (or devolve) into this reasoned state through exploring play, a state that I usually identify as the player separating the story-world-fiction from the game-play.

If true, it gives me a bit of hope.  In this day and age, maybe there is something fundamental about what games can do that (to use Gore’s argument) can build up democracy rather then helping TV destroy it.

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