Many electronic games are leading to the infantilization of American adults, but not all of them

A number of times over the past few years I have made derogatory references to video or electronic games, always as substantiation of my theory that our mass culture encourages adults to hold onto childish entertainments and habits.

But I was only partially right about computer games.  As it turns out, only certain types of computer games are implicated in the infantilization of Americans.  To have blamed all computer games was an error on my part.

What started me thinking more about video games was a thorough but unexciting section on the current state of the electronic games industry in a recent issue of the Economist.  Consumers now spend more on electronic games than books, records, or any other type of entertainment except movies.  The Economist article categorized games in several ways: type of device on which they’re played; broad topic of game; demographic of players.

Starting with a few ideas from one of the articles, I began to categorize games by the way they engage the player and found that I could fit every computer games into six categories (if I missed a category, dear readers, let me know), each of which is an extension of a pre-computer, pre-digital chip type of game:

  • Traditional games of intellectual skill, such as chess, Scrabble or trivia games.
  • Games of luck, such as most roulette or slot machines, or where luck plays a larger part than skill, such as poker.
  • Fitness or sports activity, such as the Wii sports games, which are extensions of bowling, golf, aerobics and other physical activities.
  • Fantasy life games, such as Alternative Life, which resemble Renaissance Faire (sic) jousting, war reenacting. Dungeons and Dragons and doll play.
  • Building games, like Sim City or Farm Life, which take ship- and airplane-model building into fantastic new worlds.
  • Joystick games, in which the primary human activity is manipulating a joy stick, mouse or keyboard; joystick games carry on the spirit of pinballs, but add characters, storylines and a whole lot of violence.

(Note that games based on other experiences will reduce to one of these six types; for example a virtual horse race or football game combines fantasy life with games of luck, with a little skill built in, much as the old Stratomatic baseball with its spinners and pie charts did.)

It goes without saying that playing any of these types of games obsessively at any age signals that the player may suffer from an emotional problem. That’s true of electronic games now, and it was true of the non-electronic versions people played years ago.

But running down this list, what I see is that by type, the electronic games that do not infantilize adults build on non-electronic ancestors that did not infantilize adults in prior epochs.  Chess, checkers, Scrabble, trivia, Sudoku and any of the dozens of their electronic variations help people to keep their brains healthy. While I might prefer using an exercise bike or hitting a couple dozen balls at a batting cage, I can see that exercise games help people and families stay healthy. And I can understand why many people enjoy building both a model ship from matchsticks and a virtual city.

On the other hand, in former times, we considered adults (males) who gambled all day or hung out playing pin balls as immature, which means, retaining the traits of childhood.  They were immature back then, and so are the millions of adults today who regularly gamble online or play Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft or any other of the games that use fantasy themes to decorate what are really sophisticated joy stick games.   These games are inherently infantilizing, as opposed to the other types of electronic games which will infantilize only if pursued too many hours of the day.  As it turns out, these joystick games typically outsell all the other types of electronic games.

The categorization works well in theory, but in the real world, we also have to consider content. When we think of content as production values—realism of the motion, vividness of the colors and sophistication of the special effects—electronic games represent a stunning improvement over former versions of these game types.  But if we define content as complexity of thought process and character, discussion of issues, ambiguity of human situations, use of symbolism and realism of narrative, then we can see that all of the joy stick and many fantasy games operate on a  child’s level (even a child’s version of violence).  These games infantilize.

Reading, too, can infantilize, if the adult is reading a Harry Potter story instead of a good history book, Catch 22 or the latest Richard Powers or Don DeLillo novel.  I was wrong to blame computer games across the board for infantilization.  More precisely, then: That so many adults play electronic games of chance, joy stick computer games and fantasy games with childish qualities indicates that Americans are developing an infantilized culture, one in which we retain our childhood predilections and thought processes into adulthood. The danger resides, of course, in the fact that the immature child is more open to manipulation, control and exploitation than is a thinking adult.

2 thoughts on “Many electronic games are leading to the infantilization of American adults, but not all of them

  1. Mr. Jampole.

    First of all, I’d like to say that I appreciate you breaking games down into the rudimentary elements behind many of them (i.e. sports, fantasy, building, skill, etc.) That is true, any game of any kind is based around these elements.

    I am not a neuroscientist, so I can’t pretend to understand brain activity, but I do know that studies have been done that prove that watching TV puts the brain into almost the equivalent of sleep. I can’t imagine the same could be true of a game in which you are forced to interact, in real time, and make decisions that affect the outcome of the story.

    You mention only three specific mainstream games in this article (Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and Grand Theft Auto), all which have a proven demographic of players that are different than what many gamers consider “gamers.” I have worked in a Gamestop/EB Games for 5 years of my life, I’ve seen what sells, I’ve heard all the complaints over violence, etc. I have interned in a major video game development company for a year. I am no stranger to the ins and outs of this world. The people who buy those games also line up on schedule for every new Madden NFL and NBA 200-whatever release.

    Call of Duty, while played by its fair share of over 30 year olds, has a primary demographic of high school and college age males, all venting their testosterone (loudly and offensively) via online mics while they play round after round. I do not play Call of Duty, and my husband and brother who are both avid gamers (20+hours of gaming a week average) have both stopped playing the series due to the fact its begun pandering to immaturity and the “challenge” is gone. Granted the sales are through the roof but that’s riding on the coat tails of the predecessors quality. The game they now play? Battlefield 3 – a game that requires COOPERATION and heavy tactical communication to complete missions, attain ranks, and acquire new items/weapons, etc.

    World of Warcraft (WOW) only gets as much attention because it broke through what many other MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) were doing and found its unique niche. Before it, there was EverQuest and Final Fantasy 11 and there are still others like League of Legends that seek to get the same fame. WOW is in its aging days now, but it has such a massive collective of people playing for so many different reasons. I recommend you watch a documentary called “Second Skin” about 3 different gamers who play for all kinds of reasons (and different walks of life). It also discusses gaming addictions and why they happen. (but I’ll get to that in a second).

    Lastly, you bring up Grand Theft Auto (GTA). The series has almost the same demographic appeal as Call of Duty. It is what they call an open world game where you run about, take on various (illegal of course) missions, and ultimately complete a story line.

    Am I going to tell you that any of these games should win an Oscar? No I am not. Because they are not for thinking. Just like watching The Price Is Right is not for thinking. Neither is watching CSI on most nights, or episodes of 90210. Now I’m going to tell you where you’re wrong about the infantilization of gaming.

    There are SO MANY GAMES that have stories that would rival Oscar winning movies. I can’t sit through most movies because I have no involvement, but in a game, I take on a persona and I commit to completing a story. Not because it matters in the real world, but because I want to know how the story ends. Let me name a few games you probably have not heard of. Enslaved. Catherine. El Shaddai. Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Mass Effect. Assassins Creed (the series). Fallout 3. Red Dead Redemption. Limbo. Ilo Milo.

    Every game I just listed above has a story that was so compelling it kept people talking about it for months afterwards. In some of those cases they didn’t get sequels or make headlines because they were considered too “independent” which is code for “not a money maker.” Funny, when you think that some of the best artists were only the most famous after they were dead, yet died in poverty. Red Dead Redemption got a New York Times write up for its story telling, and I will tell you first hand that the ending of that game was on par with the Fight Club reveal or The Sixth Sense ending realization. The difference was, I had spent about 30 hours playing this game so by the time it happened it felt as if my own heart went with the character. I was emotionally engaged. My brain was DEFINITELY not asleep. I can say that about every other game I listed above. Limbo in particular I consider a work of art and has puzzles that will have you screaming in rage sometimes at their difficulty, but beaming with pride when you figure them out. Ilo Milo is a game that thrives on co-op play, my husband and I sat side by side and discussed puzzle solutions, on some levels it literally would take an hour.

    Mass Effect and Fallout 3 REQUIRE very difficult moral decisions that you can’t turn back on once you’re hours in. Sure you can reload a saved file and start over but that’s not how a gamer’s mind works. You create a character and you decide if you are going to save the world, or destroy it. You think “if this were the me I created, what would I do.” Its accessing questions that you will never be made to answer in the real world.

    This is real life bonding, real life communication, and this is the same kind of communication that takes place in a board room, on Wall Street, and more. I’m not going to tell you that games teach people to be better bankers. I am going to tell you that they are filling a void that movies can’t ever hope to fill and now that its gotten investors attention, they can make even more. There will always be schlock gaming, just like there will always be B movies. Why is The Expendables getting a sequel? It just is.

    I, however, can never sit idly by while people equate gaming to sitting on a couch moving some joysticks around (by the way they’re called analogs now, in very advanced tech controllers that cost $60 and up each). There is so much invested in each game, and, like art, people pick what they want to see and be a part of. I have played games so scary that I have thrown the controller, I’ll admit it. But I picked it back up and got through it. (Condemned: Criminal Origins) I refuse to watch scary movies though, because I have no control and I don’t like feeling powerless.

    Why is gaming so big? Because it gives people the chance to play and control someone they will never be. I can’t ever ride a dragon. I can’t ever save the world. I’m not strong enough to hold off an alien invasion. Supernatural puzzles and dreams that haunt the waking world don’t exist, but I’d sure love to be part of an elite force that deals with them if they did. Games are an escape, and right now the world is hurting. It’s not a drug kind of escape, it is a RELEASE. A release of aggression, creativity, and more.

    Most importantly, please note that most of the games I mentioned above are rated either T (for Teens) or M (for Mature 17 and up). These are not being made for children and they deal with issues like rape, infidelity, war, violence, cruelty, injustice, genocide, and racism. This is a way for us to take real life pains, and bring our sense of justice to them. I don’t know what the brain science scans say about that, but I can tell you that’s how I feel, and how all my friends (who are gamers) feel as well.

    In conclusion, I’ll tell you some of my other hobbies. I love to paint, write, draw. I love to walk and occasionally hike. I love animals. I have worked in marketing and I’m currently unemployed (like so many others). I am intelligent. I had a 3.97 GPA out of college. The games I play are intelligent, and the people that made them sure as hell are more intelligent than I am. I suggest you watch a few of their official trailers, or read the summaries of the games I listed above. I understand its hard for a non gamer to truly understand. I’ve been trying to explain this to my Mom for years. But when I do? I always start with the story. The second she asks me, intrigued, “Well than what happened??” I tell her “you’ll just have to play the game to find out.”

    I hope this gives you a better understanding. I see where you are coming from if that’s all you’ve been witness to, but please give my opinion a chance, and realize there’s a lot more to this “joystick” nonsense than meets the eye.

    He110Ne0 – from Twitter
    Real Name, Erika Haase. 27 years old.

  2. That’s interesting. I think you might want to perhaps eliminate (or combine with another category) “joystick” games to something else, so as to remain relevant in current discussion — nobody has really used a joystick on the computer for a long time (other than flight simulator games) and the little joysticks on console controllers are called thumbsticks or other similar names. As I’m sure you’re aware, the terms used to frame a discussion can have a large impact on the discussion iitself. 🙂

    Also, fitness games are not necessarily “fitness” inspiring. For instance, I had a roommate once who was great at Wii Sports, but he never did more than sit on the couch and wriggle his wrist a bit.

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