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.