REFLECTIONS ON VIDEO GAMES
Valdemar W. Setzer
In practically every public lecture I have given lately about problems concerned with TV and Computers in Education (a total of 120 up to the end of 1992; see the complete list), questions have been asked about my opinion on video games. As I generally do with the other two themes, let us begin by making a phenomenological observation of those games and their users, with special emphasis on children. It will then be possible to draw conclusions about their consequences, and what attitude one may take in relation to them.
Video games are composed in general of three main components: a keyboard, an exhibition screen where some figures are displayed, and a microcomputer. There are some variants which employ instead of (or in addition to) the keyboard "joy sticks" or a light detector in the form of a gun, which detects to what region of the screen one is pointing it. Let us consider here the most popular control device, the keyboard; every consideration will be valid to the other ones.
In general, the microcomputer produces animated figures on the screen. The player observes them and makes short movements with his/her fingers, punching keys on the keyboard. The microcomputer detects which keys have been punched, and produces changes in some of the displayed figures. I will cover here only the most typical game, where the player plays against the apparatus, and has to exercise rapid reactions to the changes of the figures. If the reaction is a slow one, there will be loss of points in the game or eventually of the game itself.
The player's hands and arms almost do not move. As the screen is fixed and quite small (both in the portable little game, which the player holds close to him, or in the case of a TV screen, which stays farther apart from him), there is no head movement. The player is normally seated, so one may observe a general physical passivity, with the exception of small hand and finger movements. From the point of view of his/her senses, only vision and eventually hearing (when there is sound, in general noise, emitted by the machine) are partially active. The "partially" is due to the inactivity of most of the eye functions: the crystalline lens is not activated (constant distance to the object), as well as the pupil (constant luminosity), and the muscles which produce eye movements (fixed object). The sound is practically punctual, coming from the loudspeaker. Both vision and hearing are not stimulated by fine images and sounds, because these are very rough, that is, an acuity effort is not required.
Feelings are being activated, as one may observe through the expressions of success or frustration shown by the player. This activity is produced by an external stimulation, that is, it is not due to some mental representation, innerly created by the player, as it would have been the case of remembering something or of reading or hearing words. These feelings are artificially created, and have nothing to do with the "reality" of the world. Let us call them "feelings of challenge".
The will is active, but in a very partial way, because the movements the player has to perform are very limited. They are made without effort, thus there is no need to exercise will power. The player is so excited that he/she does not have to make a will effort to concentrate and continue playing. On the contrary, he/she needs a strong inner effort to stop playing, because the game exercises a tremendous attraction.
The player's conscious thinking is damped. One may contrast this situation to that of a chess player. In this case, thinking is absolutely essential and motor movements totally secondary. In a video game, the latter are essential, and conscious thinking only disturbs the play.
Automatic and rapid motor movements, damped conscious thinking, feelings of challenge stimulated by exact objectives: this state leads us to characterize the player as an automaton, a machine that transforms restricted visual impulses into extremely limited motor movements. As a matter of fact, one may imagine the player substituted, with great advantage from the point of view of winning points, by a machine. On the other hand, he/she is reduced to reactions typical of animals, which follow impulses originated from their outside, without reflecting on the consequences of their acts, that is, acting as amoral beings. As an animal, the player does not act in freedom, because the latter requires conscious reflection. For example, one cannot say that a drunkard acts in freedom, because he/she is not self-conscious, thinking on his/her actions and its consequences.
Another aspect is what one could call the player's "de-individuation." In thinking, we are universal beings, because we may, through it, enter in touch with objective, universal ideas, as e.g. mathematical concepts. For example, the concept of circle does not depend upon the thinker's subjectivity. On the other hand, feelings and will are individual, subjective inner activities: one person feels a stimulus and reacts to it in different ways than other people. In the case of video games, feelings and will are forced to fit a standard, which is practically the same for every player. That is, the game does not individualize, on the contrary, it "massifies". One could object that, for each game situation, there is a number of different motor actions which may be performed. Firstly, this variation is extremely limited, characterizing a rigid standard. Secondly, the feeling of challenge is practically the same for everybody, with obvious variations in the degree of involvement. Compare this situation with that of reading a romance: the text, that is, the sensorial stimulus, is the same for all readers; nevertheless, feelings and actions based upon them will be totally different, because every reader creates his/her own inner images. The latter are adapted to the reader's personality, tastes and experience. During the game, as with TV viewing, there is nothing to be imagined, because images come ready on the screen.
How is it possible to understand the obsession which certain people feel for these games, becoming unable to switch them off during many hours, eventually for months? As we have seen, the player's thoughts are damped so he/she stops thinking on his/her problems. The excitement due to the competition setting fastens the player to the situation created by the machine, so his/her normal feelings are also damped. This may be highly desirable for someone who leads a boring life, or who would like to forget his/her unpleasant day-to-day life, worries and frustrations. Unfortunately, these problems are not faced and solved: it was a mere temporary escape from them.
With all this, one may conclude that in terms of behavior video games have as a consequence, from one side the "animalization" of the human being, from another his "machinezation." Both mean his destruction, an extremely dangerous one, because it is very subtle and not physically perceptible. The situation is even more tragic when the player is a child or adolescent, because in these cases the person is yet in the process of building his/her inner capacities. Thus, he/she is much more malleable and transformable than an adult. In this respect it would be interesting to make eight observations.
The first point is connected to the well-known fact that nervous tissues, when damaged, do not recompose. Nevertheless, a neurological injury, which causes some disturbance, for instance a motor one, may be by-passed with physiotherapeutic exercises. This way the injured person eventually recovers the mastering over lost movements. It is assumed that new "neurological pathways" are employed, which were not in use before. The video game probably creates such new pathways in the user, so that he may execute the specific, extremely specialized abnormal visual and motor functions required by the game. Is this good or bad? Certainly, the use of these new "channels" is not normal, because the situation that created them is totally artificial, and does not occur in normal life. The situation will, later on, probably give rise to unconscious reactions in situations similar to those presented by the games. As children are precisely developing their neurological paths, which are intimately connected to the development of their abilities to walk, speak and think, the establishment of these new pathways is in their case much easier. I believe that this is one of the reasons why they play those games much better than adults. (Another reason could be the fact that children do not have the fully developed and active thinking and consciousness characteristic of adults, so they do not have to make any efforts to "switch off" these inner activities.) Maybe the "abnormal" channels even disturb the "normal" ones, so I would not be surprised with the fact that a child would become dyslexic, would develop nervous ticks, or would acquire speech or concentration problems as a consequence of intensive game usage. I have recently heard of some news published in American newspapers, telling that some children addicted to video games spoke too fast, without much sense and with no feeling contents. This fact suggests the impression that those children spoke with a speed analogous to the use they make of their fingers when playing the games. Let us recall that there is a correspondence between speaking and gesturing, which is physiologically explained by the vicinity of the motor and speech neurological centers in the brain. It seems to me that those children were mimicking machines.
The second point refers to the specialization forced by the games. Children and adolescents should be generalists, and not specialists. The human being takes from 1/4 to 1/3 of his lifetime (about 21 years) to become an adult, with all his functions properly developed. Animals highly accelerate this period, as for instance a foal, which is able to stay on its legs just about two hours after birth. As a consequence, they become specialized in the functions which are typical of the species. The human being may specialize himself in any function, because he is not physically specialized, preserving embryonic physical features (neoteny). The most typical example of this fact is perhaps that of our hands: most of the frontal paws of animals are super-specialized, adequate to the functionality which characterizes the species, contrary to our hands. The latter preserve during the whole life their non-specialized embryonic stage and, as a result, we may use them to write, to paint, to play musical instruments, to caress, to do all sorts of refined actions which animals cannot do. (As a side observation, note that in this sense our hands are less evolved than animal paws...) I am against early specialization of children, as for instance in the case of young athletes, or learning how to write before age 7. The case of artistic specialization is a bit different; as an example, I consider that an intensive musical training should preferably start around puberty and never before school age. The early specialization forced by video games is one further aspect of the "animalization" caused by them.
The third point refers to the fact that video game of the type considered here always feature a competition scenario and are connected to (induce) a desire to win. I do not consider an education made through competitions to be a healthy one. The traditional objection is that our modern world is a competitive one, and it is good to prepare the child or adolescent for this situation as early as possible. My answer is that there is a right time for everything in education. Analogously, if cars are part of our life, why not teach and let children drive with, say, 7 years of age? Sex is also part or our life; why not, then, begin showing and teaching it at early ages, as in Huxley's Brave New World? My four children were educated, as far as possible, without competitions, and as they got to adulthood, they adapted themselves extremely well, without problems, to the proper social situations. I think one of the reasons for the increasing social miseries in the world is precisely the education for competition, instead of educating for cooperation, for tolerance, for social consciousness and sensitivity, for personal dedication to the benefit of others and of nature. It is a fact that when someone wins and becomes happy, someone else loses and becomes unhappy - a quite anti-Christian situation, so I am always surprised when religious people of this line promote competitions... Has someone heard of an addicted player letting the opponent win to make him happy?
The fourth point is based upon the fact that humans record everything that occurs to them during their life (as a matter of fact, our memory is apparently infinite, which is one of the strong indications that we are not machines, that is, reducible to just physical and chemical processes). One is eventually not able to remember some experience, but it is nevertheless recorded "somewhere" and may be eventually recalled in special states such as hypnosis. Thus, independently of the time someone dedicates to a video game, these experiences will be recorded forever in the subconscious. In states of diminished consciousness, such as stress, lack of sleep, danger, fury, the person may react as conditioned by video games. It will also be the recording of the reduction of his/her personality to machine and animal behaviors. Children record much more deeply than adults: that is the reason why many psychoanalysts search for happenings occurred during infancy to explain psychic pathologies. Thus, children are specially vulnerable.
The fifth point resides in the fact that in general video games present scenes of violence. How is it possible to understand such a fact? It suffices to remember that conscious thoughts are not active while playing a action/reaction game, contrary to feelings. Well, scenes of violence hit precisely our feelings, maintaining the typical player's state of excitement. The designers of these games know very well how to grab the naive and the innocents... As we have seen in the previous item, all these scenes remain recorded in the player's mind, so one may well imagine its consequences along the time, mainly in the case of children who are more open and receptive to impulses coming from the environment. If it would not be like that, children would not have their fantastic ability to learn by imitation.
The sixth point is based upon the facts that children are unable to understand the bad effects the games may produce upon them, and that the games are irresistibly attractive. Everyone knows that children may keep playing with them for hours, in consecutive days. It does not help to show them that this is hot healthy, because they are unable to follow and understand concepts as those presented here. Moreover, even if this would be possible, they would have no possibility of controlling themselves.
The seventh point concerns the fact that small children learn by playing and imagining. As with TV, video games do not leave space for imagination, because their images come ready and are too fast. The child cannot assume a contemplative attitude. Healthy children are always in a state of constant activity, either in their interaction with the environment or in inner imaginations. The fact that children are forced to assume a state of almost total passivity (in the case of TV, it is total) should make them hyperactive, unable to concentrate on anything after switching the machine off. This may also lead to sleep disturbances due to the violent scenes and a day full of inactivity, both imaginative and physical.
Finally, the eighth point deals with ideal toys for children. Besides giving incentive to broad physical activities or to imagination (for instance, a rag doll, where there is everything to be imagined, compared to a plastic doll with face and limbs in perfect imitation of a human being), toys should be simple, so that the child may understand them. I am not referring here to abstract, intellectual understanding. When a child plays ball with his/her hands, he/she does not need to understand the movement caused by the impulse, by gravitational attraction and the air resistance. He/she enters intuitively in touch with these facts of nature, "understanding" them non-intellectually and using them to catch the ball. Well, the functioning of a video game will always be an incomprehensible mystery, something with which the child will never be able to identify him/herself. And if it occurs, this identification would be taking place with a machine, something which I like to denote as being "sub-natural", inferior to nature.
Thus, I have to conclude that video games damage their users, should not be utilized, even for short periods of time, and their ill effects are much worse with children and adolescents. To those that would object, saying that they have the right to have some leisure, I would answer: what kind of leisure is this that reduces the human being to the behavior of an animal or even to that of a machine? Leisure should be used to move ourselves out of the (eventually unhappy) day-to-day life. They should permit us to exercise activities that elevate ourselves, instead of diminishing us as full humans. For example, a professional activity may force someone to think about unpleasant or even immoral things. This would be for instance the case of an advertising specialist, who is obliged to invent ways of inducing consumers to buy goods which they do not need, or products which are inferior or more expensive than similar ones. As a matter of fact, any advertisement which contains the expression "this is the best product" falls into this category. Another example could be a computer programmer, forced to think during the whole day using a formal logical-symbolic programming language, in a very restricted mathematical space which is that of algorithms. For such people, there is the need of a leisure time that should "clean," but not eliminate, their thinking and feelings, a true mental and feeling "hygienics," so necessary in our aggressive times. This is precisely the contrary to what a video game does. Another aspect with adults is that, when they use those games, they are reducing themselves to childish states: damped thinking and consciousness, dominance of feelings, lack of self-control, repression of one's individuality. Instead of exercising an activity which would lead them to the future, they are regressing to a state which they have already left behind.
What are the consequences of using these games? I could conjecture many. One of them could be a mental rigidity, leading for example to fixed ideas, due to the extremely rigid and limited environment presented by the machine. Another one could be difficulty in social relations, because people do not react in a foreseeable way as these apparatuses. One loses the ability of improvising in social circumstances, which are always ill-defined (for example, obviously there is no exact recipe to make two friends reconcile). Moreover, as I have already pointed out, the situation of competition and the desire to win are anti-social. Still another consequence could be the creation of a mentality inclined towards obsessions, because this attitude is directly connected to the constant use of the games, trying to score more points every time. The worst of all influences could be the eventual induction of a materialistic mentality, of admiration for machines and the belief that they will bring well being and happiness. All these influences obviously greatly increase if players are children, because they do not have the capacity to criticize and understand the processes involved, besides not having the self-control which one expects to find in conscious and responsible adults.
I have covered some negative aspects. I will certainly be called a "radical" if I do not point to some positive ones. Once a parent told me that his child had learned English through playing video games. Obviously, as has been pointed out, players specilize in the limited functions exercised while playing. Unfortunately, I think that the damages produced by the games are infinitely greater than the benefits. So please do not call me "somewhat radical". My concepts and observations have led me to be totally against video games. But I am not alone: radical is the actual situation of immense propagation of these games, maybe present in almost every home that has the economic means of buying them. I have in my hands an issue of the most important newspaper of São Paulo, the "O Estado de São Paulo." Its weekly supplement for children and teenagers dated February 2, 1992, pages 9 and 10, has a section on objects for sale or exchange by individuals, with a total of 80 items. 61 of them, that is, 75% announce video games. The rest deals with bicycles, book collections, etc. The exaggeration and radicalism are in my arguments or in the state this miserable world has reached? Furthermore, it is necessary to recognize that education is full of radicalism: how many parents allow their small children playing in a street of a city with intensive traffic? How many parents allow their small children to smoke or drink alcohol? The lesson is the following: as long as something is recognized as being educationally incorrect, it has to be radically avoided. The question here is that I recognize the ill effects of TV, videogames and computers on children and teenagers, so I have to be consistent and say that children and teenagers should not have access to them.
What shall be done? I am against prohibitions, and think that any initiative should come from the individual consciousness, as long it is adult and responsible. In this sense, I hope that my considerations will be used as a basis for personal observations and study, giving incentive to everyone reaching his own conscious conclusions. If these are the same as mine, I think there is only one way out of the problems caused by these games: if the person or home does not have video games, they should not be installed. If games are already present, they should be thrown into the garbage (giving them out to other people would injure the latter). To parents, I would like to recall that these games have been just recently introduced and that every adult of our days has not played with them when he/she was a child. If these adults have survived without video games, why should not the children of our times? If an adult wants to injure himself, what is the right we have to forbid him? (Let us remember that nobody is sentenced for having attempted suicide.) But, force - yes, as we have seen, those games are irresistible - mental and psychological injuries into defenseless beings as children and adolescents is really a criminal act.
A friend has told me, hearing some of these arguments, that her daughter had played video games for many hours a day during seven months, and that she continued to be a "normal" teenager. (Let us skip here the difference between "healthy" and "normal"; just as an example, having caries is normal, but certainly not healthy...) According to my concepts, a great damage has been done to the girl. This damage does not eventually manifest itself immediately and clearly, because the main influence of those games is non-physical and, as we have seen, remains recorded forever.
A common argument could be: but how are my children going to play and have leisure? This shows to what extent of degeneration our "civilization" has attained. If parents have not given their children an education which would lead them to healthy playing and leisure, as for instance reading, sports, artistic and social activities, it is always time for a change in attitude and to begin assuming the responsibility, the love and sacrifice which parenthood should represent. It is typical of our times that people like to cry for their rights, but forget their duties. Renouncing education, leaving it in the hands of the "elecronic babysitters" of other times (TV) or new ones (video games and personal computers), means issuing a certificate that one does not deserve the title of father or mother. There is nowadays an increasing need to turn the home into a protective nest, against the truly demoniac forces that are trying to furtively destroy the human being as such. For this, it is necessary to avoid some typical ideas imposed by those forces, as for instance that education should be "libertarian", without repression. Not having those games at home - or, much more complicated, not letting children and adolescents use them - is not being repressive. It means protecting them against an attack which in many senses is worst than physical ones, which worry so many people nowadays, just because they are visible. Does it not seem obvious that, as it is the case with physical attacks upon humans (for instance, pollution) also the psychic and psychological must be increasing? Our possibilities of being free beings are increasing, and in parallel there is an increase of the attacks against this freedom, mainly surreptitious ones. Because of that, modern times require more and more critical attitudes, self-awareness, knowledge and consciousness. Human beings reduced to reactions of animals or machines have lost their freedom and do not behave as humans in a broad, holistic sense.
I hope that my words may produce the beginning of awareness leading to reflections and actions. The world is getting worse and worse, so to change this trend we have to act more and more, in freedom and with love, true human love, impossible to be exercised by animals and, absurdly, by machines.
See also a translation into Polish by Marina Stepanenko with the title "Refelksje na temat gier wideo".
Postscriptum: Please note that this essay was written in 1993. Since then, dozens of scientific papers have demonstrated the correlation between playing violent video games and increase in aggressiveness, and other effects. See the references section of my paper, unfortunately still only in Portuguese, "Negative effects of TV, video games, computers and the Internet upon children, adolescents and adults".
Last revised: Jan. 5, 2012