The earliest home video game was PONG, an electronic table-tennis game which was launched in 1972 by Atari. By the end of 1976 over 20 different companies were producing video games for home use (Provenzo 1991, pp. 8-9). By 1982 people spent more money on video games than they spent on films and records combined (Turkle 1984, p. 59). In 1986, 95% of the software for home computers was in the form of video games (Skirrow 1990, p. 323). Nintendo, the single most popular home video game system in the USA, launched its hardware system in 1986 and by June 1988 had sold 11 million units. This caused a major revival in the flagging video game market. By the middle of 1989, Nintendo commanded about 80% of the video game market and had gross sales more than twice as large as Microsoft, America's largest computer software company (Provenzo 1991, pp. 13, 26).
Adventure games are related to rule-based fantasy role-play adventure games such as 'Dungeons and Dragons' which had their origins in the early 1970s, and which were particularly popular with children of 11 or 12 (Turkle 1984, p. 75). Playing computer-based adventure games seems rather like playing the role of the hero in a fantasy, science fiction or travel story. But one is a puppet master rather than directly present in the environment, and there is seldom a choice of character with whom to identify. Sherry Turkle, a sociologist, reports that children identify with the video game characters, citing a 12-year-old boy who felt that in playing 'you start taking the role of the person' (Turkle 1984, p. 66). 'Identification through action has a special kind of hold' (Turkle 1984, p. 79). However, Turkle argues that 'video games encourage identification with characters - from science fiction, or sports, or war stories - but leave little room for playing their roles' (Turkle 1984, p. 78). Unlike stories, in computer games there is neither a narrative line to follow nor character development.
Thomas Malone's study of children's preferences suggests that children do not necessarily find violent content attractive in computer games: the most popular games listed by 5- to 13-year-olds were not aggressive, and were preferred to war games. As with TV, it is action rather than violence on the screen which attracts children's attention (Greenfield 1984, p. 93). However, aggressive action in computer games does tend to attract boys and to alienate girls (Malone, in Greenfield 1984, p. 94). The social psychologist Philip Zimbardo declared: '"Eat him, burn him, zap him is the message rather than bargaining and cooperation' (in Provenzo 1991, p. 50).
The prime target audience for home video games systems consists of boys from 8-18 Those from 8-15 are the traditional heavy users of home video. The biggest group of primary users of Nintendo are 8-11 (about 36% of users), and the next largest group are adults 18+ (Provenzo 1991, pp. 11, 14). Boys often enjoy stories featuring adventure, fighting, travel, detection and technology (Skirrow 1990, p. 328). The typical male fascination with technology, and in particular the technologies of war, has often been suggested to have a psycho-sexual symbolic function. Aggression and violence are widespread in computer games. 'Most games tend to feed into masculine fantasies of control, power and destruction' (Philip Zimbardo, in Provenzo 1991, p. 50). Skirrow suggests that the death and destruction imagery is sometimes so extreme as to involve deliberate self-parody: e.g. 'Find and destroy the Dictator's battle headquarters and save Watford' (1990, p. 333). And 1993 TV ads for Nintendo games machines play on this with their use of the comedy actor Rik Mayall.
Video games are designed by males for other males. Females characters rarely have a leading role. In an analysis of 100 video arcade games Toles found that 92% had no female roles, and in the remaining 8%, 6% had females as 'damsels in distress' and only 2% in active roles - one an animal, one a blob (in Provenzo 1991, p. 61).
Skirrow suggests that high technology is unfortunately identified with male power and domination. She argues that girls are encouraged to be typically more interested in 'restorative' activities such as knitting, sewing, drawing and looking after babies than males, whilst young males tend to be more interested in combative action. She sees such activities as having a symbolic psychosexual function as differential responses to anxiety. Skirrow argues that males are attracted in particular to playing with the boundaries between anxiety and pleasure (ibid., p. 323). She notes the contrast between the dystopian nature of video game worlds and the utopian nature of feminist fiction (1990, p. 336). She sees the playing of video games in part as a male response to the fear about a growing transfer of power to computers (Skirrow 1990, p. 336).
Skirrow suggests that the actual reward for success in adventure games (e.g. finding the object of a quest) is disappointing. There is no extrinsic pay-off: people pay to play arcade games. The reward must be an intrinsic part of the process of playing. It has been suggested that 'computer games provide the ultimate chance to eliminate regret' (Loftus & Loftus 1983, p. 33): one may do better next time. Skirrow suggests that since narrative is lacking, what is motivating is surprise rather than suspense. Children have referred to the random element of computer games as attractive (Malone in Greenfield 1984, p. 91). As with watching television, children (especially boys) are attracted by rapid visual action on the screen. A survey of by Thomas Malone of the attitudes to computer games of Californian children aged 5 to 13 showed that children rate animated graphics much more highly than word games (Greenfield 1984, p. 89). But unlike TV, computer games are interactive: open to influence by the player, who is not only a viewer but also a doer. Greenfield cites two 9-year-olds girls who valued their active direction of video games compared with TV, where 'if you want to make someone die, you can't'. Computer games are experienced as happening 'now', and reactions typically have to be immediate. Their rapidity is a quality which is valued by children (Malone in Greenfield 1984, p. 91). Some commentators suggest that playing rapid-action computer games may tend to discourage reflection.
Thomas Malone found that the existence of a goal was the most important factor determining the popularity of games for children (Greenfield 1984, p. 91). Computer games present a challenge which initially seems almost impossible. Skirrow refers to this as a kind of 'crisis management' (1990, p. 331). Children particularly value a challenge in computer games, and can show surprising perseverance (Greenfield 1984, pp. 110-11). Multiple levels are popular features of computer games. Progress is visible and may add to a feeling of control. A 12-year-old boy who enjoyed arcade games reported that 'It's great, the pace speeds up, the monsters usually get smarter or whatever, chasing you. Usually they start chasing you closer' (Turkle 1984 p. 65). And the challenge goes on: a game doesn't end when a session ends; you may never reach the end at all.
Fantasy and simulation games also offer the vicarious experience of risk (injury or death) without real physical danger (though the risk of 'failure' is perhaps more actual). Video games demand a high level of attention: 'They give people the feeling of being close to the edge because, as in a dangerous situation, there is no time for rest and the consequences of wandering attention feel dire... In a video game, the program has no tolerance for error, no margin of safety... The game is relentless in its demand that all other time stop and in its demand that the player take full responsibility for every act, a point that players often sum up by the phrase, "One false move and you're dead"' (Turkle 1984, p. 79).
Turkle argues that children pass from a phase of musing about computers and their nature to a phase from around 9 or 10 in which they are more concerned with 'domination, ranking, testing, proving oneself..., mastery' (Turkle 1984, pp. 58-9). She sees this as a phase in which the computer has a special holding power 'whose roots are aggressive, passionate and eroticized' (Turkle 1984, p. 59).
Computer games appeal to fantasy - even freedom from the laws of time and space. It is a virtual environment in which gravity need not apply, time may go backwards, and you may have 9 lives. Magical transformation is possible: pigs can fly, people can disappear before your eyes or be transformed in monsters. But Turkle points out that 'beyond the fantasy, there are always the rules' (1984, p. 78). Turkle argues that young players appreciate the consistency of the strictly 'rule-governed' patterns in computer game worlds where events may be surprising but not completely arbitrary (1984, p. 77). Some games allow more scope to players than others. However, Turkle suggests that what is missing in computer fantasy games is the open-ended role-playing of free social play with one's friends in the real world, where there are no rules but there is empathy (ibid., p. 78; see also Provenzo 1991, pp. 88ff). In such play there is far more scope for acting out problems.
Turkle notes that whilst some people like 'testing their worth' against an unforgiving machine, others dislike the rigidity of such strictly rule-governed domains. They find it an 'intolerable... pressure, ...a taunt, a put-down' (Turkle 1984, p. 86). She suggests that this is one reason why many women don't like using computers. But I would add that a preference for ambiguity is a common cognitive style amongst those of either sex drawn towards the expressive arts rather than the sciences. My criticism of Turkle's point about games as tests is that most good games are not solely a test of skill, but offer an element of chance which can encourage those who are less confident of their current level of playing skill. Children, I would suggest, are well aware of this feature, and many prefer games in which they can blame luck for their failures.
Spatial skills are also involved in playing computer games: two-dimensional graphical representations may have to be reinterpreted into three dimensions using the conventions of linear perspective; coordination of several viewpoints may be required to achieve spatial integration (Greenfield 1984, p. 104). Adventure games draw upon lateral thinking (within a generic repertoire) for problem-solving. Strategic skills include knowing when to switch from offensive to a defensive strategies. Turkle argues that 'working out your game strategy involves a process of deciphering the logic of the game, of understanding the intent of the game's designer, of achieving a "meeting of minds" with the program' (Turkle 1984, p. 62). Despite varying in their openness, however, computer games rarely offer much scope for individual initiative or independent thought. Toles notes that in order to demonstrate mastery, players must conform to the framework of the program (in Provenzo 1991, p. 94).
The transfer of skills from game-playing to other contexts cannot be taken for granted (Greenfield 1984, pp. 103-4). Recurrent patterns are noticeable in many games and players draw on their general knowledge of these. Turkle notes that players do generalize strategies from one game to another: there is an element of 'learning how to learn'. Greenfield suggests that 'knowledge and skill can be of value in themselves even if they are not transferable' (Greenfield 1984, p 113). For some children, skill in playing computer games may offer them a sense of positive achievement, higher self-esteem, autonomy and control which they may rarely experience in other domains. Greenfield suggests that it may be worth studying computer games in school in order to assist the transfer and generalization of knowledge and skills.
Eugene Provenzo, an educationalist, notes that 'skill in and of itself is not enough; only expert knowledge provided by the makers of the machines or those involved in the deepest level of analysing them makes it possible to achieve the higher levels of the game' (Provenzo 1991, p.37).
In an Ohio survey reported in 1983, 73% of 11-year-olds reported owning a video game and an additional 17% a personal computer (Provenzo 1991, p. 32). These children reported spending an average of 2 hours per day playing video games. 52% of the boys and 38% of the girls played games at a video arcade at least once a week.
Computers have a special holding power, and Sherry Turkle notes that it is hard for some people 'to walk away from a video game on which you could do better next time' (1984, p. 85) but she characterizes as a myth the notion of 'mindless addiction' to computer games (by analogy with drugs) (1984, p. 60). A survey of 973 arcade game players in California showed that only a minority felt compelled to play, and about half were playing games for less than half the time that they were in the arcade. The rest of the time they were socializing. Only 7% spent their lunch money on the games (Brooks, reported in Greenfield 1984, pp. 86-7). Video game playing was seen by the researcher as a social activity to some extent, and not as addictive or compulsive as some critics suggest (Brooks, reported in Provenzo 1991, p. 53). Similar conclusions were reached in another Californian study of 151 players, approximately 10% of whom were identified as exhibiting any kind of compulsive behaviour, and no threat to engagement in physical sports or to academic achievement could be discerned (Egli & Meyers, reported in Provenzo 1991, p. 54). As for video game sets, diaries kept by 20 Californian families showed that the games were used an average of only 42 minutes a day per family (Mitchell, reported in Greenfield 1984, p. 87). This is far less than the average time spent daily watching TV. The researcher noted that video games brought these families together for shared recreation 'more than any other activity in recent memory' (Mitchell, reported in Provenzo 1991, p. 54).
Greenfield suggests that 'perhaps the most valuable thing we can learn is not how to make the games less addictive but how to make other learning experiences, particularly school, more so' (Greenfield 1984, p. 112). Sherry Turkle reports that 'protest against video games carries a message about how people feel about computers in general': parents are generally less at ease with technology than their children, and are uncomfortable about the rapidity of technological developments (Turkle 1984, p. 59). Parental concern may also reflect a fear of losing control over young people.
Provenzo notes that 'Nintendo is one of the great equalizers in the youth culture because it allows an eight-year-old to approach a fifteen-year-old and discuss something as peers' (Provenzo 1991, p. x). Novice players sometimes seek the advice of expert players in acquiring strategies. Turkle argues that some of the skills of computer game-playing 'constitute a socialization into the computer culture' (1984, p. 61), introducing them, for instance, to what one 12-year-old boy called 'the secrets' of strictly 'rule-driven' domains (ibid., p. 74).
A 1984 study of 244 children of 10-14 at a summer sports camp showed that video games rated as more fun than human friends, that the games taught about others or served as surrogate companions and were valued for solitude or escape (Selnow, reported in Provenzo 1991, pp. 63-4). This may be a problem with heavy users. Talking 'to' the machine whilst playing is common. One study showed that verbalizations consisted largely of apologies, exclamations and thinking aloud. The order of frequency of pronouns used to refer to the machines was 'it', 'he', 'you' and 'they'. Personal pronouns were used more often when games were more difficult, which the researchers interpreted as attributing 'intelligence' to the machine. Another study has shown that communication with anyone other than one's close friends in the arcade is taboo (reported in Loftus & Loftus 1983, p. 87).
Arcade games have the special feature of being able, from day to day, to record and display the initials or name of the top players and their scores. Turkle notes that 'the players whose names are up on the screens of a game in "their" arcade form a competitive community, and one of mutual recognition' (Turkle 1984, p. 65). She cites a 12-year-old boy who reported, 'Everyone knows my initials.' Turkle notes that the stage at which young people meet computers is a phase in growing up when identity is almost synonymous with mastering new things. She sees computer games as being used by young people to set themselves a challenge to their powers of control (Turkle 1984, p. 88).
Sherry Turkle argues that 'a the heart of the computer culture is the idea of constructed, "rule-governed" worlds' (Turkle 1984, p. 60), and that this feature of consistent formal (but not moral) rules appeals to children (ibid., p. 74). Karen Sheingold has suggested that too much control over the fantasy worlds of video games may lead players to be impatient with the messy, less controllable world of real life in the social world (cited in Greenfield 1984, p. 114). Turkle reports that one 12-year-old boy who enjoyed arcade games felt 'sort of cut off' when not playing: 'It doesn't make me angry, more like depressed. You walk out of the arcade and it's a different world. Nothing that you can control' (Turkle 1984, p. 66). She notes that in certain circumstances some people come to prefer to the structured, rule-governed worlds of computer games to the less predictable events of the real world (ibid., p. 77).
A 1984 study of 258 working-class children of 11-13 found that video arcades do not seem to contribute to delinquent behaviour in youths. The few players whose behaviour in the arcades was sometimes deviant were already engaged in anti-social behaviour (Ellis, reported in Provenzo 1991, p. 59).
Video games can be seen as reflections of dominant cultural values, in their representation of gender roles, in their competitive and individualistic style, and in their foregrounding of aggression and violence.
Daniel Chandler, UWA
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