In 1958, when Brookhaven National Laboratory physicist William Higinbotham invented the first video game — the primitive Tennis for Two game that was a direct precursor to Atari’s Pong, a 1970s phenomenon — he did it like a lark to play a annual open house for the public at the federal lab on Long Island, N.Y. While the game drew crowds of repeat users, the lab shut it down two years later, with the oscilloscope and computer it used shifting to other tasks.
A console war between Sega and Nintendo in the 1990s made video games a feature of modern life, and by the early 2010s, hundreds of millions of people were playing mobile games such as “Angry Birds”, “Fruit Ninja” and “Candy Crush Saga”. while waiting for a ride, a lesson or a light to change.
Given how many people fear change, it’s no surprise that this ubiquity has led to a huge backlash. For decades, many parents have viewed the games as addictive distractions that waste time that could be spent much more productively on other activities. Many health experts see them as exacerbating the dangerous physical fatigue of the couch potatoes first captivated by the rise of television in the mid-20th century as a hugely popular source of mindless entertainment. Deep thinkers grapple with the question of whether a moral distinction can be made between a virtual murder and one in real life. Many religious leaders have never stopped believing that there is something sinister—perhaps even demonic—about video games, to the point where mega-popular television evangelist Pat Robertson said good Christians should avoid them.
But it could be argued that far from being 1) a destructive force that silences Americans and 2) undermines key institutions, it has the opposite effect.
The first argument – that video games sharpen cognitive skills – has been around for years. It has gone from scorned to conventional wisdom on the brink. Nobody compares passive TV watching to the experience of games that require a constant series of consistent decisions.
In 2009, the European Union concluded that “video games can stimulate the learning of facts and skills, such as strategic thinking, creativity, collaboration and innovative thinking, which are important skills in the information society.”
In 2021, a comprehensive analysis of 27 studies on the topic found a common theme: “Cognitive skills such as perception, attentional control, and decision-making improve when subjects were trained with video games. … High school and college students who played video games perform better when given tasks.” associated with cognitive abilities compared to students who do not play video games.”
But the second argument — that video games provide massive, covert reinforcement for what many social scientists consider one of the fundamental elements of life in Western democracies — is rarely heard. The argument is particularly intriguing because it runs counter to cultural movements that disdain this fundamental element.
I am referring to the concept of Protestant ethics. In his hugely influential 1905 book, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” legendary German sociologist Max Weber argued that Puritan values emphasizing tenacity and hard work—and humiliating idleness—had morphed into a mass societal version. from Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism that “time is money.” The idea that religious devotion required a rejection of worldly things and materialism, Weber wrote, had been obliterated. No, this is not “greed is good”. But this view can be seen as an engine of capitalist conformity – one that pressures worker bees to play their part.
In 2014, Paolo Pedercini – a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a true game maker – offered his update on Weber: “Video Games and the Spirit of Capitalism.” He argued that the repetitive, task-closing, progress-rewarding nature of gaming reflected the same “compulsion for efficiency and control” that inspired capitalism. When 10-year-olds are elated by the steady progress through the Mushroom Kingdom in “Super Mario Brothers,” they are conditioned to have such a view of the challenges they will face as adults. When they function in a virtual universe in which “all elements and relationships … tend to be reduced to means and ends,” Pedercini wrote, they develop the tunnel vision that will serve them – and capitalism – as worker bees.
This is anathema to some progressives who are increasingly questioning the norms of Western professional behavior – including “perfectionism” and “timeliness” – and saying they reinforce the oppressive power structures that dominate the wealthy First World countries.
But these values don’t deter gamers. If they rebel against the status quo, it is not because they reject the capitalist rat race. It’s because they prefer the virtual version – even if it comes with no paycheck for the vast majority of them.
Gamers like to settle for the euphoric satisfaction that comes with a moment like finally defeating Malenia in ‘Elden Ring’. (Trust me. It’s a big deal.)
reed is deputy editor of the editorial and opinion section. Column archive: sdut.us/chrisreed. Twitter: @calwhine. Email: [email protected]