Good and Bad Video Games: The Divide Widens

Have you ever heard of No, this isn’t an Internet hangout for hard-core gamers that fit the stereotypical image. Instead, this is an initiative project founded at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington DC.

The goal of the project is to (deep breath), “…help usher in a new series of policy education, exploration, and management tools utilizing state of the art computer game designs, technologies, and development skills.”

In real English, that means they want to exploit the technology stuffed into that video game console in your family room and use it to help people learn and grow into productive human beings. (Did I just say “productive human beings” and “video game” in the same sentence?)

Unfortunately, it will likely be a while before these games are coming home with your cheerful teens. With the exception of a couple of candy-coated somewhat educational titles which could be barely classified as “serious” (like the popular SimCity), most of these early trials are going to find their markets in human resource offices and high schools.

But there is a reason we should listen to what these “good” game developers have to say (and it isn’t just because we want to see something useful happen with your kid’s X-Box). These researchers (and their investors) are recognizing how video games can condition people to alter their behavioral habits.

Here’s a recent example that may have hit your newspaper: Researchers at McGill University in Canada have done extensive testing with some games that are designed with the specific goal of increasing the user’s self esteem.

Playable on-line at, these titles aren’t going to blow you away with million dollar graphics and sound effects. Instead, they appear deceptively simple. In one scenario, you see pictures of people smiling, looking smug or frowning. The goal is to click on the smiley pictures. In another game, you click on your own name or birth date, which is displayed amongst other names and dates.

After trying it out for a few minutes, I wasn’t quite ready to tell that guy on the beach to quit kicking sand in my face, but I could see how repetitive play may help me to seek out people who will make me feel better about myself.

Yet, think about what this means. Parents have long wondered if playing video games really can affect their children. Now the logic seems clear. If PhD’s are convinced these simple little games can make me believe I’m a better person, what will a few hours behind a first-person-shooter, with surround sound and mega-detailed graphics, persuade me to think?

That question was lingering in my mind when I discovered an article authored by video game producer Josh Holmes, who works with game giant “EA” in Canada. Titled Flipping the Script: Redefining the Fighting Game he speaks about the efforts he and his creative team went through to construct their latest product, Def Jam: Fight for NY, which releases to retail stores on September 20, 2004.

He begins with two questions: “What makes a great fighting experience,” and “Is there anyone out there who isn’t completely bored with the traditional fighting game?”

Wishing to address these issues in their new Def Jam: Fight for NY game, the developers wanted to create a fighting system that allowed any new player to pick up the controls and do some “cool stuff.”

Their research began by identifying the most exciting aspects of fighting… creative moves, like breaking a pool cue over your opponent’s head or “raking his face across a chain-link fence.” Next they wanted to make a control system that allowed the player to “pull off these attacks easily and naturally…”

Then they wanted to go one step further. Rather than have their characters fight on a static stage, they wanted to involve the complete environment.

Holmes explains it this way: “So in the subway station, not only can fighters beat their opponent silly with their fists or slam a character headfirst into the pillars, pop machine, and newspaper box, they can get really serious and toss them in front of the moving train.”

He confides there’s also a bit of a scavenger hunt angle, where you can find “powerful goodies” to use to your advantage. “If you get slammed into the dumpster at Hunt’s Point Scrap Yard, your opponent can knock a welding torch loose. At Club Babylon, a character can grab one of the fluorescent lighting tubes off the wall and smash it over someone’s head. In Gun Hill Garage, fighters can loosen the muffler on an SUV and then use it to beat some sense into their opponent.”

Ever wanting to please his gaming customers, Holmes recognizes it’s “fun to break stuff:” “Seriously, what is more satisfying than having a fighter busting up a jukebox using his opponent’s face, or kicking someone through the wooden support beams that are holding up the roof?”

Note that word “satisfying.” Here is a developer on the other side of the fence, using a term that indicates a change of condition in the player of the game.

A look at any Top Ten Games list reveals EA isn’t alone in peddling hard-core violence to gamers. However, it also indicates how far away we are from seeing any significant influence of the research being put into creating positive video games.

In my cynical mind’s eye, I can see a typical day in these two offices, locating at opposite ends of Canada. There’s staff at McGill in Montreal, furiously working on embedding smiley faces into more sophisticated gaming scenarios. Meanwhile Holmes and his staff in Vancouver work under his adage of “Nothing says ‘I don’t like you’ like breaking a bat across your opponent’s face.”

Sadly, I think I know who will win in the short term…

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