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How Video Games Are Changing the World

From politics to pop culture to how we live. A Tyee interview.

By Ron Yamauchi 1 Feb 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Ron Yamauchi is a Vancouver writer and chronic reality-show participant. See him here and here. Although a competent opponent for his children at games of Mario Kart: Double Dash, his gaming career peaked with NHL96 for the Sega Genesis.

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Is gaming the new golf?

As one of the first kids to play videogames in Vancouver (circa 1975, when Computer Space showed up in Woodward's downtown department store), I've been raised with this medium, and have watched games make the jump from obscure niche market to mainstream entertainment.

How is videogaming changing the world? Mark de Guerre, the director of Gamer Revolution, says that while boomers are having a "freak out about a medium they don't understand" gamers are now ubiquitous enough that presidents will soon game, just as they once played golf. Gamers' enjoyment is part "stick it to the Man," and part enjoyment of an artificial world as compelling (or more so) than the "real" one. And because "man is an animal that plays," it's one of the best ways to study culture -- now a thriving academic discipline called Game Studies.

Tonight on CBC, part one of the documentary Gamer Revolution tracks the increasing influence of video gaming in contemporary culture. Neither an alarmist rant nor technophile boosterism, Mark De Guerre's film examines the state of digital gaming today, as it expands from simple sport and war simulations to new applications like military recruitment, alternative social networks and even our sex lives.

Mark De Guerre spoke to The Tyee from Toronto, where he is putting the finishing touches on Part Two, to air Feb. 8. Here is what he had to say...

On whether games warp the young

"There is a coercing effect in a kid's mind.

"And while the ratings system [i.e. warning labels on violent games] is imperative, it's hard to enforce. If you get a kid playing BloodRayne you might get weird messages about women.

"Henry Jenkins, who is incredibly inspiring, says that Columbine [widely seen as an example of "gamers run riot'] is the first shot in the culture war -- boomers are having a freak-out about a medium they don't understand.

"And, there's a part of [gaming] culture that wants to stick it to the Man."

On blood and more blood

"Webber says that charismatic protagonists are important. A monster that is spurting green blood is one thing, but persistent red blood [not attached to a character gamers have bonded with] is another."

On whether he games

"No, I don't. I come out of an art background, and it never interested me.

"But it is a huge socio-cultural phenomenon. People absolutely should take it seriously.

"Kids who are disinterested in TV hopefully think we get it right. There has been some online chat about it. And they said things like 'actually, it wasn't too bad.'"

On digital growling

"There's a new medium. Games are amazing. It is said that "man is the animal who plays." Other mammals play. You have a dog pulling on a rag, growling, pretending to be angry -- what is that about?

"Play is a paradigm through which we can interpret the world. Games now train troops, do propaganda."

On how games change the world

"We don't know yet. It remains to be seen. It's something like what literacy was. In Syria for instance, that game [Under Siege, a first person shooter that shows heroic freedom fighters shooting hordes of cruel Israeli forces] is incredibly powerful. I was told over there that their kids don't read, but this gets the information to them nonverbally."

On how 'Starcraft' players are national heroes in Korea

"[In Korea,] they kind of don't have social critiques of technology. Here, people go 'Wait, hold on, that phone'll give you tumours!' But Asia doesn't seem to be cautionary. I mean, they still smoke in China. And there's a level of nationalism...they won't play Sony games because they hate the Japanese. And there's a heroism reserved for people who master technology. The way we might think of chess masters, game stars are seen as highly intelligent masters of strategy. Asians really respect intelligence, is what I believe."

On whether Canadians respect intelligence

"Ha ha, no."

On whether gaming is anti-social or community building

"It's both. In terms of online gaming, there's clearly a community of shared interests. It's isolating in that you're not as physically in touch with people. In the Norway part of the documentary, you see 6,000 kids coming together to play. They say, 'Hey it's you!' But after a couple of hours, they go back to their computers, to text-message the guy 40 feet away."

On whether the game world is better than reality

"I do see that. It's weird, there's so much heroic fantasy. There's the idea that we spend our days in a world where there's no recognition of accomplishment. But then if you go home and have a Level 60 character in World of Warcraft, you're admired and powerful.

"But it's not just escape, there's a responsibility to the games. 'Oh God, I have five hours of grinding to do!' You can't be in a guild and not show up."

On dorky players

"Most of the players still are dorky boys. You always hear that the average age is 30 and that Warcraft increased the MMO [massive multiplayer online] audience enormously. And they keep talking about what women will play, but it's a non-moving market; it just sits there. So you're not connecting with half the planet."

On avatar love

"The virtual world is, inarguably, a massive deal. The virtual world as it is constituted in these games is [as powerful as the virtual world created in] The Matrix. There's no question that people have an attachment to their avatars. I find that mind-blowing.

"Then, going to Korea, I found that incredible. On one hand, [the gaming market there] is run by these Machiavellian promoters. It's mind-blowing to see 20,000 people all staring at two [gaming] nerds."

On how gaming needs to rock out

"Unlike rock music, to which gaming has a certain comparison, I'd like to see more activism, more political engagement. There's very little indie spirit. It's like Hollywood with the blockbuster phenomenon. Who'll be the Sex Pistols of games? Or the Bob Dylan? Gaming is so apolitical. In certain respects, it has a very conservative worldview.

"But like how the Sims happened, the changes will be something we can't anticipate. Something will come along that stirs things up."

On how gaming is the new golf

"Being a non-gamer still isn't like not being able to operate a computer. That'd be like not having a credit card.

"But now with Warcraft, [in certain workplaces] it is like people now have to play. It's like the new golf.

"There's a lot of stuff being written about how things are going to be, like a president of the U.S.A. who's a gamer. We went through that with a president who was a rock and roller, who played the saxophone. Some gamers are now 40 years old. Are they all Rambos? Do they play well in teams? Will they show the countercultural energy of people from the 60s who loved rock and roll but then got jobs and grew mullets to show that they still partied even though they are respectable in front?"

On information only intelligible to other gamers

"[Seeing the last E3] was a mindblower, but I was so sick of it by the second day. The racket! You can't hear yourself think."

Related Tyee stories:

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