Intellectual or Ineffectual: The Role of Games in Modern Culture

Mike Jennings 01/09/2007

Go on, tell me. What's your perception of gaming. Just for kids? Fun, but not exactly requiring massive levels of intelligence? I suppose you're right: only kids play games, then you grow up, grow out of it, and move on to more acceptable fare like books and films. I'll see you in a coffee house, then, with a comic book hidden inside your copy of Sartre before you leave for the cinema. Die Hard 4.0, is it? Fair enough. Far worthier of your time than a game.

Or is it? Games, lets face it, don't have the best reputation as something that'll hold up in a serious cultural discussion - but do they deserve this downtrodden distinction? Not many people know that the main demographic of games players isn't the adolescent market who are usually associated with this particular pursuit: it's actually 20-35 year old men. So why do games have such an undeniably immature stature with most of the public? It's a difficult question, but one that needs to be answered: the view of gaming that most people have - only for the kiddies - is as outdated as the Atari's they probably played through the night when they, themselves, were younger.

That's not to say, before I begin to sing the praises of the particular form of entertainment I love so much, that there is nothing inherently childish about gaming. Just as there are children's books, films, and music, there are children's games. And, just as equally, there are children's games that can be enjoyed by adults. For every Shrek, Harry Potter and Aqua (don't tell me you don't guiltily enjoy Barbie Girl - you're lying) there's a Ratchet and Clank - a PS2 adventure game that, whilst aimed at children via colourful graphics and cartoon styling, has enough depth of gameplay and is so well designed it'll entertain anyone. For every Happy Feet or Northern Lights there's Sonic the Hedgehog. I know for a fact that this is a children's game turned adult distraction: my parents used to wait until I was asleep and sneak the Megadrive out of my room to play.

But to label gaming with the tag that all titles are like this is naive, in the same league as if you were to label all books as juvenile after reading Jacqueline Wilson's back catalogue. There's plenty of mature, intellectual and positive gaming going on - it's just doesn't hit the mainstream press and generate the talking points that, say, Schlinder's List did. It takes time, of course, which is where gaming is at a disadvantage - books have been around for centuries, film for the last hundred years. I'm sure people were sceptical about the printing press when it burst onto the literary scene, and cinema was described as 'little more than a fad' by none other than Charlie Chaplin. One of the Warner brothers himself said 'Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?' when the technological breakthrough that allowed that particular development first appeared. Just two examples of many put-downs regarding these so-called 'flash in the pan' industries. They've gone on to be successful but, even now, gaming is reaching a similar zenith, a crucial turning point and moment in it's history: as I mentioned in my first column, it makes more money than the film business does here, now, and this is only set to grow with the new generation of consoles. Not bad for something that only children are interested in.

So, where are these intellectual games? There's one that immediately springs to mind, especially with the recent column inches it's been garnering due to an endorsement by global star Nicole Kidman: Dr Kawashima's Brain Training, from Nintendo. Never a company to shy away from risky, innovative strategies - see the Wii for another example - they've now published a game that I couldn't see appearing on any other machine at the moment because of the innovative use of the DS' stylus and dual-screen setup. It's like carrying a puzzle book in your pocket, but one that will tell you how you're doing, letting you know how old your brain is as you progress through the multitude of puzzles and challenges - literally thousands - it's lain before you.

Another example of purposeful, intellectualised gaming is the use, by British schoolteacher Tim Rylands, of the Myst series as a tool for creative writing classes. He decided to use the classic, graphically sumptuous adventure series as the basis for teaching his pupils about the importance of environment, atmosphere and location in their stories. He's seen startling results: 100% of his young writers now pass the SAT exam at Level 4 (out of 5) or above. Compare that with the national average of 75% and you begin to see the important of both excellent teacher and his techniques in the progress he is making. The game, it's been written, is an excellent teaching tool. The rich, full worlds are conducive to the exemplary storytelling his pupils have been displaying: 'Rylands' approach is to immerse children in the complexities of digital worlds; to use these environments to inspire and engage learners,' writes one admirer. And it's working fantastically well.

But intelligent gaming isn't just available in the confines of the classroom. The Civilisation series has been, consistently, one of the biggest selling franchises in PC games as well as one of the most educational. For the uninitiated, it's a game of beyond-global proportions. You play the role of god, essentially (a position that's been utilised, properly at least, in several other games since. The one that springs to mind is Black and White, where your actions as a benevolent or Beezlebubbish deity directly influence your citizens and your world. It's fantastic, and I highly recommend it.) and take control of a fledgeling nation and have direct influence over, well, pretty much every aspect of it's rise to imperial greatness and, eventually, the conquering of space and other worlds. How you do this is up to you: concentrate on feeding the fires of culture in your young country and dominate the globe through the arts, or spend your time building a fearsome army, sweeping through your enemies like an unstoppable flood? By playing Civilisation, you'll learn not just about, well, civilisations, but about yourself. It's quite an education.

Another game in a similar mould is Capitalism. As the title suggests, it's an economics title: begin with a meagre budget and a small shop, buying stock that's only available from the suppliers in your home city. But, as your business grows, you're able to source products from all over the world via international trade routes, and even take control of the entire production process. An example: you're selling televisions. This involves an absolute myriad of materials and production techniques. Chemicals, coal, iron ore and silica are used to make the electrical components. You also have to produce the glass for the screen and refine oil for the various plastics. All of this can, eventually, happen in your various plants and factories after your own raw materials have been extracted or grown. Not to mention the various types of product, store and business you can own, as well as television stations and newspaper publishers to control what the public hears about your company - or your competitors. It's about as close as you can come to being Donald Trump or Alan Sugar without having dubious hair or a catchy phrase. Sure, there are other economic computer games - Industry Giant and many of the Tycoon games are immediately obvious, and all are worthy and highly enjoyable - but how many of them can boast that they were initially designed as simulators for economics students? None of them, except Capitalism.

There are, of course, numerous examples of intellectual gaming to be found occupying the more strategy-orientated end of the market that I've covered so far. But there's intelligent life to be found away from that part of the genre spectrum. I'm talking about, specifically, first person shooters. BioShock, which is released later this month, is already being heralded as a crucial evolutionary step in the continuing advancement of the genre, as well as being praised for the many moral issues - the slavery and working of children being one - it raises as you work your way through the elaborate and involving story that genuinely asks questions of every person who'll play it.

Deus Ex is just as groundbreaking. It utilises many of the familiar elements seen often in the genre - exciting guns and gadgets - but also many elements that wouldn't look out of place in the most complex of Hollywood films and blockbuster books, as well as various ideas that are pure videogame. As well as the Grand Theft Auto series - not something I can particularly cite as an educational experience, alas - Deus Ex is a landmark, both for free-roaming environments in games, and by making you examine your actions and the consequences of them: it's one of the best titles out there with it's own conscience. Your actions effect you and those around you, both good and bad - there's an RPG-esque points system in place to determine changes to your character as you progress - and the choices you make, let's say, choosing violence over stealth, or, alternatively, picking a lock instead of breaking a neck, will change your path through the game's multi-layered, complex plot. It's a triumph.

I'm not, however, trying to say here that all games are intelligent efforts that are worthy of some serious psychological study that'd make Freud's brain smoke with effort. Some are, quite rightly, huge bundles of stupid, simple fun - a bit like your average Fantastic Four film. Just look at Guitar Hero or Mario Kart. Just like undeniably pure, entertainment-driven books and films - I'm watching you, Toy Story - that we see littering the market between the more mind-taxing options, such is the case in the gaming world. But the notion that games are, somehow, less worthy of having time invested in them because they're dumber, stupider, and require fewer strains of the grey matter to enjoy and be rewarded by is so far off the mark, it's ludicrous. They're just the unfortunate victims of people being, generally, wary of something relatively new - just like they were with 'talkies'. It's their loss, in my opinion: I've highlighted a mere handful of the mountain of games available that'll make you think in any huge variety of ways, regarding both the game and the world around you, and even yourself, and I urge you to check them out and open yourself to a brand new, exciting, visceral and though-provoking series of worlds. You won't be disappointed.