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Video Games: Luxury or Learning Tool?
-By Adam Pearson-
-Presented by DMG Ice.com-
-May contain words and prison references.-
|After a newspaper article reported
that inmates at prisons in the area were being allowed to play violent
video games, Gov. Matt Blunt decided it was time to take action.
Certainly it would not make sense for criminals to be able to live out
what they’ve been locked away from in a virtual atmosphere – it’s just
not right. Blunt’s decision was to ban games entirely from Missouri
prisons. Why not just violent video games? Blunt says state tax dollars
as well as the time and effort of prison employees should not be wasted
on deciding what video games are violent or not. He also seems to
oppose video games having a presence in prisons entirely: "Our
penitentiaries are punitive institutions where those who have committed
crimes against society are sent to pay for their actions. They are not
meant to be arcades” (USAToday.com.) It’s clear that Blunt thinks
prison should remain punishment, but books and movies are still allowed
in prisons, and the staff is required to scan them for violent or
non-productive content. What makes video games so different from
movies? Furthermore, if inmates can engage in a real game of
basketball, what’s the harm in allowing them a game of ESPN NBA 2K5 in
the virtual world? Blunt’s action raises an interesting argument. Why
is it that movies or real sports are OK, but allowing prisoners to play
video games is going a step too far?
Video and computer games have only been in the public eye for about 30 to 35 years. Films have been around twice that long, and we’ve had access to books ever since the printing press was invented. Juveniles of today were kids of the Nintendo age; if nothing was good on TV, there was no reason to go outside… they would just flip on Super Mario Bros. So naturally, this is how some prisoners would choose to spend some of their free time.
Of course, a lot has changed since the video game boom of the mid-80s. Back then, games were predominantly “cartoon-y”, and if they did feature swordplay or guns, the depiction was too crude for anyone to notice. Now, video games are nearing the point of photo-realism, and violent games take up more than half of the market. Video games became like toys that children never grew out of. The video game industry simply grew up along with them, using themes from action or crime movies instead of cartoon imagery.
Those involved with the gaming industry could tell you just how much video games have changed over the last five years. The general media, however, has not changed it’s stance. Video games remain an easy scapegoat for teenage violence, counter-productivity, and anti-social behavior. However, while many parents would be discouraged to see their children playing a video game, they would be glad to see them playing a game of chess. James Paul Gee, in an article in Wired magazine, argues that video games are as good a test of logic skills as anything else would be. “The phenomenon of the videogame as an agent of mental training is largely unstudied”, he states. “Games are denigrated for being violent or they're just plain ignored. They shouldn't be. Young gamers today aren't training to be gun-toting carjackers. They're learning how to learn.”
While James Paul Gee targets children with this statement, prisoners might need to “learn how to learn” as well. Blunt should look into how the right kinds of video games could help prisoners use logic effectively. After all, when prisoners are found guilty of their crimes, they are told that they made “the wrong choice.” Video games present the player with many opportunities to make logical choices, even while games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City stress making decisions that aren’t morally sound. Gee continues, “In strategy games like WarCraft III and Age of Mythology, [players] learn to micromanage an array of elements while simultaneously balancing short- and long-term goals. That sounds like something for their résumés.” So even while games may be counter-productive to the lives of people who play them, the skills they learn while in the gaming world just might prove useful. Instead of constantly attacking video games, maybe people should take Gee’s advice and try to find out what video games are doing to help us.
While Blunt’s bias towards video games irks me, I can still see his standpoint. There’s no doubt in my mind that inmates shouldn’t be playing violent video games. That’s not at question here. It’s just that the reasons he makes for banning video games altogether are either unfounded or can be easily refuted. Taxpayers’ money shouldn’t be spent determining which video games are violent and which aren’t, he says? I agree! Why do the work when it’s already been done? Video and computer games all receive content ratings by the ESRB that are clearly posted on the box. For example, the article in USA Today about Blunt’s ban mentions that the game Hitman: Contracts was one of several games taken away from prisoners. On the game’s box, you would find that it is rated M for “Mature”, and even lists the reasons it got the rating (“Blood and Gore”, “Realistic Violence”, etc.)
Blunt makes a case about turning prisoners into productive citizens. Might he care to address that some “productive” violence in games could be beneficial in building skills? Blunt is a Lieutenant Commander in the Naval Reserves, and has received four Navy and Marine Corps achievement medals (Governor.) Would he prefer prisoners not to play the game America’s Army, a game that George W. Bush himself gave his seal of approval?
Also, Blunt should give some thought to how much easier it must be to monitor prisoners huddled in front of a TV as opposed to an entire courtyard of people lifting weights or playing basketball. It is the prisoners’ cantina income that bought these games. If they are to be rewarded for good behavior, why does it matter how, as long as it is monitored and morally positive? Surely an hour a week of video games doesn’t turn a jailhouse into an arcade.
Lastly, Blunt seems to side with the media about the counter-productivity of video games. As stated above, some games are just as demanding of logic skills as chess or dominoes. I think aside from just exercising and eating, these inmates should be using their brains as well. Tetris, the popular puzzle game, would be a great way to build simple cognitive skills. Even in a sports video game, hand and eye coordination is being tested, and prisoners must think on their feet. Are we merely creating zombies if we deny prisoners chances to use logic? Unlike life, video games give us the chance to start all over and try again. The player re-evaluates the circumstances, and then thinks of another way to approach the situation. Isn’t that the goal of prison, to let criminals think about the choices they’ve made? Left alone with their thoughts, prisoners could feel their very existence is criminal, and become complacent with a life of orders. Video games would let them apply logical decision making skills in new conditions, instead of letting them dwell solely on the decisions they made during their crime.
Prison should remain rehabilitative, not facilitative. However, I do think that prison institutions should go with what works. If video games keep prisoners quiet and the guards have less to worry about, then who are we to say what a luxury is and what it is not? Hiring more security guards to keep rowdy prisoners in line would end up costing taxpayers more money, when instead we could just give well-behaved prisoners these rewards (in moderation.) If the question is whether video games as a whole are detrimental to prisoners, I think studies should be performed. If people can’t fathom robbers or gang members having leisure activities, maybe they should reconsider the repercussions of keeping them in a darkened cell for years at a time. Who knows, maybe a good game of Pac-Man might be as therapeutic as reading the bible for some. In the future, I hope congressmen and governors of other states will look at all the angles, making an educated decision instead of a swift and crowd-pleasing move like Blunt’s.
-Editorial by Adam Pearson-
- Gee, James Paul. “High Score Education.” Wired Magazine. May 2003. 2 Feb. 2005