Games vs. TV
By: Alex Bowden

When I invested in a game console, my girlfriend’s first words were “Great. That’ll give me something to do and stop me wasting my time watching TV.” That she was pleased was a little surprising, but her view that game playing was somehow more worthwhile than watching television was also surprising, especially coming from a non-gamer. A more common opinion among those who do not play games is that time in front of a console or PC is time wasted. Yet for the most part, those same people will happily watch TV for relaxation, regardless of their opinion of its worth. So does game playing offer more than television viewing?

Discuss the value of gaming as a pastime and one of the first questions that you will have to answer is that of morality. How often do we hear about games corrupting the youth of today? We may as well examine public enemy number one then, gaming’s bad boy Grand Theft Auto. From the moment its first 2D incarnation appeared on the shelves, GTA has been a target. It is no more violent than many other games, but the fact that the aim of the game was to commit crimes and that you were rewarded accordingly was seen as a scandal. Surely this was no example to set. But is this so different from what we see on television?

Let’s take the example of The Sopranos. This series also focuses on a group of individuals who are outside the law. The main characters make their living through crime, and the moral code within the program conflicts with that of society. Crime is acceptable, yet betrayal or lack of respect is unacceptable. So is GTA any less moral than this? The main argument would probably be one of interactivity. While with television you are merely an observer, in a game you make the choices. By the nature of the game, in GTA you make immoral choices almost constantly, but the key is that these are made within the context of the game. I’m not going to go into the long-running argument about the relationship between violence in games and violence in real life, but on the surface, gaming decisions only affect the game. Additionally, within the game there are consequences to your actions. You can go to jail and you can be killed by rival gang members. Perhaps there is a case to be made that games deter people from real crime by showing the consequences, although admittedly it is not demonstrated all that strongly.

Some may argue that The Sopranos is an adult TV program, which it is. GTA is also an adult video game. It also has an age rating that shouldn’t be ignored. The problem is that those who did not grow up with video games see them as youth entertainment. GTA should be evaluated with the assumption that the gamer is an adult. The world is cartoony and exaggerated, and adults will recognize this. They will see the same flaws in game characters as they do in Tony Soprano.

Of course, we are taking extreme examples here. Can anyone truly have any moral objection to Tiger Woods Golf or Nintendogs? There may not be any moral lessons within a sports simulation, but nor are there any within the majority of television programs. Certain soap operas may aspire to educate, but they often contain a good deal of infidelity and arguing as well.

One clear benefit of game playing over television is the physical benefit. Granted, you aren’t going to attain the physique of a buff protagonist or gain the strength to lift any cars, but game playing does improve dexterity. You get to stab at the remote control when watching TV, but game playing is that times a thousand. Indeed, it is common for people to play games as physiotherapy when recuperating from arm injuries. Reflexes accordingly improve in leaps and bounds when compared with placidly staring at the TV, not to mention hand-eye coordination. Again, it depends on what you are playing, but even the mere moving of a mouse is superior to nothing.

My first thought when comparing video games and television was that they are very similar, except for games’ interactivity. Therefore, game playing would appear to have an added mental benefit. This is quite wrong. Theoretically, any TV program can be made even slightly more interactive and therefore become a game. In practice this doesn’t happen for fairly obvious reasons. While there are informative aspects to games such as Age of Empires, they will never match the constant barrage of information from a documentary. Cooking programs and the like don’t translate into games at all and the honing of intricate film plots is hampered by the interactive aspect of gaming. Yet games make so many more mental demands on you than you would think.

Getting back to the ‘mindless violence’ aspect of morality, let’s examine the mental aspect of shooting games. From over a gamer’s shoulder, the character on the screen appears to deal out death in large doses and nothing more, but try playing the game for yourself and you will soon find there is more to it than that. Any decent game should have a learning curve. That is, you should progress in the game as you get better at it. You get better at shooting games for two reasons. You get more coordinated, being able to maneuver your character more easily and accurately and you learn more about the game and develop strategies. Think about the last time you were killed and restarted a level. Did you attempt the level in exactly the same way? No. You learned from what you did and you adapted. You are constantly receiving information about the game and the way it works and trying to outdo it. From the most basic tactics, such as hiding, to more advanced techniques like planning a route through the level and shooting from particular spots, you constantly have to think. To brand this type of game as ‘mindless’ is mindless in itself.

Further up gaming’s mental ladder, there are more obvious examples of thoughtfulness reaping rewards. Some corporations look on strategy game-playing as a plus in potential employees. These people are good at evaluating statistics and are reliable risk-takers. Just think of the number of variables you have to monitor in any of the Civilization series. You must allocate resources for the well-being of your vast empire, make judgments about city improvements taking into accounts all manner of factors, weigh the consequences of waging war versus peace, evaluate the likelihood of winning these wars or even individual battles, organize troops, keep all your citizens happy and make technological progress. Each of these choices is influenced by other dependent factors, and have their own effects on other aspects as well. The amount of information being managed at any one time is quite vast, and is all being processed by your brain. On the other hand there’s a show on about how stupid people can be. You could watch that.

Obviously there is no answer to the question as to whether gaming is more worthwhile than watching TV. Not in general terms anyway. There are such plentiful arrays of both games and TV programs that it depends on what you watch, what you play and what you want to get out of them. Perhaps game playing isn’t the most worthwhile pastime, but that isn’t to say that it’s worthless, a hasty assumption made by many people. After all, if a game doesn’t stimulate you in at least some way, then people won’t play it. There’s no such thing as mindless entertainment.