Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Reassessing Videogames

Last fall I got out a Wii for the children.  (Yes, I know, late to the party and all that.  We couldn't really afford one earlier.)  In the ensuing months I've been amazed at how profoundly video games have changed since my husband and I stopped playing them in the late 80s.

I grew up in the 1970s as video and computer games were being invented.  Like all new technology, the video games of my childhood were clunky and difficult to operate.  In a classic example of making a virtue out of a necessity game developers bragged about  how hard they made their games.  And they were very hard.  Early 80s games are among the hardest ever made, a fact that had as much to do with the limited experience and poor "toolkits" of the developers as it did with their actual inclinations.  Video games of the time gave players a challenge for their reflexes, intellect, spatial skills, and stamina; and they almost always ended in defeat.  This idea for what video games should be like went along with a cultural motif common in the popular fiction of the day for what a challenge between man and computer should be like.  The challenge should always be head on, man vs. machine; the computer should always be relentless; and it should always be impossible for the human to win without cheating (hence the early popularity of "cheat codes".)  In a nutshell the relationship was always antagonistic and the life of an avatar was nasty, brutish, and short (at least until you fed the machine another quarter).

I thought video games hadn't changed much.  I was wrong.  You can still find games that exist to kill the player's avatar, with bragging rights earned by how long you stay alive.  But that's not the only kind of game around anymore.  Along with more sophisticated programming techniques has come the idea of the computer as coach, offering accurate but noncritical assessments of the player's ability and gentle, steady encouragement for future progress.  This change has had an immense impact on my reaction to the games.  I'm an abuse survivor.  I'm not used to a steady stream of gentle encouragement, real or virtual.  I try to model it for my children, but I'm not used to receiving it.  It's loosening some old scar tissue -- slowly and gently, the only way to do that task.

Growing up, my family life was like one of those never-ending games that predated Donkey Kong, a relentless series of traps to dodge and pitfalls for the unwary with no victory in sight.  I couldn't understand why anyone would want to turn that experience into a game, when I had to live it only without the catchy music.  Mom was a devotee of unrelenting "constructive criticism", which while highly critical was anything but constructive.  I got encouragement from short-term acquaintances, one-year teachers and the like, but they were about as useful as a disposable raincoat.

There were a handful of people who offered steady, gentle encouragement and stuck around for more than a year.  They appeared to be good people, in occupations that seemed to be devoted to helping others.  After they encouraged me for a time to come to them I approached them with my problem.  "My parents are doing things to me that make me feel bad.  Please help me."

It was the 1970s.  "Child abuse" meant physical marks.  No marks = no abuse.  If a child implied abuse but couldn't show marks the problem had to be not in the child's experience but in the child's perception.  The child was wrong.  The child didn't understand, and needed to be reassured that her parents really loved her -- and in the process assured that her own perception of reality was completely unbalanced.

Either I trusted them and distrusted my own perception of reality or I trusted my own perceptions and distrusted everyone (and I do mean everyone) else.

There are some things I've never been able to do no matter how hard I've tried.  I've never been able to whistle.  I've never been able to disbelieve in God.  And no matter how hard I've tried, and I've tried very, very hard, I've never been able to completely disbelieve in myself.

And so it was that this handful of good, noble, kindly, well-meaning souls with the best of intentions cemented my absolute and unconditional learned distrust* of all of humanity except myself.


I recently found out that therapists are using video games in the treatment of children with mental health problems, especially anxiety.  Makes sense to me.

*I said "learned distrust".  I'm an innately trusting person, it bubbles up within me no matter the circumstances.  But sometimes it takes a very long time to seep through the cement of bad experiences.

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