What We Talk About When We Talk About …

Near the beginning of Sherry Turkel’s chapter “Video Games and Computer Holding Power,” she makes a curious statement that resonates with many of my own experiences regarding the media. Writing about the  controversy and debate that surrounded (and continues to surround) video games, she notes, “the debate is charged with feelings about a lot more than the games themselves” (34). She goes on to note that the debate about video games is really a debate about computers, the role of computers in our culture, our relationship to computers, and so on. In other words, it is all about the inherent tensions and anxieties that many (if not most) people feel about the interrelationship of the human and the technological.

We have mentioned this in our discussions before, but I think it is absolutely crucial to remember in any debate about a technological medium—whether it be movies, or video games, or the Internet—that every new medium is always seen as dangerous and received with caution, regardless of the benefits it may proffer. We saw this with the invention of the printing press and the widespread availability of the written word; we saw it with the subsequent development of the penny press and the associated “penny dreadfuls”; we saw it with the invention and widespread popularity of movies, and then television … and now video games and the World Wide Web. All of these developments have their pluses and minuses: The printing press allows almost everyone to have access to the Bible and Shakespeare, but it also allows for the proliferation of pornography. The same is true of video games, and one thing that I most appreciated about Turkle’s approach to the material was her clear-eyed assessment of how video games can benefit us, but also the dangers they pose. She notes how they encourage new ways of thinking, strengthen our intellect, perform social functions, contribute to psychological well-being, and so forth. But, at the same time, the “hold” she describes, in which players are drawn into simulated worlds created and sustained by computer programming, can become addictive and potentially debilitating if they ultimately supersede our relationships outside that world.

Like all other technological developments, video games are what we make of them, and as we have seen over the past several decades, their possibilities are limited only to the human imagination and its capacities for both greatness and depravity.

3 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About …

  1. Raymond Carver/Robert Altman–great frame for the post that follows. (Title envy strikes.)

    The core truth for me here is fear of the imagination. I actually spoke to this very topic during my job talk here 30 months ago. I cited Calvin’s warnings about the mind’s “labyrinths,” and the depraved Minotaurs (so to speak) that build and reside in such labyrinths. (OK, Daedalus built the labyrinth–go with it for a moment.) All the ID monsters, to channel “Forbidden Planet” instead. Yet my man Milton praised the minds he believed we had from the very same God, writing that our minds could wander through infinity without becoming satiated. I prefer Milton’s view, obviously, though I certainly recognize the dangers Calvin warned of. But the question, as you point out so very well, is what to do with our imaginative capacities? Creativity itself suggests we must leave room, AMPLE room, open for surprises, mistakes, wandering (not all who wander are lost), etc. Or as Stanley Kubrick once said, the moral of the story of Icarus is not “don’t fly too high.”

    The moral is: “build better wings.”

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