Can Video Games Improve Society?

Absolutely, Says an Associate Professor at UConn

Those who think video games are destroying society need to start reading.

Not newspapers, but classic epics like the Iliad and the Odyssey, says Roger Travis, an associate professor of Classics at the University of Connecticut.

"The thing about role-playing games is that the player can't play the same scene twice in the same way," Travis said. "It's like how the ancient stories came together by word of mouth. Stories were passed from person to person, and (it) was amazingly engaging."

Travis is a born-again player and said that's actually helped his career.

"Having more or less given up playing video games in my early professional life, I was driving home from work one day and heard a story on NPR about the release of  'Halo 2,'" he said.  "I figured if it was on NPR, it might be OK to go back."

When he started playing again, Travis was immediately hooked. 

"I started playing, little suspecting it would have any impact on my career," he said. "I quickly realized as I was playing with the game, that the storytelling in games had changed tremendously and it was extraordinarily captivating."

So captivating that he decided to bring the game to class.

"I knew the Xbox would get my students interested," he said. "I was right. I could tell there was a connection that was being made with the students that wasn't being made even with the movies coming out."

That connection, he said, is something that helps students learn and society develop - regardless of the violence.

"Yes, they appear to be very violent, but in reality, they're nowhere near as violent as the Iliad, The Odyssey, or many of the other classic novels," he said. "If you're going to say these stories were good for Western Civilization, you have to admit video games have at least some societal contribution," he said.

The Initiative

Stories have been done that explore the negative impact of video games, Travis said. That's why he's launched an online project.

The "Video Games and Human Values Initiative" is a conversation of sorts about video games and how they're helping shape the future.

"People say, if you pretend to be bad, you're going to be bad," he said. "But when you look closer at games like "Grand Theft Auto" and actually play them, there is an ethical framework. You've got to choose between doing bad things and doing good things. To really enjoy them, you have to realize you're getting involved in something you couldn't get away with in real life."

It's a conversation he's opened up to members of the online group, which is made up of gamers and non-gamers, academics and non-academics, students and teachers, parents and their high-school and college kids.  Anyone can join, and Travis offers online courses to teach people about the role of video games in society.

"We need to start a new kind of conversation about what games are doing in culture," he said.  "So if we get a bunch of people talking about what games are doing, I think it will let everybody understand better and may provoke a new kind of audience to ask for a new kind of game."

The 'Spore' Battle

New games are constantly coming out, giving more and more control to the player. 

One such game that's sparked controversy this year is Spore.

  • The game starts with a single-celled organism.
  • It follows it through various evolutionary stages. 
  • Eventually, it becomes your own original creature that interacts with the environment and other inhabitants. 
  • Rated "E" for everyone 10-years-old and up by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, it's become the hot game of the year.

The battle started because of an argument that it's anti-Christian, and essentially turns the player into God. It's something Travis said is a little blown out of proportion.

"I can't see the harm," he said. "There's no difference in doing that (playing the game) and writing a story when you take it from the perspective of playing God. When you write, you use your imagination to come up with a work of fiction and you get to play God in your own universe."

Parents Have to Watch Their Kids 

He said Spore and other games don't create a danger in and of themselves, but that it's the responsibility of parents to monitor what is and is not appropriate for their child and the values of their family.

"Just as a parent looks out for what their child watches on TV, they need to do it with what they're playing," he said.  "They have more control than a video game does."

And that, of course, is up for discussion - in Travis' forum.

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