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Video games deserve better than blanket, parachute coverage from reporters who don’t get it

Reporters need to understand what video games are before they write stories about video games. That’s because video games are more than just a medium. Video games can serve an almost limitless number of functions, from a consumer entertainment product to a living library for government-censored speech and research. Video games are closer to rock-and-roll or hip-hop, a living culture in which about 2 billion humans on Earth participate.

So, imagine sending a health reporter to cover the impact of listening to certain rap lyrics over and over again, all while not understanding the context of the lyrics, where they come from, or what they’re saying. This is essentially what New York Times reporter Matt Richtel, along with his editors, did when they published this front-page Sunday story from January, “Children’s Screen Time Has Soared in the Pandemic, Alarming Parents and Researchers.

The headline and premise seem sound. There are many valid concerns, as well as unknowns, over the amount of exposure we’re all getting to digital media while the U.S. remains on lockdown from covid-19. But the framing of the piece is flawed and embarrassing, using a Colorado parent’s worry over their child’s Xbox usage as its case in point. This framing conflates digital screen time to video games, which are two different things. The piece quotes a Stanford University professor who warns of a period of “epic withdrawal” because young people won’t be able to “sustain attention in normal interactions without getting a reward hit every few seconds.” This may sound like many games, but it doesn’t encompass the totality of what video games can offer.

The practice of parachuting in to an unfamiliar topic or coverage area to recount tales of moral hand-wringing is a poor one in general, but it can be particularly harmful when it comes to video games, an understudied industry which requires more and closer scrutiny. Relying on stereotypes and broad generalizations obscures those issues by reducing video gaming to a kind of uniform, monolithic hobby. Through that kind of a lens, you’ll never see the industry’s real problems or even comprehend the issue Richtel’s story tries to address.

Video games vary wildly from one title to the next and fulfill so many functions beyond mere idle amusement. The only video game Richtel writes about by name is “Roblox,” which he calls an “app.” “Roblox” is a game and creative platform in which users can create games or participate in them. “Roblox” is such a malleable product, there’s no possible way anyone can deduce what a person is doing when they say they’re playing “Roblox.” They could be playing something like “Work at a Pizza Place,” which is all about appreciating entry-level work, or they could be playing “Draw It,” which mixes artwork with the classic party game Charades. They could also be using the software to create their own game.

It’s not known if Richtel plays or understands video games. The Washington Post attempted to reach Richtel or his editors at the New York Times’s health department, but he declined to comment through a spokesperson. Richtel also tweeted his article comes from the fact that he’s “looked deeply at the science over many years, and many experts say the concerns are warranted.”

Richtel quotes Dr. Dimitri Christakis of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. Christakis has a long record of raising flags about “violence in video games,” like his 2016 piece on how the connection is “settled science.” Richtel and Christakis fail to mention that it’s far from settled science; the connection is dubious at best.

A 2020 study that made headlines recently acknowledged that longitudinal research, done over a long period of time, into the issue of video game violence on human aggression is rare. The July meta-study published in the Royal Society Open Science conducted 28 studies varying in size and range of time, but looked at more than 21,000 people. The report found that any impact on aggression was “too small to be practically meaningful.”

Published in November of 2020, Oxford University research found that playing games is positively associated with well-being. This study looked at the effects of more social games like “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” games that lack the minute-to-minute “rewards” that stereotypes of games usually contain. Andy Przybylski, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, said that the study isn’t meant to suggest games are “good for you,” but that it’s a first step in carrying out proper scientific study on the impact of gaming over time.

Przybylski said he worries about “gaming disorder” labels that groups like the World Health Organization wield. Calling the medium of video games addictive is, as he said, like saying alcoholism is caused by bottles, not what’s in it.

“This was a serious suggestion, but it’s an unlabeled bottle,” Przybylski said. “We don’t know what’s in it.”

Even the anxiety and depression study Richtel links to in the Times piece only mentions video games in passing while focusing primarily on social media usage. Anyone who plays video games can tell you that it’s usually a completely different experience than using Facebook. Another study Richtel cites growing concerns over how “Internet gaming disorder” can affect our brains, but Richtel’s story fails to make the distinction between video games as a whole and online games. Online games are just a single mega-genre within the medium of video games, but no such distinction appears in the piece. The Times reader is left with few clues as to what the 14-year-old boy is even playing, outside of the generic descriptor that he’s always playing Xbox and talking with friends.

Dr. Steve Kuniak, a clinical counselor in Pennsylvania who assists families with behavioral issues including addiction, said the article reminded him of the “weapons effect” from a controversial 1967 study that concluded that simply seeing a gun would increase “aggression” in people. The study didn’t include other factors, like a person’s own familiarity with weapons. He said scholarly studies can often contradict each other, which may explain why these conversations persist. He also stresses that there’s a huge difference between increases in aggressive emotions internally and the decision to act them out.

“Counseling is different than psychology or social work because the focus of our work is on the relationship. Ours has a wellness orientation,” Kuniak said. “I would work with families who would say, ‘My kids are addicted to gaming. You need to fix them.’ And I would find that their focus was on the wrong thing. It feels like there’s a clear misunderstanding of what benefits people derive from gaming, and this presumption that you push buttons and see lights and things change on the screen.”

Kuniak said it’s important to stress that gaming addiction can be real, but many times this stems from another underlying problem. The important thing to remember is to ask people why they play so much.

“I ask them, why do you play? What do you get out of play?” Kuniak said. “No one ever asks them that. The answers were always very diverse. Everybody games for different reasons. Some of my clients say, ‘I like to be the hero. I like to feel like I’m making [a] change. I like to socialize.’”

Kuniak finds that his patients are often Pittsburgh Steelers fans. They enter his office dressed from head to toe in the NFL team’s black and gold colors, while presenting their child as having an obsession with games. People who play video games often point out this hypocrisy as well. This criticism of gaming also seems weak in an era where bingeing TV shows on Netflix is considered a normal weekend night.

Much has been made about Richtel quoting the boy’s parents in the article. The teen boy’s mother laments, “What are you going to do when you’re married and stressed? Tell your wife that you need to play Xbox?”

Why, yes. Millions of adults already do this, just as they would resign themselves to watching sports, or reading a book, or listening to or playing some music. Paul Tassi, a Forbes contributor, already made this point in his response piece, “I mean, yeah, that’s exactly what I tell my wife. … We are not going to bars, we are running Destiny raids. We are not watching football games, we are playing ‘Call of Duty: Warzone.’”

Then there’s the reality that we are living in a global pandemic with a flimsy-at-best path to recovery. What else is a child — or anyone craving entertainment — going to do at home? Kuniak says it’s far too early to begin worrying about the impact of many lockdown activities.

“We won’t really necessarily know the consequences to this or anything until after the pandemic is over, or at least until we remove this need to connect safely,” Kuniak said. “We don’t know what will happen. But there’s this presumption that the end goal is to game, and I don’t think that’s what people are doing. It’s more about the socialization, the engagement, the fulfillment of some need some other way. The focus shouldn’t be on ‘withdrawal’ [when the pandemic ends]. It should be on how do we transition the skills that we’re learning right now into something more productive later.”

As a medium, video games are still difficult to understand because they can encompass so many other mediums and engage so many different skills, whether its writing, music, art or just plain communication and hand-eye coordination. But each game can present entirely different reasons a certain person can be “hooked” on them. To paint the entire medium in broad strokes is one of the most common mistakes made in many news articles.

Richtel is a New York Times reporter who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for documenting the distracted driving issue. His work informed local and federal laws that shaped traffic safety for the coming decade. Richtel’s well-informed past work shows that he is a journalist of consequence, the kind many should strive to be. But perhaps when it comes to video games, his time could be better spent giving video games the same kind of care and attention he has devoted to his past work.

In the end, his time would’ve been better spent playing more video games.

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