The stigma around video games is changing
The world of video games is changing—in the number of players, their demographics, the types of games available, and the technology behind them. The perception surrounding video games might be changing, too.
Students in Associate Professor Alf Seegert’s video game storytelling classes at the University of Utah are learning about video games as an art medium, something that would have seemed unfathomable at the turn of the century. Long derided as a waste of time, a lazy hobby, or just for kids, video games are starting to shake some negative stereotypes. Plenty still exist, but the perception of video games is moving in a positive direction, experts say.
“I think we’ve really seen a shift since the turn of the millennium where things started to shift in terms of public discourse,” Seegert says.
We’ve reached a point in popular culture where video games are seen as art, he continues. If there was a Mount Rushmore of the greatest works of all time, from films to poetry and books, one of the spots might just be reserved for a video game.
“Now, I think more people playing mainstream games have had emotional experiences or attachments to them the way that they would with great films or books or art of another media, and that has changed the perception quite a bit,” says Clark Stacey, co-founder and CEO of Utah-based game company WildWorks. “There’s certainly a perception out there that there are games that are simply… blowing things up and killing things, but I think there’s a growing recognition that games as an art form can be as affecting or transformative as other art forms.”
And it’s not just because of improvements in graphics, either. Video game graphics constantly soar to new heights, but Seegert’s class doesn’t just focus on next-gen games with million-dollar budgets and long storylines. Video game storytelling can be very simple.
One of the games that Seegert’s students focus on in class is “Thomas Was Alone,” a game first released online in 2010. The game’s characters consist exclusively of 2D rectangles, but players still become attached to the characters and get engrossed in the story.
“Thomas Was Alone” is also a shining example of the wide range of games people can enjoy in today’s era of gaming. New games are released daily, with new game genres bringing in new players. Indie gaming studios are competing with billion-dollar gaming studios, and some will find great success.
“Around 2010, you started to see the boom of indie games. Independently-made games often had really rudimentary graphics, but they had vision,” Seegert says. “You’ll have teams of maybe two people, maybe only one person working on a game that ends up doing something unusual, and it really democratized what was going on with video games in a lot of respects.”
Seegert grew up playing arcade games in the 70s and 80s when there weren’t many different options for players. Today, the classification for what is considered a video game has been stretched immensely, and the number of video games is exponentially higher. From intense first-person shooters to Candy Crush on your smartphone, video games are everywhere.
“ I think more people playing mainstream games have had emotional experiences or attachments to them the way that they would with great films or books or art of another media, and that has changed the perception quite a bit. "
About two-thirds of Americans—roughly 215.5 million people—regularly play video games, according to an Entertainment Software Association (ESA) report. Of video game players, 70 percent play on smartphones (these are largely puzzle and arcade games). And of the 215.5 million people playing video games in America, 48 percent identify as female, according to the ESA. Seventy-six percent of players are over 18 years old.
“Games are so varied,” says Corrinne Lewis, an associate professor in the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts & Engineering department. “There are so many different types of games. It’s not just a first-person shooter or a role-playing game, so they’re tapping into a whole different level of potential interest in lots of other people, not just men.”
Many people who simply enjoy puzzle games on their mobile devices may not consider themselves “gamers,” but they contribute to a growing video game industry. A new generation of parents that grew up playing video games contributes to improving public opinion, Seegert says.
“You do have parents who grew up with games, so they introduced their children to games,” he says. “It’s so different. A child growing up in the 1970s would never be listening to their parents’ music, would never be playing whatever they were playing as children … now you have kids with Led Zeppelin t-shirts on, and that was at its peak 50 years ago. They’re playing things that their parents played in the 80s or whatnot, so I think that will be a big part of what’s going on there to explain the shift.”
Parents that grew up playing video games may also have a more favorable opinion of them. A survey of over 1,000 parents from internet service provider Frontier found that nearly 63 percent of parents of video-game-playing children thought the games positively influenced their children. That number was lower for children between the ages of 14-17 and higher for kids ages five to nine.
Mature video games still do cause some concern. A 2017 study from the Pew Research Center found that six in 10 adults thought violence in video games contributed to gun violence in America, though that varied by age. Eighty-two percent of adults 65 and older thought video game violence contributed a great deal or a fair amount, compared to 42 percent of adults aged 18 to 29.
The American Psychological Association (APA) has linked violent video games with aggressive behavior but says there is “insufficient scientific evidence to support a causal link between violent video games and violent behavior.” The APA distinguishes that all violence is a form of aggression, but not all aggression is violence.
Violent video games still carry a certain stigma with them, but simply playing video games typically isn’t seen as the lazy, antisocial activity it used to be. “We have seen how prosocial games have been during the pandemic,” Lewis says, comparing the positives of playing video games frequently to people who watch lots of television.
According to Statista, the average person aged 55 or older watches over three hours of TV daily. People 75 and older watch nearly five hours per day.
“If somebody said that I was playing a video game for 50 hours a week, they’d think I was addicted,” she says. “But we don’t think about that with TV because it’s just on in the background. Well, games are so much more interactive. They do a lot for our brains.”
With certain games, screen time isn’t considered a negative, even for kids. And with more games out there, parents have more choices today over what kinds of games their kids can play.
Stacey has been involved in that world for a long time, and he’s seen parents’ opinions about their children playing games change as the games do. “Parents are seeing educational games or experiences that kind of blur the line,” he says. “Parents have seen games play more of a role in their kids’ education, and there are educational apps out there that are gamified that have actually gotten much, much better than they were five, 10 years ago.”
Stacey says parents likely don’t want their kids playing violent video games the same way they wouldn’t want them watching violent movies. He compares early education games to “chocolate-covered broccoli,” where games are essentially a curriculum with a couple of game rewards or characters loosely tied in. And just like the options for adult video games are widening, children’s video games are ever-improving as well, giving parents more choices.