Video Games- There is no escaping this beast of popular entertainment! From teenagers to young adults to even the old seem to be held in its grip. One can lose themselves in its magical virtual reality, be anybody, and do anything. Video games offer their users the chance of living, even if only virtually, in an alternative reality which provides them with the illusion of autonomy of life, the control over one’s life that the real world outside may not be providing. Much has been written, critiqued on the negative effects of video games in its violence and frequent sexism. The political impact of video games and their influence on the popular culture is a significant aspect of understanding this phenomenon.
Popular media today seems incomplete without also mentioning the hugely successful dollar generating video gaming industry. The measure of success of these games can be ascertained by the way its most liked games becomes icons of popular culture. Super Mario and Pokemon are examples of just how much our society and culture are influenced by these games, often becoming mascots of a historic period. As mediums of culture, video games are the most effective in influencing people, shaping their ideas, than any other form of social media. It is because of their very physical, virtual reality which gives the gamer the feeling of being actively participating in the gaming involving high risking missions and arenas while in the comfort of an armchair in reality.
As Dr David Leonard, professor at the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University, whose works extensively cover the cultural aspect of video games says, “video games- more so than schools, religion, or other forms of popular culture- are teaching Americans about race, gender, sexuality, class and national identity”. If video games have the potential for effectively disseminating ideas and educating people, what then can be the problem? The answer lies precisely in the thematic contents of these games which is a matter of concern.
Video games, like literature and films, reflect the times they are made. They are subjected to the social prejudices and biases of the real society which are then projected onto the virtual world of gaming with one possible difference. In the virtual world, unlike in the real one, the gamer is not subjected to keep a check on oneself. Fully engrossed within the world of the gaming, the gamer is allowed the experiences of the real world but without the constrictions and moral judgments of the same. Studies have revealed how often the games portray overtly and covertly sexist, racist and violent themes and ideas that flout the rules of a well ordered society.
More important are the kind of hidden political propaganda in video games. The gaming series of WarGames developed by Joseph Angiolillo reflected the cold war era politics and the American paranoia around imagined nuclear crisis. The mission assigned to its gamers was to defend the United States against the threat of the Soviet Union. The hugely popular military video games came in the market after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Influenced by the United States’ War on Terror in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, video games like the Call of Duty series, Medal of Honor, and Close Combat mirror America’s military mission in the Middle East.
The stereotypical portrayals of the Middle Eastern countries of conflict in these games reflect the re-orientalisation of the East in popular imagination and the imperialist propaganda of America. The Middle East is constructed in a way that it becomes the site where American ideals and Islamic terrorism is fought. The games add to the gamer not only high doses of patriotic sentiments but also the stereotypes of the Arab, as the cultural and political ‘Other’ of ‘free’ America.
Whatever be the ‘negative’ effects of Video games, they are still a powerful social media which can be used to generate much more constructive and positive cultural and educational outcomes. Studies have indicated on how video games, if used positively, have the potential for increasing concentration, building observation, teamwork and persistence in adolescents. It also shows how video gamers are more socially aware and politically conscious. Today, the scope of the gaming industry is stretching boundaries and the stereotypes related to gaming are being broken down. Video gamers as overwhelmingly male, white and geeks are being challenged with the proportionate number of females and non-white counterparts trying their hands in the game. The industry will possibly have to re-adjust itself to cater to its widening diverse audience.