Childish things reconsidered
The problem with play

Sorting perceptions

Sortinghat Yesterday I wrote about my conversation with a woman who sat next to me on a recent airline flight. She wondered if I ever felt self-conscious playing "kids games" (in this case, Animal Crossing Wild World on my DS). She perceived such games as "all about pretending and using your imagination. Like children do. They're toys...not really games with rules like adults play."

Obviously, I'm swimming in a sea of perceptions here, but such is always the case when I discuss video games with friends, acquaintances, and fellow gamers. Some of these perceptions are cultural, but others, I would argue, are not. Some have to do with definitions; others with the values we apply to things.

In general, American society harshly judges adults who engage in activities that aren't considered productive. As several commenters to my previous post observed, play is usually seen as time-wasting, only valuable as a means to an end, such as blowing off steam, or relaxing after a hard day in order to recharge for more work. 

Play, by itself, is reserved for children - but even here the Puritan ethic holds because doctors and psychologists tell us kids must play so their brains and bodies may properly develop...presumably in order to prepare themselves for a lifetime of work. How children play and why they play hold clues that help explain the value of such activity, even for adults (more on that tomorrow). But I also want to leave room for the possibility that play needn't have a practical, quantifiable value in order to be considered a worthwhile activity. Play for it's own sake is a good and defensible thing.

And it's here that we bump into definitions, What I mean by play, and how it functions as an invigorating, restorative, and creative mental jolt is a subject I'll expand on in my next post (wow, I'm making a lot of promises aren't I?). Clearly, video games factor into all this - both in terms of how they're designed and how we choose to play with them - and it's very possible to think about a definition of "gameplay" that extends beyond its typical usage as a player's formal interactions with game systems. Stay tuned.

Back to perceptions. Video games carry with them their own set of stigmas. If an adult like me insists on wasting time, I should stick to culturally acceptable activities like watching television or listening to music. At least with these forms of entertainment I stand a chance of learning something or growing more culturally aware - or simply participating in a common shared pop culture event like watching American Idol. Video games are perceived as time-wasting with no redeeming virtues attached. They may, in fact, be making me dumber.

But we are mistaken if we assume these perceptions are generational. In fact, I have a feeling we grossly overstate the differences between gamers and non-gamers when it comes to attitudes about video games. I estimate the percentage of college students who perceive video games as, essentially, a waste of time is not significantly lower than the percentage of people over 50 who see them the same way.

If I had a dollar for every student who has smirked at me and said, "So you're the professor who teaches a course on video games?" - I could buy myself a very nice bottle of wine. With many notable exceptions, most students I know would be hard pressed to articulate the value of games as anything other than mindless recreation. I have no problem with the recreation part of that assessment. I mean, take a close look at that word "re-creation" - not a bad idea, eh? No, it's the "mindless" part I object to. In my experience, a video game well-played is a video game played mindfully.

We are told to be patient while the game-playing generations grow into positions of authority and influence. Then, video games will be culturally acceptable. They will be embraced like movies and books. Frankly, I have my doubts about that. I'm not at all sure the majority of gamers are prepared to make the case for games that we bloggers and enthusiasts spend so much effort trying to make. Maybe that's not important. I don't know. But it does seem to me that my airplane seatmate's "perception problem" may be more complicated than the "toy - game - play" issue I initially assumed it to be.

Once again, I have left much unsaid. I apologize for attempting to juggle too many balls in the air here. I'm trying, possibly in vain, to sort through these interconnected issues one at a time. I'll return tomorrow to continue sorting.