Video games have become to us what books and stories were to our mothers and fathers. Video games can transport us to another world, allow us to live and act in that world and teach us a lot about important sociological and economical issues. Some players have begun to see the virtual world as their true home, and others have taken aspects from those games and applied them to real life, good or bad. There are games that teach us how to work together, and how to kill each other, games that teach us how to love and how to blow up stuff, there are games that even teach us how to grow and cultivate the land. Is it possible that video games can help us to better appreciate the nature in our world? Or are these virtually realistic worlds too beautiful and structured that we may never leave the house again? Analyzing different types of video games and the impact they have on players can help us to explain these relationships and ideas.
Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (Here on, known as MMORPGs) have been extremely popular in the past decades. An MMORPG such as Everquest or World of Warcraft is an entirely different world rather than simply a computer game. Players can interact with each other from all over the world as they explore, level their characters, and oftentimes just stop and enjoy the scenery.
Stef Aubers studied MMORPGs because of an influential quote he heard a player say. “It’s like the real life, only better.” He wanted to understand what constitutes “reality” in these virtually realistic worlds from a social perspective. MMORPGs can be traced back to the early 1970s and a game called Dungeon and Dragons. These simple role-playing games involved no virtual reality at all. Instead, players had to imagine their own realities while they rolled a die to decide the outcome of battles, quests and other encounters. Soon, these games evolved into the incredible games we see today. Aubers states that “By making this world interactive, players were transformed from passive consumers into active inhabitants”
This inhabitation is what leads to interaction with other players, as well as the environment. “Like the ‘real world’, these online worlds are shared (they are ‘inhabited’ by millions of players at the same time), they are persistent (the three-dimensional environment continues to exist – twenty- four hours a day – even when there are no people interacting with it) and they generate a unique culture, social structure, economy and ecology that changes over time.”
Because of these similarities to the real world, it has been easy for a significant number of players to consider the online world to be their most inhibited place. It becomes real life for them. Aubers says that this is a physiological thing. Humans migrate to the place that provides the best life for them. Since MMORPGs provide meaning in daily life in the form of quests and adventure, we’d rather be there. They also provide a safe environmental and stable ecosystem, much unlike the one we are living in. The problem is that the environment in these games requires no upkeep. Players can cultivate the land and it will almost instantly regenerate itself. Players can stomp through the forest, killing every animal in sight, and when they return five minutes later, all the animals will have “respawned.” That is what makes these worlds so inviting, having no responsibility or consequences for over farming frees players to enjoy their virtual life while continuing to experience the benefits of the “world.”
On the other side of the spectrum of video games is the console game. These games are not on the computer, nor are they online. The player plays and interacts with the game by themselves. While console games do not offer a social experience, they are still extremely powerful. The difference between the two is that console games are linear. There is less room for making choices because the game is set on a monorail, meaning that the player interacts with the environment, but in a way that the game producer decides ahead of time.
Harvest Moon by Natsume entertainment is a console farming simulator game that has been in circulation since June of 1997, starting with Harvest Moon for the Super Nintendo console. Every installment since has gathered around the same general theme; you, as the player, are thrown into an existence in a farming town. However, there is always a problem you must face. The only way you can survive is if you make a life for yourself as a farmer. Unfortunately, the land you are given is quite barren and needs a lot of work. It is your job to reanimate the farm and in turn, save the town.
In “Save the Homeland,” for the Play Station 2 console, your new town is on the verge of being demolished by a construction company to be made into a theme park. You must find something in nature and about the town that will protect it. There are 9 different ways to beat the game. Most of them involve finding an endangered or rare animal, sending that information to the wildlife preserve and gaining preserve status for the town and surrounding areas.
Harvest Moon is a tedious game. In order to make money you have to water each plant individually (that is, until you save enough money to buy an upgrade for your tools), brush and feed each animal individually, and give gifts to the townspeople in order to advance in the game at all. However, many games are like this. In World of Warcraft, players work for months to get their character from level 1 to level 80, but the work pays off for them eventually. Harvest Moon could potentially create an understanding of nature amongst players.
Before “Save the Homeland,” “Harvest Moon, Back to Nature” was made for the Play Station console. In this game, you return to your grandfather’s farm after he passed away. As the mayor of the town is explaining a deal the villagers made, you remember the summers you used to spend on the farm. A feeling of guilt comes over you as text scrawls across the screen saying, “I’ve been really busy… I can’t come visit you.” Leaving the city life and going “back to nature” is the theme of the game. The townsfolk have decided that if you can fix the abandoned farm and bring it back to the place it used to be in three years, you will be the rightful owner. It is possible that this game called “back to nature” could potentially bring us back to nature.
“The baby doll syndrome” is a term I coined in order to explain the educational values behind playing. Parents give their daughters baby dolls when they are young in order to simulate the act of mothering. Learning what is important when taking care of a baby and how to act is an important lesson that deepens already present motherly instincts. Just like this playing, the game play of Harvest Moon could potentially teach younger generations to care for nature. Bringing the town and farm back to life is how you beat the game, if gamers can see similar favorable results in bettering their actual environment; this could potentially be the same type of system as having little girls play with baby dolls.
In order to further understand the results of playing video games, I looked at the popular studies of what kind of effects playing Grand Theft Auto has on younger generations. Grand Theft Auto by Rockstar Games released its first installment of the franchise in 1997, coincidentally, the same year Harvest Moon got its start. Sadly, Grand Theft Auto got much more attention than the farming game. The game has a mature rating, which doesn’t stop younger generations from playing it and the many sequels.
Grand Theft Auto follows a basic theme of being a thug, slapping prostitutes, stealing cars, decapitating police officers and causing general bloody chaos. The Pew Research Center reported in 2008 that “97% of youths ages 12 to 17 played some type of video game, and that two-thirds of them played action and adventure games that tend to contain violent content. (Other research suggests that boys are more likely to use violent video games, and play them more frequently, than girls.)” According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), “violence in any medium (including video games) can contribute to real-life violent behavior and harm children in other ways.” If violence in video games can contribute to violence in children, then why can’t respect and care for nature in video games lead to the same effect?
Marina Krcmar, associate professor of communication at Wake Forest, who studies the impact of video games on children and teens says, “Greater realism leads to greater immersion; greater immersion leads to greater effects. One of those effects can be increased aggression.” The new advances in technology have allowed for games to be much more realistic than they used to be. Krcmar says this can be a good or a bad thing, depending on the content of the games. Krcmar herself recommends Harvest Moon for children because “It allows them to own a farm, grow food and take care of animals, but is also helps children practice planning, problem-solving and strategizing.” Not only those things, but the farming simulator teaches children to respect nature.
In the violent video games, players are rewarded when they shoot and kill something. This reassurance tells them they are doing something good. In Harvest Moon, if you do not take care of your animals, they will die, if you accidentally harm them with one of the tools or leave them outside when it’s raining or snowing they will not produce eggs or milk and you won’t be able to make money and in turn, you won’t be able to advance in the game. The reassurance when you do something good in the game has the same effect as the point system for kills in violent video games.
One flaw that I noticed with the “baby doll syndrome” is that girls stop playing with little dolls eventually, is it possible for the positive experience and education they gained from that play to be lost over time? As Lev Vygosky, author of “Play and its role in the Mental Development of the Child” states, “It is incorrect to conceive of play as activity without purpose; play is purposeful activity for a child.” He goes on to explain that “from the point of view of development, the fact of creating an imaginary situation can be regarded as a means of developing abstract thought. I think that the corresponding development of rules leads to actions on the basis of which the division between work and play becomes possible, a division encountered as a fundamental fact at school age.”
Therefore, it can be implied that the learning a child does while playing will change the way the child accepts rules and facts. If for some reason traditional play is not sufficient, there are new games coming out on the market that enhance the learning done in early ages. Games like “Cooking Mama” by Majesco Games and its sequels, “Gardening Mama” and newest, “Baby-sitting Mama” provide similar situations.
“Baby-sitting Mama” even comes with a plush baby doll into which you insert the controller. Because the WII console has motion-sensor technology, when you rock the doll, the character on screen rocks the doll. This applies to other activities in the game as well.
There are possible negative effects even if the environment in the video game is favorable. Harvest Moon’s environment frails in comparison to a real world, but further technical advances could change that. World of Warcraft, on the other hand, is absolutely breathtaking. Because of this, Philip Rosedale, a key creator of Second Life (another famous MMORPG) says that “the real world will become like a museum very soon. So it’ll be fantastically cool to go to New York, but in the same way that it’s cool to go see the Mayan ruins because the big buildings will still be there, but they’ll be covered in dust because no one will bother too much with them anymore.”
Virtual worlds have gained so much power that scientists like William Sims Bainbridge are beginning to conduct experiments within them. While conducting experiments on the game is helpful to understand social interactions among players, there are downfalls. Azeroth, the virtual world created by Blizzard for World of Warcraft is very dangerous, Bainbridge even commented on a few “casualties” at the various conferences he holds. “One of my colleagues wandered too far away and was eaten by a group of coyotes,” he said.
“Economist Edward Castronova argues that an increasing fraction of human life, economy, and culture will take place in these novel environments, so they need to be studied as important phenomena in their own right.” Edward Castronova, an Associate Professor of Telecommunications at Indiana University Bloomington and known for his work on video games (particularly Sony Entertainment’s Everquest) also says: “Despite the fact that the virtual worlds and the real world intersect with and impact one another, these two domains are in competition with one another” So paying attention to one means paying no attention to the other. And since many gamers clock in at 40 hours a week… well the trend can only continue from there.
World of Warcraft is a role-playing game. Bainbridge comments that “in the real world, we constantly play roles, some, such as ‘customer’ and ‘teacher,’ that follow well-developed scripts provided by the culture, and others that we largely invent ourselves. Every mentally normal person is able to pretend to be someone else, as well as to play roles while being himself or herself.” Therefore, making the switch from the real world to the world of warcraft isn’t very difficult. That is what allows players to feel at ease in the world.
In “Quake goes the environment: game aesthetics and archaeologies” author Aki Javinen discusses game aesthetics and the philosophy of art. She claims that “Aesthetic discusses our relationship to the environment in general.”
Players agree on “Terra Nova,” a blog about virtual worlds, Nick Yee wrote, “I’ve played many MMORPGs over the past few years, but I’ve never felt compelled to take screenshots of anything in them. But since I started playing World of Warcraft last week, I found myself constantly taking screenshots because of how gorgeous the scenes were.” Scott McMillan responded, “At the risk of using too many “gushing superlatives” I’ll just say that I agree wholeheartedly. First time I wandered into Ashenvale just north of Orgrimmar I couldn’t stop taking screenshots. It was such a peaceful change going from so many hours in the hot desert of Durotar, I just sat down and enjoyed the scenery (until I got wacked by some nasty spider). Been a long time since I did that in an MMORPG.” Screen shots are like pictures taken on a computer screen. The player just needs to click “print screen” to make a copy of what is on the screen.
The way these players talk about the scenery sounds like they are on vacation rather than playing a video game. The screen shots they take become photos to put in an album and share with friends.
“Games offer instant action, instant pleasure. The doses of pleasure are delivered according to a game mechanism. This is created by the designer, who allows/constructs things to happen in the game environment, but also by the player who achieves pleasure by successfully executing the actions that the game requires in order for the game to continue,” Aki Javinen says.
This brings me into the idea of user generated content. In the latest installment of the Super Smash Brothers series by Nintendo, Super Smash Brothers Brawl, players are able to create their own levels or battlefields for the fighting game. When the player can generate his own content, he controls the environment and gains power over the other players. Another example is the current pride and joy of the Play Station 3 console, “Little Big Planet.” Not only must the user create his or her own avatar, they basically create the entire game. A few levels are given to start off, and the rest of the levels of the game are user generated content. This gives the player a God-like role. This type of role supplies power where it should not be given. Much like in Grand Theft Auto, the player has control over who lives or dies, user generated content allows the player to decide exactly what their environment is like. This allows a possibility to make an environment that is much better than the real world, which can be argued as exactly what game producers are striving for.
If this trend in video games continues, and more awareness of nature is given to players who show more interest in the television or computer screen than the outdoors, younger generation’s perceptions of our actual environment might change. It all depends on what kind of games come out on the market, and if nature advocating games like Harvest Moon continue to be popular. It is possible that because of video games, nature will become important again. Instead of using video games to experience things we cannot (such as heroic quests and killing prostitutes), we should use video games to create awareness of the things we can change. Making that shift will take something that parents have seen as a sickness, and turn it into a productive lesson of responsibility, just like playing with dolls is. Because although the virtual world is beautiful, perfect, exciting, and free of responsibility, nothing compares to the touch, feel, smell and sense of belonging that our environment can give to us. With the imperfections comes beauty that as of yet, game developers cannot reproduce.