“Breeding Evil?”, a leader and special report published this month examining the virtues of video games, was my second Economist cover of the year. My first, back in March, was “The real digital divide”, about mobile phones in the developing world. (I have since written more on the topic — see here and here.) Anyway, it seems particularly fitting to me that these should be the topics of my two covers, because whenever I’m asked what I regard as the hottest topics in technology, I always reply “mobile phones and gaming”. (Voice-over-broadband comes third, I suppose, and energy technology is coming up the field fast. UPDATE September 2005: Lo and behold, my third cover of the year is about VOIP.)
Mobile phones are the most numerous digital devices on the planet, and truly deserve to be called “personal computers”. And games consoles are the most powerful mass-produced computers in the world. So they are, if you like, at the cutting edge of computing quantity and quality respectively. Both also have interesting social consequences. We in the developed world have spent the past few years adjusting to mobile phones, texting and so on, but their impact in the developing world will be far greater, since they are the first communications devices to become really prevalent. (By the time mobiles started spreading in the rich world, we already had fixed-line phones and the internet, so mobiles made less of a difference.) Gaming is also interesting, because it is emerging as a new medium, up there with music and movies. That was the main point of my cover article: that new art forms are often criticised by people who aren’t familiar with them and consider them to be evil. Rock’n'roll in the 1950s is another example.
The gaming piece generated more letters and e-mails than anything I have ever written for The Economist. Many were from gamers, who approved of the article, though a few of them thought I should have made more of the social nature of online role-playing games, which confound the stereotype of gamers as loners. (True, but such games are still a minority sport, even among gamers.) Several readers who disagreed with the article thought I had overlooked the many studies that show a link between gaming and violence. I am aware of these studies; but there are also lots of other studies that failed to find a link. Similarly, there are meta-analyses that look across all the studies — but they too are contradictory. Some evaluations of the literature find clear evidence that gaming causes violence, while others do not.
Sound familiar? It does to me. This is exactly what is going on in the debate over mobile phones and cancer. There is lots of anecdotal evidence, and plenty of dodgy studies which come to no clear conclusion. (See “Mobile phones are probably safe, by analogy”, below.) Of course, if mobile phones really were dangerous we ought to have noticed by now; the same is true of gaming. My article included this chart, which shows violent crime in America declining over the past decade as gaming became more popular. Many anti-gaming readers wrote in to complain that this chart posits a causal link: it doesn’t. I am not suggesting (though some people are) that gaming makes people less violent. I am merely noting that gaming is now so widespread that if it did make people more violent, that ought to show up in the violent-crime figures, yet they are declining. The point of the chart is to demonstrate not causation, but lack of causation. Anyway, as with rock’n'roll, this argument will only be resolved by a generational shift, as the gamers (mostly under 40) grow up, and the non-gamers (mostly over 40) die out.