Video games

This week I talked about “An Edible History of Humanity” on The Forum, an excellent BBC World Service show which puts together three guests from entirely different fields to see what happens: in this case an Australian expert on fire, a Romanian Dadaist poet, and me. (You can hear the show here.) One of the guests is also invited to present a slightly silly “60 second idea” to improve the world, so I proposed making everyone over the age of 40 play video games. (You can hear that bit here.) After the show had been recorded, but before it aired, Charlie Brooker in The Guardian published a very good list of games that everyone should try, which is very much in the same vein; his choices were bang on. Anyway, back to the food. I recently contributed to the Spiked debate on the future of food and did a Q&A on the book for Mother Nature Network. I’m also taking part in an event in New York in January linked to the Silk Road exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. I’ll be talking about the connections between food, trade and cultural exchange, along with a history professor and a chef. I’m the glue, I guess. I love the AMNH because of the planetarium, the whale, the dinosaur exhibits laid out in evolutionary order (take that, creationists), and because it does amazing things like this.

coffeesbOh, look what’s appeared on the wall in my local Starbucks! It has gone rather quiet in there lately, as people cut back on expensive coffees. (I have not, because caffeine is not something I can easily do without.) Evidently the company is looking for new ways to bring people in, and this is what it has come up with: you can book a table for a group meeting for your business, community group or club. I find this very amusing, because this practice — the ability to reserve tables — was one of the things that made coffeehouses such hotbeds of networking and innovation in 17th-century London. Most famously Lloyd’s coffeehouse, opened by Edward Lloyd in the 1680s, was frequented by ship captains, shipowners and merchants who went to hear the latest maritime news and attend auctions of ships and their cargoes. Lloyd began to collect and summarise this information in a regular newsletter, and his coffeehouse became the natural meeting place for shipowners and the underwriters who insured their ships. Some underwriters began to reserve particular tables or booths at Lloyd’s to ensure that their customers could always find them in the same place, and eventually a group of them established the Society of Lloyd’s, which survives to this day as Lloyd’s of London.

So this move by Starbucks is a lovely echo of the golden age of coffeehouses. Another example is the use of Wi-Fi in coffeehouses to get your e-mail and read the news. In the 17th century, before street numbering, people would use coffeehouses as mailboxes, saying “write to me care of the Rainbow”, or whatever. They would also drop into coffeehouses to read newsletters, pamphlets and broadsides, which were available free to patrons. And coffeehouses, then as now, were often used as reputable and neutral venues for business meetings. (I went into all this in my coffeehouse internet piece, which grew into a whole chapter of my drinks book.)

The notion of coffeehouses promoting intellectual and commercial connections is in the air again as a result of Steven Johnson‘s new book, “The Invention of Air”. I haven’t read the book yet, but I used to write for Steven’s webzine, FEED, so he was an early patron of my interest in historical analogies. Several of his books also interweave old and new technologies, but whereas my thing is historical analogies, his is something like interconnectedness, if I had to choose a single word. He is also a proponent of the idea that video games are good for you, which makes him a hero in my book.

The folks at Wired asked me to write a piece for the recent themed issue on video games. As an avid gamer, as well as a fan of historical analogy, I agreed, and duly delivered a pile of historical quotes in which previous new art forms (novels, waltzing, rock’n’roll) were denounced in much the same language that is being used to denounce video games today. I started down this path with my “Breeding Evil?” cover story in The Economist last summer, which noted one of the earliest examples of this trend, namely Socrates’ suspicion (at least according to Plato) of written texts, which he deemed inferior to oral arguments on the grounds that books are insufficiently interactive. Anyhow, the piece I originally wrote for Wired had a much longer introduction, and contained several more historical quotes, so given the enthusiastic reaction this article has prompted — it’s been widely linked to and has generated a lot of e-mail in response — I thought I ought to make the full version available. (It’s a txt file, because I can’t be bothered to mark it up.) Other reasons for publishing the full version are i) it provides all the sources and ii) because three academics — Henry Jenkins, Dmitri Williams and Edward Castronova — were very helpful in suggesting some of the sources for the quotes, but their names did not appear in the much boiled-down final version. Sorry, guys, and thanks for your help! So, here is the full version of “The Culture War”.

PS Oh, and if you like this, you’ll love Henry Jenkins’ essay, “Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked”; and given the various bizarre laws being proposed in the US at the moment, you might also appreciate Adam Thierer’s paper, “Fact and Fiction in the Debate over Video Game Regulation”.

“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.

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