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Teachers and games

I recently became an addict. Not to alcohol or smoking but to a particular console game, Bioshock. I have looked at computer games on several occasions in the past – and even bought a few for my PC – but they always failed to engage me.

Most games were left unfinished and I was left unfulfilled. But then came Bioshock and I saw precisely why the gaming industry has overtaken the movie industry in terms of revenue and production budgets. Suddenly I saw the appeal.

Bioshock is graphically stunning. It takes place in a submarine city called Rapture and no effort has been spared to realise an environment on screen that is both beautiful and deadly. Rapture has an impressive Art Deco heritage. The architecture and styling of the city is beautiful. The hospitals, apartments, bars and gardens are striking.

The city, however, is in decay and is no longer watertight. Water seeps in and a lot of the time you have to wade through flooded rooms and corridors, dodging sea water that is gushing unhindered into the doomed city. It’s claustrophobic, wet and dark.

The game play, too, is well considered. It’s a first-person shooter, a game genre I have not enjoyed before. Your real quest is to work out what went wrong in Rapture. While piecing together the city’s social and political history, you are confronted by a number of moral issues. This was quite unexpected.

One gritty moral problem involves having to do a despicable act if you want to succeed in the game. You have to balance your desire to do well versus what you know is right. Without realising it at the time, your choices affect how the game ends. I was hooked; Bioshock delivered on a number of levels. But a word of warning: it’s extremely violent. As a 45-year-old I have to admit it was bloody scary at times.

This raises an important issue. As teachers, should we be concerned about the violent console games that are available and are being played by our learners? Of the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences’ five nominees for Game of the Year 2009, all but one boasts a violent story line. Fallout 3, Grand Theft Auto IV, Left 4 Dead and Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots are all violent. The exception is LittleBIGPlanet, a social networking game.

Is this ratio healthy and where should we stand when talking to learners and their parents about the effect of violent games? Do these games encourage violent behaviour and moral degradation?

We have heard from mass media that violent games and heavy metal music are behind the school killings that have rocked North America, Europe and even Gauteng recently. For example, it is well documented that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the perpetrators of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, United States, were fans of games such as Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, two violent shooter titles. In 2001 – as a consequence of this connection – the parents of some of the slain Columbine students tried to sue five computer game companies. They were unsuccessful.

Even an investigation into the background of these two learners reveals that even if gaming can be blamed it was just one of many factors that influenced their behaviour.

In a counter-argument, a 2008 article by Texas A&M International University assistant professor Christopher Ferguson states that despite the Columbine claims and others similar to them there is no significant relationship between violent games and school shootings.

Ferguson said: “The wealth of evidence, from social science research on video games to governmental reports and legal cases and real world data on crime, fails to establish a link between violent video games and violent crimes, including school shootings.”

He does admit however, “that it is possible that school shooters could represent a particular ‘at risk’ subgroup of individuals who might be affected by violent video games, but most research conducted so far has only studied children or adults not considered ‘at risk’.”

Which leads us where?
As teachers I think we need to be alert to the fact that violent game play for the vast majority of learners is just that, game play. It has no direct effect on social behaviour. Most players see the games as no more than an opportunity to let off steam in a contained environment.

But, we need to understand that a small percentage violent games, though not solely to blame, could be a component in the development of antisocial behaviour. We therefore need to be alert to learners who show an obsession with a particular game and/or counter culture, who struggle with low self-esteem, who could be victims of bullying, who might display learning problems and who have difficulty “fitting in”. These children will need our support.

So should you indulge in playing Bioshock or Grand Theft Auto IV? Why not have some fun while finding out what your learners are into. At least you can raise this issue of violent computer games in class and sound out their perspective.

Andrew Moore is a former teacher. He has a MEd in computer-assisted education. He works for Neil Butcher and Associates, an education technology consulting company

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