Video Games and Computer Holding Power is an essay by Sherry Turkle in her book The Second Self published in 1984. In her essay, she focused on how the power of computer affects people’s psychological state through video games. Specifically, she compared video games to traditional, physical game experiences such as pinball, Dungeons and Dragons and Disneyland, to show how computers enhance the experience. she examined the influence of video game on both children and adults psychologically, by psychoanalysing several true players on their experience with the video game. She also analysed the video game addiction from a neutral standpoint.
Valuable insights can be derived through her analysis for both gamers and game designers to be more self-aware when consuming or developing the products.
The essay was written in 1984, after the golden age of arcade video games from 1978 to 1982, the rise of the personal computer and the infamous video game crash in 1983.
In 1978, a Japanese game called Space Invader and Atari’s Asteroid (Whittaker, 2004) caused the market shifting from pinball and amusement park to arcade (Citron, 1982). On the other side, the market for dedicated gaming console collapsed, replaced by programmable systems such as Fairchild Channel F, Atari’s VCS and Odyssey².
As the evolution of home computers in the late 1970s, hobbyists were allowed to program simple games using Apple, Commodore or Tandy. Those games were distributed with floppy disks, cassette tapes, and ROM cartridges in the early 1980s. At the same time, there was an outburst of home computers and video games. As a result, low-quality products flooded the market (Kleinfield, 1983) and led to the crash in 1983 and the fall of video game giant Atari.
Public opinion on video games
Despite the popularity, adults often held negative opinions on the video game. The mastery loop in games like Space Invader and Asteroid was so powerful while their roots were “aggressive, passionate, and eroticized”.
Turkle made the point that “Protest against video games carries a message about how people feel about computers in general.” At that time, computer invaded into people’s daily life as alien technology, as what is called now as the third industrial revolution. People “like new conveniences” but “do not know where we are.” And the change also “threaten a new kind of generation gap that feels deep and difficult to bridge.” So for those people, the video game is a subject that they can express their concerns.
The haters of video games often pointed video games as “mindless addiction”, and compared them to television. Turkle defined video games as “interactive computer microworld” to separate it from televisions. Video games require mastery and skills which are complex. “There is nothing mindless about video games”
Freedom of game design
As opposed to tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons or pinball, video games give more freedom in designing the game, since designers are no longer constrained by the physical production and distribution of the game. Codes can be written distributed much faster and more efficient.
Besides, it also allows the game “to become a more perfect expression of the player’s actions.” A video game is always the same, reacting instantaneously to the player’s input since all of the actions are in a virtual, programmed world. When the player plays the game, the physical machine and the physical player almost do not exist. While interacting with a pinball machine is like “a conversation”, interacting with a video game is more like “inhabiting someone else’s mind.”
Simulated video game world
With access to the computer when they were born, the younger generation in the 1980s was in a culture “increasingly marked by the logic of simulation.” The aesthetic of rule-based video game could be more easily appreciated by those children.
Compared to Dungeons and Dragons, which allows personal role-playing, in the simulated video game world, one could only identify himself as one character with little to no impact on the world. However, in my opinion, with the emergence of open-world and sandbox genre. More and more games offer a way to break the boundary and more freedom in role-playing. Famous examples are EVE Online (2003), Minecraft (2011) and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011).
Nevertheless, people could be lost in this simulation due to “an altered ego”. People could “fall in love with the worlds they have constructed or with their performances in the worlds created for them by others.” This is often dangerous since it will affect the relationships with the real world.
Besides the inevitable improvement of computer graphics, Turkle summarized the future inventions of video games into two divisions. One was to offer a more complex world that is completely created by someone else. The other was to let the player be the designer of his or her own game. She was positive on both side, as “both strategies are being pursued”.
Today, not only did we see quality games with a fixed world and linear storyline such as The Last of Us (2013), but also we had the almost completely dynamic and modifiable video game world such as Minecraft (2011). Both are enjoyable and have a great amount of audience.
Citron, A. (1982). The Rise And Fall Of Pinball. Pittsburgh Press.
Kleinfield, N. R. (1983). Video games industry comes down to earth. New York Times, 17.
Turkle, S. (2005). Video games and computer holding power.
Whittaker, J. (2004). The cyberspace handbook. Psychology Press.