Science Sets its Sights on Computer Games | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 02.09.2008
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Science Sets its Sights on Computer Games

Many people claim that computer games are addictive and can lead to aggression. But it isn't as cut and dry as all that. A new long term study has shown that it isn't the games themselves that are the problem.

Gamers play World of Warcraft at the Gaming Convention with several screens all going at once.

Online gaming has become a multi-million euro industry

It’s been 50 years since the American physicist William Higinbotham introduced the world to the first computer game: Tennis for Two. At the time it was used to demonstrate the technical feasibility of computers, but that first program led to the development of interactive games and virtual reality.

Maassive meeting of people all gaming together in a darkened room with lots of brightly lit screens.

LAN Parties are a way for online gamers to be together physically as well as virtually

Today computer games are everywhere, and have become a part of the global youth culture -- a culture that is forever reinventing itself, leading to continuous scrutiny. That’s not without foundation, though often the criticism isn’t differentiated enough, believes Fabian Doehler with the Japanese software firm SEGA.

“There are computer games whose content glorifies violence – which we don’t condone. And there are video games that are potentially addictive, leading to someone losing touch with their social life,” he said.

Doehler warned, however, that it’s too easy to look at just one aspect of the games. He thinks it would be more interesting to compare those people addicted to the vast majority of gamers who aren’t.

Encounters in the virtual world

Most programs are party games, designed for friends who want to play together. According to a long-term study by the University of Leipzig, 80 percent of today’s youth prefer social games with friends over single player ones. Especially popular are music games like Singstar or Guitar Hero, in which the player takes on the role of a musician.

Another genre with a growing following is the multiplayer online game, where thousands play together in a virtual world over the internet. Often it’s a regular group of people who meet on the web at set times to play the games. Multiplayer online games usually require a lot of time and a monthly fee. World of Warcraft, one of the most famous games in this genre has some 10 million players worldwide.

Cumpulsion to play

Although critics may target the amount of time spent playing as one of the biggest drawbacks to computer games, Bernd Schorb, expert for media education at the University of Leipzig, said that the computer industry designs games this way on purpose.

“When World of Warcraft costs 11 euros a month, those who market it have a great deal of interest in not losing anyone. Therefore they construct their game so that people stay with it," he explained.

Approximately 10 percent of online gamers boast about being addicted. On the positive side, almost every gamer in the virtual world of the internet sees it as a way of maintaining social contacts. Some 78 percent of users regularly meet up with their friends in multiplayer online games, and 48 percent have even made new friends there.

12 hours a day

For many young people, computer games are part of their everyday life. Felix, a 21-year-old student and a passionate World of Warcraft player, divides his time between the virtual and real world.

“For the two weeks leading up to exams I don’t play, I just study,” he explained. “But normally I have enough time during the week to play and to study.”

For Felix “enough time” means three to four hours.

Teens playing on computers lined up on a desk.

Some people spend up to 15 hours a day playing online games

The situation is completely different for Laura. Online gaming is an important part of life for the 18-year-old student from London. It's so important that she rarely has any time for her friends – or anything other than playing, for that matter.

“It’s fun and it’s my hobby. I don’t have a job right now, so I just play all day long,” she said. “That’s about 12 hours. Computer games are very important to me.”

A parent’s role

Hartmut Warkus, a media teacher at the University of Leipzig, knows that Laura’s problem applies to a lot of online gamers. He believes that parents are usually the ones to blame.

“We’re not going to lie. What kind of parent isn’t happy when their children stay quietly in their rooms and they don’t have to be entertained for five or six hours?” he explained.

But these parents shouldn’t wonder why their children are spending 15 hours a day on the computer five years later, added Warkus.

“Children won’t stop by themselves,” said Warkus. “Therefore it’s important for parents to try and educate their children about this.”

Three young children standing in front of a computer playing a game.

Experts say it's important to teach children self control when it comes to computer games

Age categories on games are also especially problematic. Many times children play games that are designed for an older audience – often with their parents’ knowledge. It's a disastrous development, according to Karsten Lehmann from the French software developer Ubisoft, because the computer game industry puts a lot of trust in today’s youth.

“We try to connect to younger players at the very beginning of the development process. I think that’s really important,” he added.

Most gamers are normal teenagers

The Leipzig study does make one thing clear: no matter how computer game culture develops, online gamers are and will remain mostly normal teenagers, explained Bernd Schorb. “Through the survey we found a lot of cases of players, who have been playing 12 or 13 hours, and have just totally given it up,” he said. “What usually causes this? Normally it’s the one thing that can make a teenage life beautiful: finally having a girlfriend.”

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