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Professor studies games’ relationship to culture

Anne Arnason | Friday, September 13, 2013


Anne Arnason

News Writer

Peter Bacon Hales, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois-Chicago and an expert on American culture, stressed the interplay of culture and games in the post-Cold War world at a lecture Thursday in DeBartolo Hall. “We can discover broader cultural functions that video games play, just as we did the same when we looked at television, popular music, movies and even literature,” Hales said.

Hales said one of the first video games to exist was “Creepy Cave Adventure,” a simple code that responds to “yes” or “no” answers. He said there were two appeals to this game.

“First, it offered a fantasy escape to a wonderful crazy world, and the other is that it brought you to control this world,” Hales said.

Once technology progressed enough to allow for more complex games, the scenarios began to center more and more around nuclear warfare, Hales said. He said this shift can be attributed to the post-Cold War paranoia of an atomic holocaust.

The goal of the game “Balance of Power,” released in 1985, was to avoid nuclear war at all cost by developing a disarmament model, Hales said. 

“It hoped to awaken a generation of youthful technocrats that would someday be members of the war college,” he said.

Hales said if a player lost “Balance of Power,” a message was displayed on the screen instead of a gory virtual explosion.

“There was a fear that games were actually rewarding failure with spectacular effects of explosions and death,” he said. 

Hales, an avid gamer himself, recognizes the tantalizing effect of this sort of reward for failure. He said at the end of the “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 4” gameplay scenario, the character controlled by the gamer dies after an atomic bomb strike to a display of exciting, visually stimulating graphics that give the gamer an adrenaline rush. 

“The first time I got to that point in modern warfare, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, you hear your own heart beat stop, you go into tachycardia and you fall,” Hales said. “It’s absolutely shocking.” 

Hales said the sense of reward that comes from fictional death and destruction raises questions about the morality of war-inspired video games. The consequences of actions the player makes most clearly indicate the values the game promotes, he said.

“The consequences are not moral; they are deliberately flat,” Hales said. 

Hales said this means gamers do not sense what is right or wrong, but rather, simply care about what will come next. Another controversy raised by the rapid increase of video game popularity is the culture of online communities, Hales said. 

He said he recognizes three different phenomena in these online social circles. 

There is a group concerned with achieving immense prowess, proving that they have figured out the game better than anyone else, Hales said. He said another group fights for strategic supremacy, vying for a sort of intellectual respect comparable to that given to chess players. 

“[For this second group], it’s not about killing, it’s about checkmate in 12 moves,” Hales said. 

Hales said the third group seeks to create genuine communities. 

“I do not believe the virtual community is, in fact, an impoverished one,” Hales said.  I honestly believe that it’s a quite rich one.”