Monday, October 28, 2013

Video Games and Society: A Short Reflection

By generating more than $800 million in the first day of sales, the recently released video game Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V) is highly successful commercially. This comes as no surprise as the game series’ predecessors also generated high revenues and GTA V was extensively marketed through media campaigns.
People playing GTA V have to fulfill different missions in the fictional City of Los Santos. Thereby, these missions are most often only accomplishable through violent actions like stealing cars, shooting police officers or getting information by torturing other people. The overwhelming graphics and the huge open and interactive world of Los Santos add to the video game’s realistic environment.
Since a couple of years, I fulfill my duty as a military psychologist assisting military personnel (mainly recruits) in need of psychological counseling. In this context, it occurs to me that video games play an increasing part in the life of twenty-year old males and are co-occurring with social or psychological problems. During conversations, the recruits frequently tell me of spending three or more hours a day on video gaming. A small proportion also shows addictive behavior and the corresponding withdrawal symptoms related to excessive video gaming.  At the same time, most of these recruits report reduced participation in real world social activities (e.g., being members of a clubs, political participation). Taking into account the very selective population my observations are based on, and the risk of over-interpretation, I would like to reflect shortly on the consequences of video gaming for society.
Starting with the consequences for real world contact due to an extensive consumption of video games, people may have reduced social experiences. Research related to social psychology consistently showed that social contact is a powerful mechanism to reduce stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination among different individuals, groups and organizations in society. Therefore, diminished social contact and a societal tendency for individualism and self-realization may are related to video games confronting people with increasingly realistic open world scenarios. Additionally, there still exists an unsolved debate about the causes and effects of violent contents in video games.
However, there are also positive aspects of video games. People who experience difficulties in real world interactions can be offered a less stressful and demanding online alternative. Many video games are designed exactly to address these integrative aspects of online interactions, as the game’s challenges can only be solved cooperatively. Further, realistic video games combined with integrative online features are the result of an interconnected and globalized society. Hence, video gaming may develop skills and capabilities required for being successful in such an environment.
I am surprised by how silent research in various disciplines is when it comes to the analysis of societal consequences related to video gaming. In this context, a public discourse among the various stakeholders (e.g., families, clubs, organizations, game developers, employers, researchers) and their responsibilities related to video games is needed.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Fortress or kindhearted Europe?

The Italian Island Lampedusa is again in the news around the world. Once again it is because of human tragedies that took place before its coast: several hundreds of African refugees died during the attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea in vessels. As reported in the press, between 1992 and 2012 17’000 humans already died in such attempts.

In Europe in all sorts of media there are brisk discussions, comments and reports about the topic. Two basic view points and recommendations for the future dominate in discussions: one says that to prevent such tragedies in the future Europe needs to provide the refugees more support for their plans. An example is that potential refugees should have the possibility to make a request for asylum directly in Western embassies in African states. Proponents of this view moreover think that development aid is an important part to solve the issue. They denounce also exogenous reasons for poverty like the narrowly self-interested and exploitative activities of Western (natural resources) corporations in Africa. The second fraction wants to prevent such tragedies, but by taking measures that are aimed to stop influxes of refugees over the Mediterranean Sea. This shall be achieved, for example through strengthening boarder controls on the sea massively and through establishing refugee camps already in Northern Africa. Proponents of this view primarily condemn endogenous reasons for poverty like highly corrupt and kleptocratic elites in the African states.

Overall, proponents of both views present certain constructive suggestions for solving the issue. But one main problem is that it seems like the proponents of both sides do not listen to each other. If they would do so they probably would come to the conclusion that a combination of their suggestions would be the way to come to an effective solution. The suggestions are generally not mutually exclusive (e.g. stronger boarder controls and the possibility to make a request for asylum in embassies directly). In the existing consequent separation of the view-points we possibly also can recognize that one part of Europeans act consistent to one view while the other part does so with the other. The result of quasi two parallel policies are not only uncoordinated, often there are diametrically opposed actions (e.g. Western aid trying to provide access to clean water vs. a Western corporation nearby looting resources and thereby discharging polluted water in the river).

Coordinated and coherent actions among proponents of both views and thus of different stakeholders of the issue would arguably be expedient. It would also prevent from overturning in non-expedient actions from one fraction which the other is likely to see as too extreme. Without more coordination the status quo will be kept.

A second problem is that the root causes of the issue are not really discussed. But European stakeholders should focus more on these root causes. There are, for example potentials to connect activities of corporations looting natural resources and development aid organizations. Although it is at a first glance not easy to connect such different stakeholders it is a necessity: cooperation on root causes would tame both of them and thus lead to less non-reflected or only one-side-reflected activities. In this way real opportunities could be created in Africa.

In sum, cooperation between stakeholders concerning root causes is essential. In a presentation from early 2010 at the University of Zurich an invited Historian of the University of Oxford mentioned that the European activities in North Africa were not considering the full context there. Important realities were ignored and hence a forward-looking engagement was not possible. A year later the Arab spring took place. This brought hope in the beginning, but lastly not positive perspectives for the future of young people. Instead it brought new problems and new refugees.
Claude Meier