This past weekend, I attended the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) in downtown Seattle. PAX draws a huge crowd of enthusiastic gamers from around the world eager to see what their favorite video and tabletop game studios will dream up next. But beyond the videos, costumes, and contests, PAX hosts a series of panels and presentations that provide insight into why gaming matters. These discussions revealed fascinating connections between the gaming world and the challenges to civil liberties that we face elsewhere in life.
One inspiring panel explored how video games improve the lives of hospitalized children, soldiers deployed in foreign countries, disabled individuals, and senior citizens. Panelists explained that video games are more than entertainment. They improve reaction times, hand-eye coordination, and visual perception. They help to ease pain and can be a useful tool in physical therapy. Moreover, games can give players a sense of accomplishment, provide social connections, and under certain circumstances, improve academic performance. Similar to participation in sports, playing video games can inspire confidence and empower people to challenge themselves. For example, studies have shown that those who play games like “Guitar Hero” are more likely to learn to play a real guitar.
A recurring theme, though, that ran through a number of the panels was discrimination and harassment. Some players “trash talk” each other during and after games through text or voice messaging. They use misogynistic, homophobic, or racist language or words that marginalize people on the autistic spectrum. This can lead people to quit gaming or discourage them from being themselves online.
Discrimination and harassment prevent people from enjoying games and all of the various benefits they bring. They also have the potential to extinguish the curiosity about and passion for technology that lead many to enter careers in science and engineering – which is a shame given that women and other minorities are underrepresented in these fields.
How can we address this situation? One simple step is to report players that harass others. Most game networks, including Xbox Live and the Playstation Network, have a way to report abusive players. If you see abuse, be an ally and say something. If you are the target, report the incident.
Whatever you do, don’t give up gaming. We can’t make the gaming world a more welcoming and more rewarding place without you.