Gaming lecture educates gift-givers

Tuesday, December 12
WILLIAMSTOWN — We sure have come a long way from the days of "Pac-Man," "Pong" and "Frogger."

Now, instead of gobbling ghosts, deflecting dots and dodging traffic, a video gamer can build a civilization from scratch, play online against an opponent from Japan and commit mass murder — all with the click of a button.

Harmless leisure-time activities, positive educational exercises or mind-bending conditioning mechanisms?

Maybe a little of everything, said Morgan McGuire, an assistant professor of computer science at Williams College.

McGuire, 30, and a handful of students spent two hours last night talking about all things video games. The title of the talk was 2006 Holiday Gaming Guide, a overview for laymen (a.k.a. parents) of the highly technical gaming world.

Social aspects also examined

But it covered all aspects of video games, including the social impacts. McGuire said scientific studies support the theory that playing video games can improve cognitive skills. He compared them to games like tic-tac-toe or chess, when one has to predict an opponent's move and decide a plan of action.

"This is the beginning of strategic thought," he said. "Weighing possibilities. It's something you don't get from school or a book."

He said video games develop, in some ways, the thinking that generals, scientists and business leaders use in day-to-day life.

But McGuire also touched upon the negatives, things like the sedentary aspect — playing video games for hours straight, and the antisocial one — playing alone.

"With anything, even reading a book, you need a certain level of moderation," he said.

One of the biggest criticisms against gaming attacks the sexual and violent content of video games, like "Grand Theft Auto."

"The violence, betrayal, sex ... games can definitely influence what kind of person you become," he said.

Video game popularity soars

Video game popularity is at an all-time high, with the NPD Group reporting sales in 2004 of more than $6 billion. The demographic is also getting older; the average gamer age is 33.

McGuire teaches computer graphics and game design and has consulted for the gaming industry on a number of titles. He said video games have become so advanced today that they rival professional driving and flight simulators used by governments.

For parents curious about what games are suited for their children, McGuire said it's best to consult the ratings guide — video games are rated on content just like the movies.

Titles with E ratings are suitable for ages 6 and older, comparable to movies with a G rating. Games rated T (teen, or PG-13) and M (mature, or R) usually have suggestive themes and violence.

The Williams students went on to demonstrate various games and consoles, like the Nintendo Wii, Microsoft Xbox 360 and the Sony Playstation 3.

Sean Hayes, a junior, said the Nintendo is the cheapest system ($250) on the market today and is geared for families and younger audiences. He demonstrated how the remote can be used as a tennis racket or a sword.

There are even simple simulation games, he said, that allow you to raise a puppy from birth, like "Nintendogs."

"For all those who wanted a puppy in your dorm room but aren't allowed, this is for you," he said.

With Xbox and Playstation, the price tag increases (as much as $600), but so do the graphics.

An audience member who did not want to be named — she came because she's scouting a Christmas gift for her son and didn't want to give it away in print — said the lecture came at a very opportune time.

She has never played a video game in her life, but she understands the infatuation of the younger generation.

"Some of these games require extraordinary expertise, and the artistry involved is incredible," she said. "Is there potential for addiction? Yes. Are there distasteful images? Yes. But everything should be taken in moderation."


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