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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 September 2007, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK
In defence of computer games
A fan gets a little overwhelmed in the queue
An excited fan hugs Master Chief in the queue to buy Halo 3

By Paul Rubens

Halo 3's launch marks a milestone on the journey of video games from niche hobby to cultural phenomenon. Yet those who don't play can be dismissive. Can the myths be laid to rest?

Master Chief Petty Officer Spartan-117 unleashed his wrath in hundreds of thousands of homes around the country in the early hours. He was looking for a way to beat the Covenant once and for all, and to exterminate the deadly Flood parasites. The future of the human race hung in the balance.

Still from Halo 3
Master Chief in action
For the owners of the 1.25m Xbox 360 consoles in the UK, Wednesday marked the end of the long wait for Halo 3, the final instalment of a hugely popular video game trilogy.

About 1,000 games shops around the country opened at the stroke of midnight so fanatical gamers could buy a copy and assume the role of Master Chief. First day sales may well have grossed more than any other game, film or album in history.

If, on the other hand, you're not male or aged between 16 and 30, you may neither know nor care that Halo 3 has finally hit the streets. The Flood? The Covenant? Master Chief? What's with the vaguely Biblical names?

To hardcore gamers - and there are millions - these characters are cultural icons as well recognised as Luciano Pavarotti to the opera buff or David Beckham to the football fan.

Hidden world

It's a world that's invisible to the uninitiated. And it's a slightly discomforting thought that for the next few weeks, after school - or more likely after work, since Halo 3 is rated 16+ - hundreds of thousands of people will be glued to their television screens putting in the many hours it takes to play a modern video game from start to finish.

You can share the camaraderie of gaming with others even when you are in your own bedroom
Tim Ingham

Discomforting because over the years, video games have been blamed for everything from destroying marriages to turning balanced adults into murderers and rapists. At the very least, will video games produce a generation of unsociable hermits?

It's a common misconception that gaming is a solitary activity, as today an increasing number of titles are for gamers to get together and play in turn. In this respect, it's no different to golf - a game which can be a source of marital friction but is rarely accused of incitement to murder.

But a key attraction of games like Halo 3 is that many people can play simultaneously - either against each other or as a team. They do this by connecting their games machines together using the internet.

Fans take photos of Master Chief
Queuing too is a social activity
"There's now a massive social aspect to online gaming," says Tim Ingham, deputy editor at video games industry journal MCV.

"Online multiplayer is wider and more accessible than ever before, and people are socialising and meeting while playing online. You can share the camaraderie of gaming with others even when you are in your own bedroom, because gaming networks enable you to speak to the people you are playing with."

The amount of time spent socialising while playing games shouldn't be underestimated - players around the world have spent about 650 million hours playing the Halo games online so far, according to Microsoft, the game's publisher.

Shared interest

Many people assume that video gamers who spend hours in their bedrooms meeting people online must lack social skills when put in real-life situations.

At the National Video Game Event in the US
Finding a common interest
But school or work friendships often revolve around shared interests and experiences, and talking about Master Chief's latest discovery or tactic is no different to discussing the weekend's football results or the comings and goings on The Archers.

Games like Halo are part of such a large sub-culture that people who don't play them are likely to be seen as oddballs and excluded from many conversations - in much the same way as people who aren't interested in football or who don't have a television.

There's evidence that playing video games can have a positive effect on social life, says Dr Mark Griffiths, a professor in the Psychology Division at Nottingham Trent University.

"Research carried out a few years ago found that moderate game players have a bigger circle of friends than non-game players," Dr Griffiths says.

Fans with Halo 3
Buy together, play together
There's also evidence that playing video games can make the gamer more sporty. "It certainly speeds up reaction times and improves hand to eye co-ordination," he says.

And provided children don't play too much, it seems that their academic progress is unlikely to suffer. "School children who play a moderate amount of video games are also more likely to do their homework."

Over-40s could be excused for thinking that video games are irrelevant - after all, most companies target their titles at 16 to 30-year-olds. But gaming involves concentration, decision-making and speedy reactions, leading many researchers to believe that intellectual declines that are part of the natural aging process may be slowed by gaming.

Perhaps zapping aliens as Master Chief might be just the thing to help combat "senior moments" - for medicinal purposes only, of course.


Below is a selection of your comments:

Gaming is a very important and enjoyable part of my social life. I started playing World of Warcraft two years ago with some real-life friends. I'm now in a guild with them, some who have become real-life friends and others who would be real-life friends if they didn't live so far away. We're all meeting up for a weekend in Amsterdam this November, which I'm very much looking forward to. I have met some of my best friends through this game, and they were the ones who supported me through the death of my grandfather this summer. So don't discount it, there are some really fantastic people out there who just happen to be gamers.
Vicky, Sheffield, UK

I find it fascinating that people make a distinction between online/computer games and other games. Whilst friends and colleagues can't understand someone who plays Warcraft or Halo they think nothing of spending hours tramping round a golf course, playing bridge, watching football, doing a crossword. There all games just the format has changed, they all have the potential to isolate or integrate, to destroy marriages or to make relationships. It's not the game it's the player.
Paul, York

I started out with 20 versions of Pong at home aged seven and happily at a mature 36 now despatching others to their fate on CounterStrike. My reactions are very fast indeed. My last medical was so good, the GP did the reaction test again in case I was cheating. I've long believed in the stress-busting fun of computer games. Yours,
A well-adjusted, happy, in a serious relationship, holding down a responsible job, paying taxes, big kid at heart.
Mike, London, UK

I am a 40+ woman who plays Warcraft. If you can follow the mathematics of better armour, follow a tradecraft and make money in the auction house, you are probably doing better than the homework I remember (though spelling could be improved). And it's more fun than following the soaps or latest reality TV show.
Hypolyta, London

I'm a computer game designer and find it difficult to understand why people are so harsh to this evolving form of media. As a 25-year-old I've grown up with computer games, and they've grown as I've grown. They're an emerging art form, a new mode of entertainment that's perfectly capable of delivering in-depth plots, character development and powerful themes. Perhaps they haven't been harnessed to their fullest potential yet but are still in their infancy. To discount them purely on the ground that back in the 80s they used to get played by beardy men and teenage boys is little more then snobbery.
Pete Gomer, Manchester

Gaming is a very social activity, I met my partner whilst multiplayer gaming at a friend's house. Tonight there'll be a group of us having dinner and playing Halo 3 together at our house. Multiplaying doesn't just happen online and is much more sociable then just watching TV.
Cat, Sandhurst, Berkshire

It depends on what priorities you have in life. I was an avid gamer, but then realised I spend hours a day playing. The game ends and what exactly have I achieved in life? If you're young and carefree then OK, but once married with a kid and a job, it's not all so great.
Ismail Patel, London

Interesting comments regarding the social aspects of gaming. I ran an online gaming community for a couple of years, and it's true that the camaraderie and teamwork is second to none. My community, the Blighty Boys, was all very well and good until it got to 1,000 users and the idea of the online "community" got lost in a mist of politics and hidden personal agendas. I folded it in the end - but I certainly made some good friends there.
James Gage, London, England

It's unfair on games developers and other gamers to come under fire by parents when they're the ones who need to be more responsible. They should look into reviews when a child asks to have a video game, rather than not really care and just go out and buy it for them, even if it's not intended for their child's age group.
James Cook, Cardiff

Don't discount us "over-40s" just because the story has "computers" and "gaming" in the same paragraph. We're not as technology illiterate as most journalists seem to think - we were there at the birth of computer gaming remember and a lot of us continue with it today.
Jonathan Bignell, Ashford, Kent

I just turned to a colleague who is interested in this nonsense and - as someone who doesn't even own a telly - thought I was being funny by affecting a geek voice and announcing: "Er, yes, I would have completed the third quadrant of Halo 2 but I deployed my invisibility cloak too soon." He spluttered on his coffee and regained sufficient composure to tell me there is an invisibility cloak in this Halo thing. I think a small part of me died at that point.
David Grocott, Colchester

The lines from Alan Ginsberg are brought to mind: "I saw the greatest minds of my generation destroyed..." What's not mentioned in the article is how long computer games take to complete - north of 50 hours. I find articles like this entertaining because they attempt to justify what is effectively a huge waste of time by involving pseudo-psychological arguments, or even attempting to elevate computer games to high art. They're not art, any more than a child's playground is art. They're just fun diversions for those who either can't grow up, or who have nothing better to do. If you want to keep your mind active, just leave the house and get involved in the real world with real people.
Rick

I have been playing video games for over ten years, I regularly play all sorts of games on the Xbox 360 with my husband and I'm a 42-year-old mother of two. A larger number of gamers are women than is generally assumed.
Catherine Finney, Folkestone, Kent


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