The Power of Videogames. An interview with Professor Romano

The Power of Videogames. An interview with Professor Romano

We have had the pleasure of meeting Professor Giuseppe Romano, one of the leading experts on video games in Italy to guide us through the fascinating world of virtuality in continual evolution full of unknown risks and pitfalls.

We aim to examine this delicate issue to try to understand what drives millions of children and adults to spend hours a day on the game console. What is so captivating and fascinating about video games? What are the potential risks? Can we consider video games as a new opportunity for growth or do they present an actual threat to our children?

We all agree that children spend more time on video games than ever before. In the past children would play ‘real’ games like playing football with friends or a walk in the park. Is this just a phase or a commercial trend of the day or are we facing a social revolution and a culture destined to radically change not only our way we use our leisure time but also of socializing and relating with others?

I think the answer lies in the assumption made in the question, We mistakenly think that playing in the park is a ‘real’ game whereas playing on the game console is not.

What then are video games? They involve real people, occupy real time and take you into imaginary scenarios thought up by men. If they weren’t real, then neither would novels or films be considered real. A soccer game would not be considered real if you considered the fact that the rules of the games have been invented by men. For most (if not everyone) football is something real!

Some recent studies suggest that a prolonged use of the console can lead to serious neurological disturbances particularly in children and that in some cases can trigger epilepsy. In addition, prolonged use can even lead to depression. Are we running the risk of being brainwashed or are we taking these statements too far?

I think there are a number of aspects we need to take into consideration here. It has been proved through medical research that excessive use of video games does lead to certain health problems. Numerous pathologies have been found such as eye complaints and severe osteoarthritis found in hands. There are also psychological and social problems which are more and more common today. I think the most serious problem stems from the feeling of abandonment. If a child or a young adult feels lonely or finds himself confined to little space or simply lacks in self-esteem then he is more likely to feel comfort in escaping into another world. Video games in fact, provide a visual, audible, narrative and even tactile immersion that really takes you into another world.

However, the problem is at its source. The key term here is a “balanced use” and the family constitutes a unique place where balance can be learned. Any activity can be harmful and can cause physical, emotional and social damage if a balance is not reached.

Are there any Observers in Italy that conduct studies on these issues who can offer help and guidance to parents?

There exists a few. The European Evaluation System PEGI ( www.pegi.info) certifies titles according to age and content in the game and shows symbols on the back covers to describe the nature of the content i.e. violence, sex, drug or alcohol etc. This requirement is important because game producers are obliged to observe by law certain regulations and are the first in person to urge for them as they risk heavy penalties. The downside to this system is that it gives an indication of what to avoid but it cannot substitute the parental judgment nor can it assess the cultural quality. If reliable indications are not shown, then it is advisable to consider the recommended age.

Fundamentally, there exists few guidelines for parents regarding the world of video games in Italy. There is a blog ‘Family Game’ on www.famigliacristiana.it which discusses these aspects.

The Fiuggi Family Festival ( www.fiuggifamilyfestival.org ) is another opportunity for families to reflect on the videogames in the family and for some years now, the Festival has organized talks and interactive workshops on this theme.

Censorship, in my opinion, creates preconceptions in adults. Their fear and mistrust often arise from something they are not familiar with and in some cases this can lead to a total rejection. On the contrary, indifference or over enthusiasm can result in accepting videogames and the Internet without questioning or evaluating what they are using. Many teenagers and children have total freedom in the use of both. Such attitudes are inappropriate but unfortunately they are becoming more and more common. Statistics say that 1 out of 2 families in Italy own video games and that children play not only in the home but also at friend’s houses or in the street.

Adults play videogames as well as children. What is it that adults like so much about videogames? Are the adults who use them adult-lescents?

Videogames are simply a new category of human expression. They are like television, the cinema, novels and clubs in other words they are personal and social spheres in which people interact with others through ideas, fantasies, images and relationships.

Furthermore, videogames can be well made or poorly made. They can be interesting or boring. They can be high or low quality. They can provide educational or destructive content. They can be adapted to children or to adults. If we choose a good product, we have a fascinating device in our hands which can be both interesting and valuable at the same time.

Videogames are interactive, multimedia, digital inventions. They communicate in an unusual and innovative way respect to earlier products. They have a sophisticated language capable of communicating big and small human realities. They are challenging or entertaining and come in different sizes and formats just like you find with books.

The language of interactivity is part or with us and has won us over by force of convention. It is impossible not to be dependent on it. The Web touches every activity we are involved in. It is necessary to remember that the Internet is not the sum of machinery involved moreover, the sum of the people and relationships that are involved. In the cultural challenge we face the problem of being and remaining human, videogames could also play a role.

Are there any positive effects of playing videogames? Is there a right way to create dynamics between parents and children and contribute to their growth?

Videogames can be both positive and valuable resources in the family but parents need to bear in mind that they should be present when they are in use. There are games where more than one person can play at the same time and parents could get directly involved in this way. However, in my opinion a parent should take a genuine interest in their children and what they play with even if at times they seem banal or harmless. Taking an interest in our children is a form of love and affection that runs through an intergenerational relationship of paternity, maternity and filiation.

Furthermore, new technological advances give promising prospects for schools and education. The touch finger tablet has various applications to read and interact with. By Italian Law, an interactive component will be included in every school textbook next year. We shall see…..

What should we do about the portrayal of violence in videogames? Do you think it can be dangerous or incite violent reactions? What criteria should game designers follow in order to prevent users from absorbing the ‘make-believe violence’?

I have already answered this question in part earlier. Videogames simply mirror and stress the already existing problems. An angry child will throw himself into a violent videogame to find meaning in his state of mind. He will either find a way of venting his anger or the game will simply exacerbate his state of mind.

Therefore, it is important to understand the question of violence. We tend to put a label on everything and similarly, we put the label ‘violent’ onto realities that are actually quite complex. If we do this, we risk condemning a large part of our culture. Take Shakespeare or the Divine Comedy or the Bible or the Gospel. Is Lord of the Rings a violent story? Certainly, there are scenes of aggression, massacres and fighting in the story yet the message is not destruction, quite the contrary, it teaches us to love and defend peace and justice.

The distinctive characteristic of videogames consists in identification; you play in first person and as a consequence there can be harm in impersonating inappropriate roles if they lack the critical detachment and maturity necessary to assume an ironic awareness. This is the reason why I strongly discourage children and young people to play games such as Grand Theft Auto where you take on the role of a criminal or games like The Sims where human relationships are made trivial and banal.

What are the red flags for a parent who sees their child spend too much time on videogames? When should a parent be worried or not ?

What are the red flags for a parent who does not see his child come home in the evening or who sees him reading bad literature? The answer is obvious. The same red flags should go up for a child who reads day and night but never socializes.

One of the many roles of parents is to administer the time and duration of children’s activities. It is useful to know that some videogames can absorb you for literally hours (even days and weeks!) before you pass from one world to another. They are rich, complex and crowded worlds. The question is in deciding how much time should they spend on them. A

parent should spend some time with their children and give them well-defined boundaries regarding time and priorities. It is the best way to appreciate the positive aspects without exaggerating. An hour’s play for example poses no danger in itself. In addition, it is equally important to learn to end the game (without tears and tantrums) as well as learning how to begin it.

How can one recognize a high quality game apart from relying on reading certifications, reviews or sales charts?

One can seek advice, ask other parents’ opinions or read reliable reviews. If you do not have any of these, respect the age-group recommendation on the cover.

Broadly speaking, most videos today are high quality from an industrial and commercial point of view. Professional and experts dedicate time to producing a highly polished product. In Italy, the turnover of videogames is double that of home videos; it is more than music productions and almost matches the sales of books.

Notwithstanding this, videogames are not all recommendable and neither should they be underrated.

One last question. There is an unexpected boom in 3D films at the cinema such as Avatar. Will this be the new frontier for videogames as well? What consequences and effects should we take into account using 3D technology since it is certainly more intrusive than previous technologies.

3D technology has been part of videogames for a long time but it has been in the film industry since 1920.

The reason why it is so popular at the moment is not just the apparent advanced technology in the film industry but also the use of projected television devices adapted to re-watch (and resell) these types of films. The same thing has happened with many videogames. In some cases, they require additional, expensive technology while in others, like the portable Nintendo 3DS, the effect is instant because they do not need glasses.

In almost all cases today, watching a 3D film with glasses is quite a tiring experience but with new technology this difficulty will be overcome.

If we take aside for a moment the technological aspect, it is important to distinguish if we are simply dealing with special effects which in time we will be accustomed to like everything else or if 3D will be used as a new expressive and linguistic resource (Avatar, ,Hugo Cabret) , a new tool which will involve and lock into all our senses.

(*) Giuseppe Romano, journalist and partner of UniOne at Architetture di comunicazione srl- a business communication consulting firm. Leads a blog “Family Game” in “Famiglia Cristiana” magazine web edition dedicated to the relationship between videogames and the family.

Giuseppe Romano teaches Reading and the Creation of Interactive Texts, a specialist degree course subject at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan – The Catholic university of the Sacred Heart.

Vice artistic director at Fiuggi Family Festival, dedicated to relationships between the family and the cinema and TV.

President of Digital Kids association, dedicated to the educative perspectives of new languages in the family and in school.

Multimedia Consultant for the Thematic Structure Programmes for the Ragazzi della Rai.

Some publications:

La città che non c’è (L’Internet frontiera di uomini) – The city that does not exist (The Internet, the frontier of man) (Edizioni Lavoro, Roma 2004) – a study based on the social and communication implications of the Internet.

Digital Kids. Guida ai migliori siti web, cd-rom e videogiochi per bambini (Digital Kids. A guide to the best websites, cd-roms and videogames for children) - vol edn. by Giuseppe Romano and Stefania Garassini (Raffaello Cortina Editore, Milano 2001).

A multimedia adaptation of the book Crossing the Threshold of Hope written by Pope John Paul II– 2 CD-Rom format.(Arnoldo Mondatori Editore, 1996). Translated in various languages.