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I regularly read sports columnist Jason Whitlock because I find him to sometimes be insightful and bold when tackling issues in sports that almost all avoid.  He regularly covers race and social issues in a thoughtful manner whilst exploring all aspects and being generally impartial.  Sports and video games on MY internets?  Pshaw but there is a point to this correlation as he recently made a statement that merited a response.  Whitlock wrote in a recent article (here: the following paragraph: "We, Americans, are intellectually lazy. That’s not groundbreaking perspective. It’s fact. It’s a generalization, but it’s one I believe. Collectively we prefer not to think. It’s too much trouble. It interferes with video games, the Kardashians and Glenn Beck."

Let us re-read that statement in brief: Americans are intellectually lazy and thinking interferes with video games, which are equivalently banal to the Kardashians and Glenn Beck.  WHAT?  Whitlock has clearly not played a game since 1983 when the only (read: most popular) games at the time required reflexes more than smarts.  Nowadays though, as any gamer can attest, video games require all kinds of thought and a variety of it.

The latter statement is fully contingent on the types of games one plays, of course.  It's obviously not every single game that requires thought of a profound manner: Wii Sports is about as thought-provoking as a Jersey Shore fist pump but that does not make it any less enjoyable.  However, if one attempts more than the typical "casual games" then it is highly unlikely that one will encounter a game that does not involve thinking critically of some sort.

There is a variety of ways in which games can make one think critically.  There are the concepts of spatial thinking that such gems like Legend of Zelda, Tetris, Ace Attorney and the like require one to utilise to complete a level and/or the game itself.  Anyone who has played any of these titles can instantly recognise the correlation between thought and gaming.  

There are other methods in which a game allows one to think critically.  There is the spatial thinking that occurs in RPGs and FPSs.  For example, recognising the pattern that an enemy uses and being able to defeat the enemy due to that recognition is an aspect of spatial thinking that one cannot readily encounter in any other medium but video games.  One cannot defeat a character in a book that one reads in this manner or any other visual medium for that matter.  It is that interaction that allows one to use one's noggin in such a way that coming up with a strategy to outflank actual living players in, say, Call of Duty, that nothing but a real war or battle could

These are all legitimate ways of thinking critically because they excite mental faculties in a way that doing jigsaw puzzles or watching Jeopardy might.  However, it is clear from Whitlock's intent in his article that he wanted to convey actual deep thinking and introspection, that is to say, pondering.  A call to the deepest and most profound lairs in the psyche that not every form of entertainment can incite, which is something not unique to any medium in particular.

Video games now have some of the most compelling narratives one can encounter that can definitely lead one to ponder.  They have gone from shooting aliens on a vertical plane to shooting aliens in the face and making one question its value.  Sure, there are the occassional dung-handlers like Duke Nukem (literally) but video games have progressed so much in the past 20 years that one can readily designate them as beautiful works of fiction and art.

For example, Whitlock regularly alludes to The Wire, a gritty crime drama that entails corruption and power in Baltimore: from the docks to the drug dealers to the government and the police, everyone has an agenda yet the game remains the same.  He uses The Wire as a conduit to describe relationships between players and coaches, owners and players, etc.  What better use of a series to convey the corruption that power leads to than Metal Gear Solid?  Anyone who played through the entire series can easily understand the principle of how power corrupts: the Patriots came into their affluence and influence with the best of intentions but…whoops!

MGS is not the only series that one can use to cite how games allow one to think critically.  There are numerous titles that are more profound than even the fictional and non-fictional philosophical classics, like Xenogears and Xenosaga, whose producer directly states that Nietzsche was a substantial influence over the course of the series (Nietzsche's book titles are even the subtitles for the games!).  Not only have video games delved into subject matter as deep as religion but race relations, social conflict, psychology (Persona), philosophy, war (MGS) and even love.

It is my contention that comparing video games to something as insipid as the Kardashians or as blissfully deluded as Glenn Beck is ignorant.  It shows a clear lack of understanding how much video games have progressed, not just in the critical thinking department by solving puzzles and the like but also in the profundity of narrative.  There are no doubt titles that are fairly mindless but it does not require much effort to encounter a game in which one actually gets to employ that grey cortex.


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