In part, Pete Etchells’ Lost in a Good Game is an example of a growing genre, the apologia for video games. Such books are often purchased by players responding to the sense of disdain they endure for their hobby (a sentiment with which I can identify) and then given to disapproving parents and partners in a usually unsuccessful effort to shift their attitudes. It is also, and more usefully, a report on research from experimental psychology in response to some of the concerns recently (and not so recently) raised about video games. Many of the chapters begin with a personal anecdote and then transition to a discussion of the relationship between a topic of concern and the appropriate research.
It is when Etchells is working close to his discipline that the book is most effective. Initial chapters on video game history seem a little out of place. The book becomes more persuasive, and even moving, when Etchells discusses the problems that have beset experimental psychology – the crisis in replicability, publication bias and so on. He is both earnest and brave as he confronts the recent difficulties in his discipline, and the implications for video game research.
The book approaches each question as something to be resolved by better research. In doing so, however, Etchells does not really do justice to the approaches of other disciplines. There is scant reference to the extensive work in media studies, cultural history, anthropology, communications, design research and art and media history on many of the issues on which he touches.
The agenda is to reassure. Etchells is a critic of attempts to create diagnoses for behavioural disorders that refer to video games, on the basis of the weaknesses of existing research. He extols the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, started in 1991, as an exemplar of quality research. Yet this only foregrounds the incompatibility between experimental psychology, whether used to condemn or to exculpate video games, and the real world’s dynamic practices of media engagement. The conditions of childhood in the late 1990s, before ubiquitous internet connectivity, social media, the triumph of technology in the classroom, mobile computing and the shift from retail to free-to-play games, were very different even from those just a decade later.
Etchells challenges the work of Susan Greenfield, a neuroscientist who takes a cautionary position on the effects of screen media on children. The contrast is stark: Etchells would have us assume they are likely safe until proven harmful (an approach that would probably not be applied to, say, a new medical intervention), while Greenfield would reverse that formula: we should be suspicious of the forces that shape our cognition and perception until we know how they affect us.
With new technosocial practices arriving constantly, and each new generation growing up in a world very different from that of their caregivers, it is missing the point to insist that everything is fine and that we should wait until there is more research before worrying. Etchells only glances at the market conditions that compel continuous novelty. The innovation agenda produces change faster than researchers in experimental psychology are able to respond. Particularly in a book intended to interest the general public, engaging with those disciplines that can respond more nimbly might be helpful.
William Huber is head of the Centre for Excellence in Game Education at Abertay University.
Lost in a Good Game: Why We Play Video Games and What They Can Do for Us
By Pete Etchells
Icon, 352pp, £14.99
Published 4 April 2019