The Real Video Game Danger: They're Too Safe?

The summers of my childhood were marked with scars. Good scars, not bad ones.

There's the time I split my knee racing friends while wearing flip-flops. The stitches in my head earned during a vigorous match of tag. The countless skinned elbows, bumps and bruises of a youth spent on skateboard and bike.

Those were just the hallmarks of growing up outside. Each wound, each scar a tiny reminder of time spent running, laughing, playing.

But the summers of today's youth seem far removed from those times. Over the decades the evolution of play has drawn children closer and closer to home, from side streets to backyards to, finally, dens and video games. As parents become more cautious and children more agoraphobic, is something getting lost?

In Roger Caillois' famed book on play and games, Man, Play and Games, he divides play into four categories: Competition, chance, role-play and the physical effects of vertigo.

That last one is the feeling of riding a roller coaster, of running with abandon, of losing control. And that's the only form of play that video games can't tap into points out Ian Bogost, video game designer, critic and researcher at Georgia Institute of Technology.

"The sense of vertigo is missing," he says, "of being very active, physically spastic in some way. I don't see how we could argue that video games provide that."

While some games include a physical aspect, like what is found with Nintendo's Wii and in-development projects for both the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, they still require very controlled motion and physicality. For a game to truly tap into that fourth element, vertigo, there has to be a sense of abandon, of danger.

"Outdoor play has to be almost destructive in some ways, you have to be at risk at some time, of breaking something, of falling," Bogost says. "You don't really have that in games, simulating it isn't sufficient."

But don't blame video games. Video games are just the byproduct of a society and encroaching suburban lifestyle that buys into the culture of fear, Bogost says.

"It used to be that before suburban life, in the early 20th century, people would play in the streets, not just backyards or parks," he said. "But then you had to move the kid with the stick and the ball to the park.

"Now we're taking the backyard and moving it into the den and the television screen."

These relocated children still find ways to tap into three of those elements. They make up their own rules, games within video games. They play Rock Band or Guitar Hero with friends. But by limiting play to the relatively safe confines of home, children might be missing out on a chance to find and explore the raw edges of life.

"Something about play should be disruptive and antagonistic, not toward each other, but toward the environment. It should be about children finding the edges of their world, " Bogost said. "When we were children our neighborhood kind of became this kingdom."

Now a child's kingdom is often a haven of air-conditioned safety, of entirely explored space and little opportunity.

Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe today's children don't live in the same type of world that we did, don't need to run the risk of injury or testing oneself. Maybe they should prepare for a life indoors, online, physically void of risk. Maybe that's what we've all become.

If you find that hard to accept as a desirable beacon of progress, then do something about it.

But don't just send your children outside, go outside with them, even at the risk of a skinned knee.

Play games with them, even if they're ones that mimic their childhood pastimes.

Have fun.

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.