It felt quite cathartic banging this one out since it was originally meant to be my first opinion piece. What’s more, the inspiration for this post actually hit me as I was talking to someone about starting this blog. The guy was a friend of a friend of mine and we were having lunch before going to watch… The Force Awakens I think. (Don’t laugh! Daytime movies are not just for kids!) Anyway, I was divulging the fact that I intend to branch out my passion for gaming into a blog, when he made a remark that instantly inspired a post: “I always feel so bad for playing games though.” I blinked, looked at him quizzically and he elaborated: “Well you see, I get this little voice in the back of my mind that keeps nagging at me to spend the time more productively. So I feel this weird sense of guilt.” “Please can I write on that!” I yelled immediately, and fortunately he nodded. This is actually a topic of conversation that people, strangely, bring up with me quite often. I do, after all, have a lot of experience in this area. For most of my youth, I needed some really good (albeit totally nonsensical) reasons to participate in a hobby which had my parents convinced I was turning into either a Satanist or a serial killer. Or a communist.
Now most hardcore or professional gamers might scoff vigorously at anyone who even thinks about labelling something more important than gaming. To them, video games begin with alpha and end with omega, and playing them has become a way of life that cannot really be called a hobby any more. Put some of these connoisseurs in front of their favourite game with a stack of hot pockets and some adult diapers, and they are suddenly at a serious risk of forgetting to breathe. Yet for the rest of us, on whom befalls the onus of sustaining a non-gaming (read boring) job, have families to spend time with or are perhaps battling our way through studies, the question of whether or not gaming adds value to our lives actually becomes quite important. This is not to say that people who play games seriously, professionally or competitively do not have lives, however. It only means that some people just do not have the opportunity to devote as much time as they want into gaming. Such as yours truly!
We can perhaps try to wave aside all concerns by referring to the old adage that says “Time you enjoyed wasting, was not wasted,” or gallantly wave recent studies around in the air that suggest gaming adds unique problem-solving and hand-eye coordination skills to our repertoire. And what’s more, we know that our friends Markaplier, PewDiePie and JackSepticEye have clearly made some fat stacks from their gaming exploits on YouTube (and that is even before we get to people selling digital weapons, islands, avatars or furniture for small fortunes in the online sims such as Diablo III, Entropia Universe or Second Life). Yet, this is a lazy response, and being adept at spotting those bastard campers hiding in the bushes will not really help you get through the stack of filing the boss just put on your desk by 3. The reality is actually far more bleak. It becomes harder for many gamers to see the benefits of their digital exploits just as fast as it becomes easier to see the hours becoming less in a day from spending time behind a controller or a keyboard and mouse.
So the question is: Why do so many Average Joe gamers inevitably reach a point where they feel the need to somehow justify the time spent in virtual worlds to people who do not play games? It certainly doesn’t take a genius to see that this multi-billion dollar arena of entertainment media is constantly interrogated by the rest of the world that doesn’t indulge in this pastime the way we do. And let’s face it, only a truly compassionate CEO would not stuff your resume straight into the shredder when you put down ‘Completed Devil May Cry 4 on Hardest Difficulty’ under ‘unique skills’ (and I still cannot find a Seattle Coffee Co. that would trade a tall cappuccino for a few achievements or PlayStation trophies). So should we, ‘the unprofessionals,’ just surrender to the fact that video games are little more than a brief moment of joy that serves no purpose beyond getting us to relax for the time we spend with them?
On the one hand, I can totally understand why people might tempted to think our ‘Nintendos’ are turning our brains into that mould growing around the toilet’s U-bend. Video games are not just an expensive hobby, but a time consuming one too. So many a gamer has been in that awkward position of trying to hide their Halo or World of Warcraft online hours from our parents, and I often find myself grinding through some of the repetitive, filler-type missions in Skyrim wondering who on earth the developers think has the time to go through all of this. To Quote Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw “I got shit to doooo!” Gaming is not a quick fix. It is a long, drawn out orgasm of fun that people can get lost in for hours.
There is also a more serious, gritty side to this in which playing games has resulted in states of mortal peril for some, and death for others. The news certainly wastes no time in shoving our faces into yet another case where some players collapse after playing WOW or Dota for several sleep cycles in a row. And when we ride any plain Google search a little further, it reveals that some kids steal things to keep playing games, while others are reduced to such intense fits of rage that they start smashing everything in sight after loosing in a round of CS: GO. It really isn’t difficult to spot a careless ‘7 degrees of Kevin Bacon’ type of link between obsessive or unmoderated gaming habits and sociopathic behaviour. Whether it is sexism, a mass shooting or public outbursts of violence, the question on everybody’s lips is always by default, “what games was [insert culprit here] playing?” (The recent indie game, Hatred, is a good example here of raising many concerned eyebrows.)
These problems paint a bleak picture indeed, and when game after game is (almost carelessly) released with a substantial amount of violence becoming unnervingly synonymous with ‘action,’ we cannot blame people for getting concerned over bloody pixels (pun intended). Yet, fear not! I will get to the good news in a moment. For now, just bear with me on two points. Firstly, it is certainly true that video games have the power to influence people to act violently or aggressively. Yet these games always reveal the problem, and they do not create it. People who go on shocking private or public rampages are deeply, deeply disturbed individuals, and their psychopathic behaviour would have manifested itself in one way or another. There are millions of potential triggers that can, and eventually will, set off this disturbing behaviour in certain people, and it is our responsibility to identify them and get them to professional psychological intervention. This also holds true for gamers who play video games for days on end without sleep, or people who have serious trouble controlling their anger. This is highly deviant behaviour linked to a much deeper and more profound underlying issue or psychological disturbance.
Secondly, we also have to concede to the fact that reality can really become a cage. Too many people are trapped in their professional careers where they really do not want to be and getting up in the morning is sometimes an insurmountable chore despite how pretty their pay-check at the end of the month looks. Others, while happy in the workplace, nonetheless crave a sense of adventure that their seemingly perfect daily routine simply fails to provide, no matter how proficient they are at meeting their social and professional responsibilities. I am trying to say that we as human beings tend to easily become slaves in the invisible capitalist system that is our modern society, whether we are happy with our lives or not. In all truth, it is particularly gamers, with their vivid imaginations, craving for adventure and unique approach to solving problems that are particularly sensitive to how trapped we have become to upholding a system that treats us like nothing but things or cogs in a giant money making machine.
It is often at this point where games make a very positive contribution to many good citizens (and here comes the good news and the answer that I have for you today). ESCAPOLOGY. Just that one word. As the name suggests, this concept implies an intentional act of getting away from something that does not necessarily have to be frightening or malicious. It more often that not denotes a positive act in which the subject seeks relief rather than refuge.
And that, my friend, is the value of video games and the reason why you should never be ashamed of playing them. More specifically, it goes like this: As of this moment, there does not exist any entertainment media that allows for the exchange between subject and object quite on the level of video games. Video games do not just give your senses a pleasurable stimulation (such as watching T.V., or eating nice food for example), but actually give you the option of creating that pleasurable sensory stimulation. This happens through a process whereby the player is given the control over the on-screen avatar (or presence such as the case in games like Tetris), and you are plunged into setting after setting in which only he/she/neither can give the commands. The avatar will only move and thereby succeed in the task at hand if the player allows them to, and the effect is that the player is plunged into the peculiar position of inhabiting the world of the avatar without actually becoming part of it. Try playing Dirt 3 when you are not really in the mood and see if you can still score a platinum medal on that effing mini bob-sled run! What is important to notice in the case of playing a game is that we as the players are given a safe space to leave our current realities, even just because it is impossible for a human being to consciously be part of more than one reality in a single moment.
Video games are therefore the opportunity to swap your reality with another one. Just like meditating or sitting in your dad’s lazy boy with headphones listening to music, it gives your brain the chance to let go of your problems and preoccupy itself with a set of far more ‘meta’ challenges that we subconsciously know will have no personal consequences if we fail. You are therefore far more open to learning the highly abstract yet necessary skills needed to beat the game.
As a matter of fact, enjoying a video game could actually mean that you draw out a set of unique skills that you never knew you had in you. Small and skinny with a tremendous fear of heights or overweight and slow with asthma? In the world of Mirror’s Edge and Assassins Creed you will wonder why this is even an issue as you effortlessly fight five guards at once, or sprint across the rooftops a hundred feet high at speed. What about poor school marks or a bad day at the office? Look how you saved the life of the damsel in distress in Dark Messiah armed only with a banana and duck-tape, or figured out the sequence of numbers that opens the safe lock in Silent Hill 3 using only a naughty limerick on a piece of paper. Sure you are only using your fingers, but you are still accomplishing these feats despite your shortcomings. These victories belong to the player, and they require a sense of mental agility and deeper thinking that, for once, does not have be awakened in you after a teacher bellowed their lungs out in front of the entire class. You want to better yourself in the world of video games because it is more fun this way and the victory at the end of this learning curve is a very real achievement.
So overall, you can rest assured that the games you enjoy are everything but a waste of time. Yes, of course there are bad games and, yes, of course, you might not always have the intention to get totally absorbed into a game, but we are talking about the overall effect that explains why more and more people are spending time in virtual worlds. Video game games are not just a place where you can be someone different, but a place where you can be yourself through someone else. Gaming is a way of releasing that inner talent that we posses, but somehow cannot find an adequate outlet for anywhere else. To punish or shame ourselves for playing games is too overlook the fact that the real world is a site at which many dimensions of who we could be, and what we can do, is pushed aside.
To quote Jane McGonigal, from whom I drew extensively in writing this post, gaming is actually helping to fulfil a very central human need for showing us a world we already know and inhabit in a wholly unique way – a way that is bringing more and more psychologists to the realisation that the brain desperately needs this kind of stimulus. To play a video game is to release the pressure valve of your imagination on full blast. If you are a dull-witted, uninteresting and an unimaginative ignoramus, you probably will not enjoy games. If I failed to convince you today, it is utterly essential to read the book by Jane McGonigal (PhD) entitled “Reality is Broken.” I will leave you with a quote from her: “The people who continue to write off games will be at a major disadvantage in the coming years… And therefore they will miss some of the most promising opportunities we have to solve problems, create new experiences, and fix what’s wrong with reality.”