The last time I wrote to you, I discussed a lot of the benefits of electronic gaming in education. I believe they can have a great positive impact on true education, even though there’s so much more that can be done with the medium. However, in the spirit of fairness the potential drawbacks of gaming on education — and life in general — should be discussed.

In the first place, let’s consider what games can do to our attention span. Consider Mario Party, in which players are subjected to a number of quick challenges that have no relation to one another, and a typical round of play takes a minute at most. These sort of fast, twitchy titles may test hand eye coordination, but they make it impossible to focus on any one task for an extended period of time. Even games which have more complicated mechanics can be guilty of this. For example, many shooters are designed to be “fire and forget.” I greatly enjoy the Unreal Tournament series of games, but those sorts of games test twitch reflexes and ability to react to a constantly changing environment. While in and of itself that isn’t a bad thing, I would argue that games that cater to this sort of instant gratification and our constant need for new visual information have a tendency to stunt our intellectual growth (at least temporarily.) It can be a difficult thing to go from blasting combatants with a rocket launcher to settling in to a good book.

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Somehow, this doesn’t get me in an academic mood.

Consider secondly that games have the ability to feed our need to always succeed. (I know, I need to stick to prose, not poetry.) I and others I have known keep at least two saved states for every game that has such a function, in case something happens that we don’t like. That way, we make sure our own little universes run exactly how they’re supposed to. This damages our tenacity and our willingness to accept our mistakes. It can become a crutch. While it’s understandable to do this because we don’t want all the time we’ve devoted to a title to be in vain, there is something to be said for games that include an “Iron Man” mode which saves the game automatically and forces you to live with your mistakes. If a player really wants to up the ante they play games which include “perma-death,” erasing all save files once the player dies. This is an important reminder that in life, there are no save states. There is no reloading. There is no reset button. The sooner we learn to live with and learn from our mistakes, the better off we are.

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Well, so much for my best sniper who has fought for me the past 3 hours. *sob*

Thirdly it can be argued that games have a potentially damaging effect to both humility and ego. It’s easy to see people who get bent out of joint over the outcome of a game which has no bearing on reality. (I myself have been guilty of this far more than I care to admit.) This is explained by how we get emotionally invested in our entertainment. Think of the last movie you saw or fiction book you read that had a terrible ending. It was a real let-down, wasn’t it? Those can be very powerful emotions produced by passive media. A book, movie, or television show doesn’t ask you to engage in the story beyond observing it and producing some sort of empathetic reaction. A book or movie doesn’t ask you to be the story (unless it’s a Choose Your Own Adventure title.) Electronic games by comparison elicit not only emotion but also competition and active involvement in the medium. We play because it gratifies some sense of pleasure and accomplishment. When we lose, our egos can be bruised rather easily because it means we have been conquered when we set forth to conquer. Loss of this type often can elicit anger, even if it’s not outward. These passionate responses are not typical with passive media — no one’s ego becomes wounded in the same way if a character dies in a book as it can be if a player dies in a game.

The argument can be made that such drastic emotional reactions depends upon the individual. After all, not everyone reacts in such a strongly negative way as to begin cursing and getting angry! This is true, but it runs the risk of ignoring the fourth point: games are often used as a substitute for real accomplishments. Such a substitution demands heavy emotional investment. This is one of the most damaging — and some may say condemning — aspect of electronic games.

By their very nature, games are a temporary escape from reality. Most of us will never take up arms and shoot someone in real life, but we can do so in games. Most of us will never have the opportunity to direct the destiny of nations, but we can do so in games. None of us will ever be a green-skinned monster with a full set of rare magical equipment that lets us fight dragons and other assorted beasts, but we can do so in games. All of these can be attractive because they cater to our desired fantasies: to live in a pseudo-medieval world, to command the great armies of Europe or Asia, or even to take to the stars to establish a galactic empire and fight unknown foes, etc. These sort of fantasies are not limited to games, of course. Many women read trashy romance novels because they have a fantasy of what they want their relationships to be like, and many men view pornography for exactly the same reason. Both of these are damaging because they provide completely false expectations of reality.

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I wanted to post a picture of a romance novel cover here, as posting pornography would be distasteful and immoral. Little did I realize that the novel covers were equally so. Here’s a smiley face instead.

Unlike passive media, there is an added element to video games: a sense of accomplishment. A sense of accomplishment certainly is not a bad thing in and of itself! A sense of accomplishment may be found in other active hobbies such as model building, playing music, crocheting, gardening, etc. Unfortunately video games leave out one very important thing that other such active hobbies have — a tangible product. There is not — and I would argue never will be — a tangible benefit to having a maximum level character in a game like World of Warcraft. This is only exacerbated by the Achievements system that is now so common in gaming. Players have a “meta-score” based on how many of these challenges they complete for the games they play. Such a system adds another sense of accomplishment on top of the one they get by simply playing and completing the game. This also can add a sense of competition with a player’s friends for who has the highest “meta-score.”

However, calling these challenges “achievements” is disingenuous as they aren’t achievements in the classic sense of the word. They are also inherently selfish. There is nothing to be handed down to a subsequent generation once they have been attained! My future family will have no benefit based off of the achievements that I have acquired in the games I have played. There is no way that these games have a direct benefit to my survivability. I may have acquired information indirectly from games or skills as a result of them, but they do not directly improve my station in life. But it is that desire to point to an “achievement” that keeps so many people playing and may hinder them from going out and laying claim to a real achievement. Even if there were some sort of rewards system associated with these achievements such as free bonus content or credit for another game, they still only serve the user in a fashion that will keep them playing.

This leads to a final point: games are addictive. I bring up this point very reluctantly, because I myself am uncomfortable with the fact. However, it is a fact. Neurologists have done studies that show the reward pathway in the brain associated with playing video games is very similar to that of crack cocaine users. We get addicted to the cycle of risk/achievement/reward because the dopamine (“happy chemicals”) released by this cycle keeps us euphoric. But over time and with constant use — like anything — this cycle’s effect dims. That’s why I have more than one first-person shooter title installed on my computer. The same is true with strategy games of various types. There are different features and therefore different experiences, but the question can fairly be raised “Why do you feel the need to buy a new game of genre X? It differs very little from the previous ones you have.” The answer I believe can only come from the fact that I haven’t tried this “new” experience with similar themes. Just like a cocaine user hasn’t tried just this next hit.

I’m very happy to say that I’ve never done illegal drugs or been subject to their negative effects. But I can’t honestly say that I’ve never been addicted to anything. I seem to have the personality for it, certainly. When I was very young, I was addicted to the Star Wars movies. This later led to being addicted to a Star Wars computer game. I played it nearly every day. Though the theme of that fictional universe waned in appeal (more or less,) the addiction to games did not. The fascination in themes changed, but the desire to play and personally experience those themes has been a constant.
Video game addiction is different from movie addiction, music addiction, or book addiction because (as has previously been stated) those mediums are inherently passive. The cycle of play/reward is incredibly enticing. I couldn’t possibly consider sitting down and doing nothing but watching a movie for 5 hours straight, but unfortunately I know that time could easily be swallowed by gaming. Such a prospect is incredibly damaging for devoting time to actual achievements. Though games in and of themselves are not bad, they certainly can be abused like alcohol, tobacco, or harder drugs.

These aspects of gaming can have a negative effect not only on someone’s education but their overall quality of life in the big picture. Even as I type this, I consider friendships made and strained over gaming, of things learned and things ignored, and of time spent and misspent engaged with a controller or a mouse and keyboard. Gaming has had a profound impact on my life both positively and negatively. While I stop (more or less) when I have a big project or pressing work duties going, I’m not sure I could ever walk away from the medium completely. I’m not sure I could live without the possibility of playing games in some way, either electronically or with cards and dice. Is that a bad thing? I’m not sure. I believe that we play games to learn skills and bond with people around us, but like anything else it can be made into an idol. It should also be noted that gaming with cards and dice requires other people, whereas most video games do not. Even in the instance where they do require other people, most of the time there’s no need to interact with them unless you know them in real life.

That’s a lot to consider, and in some cases these things are not very comfortable to ponder. In fact, writing the entire last half of this article hasn’t been very comfortable because I realize how much of it has been first-hand experience. That being said, the uncomfortable truths are usually the most important and the most necessary to lay hold of.

Hi, my name is wastelander87, and I’m finally ready to admit that I’m a game-a-holic.

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2 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Gaming

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