Gaming: Anti-Social Monster or Future Problem Solver?

Nobody really has a problem with gaming until some incident of horrific violence based (however loosely) on video game content (e.g. Virginia Tech, Oslo shooter, crazy WOW addicts, S. Korean parental neglect of baby) crops up. While these tragic episodes definitely warrant reflection on the influence of games on society, have we been too quick to demonize games as a whole? Is video gaming addiction (i.e. when playing the game impedes other normal functioning–which can incidentally be applied to addiction to just about anything) itself really a problem with the video game industry?

Broader studies and analyses still find it hard to draw links between game and violence or anti-social behavior though. In fact, a study in America actually revealed the average gamer age to be closer to 37, and that most games played are actually deal with puzzles rather than hardcore action or role-playing.

But even so, are hardcore action and role-playing games all that bad?

Taking the shooting case of Anders Behring Breivik, the links, when more closely analyzed, are not all that straightforward. 

And those millions of people–whether they identify as gamers or not–are what define the medium, not Breivik’s xenophobia. Breivik’s interaction with games like Modern Warfare 2 and WoW was simply to view them as tools, as a means to an ends.

Yes, games like WoW can exacerbate anti-social behavior in those already inclined to it. They can also be used as cover for anything from infidelity to slaughter. But then so can all sorts of ordinary activities, including reading books and watching movies. And yet a game like WoW‘s brought far more people together than it’s ever torn apart, enabling real connections between those who might otherwise find dinner party small talk terrifying.

And, yes, Modern Warfare 2‘s a very real-looking game about virtual war in non-fictional places, complete with weapons and tactics employed in actual conflicts. But that alone isn’t a strong enough ingredient to explain Breivik’s volatile psychological mix. First-person shooters, even ones with controversial sequences–Call Of Duty: Black Ops‘ would-be assassination of Fidel Castro and Modern Warfare 2‘s infamous “No Russian” mission–are remarkably free of ideological discourse. And even were they overtly political, it takes a lot more than The Grapes of Wrath or Atlas Shrugged to flip someone’s killing switch.

On the flip side, psychological studies and reports cited in this TIME article also suggest that the wide appeal of massive online role-playing games is not that allow blind escapism, but that they help users play out their ‘ideal selves’ on virtual space.

“A game can be more fun when you get the chance to act and be like your ideal self,” says Dr. Andy Przybylski, a research fellow at the University of Essex who led the study. “The attraction to playing video games and what makes them fun is that it gives people the chance to think about a role they would ideally like to take and then get a chance to play that role.” […]

But that’s not all: One of the more interesting subplots was that assuming these identities goes beyond contextualized escapism. “I was heartened by the findings which showed that people were not running away from themselves but running towards their ideals,” says Dr. Przybylski. They are not escaping to nowhere, they are escaping to somewhere.”

Additionally, Jane McGonigal argues on TED that games, especially online role-playing ones, and concomitant feelings of ‘epic win’, ‘urgent optimism’ and ‘epic meaning’ allow intense positive collaboration and intense engagement of senses. She even posits that people actually bond better after the controller is put down. She concludes by suggesting how our world would be a much better place if only we try to better understand this mass social energy and empowerment contained in the virtual world and channel it so solving real world issues–such as oil shortage, hunger and poverty. In fact, innovative crowd sourcing gaming techniques have helped to advance research in biology as well (e.g. Foldit and EteRNA).

Lastly, even educational thinkers are now trying to see how teaching and learning can be enhanced by modeling video game formulas.

No one can really write off the potentially harmful influence of video games on some individuals. Game developers and governments know that and are trying to restrict more mature content from younger gamers with rating labels. However, focusing most of our attention on the negative impact of games is really killing the forest for the trees.

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