Video games get a bad rep. They’re seen as being a waste of time, and worse, a waste of time for (male) children! They follow in the long tradition of new media being misunderstood by people not within its target audience. Radio, film, television, rock music – in fact, most musical genres – and now video games. I’m pretty sure children have been historically chided for reading certain books too; why else would we have a term like ‘bookworm’? I find this quite an injustice, not only because gaming is one of my hobbies, and my livelihood, but because games have benefits that no other media platforms have.
When someone is ‘staring at a screen’ by watching television, what is happening? It normally depends on what they’re watching. If its something that requires minimal mental engagement, then they might be in a state of low-arousal, barely reaching the required amount of stimulus to stop them doing something else; hence why a mobile phone or tablet is probably being swiped idly in the background. If they’re watching a documentary, then maybe there is more value involved: something is being learnt. If they’re watching a film with important topics and themes, you could argue they are being culturally and socially elevated. But still, no matter what you’re watching, it is easy for TV and film to go straight over heads. Its possible to not engage with the TV screen, to have it as a distraction and surplus stimulus to whatever else the person is doing.
Nope, too hard.
Now take someone playing a game. Yes there is the reality TV, bottom-of-the-barrel games that allow you to vegetate and play without much depth, but you usually find that these are more on mobile phones. Most gamers are connoisseurs of their media. Its very hard to find a gamer who does not know a lot about his chosen platform, mostly because its such an investment of time and money in the first place. This separates it from TV already. If your child or friend is playing games, its a hobby. This is not mindless passing of time. They’ve invested themselves into it, because they like what they get out. And there’s so many benefits they can get from it, they:
- Teach problem solving and creativity
- Inspire learning about history and culture
- Create friendships and social circles
- Encourage sport through replication
- Give joy of competition, regardless of physical fitness
- Give people an outlet for aggression and stress
- Act as escapism for people with unhappy lives
- Allow people to experience morally challenging situations
- Let players see through the eyes of other genders or racial groups
The physical and knowledge benefits should be clear to anyone who looks at the kind of games people are mostly playing right now. Many require speedy reactions, hand-to-eye coordination and snap decision making. They also will be set in interesting periods of history, which will make many soak up knowledge about humanity’s past more so than reading a textbook.
The social benefits may not be so clear, but if you see a solitary figure sitting at a computer, then ask them who they’re playing with. Chances are good they will be in contact with numerous other people who they’ve formed strong bonds with, created in the crucible of overcoming challenges in-game and out. Playing with others, beating the enemy team, learning to be gracious in victory and defeat, learning to deal with angry teammates and leading a group, these are all skills children are supposed to be learning by playing sport. I didn’t, because I wasn’t physically impressive enough to be allowed. I was swept aside, but mentally I was just as able to compete, and gain the benefits.
The cultural benefits are the most elusive to spot. But let me list a few characters who I’ve spent time acting as: a released black slave in colonial America, a woman shipwrecked on an island trying to survive, a man who flees his life because his wife has a degenerative disease and he can’t cope, a commander of a spaceship who has to deal with his alien crew’s prejudices against each other, an assassin in a historically accurate revolutionary Paris, a bi-curious girl trying to study at school and getting the ability to reverse time and change her actions and learning the consequences of that. And each time I would play as these characters, I would feel what they would feel, I empathise, I try to steer them best I can, and as a white adult male from West Europe, I’m glad I can learn about and confront issues that I’ll never have to face. Just experiencing being a female character and being overpowered by a man is jarring, and eye opening. Yes you could watch the same experience on TV, but TV will have not sucked you in and have made you really empathise with the character.
Some characters are easier to empathise with than others for me
I think gaming needs a PR revolution. The word ‘gaming’ needs to go. It has childish connotations, and its not fair that these ‘experiences’ get lumped together with the likes of Monopoly and Snap. I admit there are those who take it too far, and are sucked in too much. But there are many people who sit and watch TV all day too. What we need to do is look at the benefits, look at the potential and the ceiling on the media. I can’t see any ceiling on it yet. Give games fifty years and there will be many different types, with myriad purposes and benefits to all. And what’s more, the generations who grew up playing them will be team players, socially aware, self-motivated, empathetic to others, and feel like they can take charge of their lives.
Plus they’ll always have something to do when they’re bored or with friends.