An interesting topics that has been on my mind lately is the appropriate role that computer games play in our lives. I’ve never had a whole lot of patience for those who view any form of entertainment as uniformly good or uniformly bad. There are, I’m sure, various forms of entertainment with no redeeming value (cockfighting comes to mind), but to be blunt they are generally reserved for those people that are not exactly waiting to become productive members of society. A symptom rather than a disease.
I recently ran across an article on The Strategy Page that points out how video games are becoming an asset to our military:
American troops appear to have a considerable advantage because most of them grew up playing video games and using PCs. More and more military equipment uses computers, or are basically electronic gadgets. American troops require a lot less time to learn how to use this stuff, and tend to be very good with it. This extends from fire control systems in armored vehicles, to new radios, electronic rifle sights and training systems (which are very similar to those video games.)
I can also think of many other uses of video games. In addition to the old “eye-hand coordination” argument, I think they also help people develop the ability to think more quickly on their feet and make time-sensitive decisions when under pressure. It seems to me that most any task that involves cognitive or physical exertion is probably not a complete waste of time. Even spectator sports like football can be helpful. I’ve seen people who can barely string together a grammatically correct sentence discuss the intricacies of a 4-3 defense placed up against West Coast offense.
And so it is with video games. Some are certainly better than others, but curiously society by-and-large makes no attempts to distinguish between productive video games and non-productive. They are generally considered either all good or all bad, or to the extent that distinctions are made they are usually along the lines of violent or sexual content.
And yet while I can appreciate the contributions that video games make (or can make) to society, I can’t help but notice that the effects it seems to have on those I’ve seen partake in it regularly are predominantly negative. It seems that more than occasionally they become all-consuming to many of their participants. Those I know that game do so for several hours a day every day. Whatever the point of dimishing returns exist, I’m not sure they particularly care where that line is.
On the other hand, games are increasingly becoming a social experience. Multi-user games such as EverQuest or City of Heroes and their ilk actually encourage communication in those that are at a loss to communicate otherwise. In many cases I think of the people I know that are avid gamers and to whatever degree it may be hurting their social life, I’m pretty hard-pressed to say that their social life would be peachy-keen otherwise.
Video games have become less goal-oriented (where you jump through a specified number of hoops) and more life-oriented, where there is not a single set goal but rather a giant playing field that you build up characters and… socialize… by forming various alliances. And that makes me think about online communication.
The BBC recently had an article that touched on how predictions that online communication would diminish personal communication. I heard those arguments ad infinum back when I was BBSing. It was frequently said that online chatters were avoiding reality, isolating themselves, and so on. To be honest, they weren’t entirely wrong. But it also came at a time in my life that I needed the help. I needed to learn how to talk to people… particularly of the female variety. Online relationships became real-life relationships all the time - in fact, in those cases where we never did meet, the friendships eventually faded away. I made as many lifelong friends fr0m the Camelot BBS as I did at North Mayne High School. More, probably.
Of course, that brings me back to the video game dilemma. At some point, and I’m not sure what point it was, I did sacrifice my “realtime” relationships for the ones that were online. A lot of my problems in high school had to do with not having very much in common with my classmates - even online I gravitated towards people that went to other schools, including our my high school’s rival only a couple miles away. But looking back I see ways that I could have made it work. I can see with crystal clarity girls I could have asked out with probable success and people I could have hung out with socially with just a little more effort. But it was effort I did not need to exert and so I didn’t.
Balance has always been an issue for me. It is an issue for a lot of intelligent people. In fact, most people I know that are discernably more intelligent than myself have even more difficulty juggling non-academic things. Most seem to throw themselves 100% into one of a handful of notoriously geeky things such as anime, comic books, and… video games. Such things are not solely the realm of geeks, of course, but you’ll notice that many of those that sail to the top in expertise tend to be those that have dedicated their intelligence, time, and imagination towards non-utilitarian ends.
Of course, then, it is not the existence of these distractions that is the problem, but the inability of a lot of people to deal with it handily.