This blogpost is the first of a two-part series on video gaming. Part two will be posted on Monday, Sept. 7th.

gaming4My family’s evening schedule: Eat at 6:30. Put kids down at 8. Sink into couch and binge-watch Hawaii Five-O with my wife until 10. At 10:01, a goodnight kiss and she’s off to bed upstairs. Book her, Dan-O.

After that, I’ve got about 2 hours to kill. This is mostly because I’ve evolved into a terrible sleeper—any bedtime before 11:30 and I’ll toss and turn at regular intervals throughout the night and into the morning. My only viable option, then, is to stay awake and fashion my evening’s entertainment. Usually, I partake in something 183 million [1] other Americans do on a daily (and nightly) basis: Gaming.

There. I said it. My name is Joel, and I’m a gamer.
Your response: “Hi, Joel.”

I’m either: a) pretending to be Jack Bauer while I wipe out the forces of virtual terrorism with several squadrons of like-minded wannabes on Battlefield 4, or, b) pretending I’m Bastian Schweinsteiger, leading Bayern Munich to victory in FIFA 15. And, yes, Schweiny is still playing central midfield for Bayern in my universe. Gaming beats the hell out of watching another episode of Naked and Afraid, as entertaining as that is from time to time.

I’m a gamer. The question is why. Why is it that so many people engage in the peculiar practice of online gaming? I say “people” because gaming is no longer the exclusive hobby of adolescent boys wearing “Vader was framed” t-shirts. It spans gender, age, and race. In a recent study of gaming in the United States, the research found that:
-97% of youth play computer and video games.gaming3
-40% of gamers are women.
-One in four is over the age of fifty, and the average gamer is 35 years old. [2]

Video games are tapping into something remarkable about the human experience as more and more people are finding them worth their precious time. Economist Edward Castronova remarked about those who choose to engage the virtual world, “The exodus of these people from the real world, from our normal daily life, will create a change in social climate that makes global warming look like a tempest in a teacup.” [3] Can this type of exodus be a good thing? A sound analysis of this might require two different questions, one general and one specific.

Why do we play games, in the general sense?

  • #1. It is the purest form of work. Work and play are not antonyms. The opposite of play, in the words of video game designer Jane McGonigal (@avantgame), is not work—it’s depression. She notes (perhaps counter-intuitively) that we are happier working hard then when we are relaxing or hanging out. In fact, all forms of play include the hard work of pursuing an objective that’s made harder to achieve by the placement of arbitrary obstacles. There is something terrifically insightful for me here. I often tell my studcalvinballents that participation in one’s vocation is what makes us feel most human; we will happily take on challenges when we are being pushed toward our intellectual limits. To wander through life without purpose or vocation (and, by extension, without challenge) is when we feel least human. Hence, depression. Play, then, is the attempt to overcome the voluntary erection of obstacles that make the game what it is. The rules obstruct us from achieving the goal. In fact, the very point of all games is that there are challenging roadblocks that make winning that much more satisfying, and it’s the reason everyone hates the guy who found a map exploit or snuck in with an aim-bot. Playing by the rules ensures both the challenge and the payoff of success. This isn’t Calvinball.
  • Which brings me to point #2. We play games because we enjoy overcoming challenges that have real and immediate payoffs. Perhaps this is a critique of the average working environment; employees can’t see any payoff for doing the work, other than the paycheck itself. When large groups of people work together to experience success, the effect is multiplied because it adds the payoff of social cohesion.
  • #3. Because I’d rather do something than nothing. Or, put differently, I’d rather talk back to my television than have it passively beam stuff into my brain for two hours. Gaming systems allow me to generate my own stories…stories that are original, unscripted, and quite often surprising.

McGonigal nails it when she outlines some of the reasons why gaming often looks better than real life. One, games stimulate the brain in ways that have physical consequences: our hearts beat faster and breathing gets out of whack, for instance. Our neurons are firing. Two, games readily challenge our mental abilities whether we are in full panic mode playing diamond mine in Bejeweled or simply trying to outsmart a difficult human opponent in online backgammon. Three, we readily engage in teamwork. Social trust is a necessary component to accomplish a particular goal in the gaming experience. Finally, many people enjoy gaming for the sheer discovery that comes with the playing. Whether it’s a vast landscape you’re exploring (Skyrim); a map you are building yourself out of nothing (Minecraft); or an unexpected strategy that comes by trial and error…these are all outcomes that the real life often sadly lacks.

Why do we play online video games, in the specific sense?

  • An online player has an instant tribe, ready to participate in a moment’s notice. It’s 11pm PST, but I know that I can jump on any one of a hundred different servers where 63 other players are battling for control of Checkpoint Alpha. Half of them share my immediate goal and will do what it takes for the team to be successful. For this to happen, a certain level of trust is required. I trust you’ll do your job while I do mine. If you’re in a tank, I expect you’re going to blow some @#$% up. If you’re a chopper pilot, I’m going to expect that you’ll get me to the front with “Flight of the Valkyries” blaring.
  • We enjoy role-play. More specifically, we enjoy the responsibilities and rewards of being the hero. In an online game, you have a persona. No matter what your social status is, no matter how you look in real life, you are instantly a crucial character in a grand narrative with all of the necessary tools to succeed. And other people might notice. You might spend your time doing data entry by day, but at night, your online comrades know you as (insert alter-ego name here), Slayer of dragons/complex puzzles/opponents/defensive backfields/ad infinitum. No hero, in the history of heroes, has ever turned in a TPS report.

This is the joy of gaming.

What about the fear of gaming? I certainly admit that I enjoy games as a part of my daily routine; this much is obvious. But I’m also trying to wrestle earnestly with digital technologies in a way that honestly asks the question, “What is the transaction that is taking place?” Rather than saying, I’m a gamer, so let me justify my position so I can keep gaming in peace–I’d rather take a self-reflective approach and something like: I’m a gamer, so let’s figure out what I’m sacrificing and what I’m receiving by maintaining this habit. Part of exercising wisdom is the willingness to let evidence affect my behavior.

“I often tell my students that participation in one’s vocation is what makes us feel most human; we will happily take on challenges when we are being pushed toward our intellectual limits. To wander through life without purpose or vocation (and, by extension, without challenge) is when we feel least human.”

So let’s hit it. What’s the transaction? What is the cost of my 1-2 hours of gaming per night and is it, ultimately, worth the cost?

For one, it is important to acknowledge that my computer and PS4 are not neutral devices. They just aren’t. The work of Marshall McLuhan woke many of us up to this insight. These devices have ways of shaping my understanding of the world, how I get and distribute information, and how I interact with the embodied world around me once the power has been turned off. Media and message are inseparable; you cannot change one without changing the other. I am not free to say that the PS4 doesn’t do anything to me. More and more people are becoming aware of brain plasticity and the effects that Internet usage has on the user physiologically speaking, and these effects cannot simply be dismissed as scare-mongering.

In fact, I’m curious how McGonigal and other technophiles would respond to the work of folks like Nicholas Carr. Carr suggests that digital experiences, particularly online ones, are re-forming neural connections in our brains. We are physiologically training ourselves to process the type of information that digital media provides—quick jumps, snap judgments, hyperlinks and captions, scanning over deep reading, etc. Meanwhile, the neural connections that form through sustained, critical thought—the kind of concentration that is required to read a book—these connections are decaying. We are literally teaching our b4-hot-social-gaming-trends-to-watch-1b094eb00arains not to think deeply. Does video gaming exacerbate these effects?

My guess is that McGonigal would offer two responses: 1) Gaming is a wholly different experience than ‘Net usage in general, precisely because it asks you to concentrate about one thing for an extended amount of time. In many games, you are involved in an ongoing narrative with characters and histories that require a great deal of memory and acumen. 2) Even if research on brain plasticity confirms that a video game does, in fact, do many of the things outlined in the previous paragraph, the overall goods they offer are worth it. Maybe it’s the type of games that make or break this analysis. After all, Flappy Bird probably won’t transform me into an intellectual giant.

It’s not good enough, in my mind, to criticize video gaming because it refuses to conform with the status quo’s definition of proper evening entertainment. Besides, these critiques are losing the high ground they once had since more than half of America are actually active gamers. Television does not have moral superiority. The critiques that are useful are the ones that seeking to identify the parts of our cognitive lives, our social lives, even our spiritual lives that may be prone to disruption with video games. These are the critiques I wrestle with–and should wrestle with!–as I discern how to be husband and father.

Maybe you’re skeptical about video gaming. Good. So am I. But in our skepticism let’s try to find a way forward that can engage the culture at hand without dismissing the goods that they offer.

Rather than asking a wrong-minded question: “Why are you spending so much time on that game?” Perhaps we should move in a more generous way by asking: “What is it about games that are so compelling to you?” And, “how can we harness that desire to work in gaming platforms toward creative solutions in the real world?” Or even, “can the Church use these critical insights about human behavior to further the work of God in the world?” I’m beginning to believe that it can.

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[1] Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken (New York: Penguin, 2011), 3.
[2] Ibid., 11. McGonigal cites a 2010 study by the Entertainment Software Association.
[3] Edward Castronova, Exodus to the Virtual World (New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2007), xvii.

© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.