See, mom? Video games can be…uh…educational.
As I recently read the mainstream media reports on video games’ biggest cultural event, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), a snapshot of video game culture comes to the attention of millions across the country. Sometimes that image is of booth babes, gun fetishes, and expensive newfangled gadgets. It’s not always kind and not always the image that we want friends and family unfamiliar with our hobby to see.
Yet for every hyper violent Gears of War sequel, a whimsical and imaginative game like Rayman exists. And for every "girl wood" reference or report of game addictions, we have charitable organizations like Child’s Play. It’s when video games are painted in broad strokes using uncommon examples that I feel unfairly represented by the mainstream media.
One such report recently appeared on CNN by psychologists Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan. The authors explain how arousal addictions encouraged by the nature of video games and pornography are helping rewire a generation of young men’s brains.
Zimbardo and Duncan claim that young men are choosing the instant gratification of video games and pornography over more crucial tasks like schoolwork and relationships. They compare them to an experiment with lab rats, who when given the freedom to artificially stimulate pleasure sensors or eat choose to starve themselves in the pursuit of constant pleasure. Zimbardo and Duncan explain that this addiction is not like drugs and alcohol that require an increasing potency to reach the same high.
According to the study, arousal addictions rely on novelty, suggesting that "sameness is soon habituated; newness heightens excitement."
The article suggests that the consequences of this addiction could be dramatic, creating a generation of young men who are unwilling to take risks and navigate the complexities of real-life relationships, school, and employment.
But while video games can have addictive qualities and certainly draw players into a virtual world (and thereby take them out of the real one), the examples Zimbardo and Duncan provide could be seen as extreme cases and more likely as anomalies in the data, such as the case of a South Korean man going into cardiac arrest after playing StarCraft for 50 straight hours.
50 hours of Starcraft proves the adage "too much of a good thing."
It would seem more likely that millions of young men play StarCraft or massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft every day and that very few would play for 50 straight hours. The stories of heart attack would seem even less common. It is probably safe to say that doing anything nonstop and exceeding 10 hours is detrimental to your mind and body.
"We have discovered our holy obligation for imaginative play, keeping in mind [that] games are only destructive and obsessive when we allow them to become that way."
The authors also cite suspected mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik as preparing his mind and body to kill 77 people by playing World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. And while even the army has been known to use first-person shooters as a kind of virtual-killing simulation, the amount of daily players in games like Call of Duty can number in the millions. Yet these same people turn off the game and do not recreate that same horrific violence in the real world.
Few deny that video games have the potential to become addicting or even to heighten or draw out exsiting aggressive tendencies; however, in the examples Zimbardo and Duncan give, people either abuse the normal limits of play, such as extended marathon gaming sessions, or gaming was purposefully used to increase aggression (i.e., military simulations and the case of Breivik).
The constant among these examples is that the violence or obsessive nature was present before video games were introduced — they were not the result of playing video games. All Zimbardo and Duncan achieve is simply calling attention to the symptoms of an underlying problem, much like applying a band-aid to a cancerous limb.
The authors go so far as to sensationally accuse video games of turning a generation of young men into risk averse, lazy addicts by using examples of mass murderers and obsessed, heart attack victims.
It’s also interesting that the authors condemn the medium wholesale because games make traditional education seem boring by comparison as they describe the classroom as "analog, static, and interactively passive."
School isn't just for nerds anymore…just ask my friend Bill, here.
But this is more of an indictment of the current education system than on video games as many education leaders are looking for new ways to engage students with a rewards-based program, essentially using the elements of video games that the authors condemn to teach children to great success.
Educators like Salman Khan created a powerful interactive learning environment using an educational video series, flipping the traditional classroom model by allowing students to watch videos at home and do homework in class when the teacher would be available. The system also allows students and teachers to view their progress in different fields to see where they struggle and excel. By turning education into more of a "game" with levels and an award incentive to unlock achievements, Kahn found that even the kids he thought were struggling suddenly were finding success.
It seems Zimbardo and Duncan’s hypothesis fails to understand the underlying problems causing these distressing symptoms.
Video games aren’t causing young men to ditch schoolwork and avoid relationships, but rather, a young man’s predisposition toward laziness or aggression may make him more likely to seek a distraction in video games. Young men should also be aware of and respect the addictive qualities of video games and the instances in which they choose to spend time in a virtual world to escape an uncomfortable situation in the real world.
And Zimbardo and Duncan should have also noted that stripping the world of video games would not magically make a better world. The question needs to be asked: If video games were no longer in existence, would inherently flawed human beings still find other outlets for their underlying instability?
And while video game fans should put healthy limits on their play time, the real questions Zimbardo and Duncan should be asking are: "Why are young men afraid of deep, intimate relationships?" "Why don’t they look forward to schoolwork?"
While a more engaging and creative learning system can answer the latter question, the former looks into the hearts of a generation of young men afraid of intimacy and afraid to be seen as emotionally vulnerable. It’s our nature to live selfish lives and seek our own pleasure rather than the well-being of others. This is not new, and neither is it unique to adolescent males. These are spiritual diseases — maladies of the human heart.
As blogger Faith Newport puts it: "If video games must be a substitute for something, I’d argue that it is at least as reasonable for them to become a stand-in for the imaginative, active play society taught us to outgrow." And if humanity is created in the image of god, our need for self-expression and imagination is paramount. Yet she wonders, "How often do we play?"
To combat these damning reports, I believe that we have to discover our obligation for imaginative play, keeping in mind that games are only destructive and obsessive when we allow them to become that way.
This article was originally written for Gamechurch.com.