My youth was spent in a weird juxtaposition of working on a rural ranch splitting wood and raising chickens, and hunkering down to play hours of video games like Starcraft and Diablo II. While a part of me laments the hours spent absorbed in fantasy lands, I appreciate many things gaming taught me. I am able to type relatively quickly because I needed to blast out fast messages while interacting with other gamers. I learned to work in teams and direct group efforts with people from all over the world. The strategic thinking and calculation required for some games has bled over into how I think day-to-day. While I no longer spend as much time gaming, the debate around the long-term effects that video games have continues to rage today.
Those who support gaming cite a number of benefits such as stress release, increased cognitive function, new relationships and team building. Joi Ito, the new head of MIT’s Media Lab, said that he learned most of his leadership skills from being a guild leader in World of Warcraft. Nintendo used a semantic search service to study what users online were discussing in regards to its Wii, and found that a large group of users were using it for stroke rehabilitation and physical therapy (the company began to tailor its games accordingly). An Oxford research study found that playing Tetris within 6 hours after a trauma greatly reduces the risk of flashbacks.
While I do believe that games provide individuals with a sense of accomplishment, camaraderie, and perhaps a social outlet where they may not have one, the risk of taking things to an extreme has had serious consequences. A 22 year-old mother killed her infant son after he interrupted her FarmVille game. A teen killed his mother and shot his father after they took away Halo 3 from him, the Judge stated “the teen was so obsessed over a video game that he may have believed that, like characters in the game, death wasn’t real.” Anders Behring Breivik who killed over 85 individuals at a Norwegian summer camp left this note in a 1500 page Manifesto:
“I just bought Modern Warfare 2, the game. It is probably the best military simulator out there and it’s one of the hottest games this year … I see MW2 more as a part of my training-simulation than anything else. I’ve still learned to love it though and especially the multiplayer part is amazing. You can more or less completely simulate actual operations.”
One could argue that these extreme cases get a disproportionate amount of media coverage and are outliers when dropped into the pool of total gamers, but it is difficult to take such severity lightly. In what some have called the Golden Age of video game development, the realism with which games are created will continue increase and with millions sold per year they are here to stay. Will this allow for even greater benefits to users, or will it propagate addiction and violent acts?