Are Video Games a Waste of Time?

I’m not a nihilist, but let’s be clear about what we mean: what is (or is not) a” waste of time”? Our school assignments end up in trash cans at the end of the semester. Most of our work is undone or obsolete in a year or two.

What achievements really do matter in life?

As much as we want to brush off videogame accomplishments as meaningless, what really distinguishes them from accomplishments in school or work? That they are recognized by others? The subjectivity in that answer is unsatisfying because it is so dependent on others and leaves nothing intrinsic to the achievement. What about the thought that those accomplishments improve our lives? This raises questions about happiness and meaning in our lives. Accomplishments with family and friends seem to be different in kind from achieving praise at work or school. If videogames can facilitate (and not obstruct) our personal relationships, can they be more conducive to self-actualization than the tasks of employment that so often interfere with our relationships?

If videogames can be used to solve genetics puzzles or produce knowledge for humanity, are they as good as working hard in a lab? Maybe it depends on whether you think work has to be boring, and whether you think videogames are always fun. I have worked harder on some videogames than I have on some essays, sometimes enduring greater frustration and aggravation as a result. Although we think of them as mindless recreation, videogames can be demanding and challenging, as the world of e-sports shows.

Even if videogames can connect us to distant relatives and unlock genetic mysteries, I worry about a population that spends too much time sitting and staring at screens. Even if videogames can never consistently be more than accidentally helpful and mostly a waste of productive (by capitalist standards) time, I worry about a population that shuns a potentially culturally enriching medium. It seems there is room to balance productive, healthy, useful enjoyment of videogames with a sense of humanity, work ethic, self-awareness, and a sense of being-in-the-world (no, I’m not going to call it Dasein) rather than “staring-at-images-of-the-cyberworld.”

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Feminism and Video Games: The Impractical Chainmail Thong.

Geek culture has some tradition of objectifying women while empowering them: Strong, powerful, independent, and fighting evil with an entirely Western-idealized body in a string bikini. There have been some attempts to self-satirize, but it often feels like the work is pulling its punch.

I spend a lot of time pondering this while I watch the loading screen for League of Legends. You see, as each game loads up for each player, a screen displays a portrait of the champion selected by each player. In typical geek-culture fashion, the males are portrayed as physically powerful, muscular, and well-prepared for battle while most of the females are drawn with unrealistic, idealized body proportions and clothing suitable only for sleeping in a warm, tropical climate. What caught my attention is that, in a recent patch, Riot pulled back on this a little bit: Sona’s artwork is significantly less obnoxious now– and I mean that with all sincerity. I’ve talked to my friends who play the game, and they agree. I think this suggests a change in the wind.

Jim Sterling noted that the controversy over the Hitman: Absolution E3 trailer reflected a shift in gamer attitudes towards gender issues in recent years. Perhaps a trailer in which a woman is punched wouldn’t have caused an uproar 5 or 15 years ago, but it does now. Maybe Riot is feeling some of the same wave of change brought about as a generation raised on [sometimes overly-] saccharine notions of equality and tolerance and respect becomes a more dominant market force and consumer base. Whatever the specific reasons, I do wonder if the fashion of the “chainmail bikini” is on the way out- and if so, whether its replacement will come with genuine respect and equality for genders without centuries of entrenched power, or if it will just turn into a different flavor of oppression and inequality. I don’t know if video games (or other media) bring about such changes, but they certainly reflect them. Perhaps the media teaches the younger generation what our culture is, and so media does effect (and affect) cultural transformation. (See my earlier post on Cultural Transformation from Misunderstanding Irony.) Perhaps the video games we make this year won’t determine how we treat each other next year. But I think it likely that those games will be a representation of society to the younger generation who has yet to experience society. (And bear in mind that they won’t experience society except by creating it- and they must have a template to create.)

 

UPDATE 4/3: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/123056-Female-League-of-Legends-Champion-Dons-a-New-Wardrobe?utm_source=news&utm_medium=index_carousel&utm_campaign=all

Expanding The Audience of Gaming

“If you continue to think about your customers as only grunged-out young men, you will go down just like comic books in this country… you will always be marginalized, you will never be taken seriously.” – Seth Schisel, writer for the New York Times.

League of Legends has been boasting the statistic of the world’s most-played videogame for a while now. ( http://news.cnet.com/8301-17938_105-57531578-1/league-of-legends-the-worlds-most-played-video-game/ ). I’m surprised that only 10% of its players are female, however—I somehow assume that Halo (or even Call of Duty) has a higher percentage of female players. I’m also surprised because I’ve watched with my own eyes as male players introduce the game to their girlfriends— each one a non-“typical” gamer without much videogame experience. Each one ended up enjoying the game and now plays it at least weekly. My mother looked over my shoulder while I played a game at her house once. She now remembers it as the “Captain Teemo Game.” By creating a mixture of diverse, exciting characters and variable, creatively demanding gameplay, RiotGames doesn’t even need to charge a regular fee to become one of the most successful business ventures in the entertainment industry.

I’m fascinated about several things with this development, not the least of which is that although people take up this game, it doesn’t seem to have the same stories of destructive addiction that shrouded World of Warcraft. WoW was famous for demanding so much of its players that it destroyed their real lives: lost jobs, ruined relationships (including long-standing marriages), and many failed college courses are all part of that game’s legacy. League of Legends seems closer to the mark of gathering dedicated fans while still allowing them to have lives outside the game.

The other exciting development that this game is leading is the expansion of what it means to play videogames regularly. By allowing its players to have healthy, productive lives outside the game, the stereotype of the gamer as the unhealthy, maladjusted, frustrated, unloved pariah begins to fade. This is great news for all gamers, because it offers hope that videogames might not “go down just like comic books in this country.”

League of Legends is a game of lessons, and one of the most important ones for developers is this: Great games invite players—they do not demand them; the best games let you play—they do not make you play.

Waste of Time or Creative Entertainment Medium? Gaming and “Having a Life.”

People approach games differently: Some people want to play games as a means of recreation. Others do it professionally. For some, games are associated with a life spent in parents’ basement eating Cheetos. We ought to be responsible gamers. Games are a creative medium: they provide a framework, but allow a player to create their own story within that setting. Roger Ebert said that for most gamers, “video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.” I want to address three missteps here.

One misguided implication is that people would actually do those positive things if they weren’t playing video games (they would probably be eating fattening foods, watching mindless television, sleeping, or performing boring tasks far beneath their mental capacities in order to get money to keep fueling their fattening foods, mindless television, and videogames). The choice is never seriously “Play Halo or read a great work of literature?” or “Another game of League of Legends or attend a community event in the park?” Those who would choose the latter do so and find themselves free to engage in recreation and videogames another time. Those who are inclined to choose the former are usually looking for ways to avoid the latter choices anyway and will find some other excuse if videogames aren’t available.

The second implication is that video games cannot (or do not) make us cultured, civilized, and empathetic. I think it unlikely that either Saints Row 3 or Call of Duty accomplishes any of these goals, but do games with moral choice systems make us debate ethics? (Deus Ex: Human Revolution still makes my mind reel and has been a good starter for a lot of interesting conversations.) Do MMOs and DOTAs teach us cooperation, coordination, teamwork, planning, and communication? Do Real Time Strategy games teach us resource management and managerial decision making? Well… a lot of the time, maybe not- but I wonder why they do not, because it doesn’t seem to be the game’s fault. I win more League of Legends games when my team communicates and cooperates- the game just rewards that kind of behavior. Many RTS players focus enormously on their resource management and building decisions- again, because the game is more likely to reward you with a win if you manage the resources well. (See: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/escapist-expo/6318-Games-in-Non-Gaming-Jobs)

The final implication of Ebert’s statement is that culture and civility is of greater value than whatever videogames do provide. I don’t know what he might mean by “culture,” but I suppose it’s related to positive human expression that accentuates and facilitates the human experience. While toxic behavior abounds in some video games, I maintain games tend to reward civility and positive teamwork more than trolling. But I wonder if he grasps the value of hand-eye coordination and typing practice and user-interface flexibility that videogames train us in.  As our world becomes increasingly digitized and technology becomes increasingly sophisticated and complex, I’m inclined to think that this sort of “play” becomes important for humans the way that “play” is important for animals. Wild animals “play” to sharpen skills (often, either fleeing from predators or chasing prey). Playing videogames may be that sort of practice on technology: learning to cope with different interfaces, making settings and controls work, and figuring out how to best use the parameters of the programming to accomplish a particular goal or task. Maybe Ebert is right that videogames aren’t 19th or early 20th century embodiments of culture- but maybe culture changes.

Fake Geek Girls Controversy: Subcultural Elitism

Apparently, there has been a controversy over “Fake Geek Girls”, particularly manifested as attractive women without an obsessive background in geek culture appearing in revealing costumes at comic and games conventions. The accusation, I take it, is that these women are not devout followers of the Geek Way, but only arrive for attention and approval by the primarily male geek population. Some have responded with outrage and indignation at this behavior. Others have responded with outrage and confusion directed at the outraged and indignant. Though a multitude of factors play into this phenomenon, I feel it is not altogether confusing to understand why devoted Geeks might be upset at the alleged “Fake Geek Girls.” (Please remember that explaining the actions of people is not an endorsement of their sentiments; I can explain how or why someone commits murder, but this doesn’t mean I’m in favor of it.)

My view is that Geek culture evolved through the 80s and 90s as a subversion of mainstream culture. It attracted those who would not or could not fit into the main culture, often as a result of valuing intelligence and academic rigor over physical appearance and insincere social bonding. If Geek culture is understood as a reaction to a culture of artificial appearance and vacuous social interactions, it becomes much clearer why “FGG” might be so upsetting. Geeks left main culture in rejection and created a new world in which they felt safe and comfortable. FGG represents an invasion of that new world by the world they rejected (and that rejected them). Geeks may very well feel threatened by the apparent imposition (or at least the arrival) of the values and norms they deliberately excluded from their newly created culture. This might be understood as the children who didn’t get picked for basketball (“Geeks”) going to another part of the playground to play a different game, and then the popular kids (who previously rejected the Geeks) left the basketball game to go play with the Geeks.

This understanding does not justify such anaphylactic reaction, of course, but the meeting of different cultures (especially those viewed as in conflict) is always challenging. Yet it certainly seems that seeking common ground and earnestly desiring to share ones hobbies and values is a healthier reaction that withdrawing from newcomers and seeking their immediate eviction.