I love gaming. But I hate its image. People think it is a childish, nerdy, boring, socially-reclusive real-life-surrogate to act out aggressive power fantasies.
Though they never phrase it that way …
The truth is gaming has a lot to offer the mature, cool, interesting, out-going pacifists living real lives. And of course, the rest of us as well.
So what are the benefits of gaming? For one, it increases your so-called visuospatial skills, meaning you’re better at judging distances, mental rotation tasks and other forms of thinking in 3D. The Scientific American suggests boys score higher on visuospatial skills than girls partly due to the fact that they play more video games. Think about it, all the racing games where you have to judge at what angle and what speed you can take that turn. Or what about the shooters where you have to keep track of where the enemies are around you while not running off a cliff or into an enemy turret nest. And let’s not forget the puzzle games like Echochrome. That was a definite brain tickle.
But that’s not all. Gaming can be a social activity (Mario Party, Rock Band), an artistic experience (Prince of Persia, Heavenly Sword), an emotional journey (Lost Odyssey, Heavy Rain). There was an interesting article on Kotaku today where the author points out how hard it is to get non-gamers to appreciate games as a mature medium. And with “mature” we’re not talking foul language and getting too many inside and outside angles of the human body. “Mature” as in a respectable medium on a par with literature and film. However, it seems to me that gamers keep forgetting that literature and film aren’t appreciated by everyone either. There are enough people that don’t get why anyone would want to read a book for fun. Movies might have a more universal appeal but it is hardly fair competition. People’s only investment in watching a movie is sitting down and keeping their eyes open. Only sleeping is less demanding.
Even leaving this brilliant argument behind, games should still not aspire to be “like” movies and books. A psychologist with the lucky name of Csíkszentmihályi Mihály outlined his now well respected Theory of Flow . Flow Theory states that people truly enjoy an activity when they are optimally challenged. Basically, when it’s not too easy (boring) or too hard (frustrating). Of course this doesn’t apply to some activities. Sleeping, getting a massage or … watching a movie, hold no challenge and so cannot create flow. It’s like eating. It’s either good or it’s not. You either enjoy it or you don’t, but it has little to do with your skill at eating. Same goes for watching movies and up to a point for reading books. How can games compete with that?
They shouldn’t. Games are interactive, they are a challenge, and they can create an experience of flow. The great thing about that is that experiences of flow are what we humans also consider rewarding and meaningful experiences. So while a good movie or book offers as sense of enjoyment, a good game gets you high on your own personal achievement. For many this will not come as a surprise as Microsoft even gives you pop-ups on the Xbox to tell you that you’ve achieved something. Thanks!
To get back on track, there are of course many books and movies that are not simple entertainment but that change the way you view the world. To pick up this change in view you have to put in mental effort, so this can be considered a type of flow as well. It’s even true that if the book or movie is too easy, you will be bored. While if it’s too hard you will be frustrated. However, if we confine ourselves to the majority of books and movies out there, then they are mostly pure entertainment having more in common with eating a cheese burger, or possibly a shiny bevel-embossed silver barrel of caviar, than with a rewarding sense of achievement.
So why is the geek-supreme image still the dominant stereotype for us gamers? If games are good for you and offer a more meaningful experience then the mainstream media of movies and books, then why are videogames still the stepchildren of the mass media? Maybe we need to work on our PR. World of Warcraft gets it: