Some time ago, I wrote about gaming addiction – its a topic that spans the gap between online and real world and hence of interest to me. I did some soul searching whether I was “addicted” or not and decided that I was close but not quite at danger. The proof of it came last week when I started a new job and was slammed with work from the first day. Its one of those tech companies that assumes that if you need to eat or shower you are weak and pathetic. And I love it. Do I think about EVE Online? Yes and no. I think of the friends I made in the game many times during the day and wonder what they are doing. I really do want to spend time with them but I don’t actually miss the spaceships all that much. So, my diagnosis: Not addicted. But of course, some people are and the mechanisms are well published in the academic press.
And of course in the popular press. Every once in a while, some teary-eyed woman appears on Oprah and recants how she lost her boyfriend to World of Warcraft. A phony expert (preferably white, male, 50 ish, in a white coat and with stethoscope) spews obvious nonsense and more teary eyed women comiserate and call their local congressman to ban all games. Forever. And the so called expert press isn’t any better. In the game of publish or perish, nobody wants to go out there and say that games are good for children, that they enhance spatial /temporal acuity, interaction with people from all walks of life, increase reading and math skills and promote problem-solving abilities. Oh no. Dire warnings that humankind is doomed will generate more research dollars.
And so I was not surprised when I was approached by someone representing Online Graduate Program a website whose purpose I don’t actually understand – the “About” section is as nebulous as the mission statement of the US Government. This person asked if I was willing to share “the graphic”. They even gave me html code and because I am nice, I include it on the left. Ain’t it pretty? Certainly, more time went into the design than the study itself. Its sources are some random links from the internet and the entire thing is one big text-book example for selection bias, i.e. someone searched the internet for sources that support the hypothesis that the world is coming to an end because kids play computer games. And they presumably then wrote an RO1 or SBIR. I won’t dignify this scientific hack-job with the obvious statistical question of correlation != causation or go further, why can Korean Children who spend vastly more hours than US children on computer games out-compete them so thoroughly in math skills?
I could happily go on like this and debunk this “graphic” line by line but I don’t want to waste my time on this nonsense.
Let me cut to the more important topic, what is going on here on a deeper level?
A. Scaremongering is of course not new. All technological developments were accompanied by scores of old-wise-men who prophesied doom over mankind. I am sure (no data) that Gutenberg’s printing press caused an outrage among the learned who felt their monopoly challenged. And they were right. The same story repeats for radio, TV, the internet, facebook and so on. Heck, I remember in the 80’s when sneakers with Velcro came out and “experts” warned that children would suffer because they would not learn how to tie knots (true story). In all of these examples, the older generation displays total and utter ignorance of the younger one.
So, this graphic isn’t new. Its just the outcry of a generation that feels they lost control over their children as they spend more time online in an environment they don’t understand.
B. Holier than thou. Warnings of the online behavior of children inevitably comes from the older generation. This is the generation that spent vast numbers of hours vegetated in front of Alley McBeal, Sex in the City and Star Trek (ok, ok, Star Trek was worth it). But this the generation that now – as adults – is responsible for the abomination of Reality Shows? Please, this generation has the audacity to criticize brain-engaging computer games?
C. Games are not all evil. I agree, First Person Shooters (FPS) don’t need a lot of brains and are often quite graphic and violent. I guess, when I grew up, we played Cowboys and Indians and that was not of great intellectual depth either but the typical FPS game requires lightning reflexes and nothing else. Some of these games (Arma, for example) have gone scarily good at fostering collaboration and teamplay, so, there are exceptions. But other games require a heck of a lot of social skills, math, organizational talent, leadership and – yes – language acumen. EVE Online – the game I play exclusively is one of those. It lives and breathes teamwork, in order to become good, you have to team up with others, be humble and learn, learn, learn. I have written about this plenty but the social aspect of this game brings people together and friendships are made that are deeper and longer lasting than some family ties. Oh, and lets not talk about the meta game. I sit here, writing a blog about a game, honing my skills as creative writer in a language that is not my first.
D. What else is there to do? Those who look down on video games should offer alternatives. Have they lived in the bland US suburbia? I happen to live there and by God, I am glad I didn’t grow up here. To get to the nearest Safeway its a 10 minute drive. There is nothing at all where a child could go to on his own or where he can challenge himself. Children in my neighborhood rarely are seen outside and if they actually have a bicycle, they ride it in more armor than a Marine wears in a combat zone. Oh and parents are never more than 10 seconds away and ready and eager to protect their spawn from all evil – germs included. This is such a sterile world that children have no freedom despite having it all. Computer games at least let them take risks, challenges and mental freedom that they can not have in their real lives.
E. And what are you going to do about this? Games are educational – maybe not in the traditional sense but they educate children. The fact that this graphic on the left exist is proof that the educational system has failed to capture their attention. In the free market that the US worships like no other nation, I’d say “tough cheese, schools, if you can’t compete for children’s attention, you should at least face your inevitable creative destruction with some dignity”. Or, get on it. Bind the games into your curriculum. Learn why children prefer the online games over your teaching style. Let them develop their own games, stimulate their fantasy let them set achievements and milestones based on bragging rights. Or, as a proud Darwinian I suggest you adapt or prepare for death.
Bringing it home. Addiction in children and adults is a very serious infliction and needs to be addressed with utmost medical and scientific attention. Kids and adults who are addicted to anything require help but they do not require blatant, superficial and cynical exploitation of their situation.