The Good and Bad of Gaming
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Computer gaming is big business. According to Barbara Ortutay, almost $18 billion was spent on video games in the United States in 2007 (www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22718374/). Earlier this year, Rockstar Games took in a record $500 million on worldwide sales of 6 million copies in the first week of release of Grand Theft Auto IV.
Games also attract a wide audience. Entertainment Software Association (theesa.com) reports that today's gamers include all generations and that almost equal numbers of females play computer and video games as do males. About 35 percent of American parents play, and, of those that do, 66 percent feel that playing games has brought their families closer together.
Yet some adults believe the worst about computer gaming. They know of or have heard of people who have lived out the horror stories of being addicted to gaming and lost a job or a family over it.
The good of gaming
However, not every gamer follows that path. In fact, one study at Arizona State University shows that trainee surgeons who play a Nintendo Wii game called Marble Mania demonstrate improved accuracy and faster performance in many surgical exercises. The Wii design allows players to control the game using physical gestures as well as the traditional button pushes. Marble Mania players roll marbles along narrow pathways and ledges, deftly tilting things to keep the marble advancing in the game.
Cumberland Elementary School in Indiana is reported to have begun using three Wii consoles in classrooms to teach geography, math and English. The increased interaction and fun of the game system is quite popular with students. In addition, the Wii interface is being used in some hospitals to help with physical rehabilitation.
On the more personal side, a number of gamers have met online, developed a personal relationship outside the cyber world and are now happily married in real life.
The bad of gaming
But what about those horror stories? Are they all fictional? No, there are real horror stories in the gaming world. In researching this article, I spoke with gamers who say their gaming was a factor in their losing jobs and families.
Sam (not his real name) worked for a gaming company in the 1980s and 90s. In 2002 he began playing EverQuest, one of the longest running massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG), which celebrated its ninth anniversary on March 16, 2008. Many have nicknamed the game "NeverRest" and "EverCrack" (a reference to crack cocaine). Sam played for five years and says his game playing was definitely a factor in his divorce.
According to Sam, there are a number of reasons people get pulled into spending more and more time in these MMORPGs. To begin with, you can be a very different person than you are in real life, and that can be exciting. In addition, you are expected to develop your game character.
"For sure there's a lot of the 'keeping up with the Joneses' approach. If you see someone riding a horse instead of walking, you want to invest the time in the game to get a horse for your online character," according to Sam.
The social pressure comes because the really big victories in a quest (a planned online adventure activity) are only possible with a group, called a guild. Guilds schedule quests such as killing a dragon named Bob on a particular night and notify all their members. In some battles, if you don't have enough people with certain skills (such as "healers") you cannot win the battle, so there is great peer pressure to show up for events.
There is often a compensation system for attending quests, and if you don't earn enough points, you are not invited to participate again. So the pressure to play more and more to advance your character is intense.
As Sam put it, "There's never an end to the game, so if you're not playing, you feel like you're wasting time." That's why people will lose sleep staying up at night to play the online game, resulting in deteriorating performance at work due to fatigue, or will abandon real-life responsibilities, academics and relationships for their online life.
The 911 of video games
Gerald Vera is a self-employed contract designer who creates game ideas. In his 13 years in the industry, games he has worked on have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. Probably the most well-known game he was involved with is Shrek2. He has seen the industry make some big changes.
Describing the direction games are going, Gerald said, "The first games were more family-oriented, such as Mario Brothers. Grand Theft Auto is the 911 of video games in my mind because it crossed the bridge into reality."
It used to be taboo to show blood on-screen in a game during the '80s and '90s. If someone was shot, all you saw was a green splatter. Later, Gerald says, showing blood came into vogue and the race was on to make blood in a game more and more realistic, focusing even on the color and texture to achieve as true-to-life an image as possible.
There is an increasing demand for more interaction with games with a greater focus on realistic sounds as well. Within five years Gerald believes the next generation of games will have the look and feel of the real thing. The increasing focus on violence will have an impact on gamers.
In an article titled "Violent Video Games: Myths, Facts, and Unanswered Questions," Craig Anderson, Ph.D., states: "When one combines all relevant empirical studies using meta-analytic techniques, five separate effects emerge with considerable consistency. Violent video games are significantly associated with: increased aggressive behavior, thoughts, and affect [emotions]; increased physiological arousal; and decreased pro-social (helping) behavior" (www.apa.org/science/psa/sb-anderson.html).
Christians are told to bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), to get rid of anger, wrath and malice (the desire to hurt others) and to grow in peace, longsuffering, kindness and gentleness (Colossians 3:8; Galatians 5:22-23). These are direct opposites of the kinds of gratuitous violence that are becoming prevalent in many games.
Language and sexuality
In addition to violence, swearing and filthy language have been added to modern games, again in the quest for more "reality." This, too, violates God's instructions. We're told to get rid of filthy language (Colossians 3:8) and not to let any obscenity, coarse joking or any kind of unwholesome talk come out of our mouths (Ephesians 5:4; 4:29).
It's important for a Christian to avoid letting filthy words into his or her mind since Christ said that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45)—and once those words are in our minds, it can be hard to prevent them from coming out of our mouths. This is also a problem with online role-playing games according to Sam, since as a player you have no control over the subject matter being discussed by the guild on a quest.
As he described the progression of modern gaming, Gerald said that after showing more realistic violence and adding coarse language, the next boundary that fell was sexual content. More games now include nude or scantily clad women and sexuality.
Jesus says that a man entertaining lustful thoughts about a woman who is not his wife breaks God's commandment about not committing adultery (Matthew 5:27-28). Clearly this is a huge issue in Western society as a whole and is not limited to the gaming industry. However as Western culture in general keeps "pushing the envelope" of what society will accept, the gaming industry has followed suit.
Evaluating your gaming
Since the graphic violence, language and sexuality issues in many modern action and war games are in conflict with Christian principles, Gerald focused his gaming career on kids and fun family games. His advice is to think of gaming as the top of our "communication pyramid" and make sure you do just a small amount of that and only with games appropriate for a Christian. His advice is that if you're playing more than two hours a day, you may have a problem.
Sam said the strongest warning sign is if you are abandoning your real life activities and responsibilities for virtual ones. Any hobby can be taken to an extreme. What is different about gaming—especially MMORPGs—is that with most hobbies you grow tired of them. Online role playing games keep changing to challenge the players so they don't lose interest; and as a result, players can easily become slaves to the game.
Games are not evil of and by themselves—especially if we are careful about the content and type of game. To get the good out of games and not the bad, strive for wise, Christian choices in the types of games you play, and be sure to limit your playing time. VT