As the mainstream media reports on videogames’ biggest cultural event, E3, a snapshot of videogame culture comes to the attention of millions across the country. Sometimes that image is of booth babes, gun fetishes and expensive new fangled gadgets. It’s not always kind, and not always the image we want friends and family unfamiliar with our hobby to view us. Yet for every hyper violent Gears of War sequel, there’s a whimsical and imaginative game like Rayman. And for every “girl wood” reference, or report of game addictions, there’s organizations like Child’s Play. But it’s when  videogames are painted in broad strokes using uncommon examples, that I feel unfairly represented by the main stream media.

One such report recently appeared on CNN by psychologists Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan, the authors explain how arousal addictions encouraged by the nature of videogames and pornography are helping rewire a generation of young men’s brains.

Zimbardo and Duncan claim that young men are choosing the instant gratification of videogames and pornography over more crucial tasks like schoolwork and relationships. They compare them to an experiment with lab rats who, when given the freedom to artificially stimulate pleasure sensors or eat, choose to starve themselves in the pursuit of constant pleasure. Zimbardo and Duncan explain that this addiction is not like drugs and alcohol that require an increasing potency to reach the same high. According to the study, arousal addictions rely on novelty, suggesting “sameness is soon habituated; newness heightens excitement.”

The article suggest the consequences of this addiction could be dramatic in creating a generation of young men who are unwilling to take risks and navigate the complexities of real-life relationships, school and employment.

However, while videogames can have addictive qualities and certainly draw the player into a virtual world, and thereby taking them out of the real one, the examples Zimbardo and Duncan provide could be seen as extreme cases and more likely anomalies in the data, such as the case of a South Korean man going into cardiac arrest after playing Starcraft for 50 straight hours.

It would seem more likely that millions of young men play Starcraft or the Massively Multiplayer Online games like World of Warcraft every day, yet very few would play for 50 straight hours, and the stories of heart attack would seem even less common. It is probably safe to say that doing anything non-stop exceeding 10 hours is detrimental to your mind and body.

[pullquote align=”right”]”We have discovered our holy obligation for imaginative play, keeping in mind games are only destructive and obsessive when we allow them to become that way.”[/pullquote]The authors also site suspected mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik as preparing his mind and body to kill 77 people by playing World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. And while even the army has been known to use First Person Shooter games as a kind of virtual killing simulation, the amount of daily players in games like Call of Duty can number in the millions. Yet these same people turned off the game and did not recreate that same horrific violence in the real world.

Few deny that videogames have the potential to become addicting or even to heighten or draw out aggression. However, in the examples Zimbardo and Duncan give, people either abuse the normal limits of play, such as extended marathon gaming sessions, or gaming was purposefully used to increase aggression (i.e.military simulations and the case of Breivik). The constant among these examples is that the violence or obsessive nature was present before videogames were introduced, not the result of playing videogames. All Zimbardo and Duncan achieve is simply calling attention to the symptoms of an underlying problem, much like applying a band-aid on a cancerous limb.

The authors go so far as to sensationally accuse videogames of turning a generation of young men into risk-averted, lazy addicts, by using examples of mass murderers and obsessed heart attack victims.

It’s also interesting that videogames are condemned wholesale by the authors because by comparison they make traditional education seem boring, calling the classroom “analog, static and interactively passive.”

But this is more of an indictment of the current education system then on videogames, as many education leaders are looking for new ways to engage students with a rewards based program, essentially using the elements of videogames the authors condemn to teach children, and to great success. Educators like Salman Khan created a powerful interactive education using an educational video series, flipping the traditional classroom model by allowing students to watch videos at home and do homework in class when the teacher is available. The system also allows students and teachers to view their progress in different fields to see where they struggle and excel. By turning education into more of a “game” with levels and an award incentive to unlock achievements, Kahn found that even the kids he thought were struggling suddenly were finding success.

It seems Zimbardo and Duncan’s hypothesis fails to understand the underlying problems causing these distressing symptoms.

Videogames aren’t causing young men to ditch schoolwork and avoid relationships, but rather a young man’s predisposition towards laziness or aggression may make them more likely to seek a distraction in videogames. Young men should also be aware of and respect the addictive qualities of videogames, and the instances in which they choose to spend time in a virtual world to escape an uncomfortable situation in the real world.

However, Zimbardo and Duncan should have also noted that stripping the world of videogames would not a better world make. The question needs to be asked, if videogames were no longer in existence, would inherently flawed human beings still find other outlets for their underlying instability?

And while videogame fans should put healthy limits on their game time, the real questions Zimbardo and Duncan should be asking are, “Why are young men afraid of deep, intimate relationships?” Or, “Why don’t they look forward to schoolwork?”

The latter question can be answered by a more engaging and creative learning system, the former looks into the heart of a generation of young men afraid of intimacy and afraid to be seen as emotionally vulnerable. It’s our nature to live selfish lives, seeking our own pleasure rather than the well being of others. This is not new, and neither is it unique to adolescent males. These are spiritual diseases–maladies of the human heart.

As Faith Newport puts it, “If videogames must be a substitute for something, I’d argue that it is at least as reasonable for them to become a stand-in for the imaginative, active play society taught us to outgrow.” And if humanity is created in the image of God, our need for self-expression and imagination is paramount. Yet she wonders, “How often do we play?”

Here at Gamechurch, we have discovered our holy obligation for imaginative play, keeping in mind games are only destructive and obsessive when we allow them to become that way.


Steven Sukkau

 
Steven Sukkau is a reporter at his local newspaper and believes the print medium will never truly die. When he's not uncovering the human stories around town he's writing about videogames. You can follow him on twitter @stevensukkau.