Legitimate and Valid Success: In Defense of Video Games

Video games and video game players seem to often be met with hostility.  One friend has posited, on more than one occasion, that people who play video games should “think of what else you could be doing.” He is, of course, meaning that there are far more meaningful and powerful ways to spend one’s time.  A person could be out in the “real” world taking “real” world action, rather than sitting in front of a television screen playing video games (although it should be noted that he has a rather extensive collection of television box sets within his apartment).

Another person I know, while not a friend but an acquaintance, once remarked to me: “I don’t understand [how my daughter knows angry birds so well].  I only let her play five minutes of video games a day.”  She seemed worried and confused.  She couldn’t understand how, or why, her daughter was so familiar with the video game characters from Angry Birds.  (It is worth noting that her daughter was home schooled).

These sentiments seem to be broad and overwhelming at times and video games themselves are never more controversial than in the wake of violent events like the Newtown shooting.  But while the video game violence is often the subject of debate and controversy I will not be talking about the violence to be found in video games.  Rather I’m going to talk about the success and achievement made possible in video games.  More so, the success that is to be found in both violent and non-violent video games alike.

I will first demarcate video games from other forms of media entertainment (movies, books, television, etc.).  Moving forward I will define the success that is made possible in video games and demonstrate how this success is both legitimate and valid because it not only requires skill cultivation but also has positive real world impact.  By the end of this article my hope is this: that you, as my reader, will have a greater understanding of video games and are able to cognitively grasp just how important this piece of culture is to gamers.

I want to start with a false idea that video games are equivalent to other forms of media entertainment – movies, television, books, etc.  We shouldn’t ignore the fact that video games are a form of entertainment.  It is media and it is meant to be consumed.  However, there is a false equivalency between video games and other forms of media.  Many forms of entertainment when consumed are, by default, passive forms of entertainment.

Movies and television are passive forms of entertainment because much of it can be consumed without activity, that is without thought.  Plopping one’s self down and merely giving one’s self up to the screen in front of you is possible.  Music and books can also be consumed in such a passive way (just look at how little high school students often remember from the books that they read).  There are active ways to consume these types of media, but more often than not they are passively consumed.

Video games, I argue, demand a form of active consumption by default.  In the same way that professors and high school teachers utter “In order to fail my class you have to actively try to fail my class.”  I argue that in order to passively consume video games you have to actively attempt to passively consume video games.  Because there is a demand for action and engagement video games must, more often than not, be consumed actively.  Gamers must participate within the game in order to progress and continue consumption – they require focus and concentration.  This means that the actions that are performed, the outcomes that are reached, and the decisions made are all the result of the gamer.  The gamer is the reason that these actions come about (or the reason that they do not).  For this reason I claim a false equivalency between video games and other forms of media which are, by default, passively consumed.

Success is inherent in video games.  For gamers to progress through the game they must complete tasks and move forward by way of action – there is continual success throughout game play.  Video games offer us not only success, but unique opportunities for success and achievement that are not available in the real world.  Often success is achieved by means of flight, teleportation, mystical powers, and other tools and abilities that just don’t exist in the real world.  In this we are able to create success that is beyond the success that is available to us in the real world – they allow us to imagine and think beyond the possible and into the realm of the impossible.

There seems to be this idea, though it is waning, that success and achievement created by playing video games is null or void – that this success is an empty form of success.  But I argue that these are not empty forms of success.  Not only do these forms of success hold much value to the gamer, but they have real world impact that can be felt throughout one’s life.  They can greatly improve one’s ability to function within everyday life.

In the book Reality is Broken author Jane McGonigal talks about “fiero.”  “Fiero is the Italian word for “pride,” and it’s been adopted by game designers to describe an emotional high we don’t have a good word for in English.”  (McGonigal 2011: 37) McGonigal continues to describe fiero saying that:

“Fiero is what we feel after we triumph over adversity.  You know it when you feel it-and when you see it…Fiero, according to researchers at the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Science Research at Stanford, is the emotion that first created a desire to leave the cave and conquer the world.  It’s a craving for challenges that we can overcome, battles we can win, and dangers we can vanquish.

Scientists have recently documented that fiero is one of the most powerful neurochemical highs we can experience.”  (McGonigal 2011: 37 – 38)

Games let us experience fiero through success and achievement in video games.  It is fiero that gives us motivation to grow bigger, stronger, work harder, and become more than we were before.  Fiero allows us to move beyond where were at before and achieve greater successes.

But more than just evoking fiero through success and achievement in game, video games require traits that are traditionally seen as valuable.

Video game success relies on the cultivation of skill.  Gamers need to cultivate their skill in order to achieve success.  Often times the game helps us along, much like traditional schooling, by having a learning curve. Games introduce new techniques and new skills slowly and gradually until all aspects of the game have been revealed.  This can vary wildly wildly.  2D side-scrollers (such as the original Mario titles for the NES and SNES) often do this within the first couple of levels while more complex games can do it over the entirety of the game itself.

Smaller games introduce their mechanics within 3 – 5 levels and then present challenges where these game mechanics must be used in creative and inventive ways in order to solve said challenges.  There are other games that have much longer learning curves.  Final Fantasy XIII was renowned for its learning curve because the game continued to have tutorials throughout the first 20 hours of the game. The entire game took upwards of 50 hours on average to beat the main storyline; side missions and quests (non-main storyline related content) extended the game to over 200+ hours of game play.

All of this amounts to cultivation of a skill.  This ability to effectively maneuver within a game and effectively utilize tools within the game is one that can take time to Master.  For those who doubt this I highly recommend you play a game such as Call of Duty (any of the Call of Duty iterations would suffice) and see just how difficult it can be to play the game well.

This also cultivates an ability to understand the tools at hand, what is made possible by those tools, and how we can manipulate tools within the constraints of the world.  This is real world problem solving – just more fantastical with a bit more science fiction than the actual world.

Scientific studies have also shown that video games do have positive impacts on people.  One study recently found that adventure video games can improve reading skills for children with dyslexia.   There is a fantastic TED talk from cognitive researcher Daphne Bavelier about how video games improve spatial problem solving skills, quickens reflexes, and also is correlated to improved eye sight.  These show some of the positive influences that video games can have on an individual.

In addition I want to talk a bit about a blog called Sortiv – written by writer, librarian, and blogger Jordan Rivas.  His blog post – This is a post about Dark Side, Renegade, and demanding refunds – is about role playing in games.  Stating in rather, I would say, beautiful terms Rivas says that

“My personal beliefs and morality system don’t always come with me when I play a character in a game.  They can transfer, either partially or totally, but as I’ve written about before, there’s a lot to be gained in the experience of role playing by adopting the paradigms of the fiction avatar you’re stepping into, even (especially) if you’ve created that character’s fiction.”

The reason I say beautiful is because it truly expounds what I think a lot of gamers try to say (including myself) but falter on.  It is this idea that when we play video games such as Mass Effect, Call of Duty, or other violent games we are playing a role.  Our morality and beliefs are often not carried over into our role-playing.  We are not operating under the usually assumed and understood moral and ethical constructs of society because the character we are playing does not operate under said moral or ethical codes.  We are not carrying ourselves over when we play these roles we are stepping outside of ourselves (something, I would argue, many would consider a skill throughout life as it can lead to the ability to not only empathize but also increasing objectivity).  As well, in having this ability to step outside of ourselves we partition the game play and the actions within the game outside of our real lives – that is to say, we do not bring the moral or ethical beliefs of the game character back to our lives (necessarily).

That being said I believe that it is simultaneously possible to draw from role-playing experiences.  Role-playing can help us understand how to successfully be a certain type of person: strong, caring, empathetic, etc.  When we play these roles we create experiences that we can draw upon.  In this we are not embodying the character or the actions that they take, but upon the motivations and ways in which they act.  It is similar to emulating someone you find inspiring – in order to achieve an aspect that you find admirable about them you emulate them in certain ways.  I will expand this idea a little bit later.


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