Video games have been a defining force in my life as far back as my memory goes. The relationship is complex and varied, but it has remained, for me, totally unexplained. What have the 20,000 hours of my life spent immersed in virtual entertainment done for me? Why do my friends and I find such continued delight in them? Are they really just abstracted pleasure buttons, isolating us from the real world? Do video games actually have anything to offer society aside from escape?
In nature, games are a critical part of the learning process for social animals. In youth, predators learn how to hunt and prey learn how to escape. The bonds of critical relationships are strengthened. Necessary skills are learned and honed in the safety of home territory, under the supervision of more experienced individuals. These qualities remain true in classic human games, as well. Children learn empathy and responsibility through role-playing. Cooperation and collaboration are taught through team sports, while competition encourages achievement and innovation. With each game, a new set of rules must be learned and enforced. With age, the games become more challenging as the complexity of strategy increases and the physical prowess required ratchets up.
Until recently, I did not see a way in which video games could fit into this framework. Video games can be highly antisocial – the majority of my gaming has been done in the comfort of my own solitude, and I think this remains true for most gamers today. They don’t involve much physical activity, definitively encouraging a more sedentary lifestyle. The games themselves are not a model of any real-life construct; as far as we know, the skills required to master any game do not transfer to the real world outside of enhanced motor control and hand-eye coordination. To really see what these games are bringing to society, I think the big picture must be consulted.
We live in a world driven by constantly changing technology. The pace of innovation is ruthless, and the complexity of the devices we use is only increasing as their capabilities multiply. It’s not just computers, cell phones, cameras, and GPSs – it’s the entire Internet. Every website is its own microcosm of software, offering a unique style of interface in order to present the desired information in the most efficient way possible. With each new piece of software and hardware released into the world, we are presented with another, unfamiliar breed of interaction with technology.
Video games are an incredible model for the path of technology. I started on the Super Nintendo, grasping those awkward ovular controllers with sweaty palms. Before I knew it, I was holding the three-pronged Nintendo 64 controller. Then it was the infuriatingly bulky Xbox controller. Each new generation changed the design of the most basic part of playing the game, while the games themselves became more complex, capitalizing on the presence of joysticks and more buttons. Taken to their most basic level, video games are just highly abstracted interfaces, coated in graphics and point systems. The entire video game experience is, in the end, all about making the game do what you want it to. Whether that’s solving puzzles, making wicked headshots, or managing empires, it all depends on the ability of the player to master the interface in order to achieve the desired goal. Every game presents this challenge in a different way, altering the controls to match the focus of the game. Just consider how differently a controller is used when playing a first person shooter, as compared to an adventure RPG, a racing simulator, or a stealth action game. Seasoned gamers often forget how long it took to become comfortable with such a wide variety of play styles.
Video games are training us to adapt to changing technology. We have a long while yet before we see any plateau in the world of electronics – just consider all the ways we use our technology that we didn’t ten years ago. Touchscreens have become the norm, and are rapidly increasing in popularity. Motion-based technology may or may not stick around, but there have been some amazing proof-of-concepts with the Kinect (try googling “kinect proof of concept”). Neural interfaces are actually here (look!). Who knows how we’ll be using all of this business in a few decades, but preliminary evidence suggests that gamers won’t have any trouble adjusting to whatever comes next.
This surely isn’t the only benefit that can be named. I have volumes of thought on the dynamics of player-community interaction, netiquette, and the value of dedicated involvement to individual games. However, these concepts don’t fit as well into the hypothesis of this post that video games are practice for interacting with current and upcoming technology. The others, I shall have to tackle another day.