Lost yourself in a good game recently?

18 May

Since I began attending Swindon Festival events, I’ve heard politicians of all parties discussing politics, historians talking about history, philosophers philosophising, and comedians cracking jokes. But never did I imagine I’d hear a psychologist discussing World of Warcraft.

For five or six years the MMPORG (or Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game for the uninitiated) was an important part of my life… and my wife’s.

With a new baby in the house, our opportunities to socialise were diminished. Not only did World of Warcraft (or WoW) fill our evenings or hellishly early mornings – and become an important distraction for my wife during hours of breastfeeding – but you could interact with your friends. Dungeon raiding became our new clubbing.

Dr Pete Etchells

Psychologist Dr Pete Etchells was a fan too. In his book, Lost In A Good Game, he explores his relationship with video games in general, and World of Warcraft in particular.

Video games, he reckons, have had a bad wrap from the world of psychology. Science has been keen to discover whether screen time leads to obesity, eye strain, depression, or an increased propensity for violence.

Only the military, it seems, has done any serious research into the positive aspects of playing games, like improved hand-eye co-ordination – motor skills that give them get ready-to-strike drone pilots.

At Swindon Spring Festival, Dr Pete took us through scientific studies into computer games, both past and present.

He highlighted the flaws of tests designed to discover whether games make you more violent – scientific ‘findings’ amplified by a hysterical media.

Sure, intensive video gaming can get the adrenalin pumping: I’ve been jumpy after a session of something like the first-person zombie-shooter Left For Dead (also a socially-interactive game that you can play co-operatively with friends, as a group of apocalypse survivors in a world of the undead).

If I finished a game, went to make a cup of tea, and someone jumped out of me, my mind and body – already on a high state of alert – might well go into defensive mode. But have video games made me more violent over time? Check with my wife, but I’d say definitely not.

Dr Pete told us about his life in the virtual world – and it mirrored my own. We both played for fun, but also played for distraction – him from the pain of losing his father, me to take my mind off the stresses of work. In the book, I loved the single sentence where Dr Pete built a simple log cabin in digital building game Minecraft in memory of his father, and the real-world log cabin in which they had spent a holiday.

We both play for the buzz of rewards – winning a fight, or achieving a goal. There’s something affirming about levelling up in World of Warcraft – you’re momentarily surrounded by a shaft of light. Announce ‘ding’ in a ‘chat window‘ you’ll receive a typed ‘grats’ (congratulations) by other players you’ve never even met in-game, let alone in real life.

We’ve both made friends online. In my case, we met a German citizen playing World of Warcraft on an English server to improve his conversational English. He joined our Guild (a group of friends who quest together) and later we shared experiences IRL (in real life) – us staying at his apartment in Munich, and him visiting wonderful Wiltshire.

But still, 90 percent of scientific studies into video games concerns potential links to violence.

The speaker highlighted Sea Quest Hero, a free-to-play maze game teaching scientists – who collected the data of millions of players – about human navigational skills, with a view to creating an early diagnosis tool for Alzheimers disease, and helping those with the condition navigate the built environment.

Psychologists are asking what video games are doing to us. A better question, argued Dr Pete is what video games can do for us.

I’d like to throw in one more argument in defence of the video games industry.

The Swindon Spring Festival covers literature, music, visual art, and performance. Yet among the artistic community I often hear expressed fears that computer games are somehow ‘luring’ players away from the ‘real’ arts.

Anyone who has played a quality video game must surely have noticed the artistic flair of the graphic design – from the attention paid to characters physical features and clothes to buildings and landscapes. They are a visual feast.

Music plays an important role in creating an ambience, of place or a period of time. From the electronic throb of Halo to the folk music of World of Warcraft, I can honestly say I heard more world and classical music from WoW and turn-based strategy game Civilization 4 than I’ve heard from my radio. Blizzard employs real composers to score World of Warcraft, and IRL musicians – including entire orchestras – to create the soundtrack.

The best games have a strong narratives. Characters and places have backstories. Folklore is important. Games makers who grew up playing an electronic choose-your-own-adventure based on The Hobbit are now creating rich fantasy worlds of their own.

And multi-player video games turn us all into performers. How we choose to interact with other players can be an extension of ourselves, or a creation of the human (or elf, dwarf, orc, or goblin) we’d like to be – if only for an hour or two.

Video games are an important part of our economy, and a benefit – rather than a threat – to The Arts. Politicians and the media need to understand this, and psychologists should stop playing their game.

Words by Peter Davison. Image © Fernando Bagué

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