Fantasy, Reality, Dreams – Part I

A guest post by Skadhu from Microfishing In The World Pool

Screenshot from Dragon Age: Origins © EA International Ltd.

After I commented on her post talking about her experience with video/online gaming, Lisa very kindly asked if I’d be interested in writing a guest post about computer games and fantasy vs reality, or maybe games vs reading, or maybe… well, games and gaming is an enormous topic, so it’s going to be a far-ranging post. I’m a talkative person. Pericat of Unlocking the Air has added an endnote with another perspective to my comments.

All of what I say should be understood with this proviso: I do not represent the gaming community in any way. I do not belong to what most people would understand to be the gaming community. And I am a middle-aged woman, so I don’t fit the profile of a gamer.

Except…

Who plays games?

I teach post-secondary graphic design courses. One of the courses I teach is in a polytechnic New Media program. In 2006 I was very active in the virtual world of Second Life. (Because it’s an online environment it often gets categorized as a game, but it is really not a game but a platform, because it doesn’t define activities and goals the way games do.)

At any rate, that week in 2006, I asked my students if they were familiar with Second Life. Nope. I asked if they were familiar with virtual worlds. One (one!) student put up his hand and said, “You mean like World of Warcraft? I play that.” That surprised me—I expected my students to be current with all of the new media technologies and what they offered, and I expected that a lot of them played online games. I was wrong.

That same week, I was standing around chatting with half a dozen avatars in Second Life, including a dragon and a fairy and some kind of monster, and all of them suddenly started talking about their grandchildren.

That’s when I realized that all my assumptions about game-player demographics were wrong. Different kinds of games attract different players—the gaming community is much wider than the stereotypes.

There are quite a few assumptions made about gaming and gamers, including:

  • Gaming is bad for you because you’re always sitting at a computer.
  • Gamers are dangerously obsessive about their activities.
  • Gamers should engage with real people in real environments instead of escaping into a fantasy world.
  • Games are violent and make kids violent.
  • Games are a waste of time—they don’t teach you anything, and at worst make you more stupid.

I think all of these assumptions are worth challenging to some degree.

Gaming is bad for you because you’re always sitting at a computer.

Always sitting at a computer is bad for you. But then, my parents used to say to me: “You shouldn’t spend all your time sitting inside reading. Get out into the fresh air and get some exercise!”

Using a computer for recreation is not inherently bad unless you never leave the computer. Some people don’t—but then, some people never leave their armchair in front of the TV, either. The real issue is getting people to exercise, not what they’re doing when avoiding exercise, except insofar as you need to convince them that exercise should replace some of their [sedentary activity].

Our modern lives make it hard for people to get exercise—when I don’t get enough, it’s usually because of competing claims on my time that force me to make choices that exclude the exercise. (And I like exercise, and resent not getting it.) That’s a much wider problem than one just caused by gaming, and the convenience of computer games, which can be fitted easily into small time slots, probably gives them a stronger draw. But the issue isn’t really games, but the way our lives have evolved to demand more and more and more of us, because the modern world expects more and more of us, and the way that the modern world has moved so much of our lives into sedentary online environments.

I do think that parents need to make sure kids exercise, because kids often don’t have the experience and skills to set up lives that are balanced in their activities—and as is obvious, it’s hard even for adults.

Gamers are obsessive, and that’s a bad thing.

Some gamers are obsessive, some aren’t. I tend to be obsessive when I start a new game, if it’s compelling, but that generally wears off. And focusing obsessively on a recreational activity when you start to learn it is common to most activities. I was obsessive when I started doing design, and when I started hiking, and when I learned to ski, and when I took up photography, and when I learned to canoe, and when… Being obsessive helps us learn efficiently. (I just wish there was a way of making students more obsessive about learning!)

Does it matter if someone is obsessive about stamp collecting? Following a specific TV show? Not unless it starts interfering with other parts of their life. For most people, obsession translates as “intense interest” and that focus provides all sorts of rewards and benefits that are invisible to people who don’t value the activity. If you don’t personally see the value in something, you tend to think an activity is worthless, but that’s not necessarily true.

I don’t see intense, fully engaged interest as a problem for most people. It’s different if there isn’t any kind of balance, of course. But I’m curious as to why obsessiveness about some activities is generally seen as a benefit (think of athletes in training) and for others a serious problem. (We used to worry about how much time people spent in front of the tv, but somehow I don’t hear as much about that anymore.) Yes, some activities provide more health benefits, but they may still create problems if the balance of life activities is lacking. I wonder how many obsessive athletes have damaged their health? Or how many relationships have broken up because of obsessive behaviour on the part of one partner in something that’s generally considered to be healthy and beneficial?

I don’t think it matters if it’s the tv or a video game or a Harlequin romance or stamp collecting or playing volleyball. The issue is what you do in the time you don’t spend on that activity. If you do nothing else—it there’s no balance—there’s a problem. Even “healthy” activities like sports can become unhealthy if you do it to the point of real obsession.

Gamers should engage with real people in real environments instead of escaping into a fantasy world.

There are all kinds of assumptions here that need challenging.

Gamers often ARE engaging with real people, they’re just doing so through the medium of new technologies, just as I’m doing here by blogging. The exchange is limited by the technology, but there’s still an exchange; it may be through asynchronous communications or synchronous text chat or voice chat. Many gamers visiting online games (depending on how they’re set up and whether the structure easily accommodates social activities) make socialization a primary focus and may actually spend a lot of time doing that rather than playing the game.

Socializing through media is not the same as socializing face to face, and lacks some of the benefits of face-to-face encounters, but it’s still socializing. I have socialized online with people from all around the world, something I’d never be able to do in “real” life—I would have never found this site and conversed with Lisa if I didn’t spend time online. Some people actually socialize more when they can do it through media—a friend who teaches autistic kids tells me that people on the autism spectrum often find online environments much less stressful and are able to socialize there in ways that they have difficulty with in face-to-face contexts. And then there are all the people who wouldn’t be able to socialize much at all except through media, because of illness or disabilities—I think of my friend who is dying of cancer, who has been spending an enormous amount of time in Second Life, where he gets immense support from others who are dealing with the horrible disease. So yes, online media shuts down some doorways for communication, but the flip side is that it does open others.

And as for face-to-face communications being more meaningful—it all depends what’s being said, doesn’t it? I’ve had some pretty superficial, meaningless and plain time-wasting conversations with people in real life.

Then there’s the question of escaping into fantasy worlds. As I said in my comment on Lisa’s “I am no warrior” post, the critique of virtual worlds as escapist is valid BUT applies to just about everything else people do as well.

At its heart, the argument that gaming is bad because it’s escapist rests on the assumption that escapism is bad. I’d challenge that. I personally don’t think that escapism is inherently wrong—I think that for most people it’s simply a safety valve that provides a rest from everyday stresses. If it entirely replaces negotiating reality, then yes, it’s a problem. But that would be true of anything that you used as a mechanism to escape, and as I’ve said, people use all kinds of other activities to escape reality. I truly believe it’s a question of balance, and that most people, despite the doom-laden discussions around it, find a reasonable balance in their gaming.

If your gut reaction is to think that online games are awful because they’re escapist, ask yourself if you’d have the same level of concern if someone was reading a Harlequin Romance? Any kind of genre fiction? A fiction book generally? If you think some kinds of escapism are okay, your issue really isn’t with escapism, it’s a judgment on the form of escapism.

If not all escapism is bad, is it bad to escape into video games, specifically? That’s like saying, “Is it bad to escape into books?” It depends on the books and how long you spend reading. I escape into books all the time. I’m fussy about the quality of the books I read. But some people might think my book choices have no value because they’re not all “literature” and/or my reading includes genre fiction; others might think they’re of no value simply because I read fiction, period. I disagree with both points of view, partly because I read for different purposes at different times.

When I’m tired I escape into children’s books or fiction books I’ve read a dozen times before. Well-loved mysteries and science fiction/fantasy are great for stress relief. When I want to exercise my brain I read new books. Sometimes they’re non-fiction, but I must say that plenty of fiction books, literature or otherwise, have stretched my mind in interesting and challenging ways. When a book is a good book I always get something out of it on some level, even if I’m reading to escape the daily grind.

Video games are very much like books: some are wonderful, and stretch you. Some are crap. (This is true for offline games as well—the issue is not where you play them. Does Scrabble become less useful for brain exercise when you port it to an online environment?) The trick is to recognize which is which, and go for the good stuff. But one of the difficulties with new technology is that we haven’t learned to sort it for quality as efficiently as we do books or other analog activities.

Framing the problem of engagement with reality as one related to gaming limits possible solutions. The issue shouldn’t be, how do we stop people from gaming, it should be, how do we get people to use their intelligence and creativity to engage in serious issues in the “real” world and solve real-world problems? Games may actually be a great way of getting people interested in real-world issues if they’re developed to entertain and educate at the same time and do both well. People actually are trying to do this; there are some interesting initiatives that you can read about:

Games For Change

Serious Games Initiative

[click on links to go to sites]

Games are violent and make people/kids violent.

I won’t comment on images of violence in games or elsewhere and its effects on kids because I don’t know what the research shows. Kids’ minds may be different than adult minds and they haven’t learned many of the balancing skills that adults have developed (though I think kids are often not given credit for their capabilities and common sense.) I can only comment as an individual adult and say that I think my responses are common to a significant number of people.

Some games are very violent indeed—and I find the whole concept behind some of them appalling. But that’s like saying that TV or movies are violent—some shows are violent, some aren’t.

I’m not interested in violence for the sake of violence. I tend to turn off the blood and gore (yes, many games have a setting for that) when I play. And I play fantasy games, not urban reality games. I’ve no interest in those, and can’t speak to their content or effects.

Also, to my mind, there’s violence and violence. I play some “violent” games with lots of combat. No matter what game I’m playing, I’ve never been confused between the game and reality. When I kill monsters I have a very clear understanding that it’s a task-based activity—kill a mob of brigands in order to get to the treasure chest or move to the next location. For me, it’s identical to clicking on the little jewels in a puzzle game to make them disappear within a specific time limit. I don’t leave the game with an overwhelming urge to pick up a sword and whack the person who wrote that dumb letter to the editor.

But the whacking of brigands and monsters generally is part of a game storyline that makes the game more interesting. A lot of games are, at heart, based on very repetitive activities. I personally find it much more fun to try to drive out demons and save the kingdom than to just make jewels disappear. Games without good storylines rapidly become more noticeably repetitive and relatively dull—they’re just an exercise in hand-eye coordination. But games with good storylines can make the repetitive activities (killing monsters) more interesting and create a sense of narrative development and climax that make the game very compelling. The game I recently played, Dragon Age, does that very well, because its narrative is so strong.

The fantasy role-playing (RP) I’ve done in Second Life, where complex storylines are developed and managed by volunteer administrators, is basically improv theatre with a cast of amateurs—you don’t know exactly what individuals will do within specific situations, and half the fun is in coping with what you’re thrown. It’s very clearly drama. (It’s a virtual version of LARPing—Live Action Role Play—which people do physically, as a hobby, the way the Society for Creative Anachronism does medieval role play, but that’s not something I have any experience with.) It’s “let’s pretend!” on steroids, and you would be surprised at the range of types of people who enjoy it. The players invent characters with specific personality characteristics, and then play scenes in character. (RP games often use an “alignment system” that allows you to define your character’s morality and behaviour; the one used in our RP came out of AD&D (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) and is described here, along with some other systems: http://coldsteelindiaink.blogspot.com/2009/07/hey-babe-whats-your-alignment.html).

There’s lots of combat in RP, but everyone understands that it’s make-believe, and the good guys and bad guys socialize amiably when they’re not in character. Some people run more than one character, some good, some bad—they tell me the evil characters are much more fun to play!

I don’t think the violence I participate in within these games has any effect on my real-world  behaviour, other than temporarily elevating my adrenaline, and that often happens with non-violent games too. Games and the real world are very different things to me, and I believe that’s so for most gamers. Again, the key to it is balance. I believe most players make a very clear distinction between fantasy violence and reality, and I doubt there’s much spillover. You can always find examples to show that there IS a spillover, but I’d argue that the underlying problem there is one of mental stability, not gaming specifically.

Part II of Fantasy, Reality, Dreams continues with the assumption that “Games are a waste of time—they don’t teach you anything, and at worst make you more stupid” and a discussion of games and education.

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Categories: Guest Bloggers, Random

Author:lisa@notesfromafrica

I live on the Southern coast of South Africa, and write about the things that interest, amuse or inspire me. You can find me at https://notesfromafrica.wordpress.com and http://southerncape.wordpress.com (my photoblog)

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11 Comments on “Fantasy, Reality, Dreams – Part I”

  1. February 21, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

    This is a really thought provoking post and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it – Thank you Skadhu.
    I probably still won’t jump into the gaming world, though 🙂

    • February 21, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

      Thanks, Lu, I’m glad you enjoyed it. And there’s no reason you should take up gaming if it’s not your cup of tea!

  2. February 21, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    I have never played an online game and probably never will, but, in some ways, that makes this post all the more interesting. Thanks, Skadhu.
    Kathy

    • February 21, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

      Thanks, Kathryn. You never know… I was quite surprised to find that I liked playing online games.

  3. February 22, 2012 at 4:12 am #

    Great essay, thought-provoking and informative. I appreciate all of the points you’re making here, and especially your challenges to the negative assumptions about obsessiveness and escapism. I’m looking forward to Part II!

    • February 22, 2012 at 7:32 am #

      Thanks Lemony! I had a lot of fun putting my thoughts in order around this—the process made me think of quite a few things I’d not thought about before, which is all to the good.

  4. February 22, 2012 at 8:24 pm #

    Gosh, Skadhu – I’ve just read Parts 1 and 2, and am very impressed at your well-written, thought-provoking article.

    I’ve often been curious about gaming and wondered how it works and whether it is worth exploring. So far, I haven’t done much of that, because I already spend an inordinate amount of time on the computer and the internet – and so it is nice to have a break from it, and to spend some time outside.

    But I like that you’ve presented the world of gaming in such a positive way, highlighting its good features too – which are often forgotten or ignored when the media gets all fired up about the negative aspects of online role playing games and such-like!

    Thank you for making us think! Happy Gaming!

    • February 23, 2012 at 5:44 pm #

      Thanks, Reggie. There are certainly subsections of gaming culture that I dislike intensely, and there are many games that you couldn’t pay me to play. But as you say, because those things are often what the media talk about the good stuff tends to get overlooked—my goal was to add some balance to people’s impressions of it.

  5. February 25, 2012 at 9:11 am #

    Thank you for taking the time and making the effort to write this amazing essay on gaming and fantasy versus reality. I only started playing computer games (after thinking they were “for kids”) about two months ago. It’s been interesting to read how an experienced gamer sees things.

    “Who plays games?”

    Yes, I’m also surprised by the diversity of people I meet in online RPG. There are a lot of non-typical gamers out there. One lady that I play with is a grandmother in her 60s – and she’s a really good, strong player. She’s in a guild with some younger people – who she said “taught her all the tricks”.

    “Always sitting at a computer is bad for you. But then, my parents used to say to me: “You shouldn’t spend all your time sitting inside reading. Get out into the fresh air and get some exercise!”

    Ha. I used to get this too. Now it’s my husband saying: “When are you going to stop playing and write another blog post?”! Problem is that even when I’m struggling with daily migraines/headaches I can actually play the game – albeit the easier tasks – but I struggle to come up with a good blog post.

    “Some gamers are obsessive, some aren’t. I tend to be obsessive when I start a new game, if it’s compelling, but that generally wears off . . . Being obsessive helps us learn efficiently. (I just wish there was a way of making students more obsessive about learning!)”

    I agree. At the moment my character is still developing and there are new challenges, but what happens when I reach the top level? I don’t really want to get involved in the “Relic Wars” etc. I am just not that interested in player-vs-player combat.

    Some students get a little too obsessed as well. A family member was an excellent and dedicated student, but neglected the other areas of her life.

    “For most people, obsession translates as “intense interest” and that focus provides all sorts of rewards and benefits that are invisible to people who don’t value the activity. If you don’t personally see the value in something, you tend to think an activity is worthless, but that’s not necessarily true.”

    Very true – it’s a matter of personal perception. Willie likes fishing – it relaxes him. I went with him a couple of times and got horribly bored. Besides I prefer to get bored in the comfort of my home instead of out in the sun/wind/rain! 🙂

    “Socializing through media is not the same as socializing face to face, and lacks some of the benefits of face-to-face encounters, but it’s still socializing. I have socialized online with people from all around the world, something I’d never be able to do in “real” life—I would have never found this site and conversed with Lisa if I didn’t spend time online.”

    Although I haven’t “met” many people on the game – most have been short alliances to complete tasks – I have met a lot of people on WordPress, and am making plans to meet some of them in real life.

    “Some people actually socialize more when they can do it through media . . . And then there are all the people who wouldn’t be able to socialize much at all except through media, because of illness or disabilities. . .”

    Yes, I have experienced the same thing. Living with chronic pain makes it really difficult to be social. I often cannot get out of the house for days. But having contact with other people, even via the Internet, is important. I even “socialize” with real life friends via the Internet when I’m going through a bad patch.

    “At its heart, the argument that gaming is bad because it’s escapist rests on the assumption that escapism is bad. I’d challenge that. I personally don’t think that escapism is inherently wrong—I think that for most people it’s simply a safety valve that provides a rest from everyday stresses.”

    I agree – I didn’t mean that escapism is bad. I frequently feel I need to escape from the reality of my daily life.

    “But one of the difficulties with new technology is that we haven’t learned to sort it for quality as efficiently as we do books or other analogue activities.”

    Very true!

    “Framing the problem of engagement with reality as one related to gaming limits possible solutions. The issue shouldn’t be, how do we stop people from gaming, it should be, how do we get people to use their intelligence and creativity to engage in serious issues in the “real” world and solve real-world problems?”

    Often technologies, which were initially developed for gaming and the movies, later get applied in the real world. I’m thinking here of the remote surgery which is being done with top surgeons being able to do surgeries in a different country without physically having to be there. I also saw a television interview with a top US military pilot who said the computer games he played as a teenager helped him develop skills he later used as a pilot.

    “Also, to my mind, there’s violence and violence. I play some “violent” games with lots of combat. No matter what game I’m playing, I’ve never been confused between the game and reality.”

    Yes, I don’t get confused either, but teenagers might and do. I personally know of a case where a group of teenagers went out and re-enacted situations from a game they were playing. They didn’t hurt anybody, but vandalized property. Maybe they were delinquents in making already?

    I have noticed that I carry a lot of my own thinking and morals over into the game. And the jerks I meet in the game are probably jerks in real life too.

    “The fantasy role-playing (RP) I’ve done in Second Life, where complex storylines are developed and managed by volunteer administrators, is basically improv theatre with a cast of amateurs—you don’t know exactly what individuals will do within specific situations, and half the fun is in coping with what you’re thrown. It’s very clearly drama.”

    Second Life sounds really interesting. I’d heard about it on the science podcasts I listen to, but just don’t have the time at the moment to check it out.

    “There’s lots of combat in RP, but everyone understands that it’s make-believe, and the good guys and bad guys socialize amiably when they’re not in character. Some people run more than one character, some good, some bad—they tell me the evil characters are much more fun to play!”

    I’m sure they are! Maybe I’ll try a different character once I get bored with my current one. In the game I play (Aika) you’re not really good or evil, but characters have different strengths/weaknesses and skills. So you have to develop different strategies to kill the monsters.

    Am going to be replying to your second post too . . .

    • February 26, 2012 at 3:02 am #

      Oh, I think I should thank you for the opportunity to babble on! It was a very great pleasure.

      You said a couple of things that caught my attention:

      One lady that I play with is a grandmother in her 60s – and she’s a really good, strong player. She’s in a guild with some younger people – who she said “taught her all the tricks”.

      One of the things that I think is fascinating about games is the absence of age segregation. I’ve engaged with people and had no idea how old they were, and then found that they came from a wide age range—but the thing is, age is irrelevant in this context. I think it’s a
      wonderful way for ages that don’t usually mix socially to do so.

      Your comment about your husband wanting to know when you’d do a blog post instead of playing was also interesting—our minds can’t always do certain kinds of processing, even if we want them to. We have to have variety, and take breaks.

      Meeting people in real life: I’ve met several after knowing them only online, and enjoyed the meeting (and them) very much. We all live at significant distances from each other, so socializing offline isn’t possible most of the time. Even if we did live closer, we might or might not socialize in person; it would depend on what we all were interested in. Online, we share interests and might spend time together, but might not otherwise. I think it’s like any group centered around an interest—for years I belonged to a recreational group and spent an enormous amount of time with them doing specific activities, and enjoyed it very much; but there were only a few people I spent time with doing other things. And that’s normal, to my mind.

      I agree with your point about the transferability of technologies between environments and contexts.

      Your story about the teenagers vandalizing property is interesting. I don’t know the situation, so I can’t offer any kind of informed opinion. But teenagers do often get carried away and do stupid things in all kinds of contexts, so my suspicion would be that that was thata dynamic was in play as much as the specifics of the game. (Adults can of course do equally stupid things but generally over time have acquired a stronger sense of consequences to inhibit them, absent booze or drugs.) I do also think your follow-up thought about jerks being jerks everywhere relates to this too. Many people are delightful online, but there’s certainly some that aren’t, and I’ll bet I wouldn’t like them much offline either.

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  1. Fantasy, Reality, Dreams part 1 « - February 21, 2012

    […] is now online. The second half will follow in a couple of  days. If you want to read it, go to Fantasy, Reality, Dreams. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

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