Video Game Culture: A Harmless Addiction?

BARBARA NICOLOSI

"I keep thinking she's going to come to a point where she's had enough." A friend and I were staring fixedly at her eleven year old daughter, Rachel who was in her eighth consecutive hour of playing Pokemonę.


With the onset of summer vacation, Rachel had won the right to play Pokemonę as long as she wanted, all day, every day. My friend was sure that, given unlimited playing privileges, her daughter would eventually grow tired of the game and walk away from it as a waste of time. But three weeks into the summer, my friend was starting to doubt both her theory and her daughter. By the end of the first month, she finally intervened and unplugged her daughter from Pokemonę.

I have no business judging little Rachel. I have my own addiction to a treacherous little video diversion called Ceasarę. Someone sent me the game a year or so ago, and if I did not have to tear myself away regularly to earn money for food and rent, I could see myself building animated aqua ducts and conquering virtual barbarians round the clock for ever.

The video game industry is to today's young people what television was to kids twenty-five years ago. Electronic games account for 30% of the US toy market, earning $8.8 billion in sales. This figure is $3 billion more than the annual Hollywood box-office gross and ten times the amount spent on the production of children's television. A recent study found that video games are part of the daily routine for 65% of American children, and 85% of American boys. Teens in the survey estimated that their families had spent approximately $2800 on computer and video game hardware, and about $450 on video game software. It's time to seriously look at the impact of virtual challenges on the human person and perhaps make the hard choice to unplug ourselves and our kids.

Since the tragic school shootings hit the fan, we've heard a lot about the dangers of violent video games. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) has summed up the feelings of many adults in noting that games like Mortal Kombatę and Doomę are "digital poison" and play a significant part in America's "culture of violence." Another study found that 85% of teenagers themselves acknowledged that violent video games have negative effects on some kids.

While no one has proven a causal connection between the habit of virtually smashing skulls with the habit of actually hurting real people, a recent book should give parents pause. Retired Lt. Col. David Grossman spent over twenty-five years in the military studying how to transform new recruits into men who could kill. In his book, On Killing, Grossman relates that killing is not a natural behavior for human beings. Grossman explains that the psychological conditioning techniques used to train soldiers out of their natural resistance to killing, are the very same techniques used in today's violent video games. Soldiers are taught to "war game" to desensitize them into thinking about killing more in terms of strategy and challenges and less in terms of the actual loss of an irreplaceable human life.
Grossman notes, "Children don't naturally kill; they learn it from violence in the home, and most pervasively from violence as entertainment in television, movies, and interactive video games."

But what about the non-violent video games, or the ones where the "violence" is in cudgeling plump purple dinosaurs as in Pokemonę? What are the social ramifications of virtual play as opposed to video play?

Psychologists actually have coined the term "Stimulus Addiction" for people with the habit of action-oriented video games. A recent study by a team of British scientists found that video game playing dramatically increased dopamine levels in the brain at rates roughly equivalent to the increase caused by the illegal amphetamine "speed" or by a prescription dose of the children's anti-hyperactivity drug, Ritalin.

My own experience of playing Caesarę certainly feels like an addiction. I find myself planning game strategy while driving or during boring meetings. I sit down for a few minutes of playing and then feel buckets of self-loathing when I realize three or four hours have slipped by. I make the decision at least once a day to throw the stupid CD-Rom into the trash, but I can never actually bring myself to do it. I find myself heatedly defending the merits of my game to anyone who dares imply that it is a waste of time.

I've heard other people refer to their video game habits as a "harmless addiction." Is there really any such thing? My own experience is that while I'm playing my game, I am thoroughly caught up in it. But afterward, I always wish I hadn't wasted my time. Recreation should leave us more connected to others, or more in touch with ourselves, or more informed, or more fit, or more profound, or more well-rounded, or closer to God. Leisure time is the basis of culture. It is the time for creativity, in which we can break out of the rote of the workaday world, and explore the vast possibilities of our own being.

Video games produce nothing, except frustration, as a player enters the same cycle of building up achievements only to be dashed by a dastardly digital opponent programmed to come out on top every time. Video games teach nothing. Or at least nothing that applies to the broader world as in "real" experience. So my hours of playing Caesarę have provided me with all the information necessary to subdue roving bands of barbarians, as well as hints for allocating enough plebian laborers to keep my vineyards and amphitheaters up and running. Real practical stuff. Video games are challenges without rewards, adventures without experience.

We have no way of guessing what the long term effect on children will be of hours spent manipulating Mario as opposed to negotiating with a team of friends on the soccer field. We do know that success in a virtual world learn is dependant upon players immersing themselves in the video game's rule-driven reality without ever questioning the rules. This may be the most problematic quality of video game culture. As we head more and more into a world of electronic automation and information overload, we want citizens who are more inclined to question, and not less.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Barbara Nicolosi. "Video Game Culture: A Harmless Addiction?" Liguorian (August 2002).

This article reprinted with permission from Liguorian, One Liguori Drive, Liguori, MO 63057.

Liguorian is a general interest Catholic magazine written and edited for Catholics of all ages. Its purpose is to help readers better understand the gospel and Church teaching and to show how these teachings apply to life and the problems confronting them as members of families, the Church, and society.

THE AUTHOR

Barbara Nicolosi teaches screenwriting to aspiring Catholic writers at the acclaimed Act One: Writing for Hollywood. You may email her at Actone2000@aol.com.

Copyright ę 2002 Liguorian


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