Sunday, 15 June 2014


'Tetris' by Matteo
under a CC license
People play games. All people do. Kids play, with friends or alone, with toys or without. Adults play games, maybe involving sports maybe not, with others or alone. Playing games is one of the elements that helps children evolve into adults. For adults, games are considered to be a leisure thing, sometimes a kind of social function and some others a tool to isolate from other external stimuli.

For some reason, though, video games (or computer games, if that term suits you best) are often looked down on. They have been considered a nerd thing and/or, sometimes, a 'geek thing'. They have often been referred to as "a waste of time".

Video games are a thing of our times. The corresponding industry has rapidly grown over the last few decades (and its statistics are always fun to read) together (or helped by) the introduction of the PC to the wide consumer audience, the dedicated game consoles and - more recently - the myriads of game-capable mobile devices. To day, a huge variety of genres, titles, etc. have emerged, some managing to become iconic. Pacman, Nethack, Arkanoid, Tetris, Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego, Neverwinter nights, Doom, Sid Meier's Civilization, etc. Really, the list is endless.

[Full disclosure: I 've spent quite some time immersed in various computer games myself, ranging from Pacman, Tetris and Civilization to DotT and Beneath a Steel Sky, to TF2, the Neverwinter series, indie games such as World of Goo, Braid, FEZ, etc. And so far, I'm not sure I 've regretted it :-)]

So why something so popular is heavily criticised? I agree that popularity on its own isn't a measure of usefulness or value. Tobacco, unhealthy snacks and -even- drugs may be popular and desirable, to the level of lethal addiction. But are video games in such class?

Many opinions have been voiced - at different strengths. But I tend to agree with the one that says that games can have an impact on our real lives.


Conventional mechanisms include helping us let steam, helping us focus on something else (so as to return to reality with a clear mind) and, in online games, socialise. Yes, socialise. In a digital way. Perhaps not-so-equivalent to the face-to-face contact but not far from exchanging e-mails or Facebook posts.

Video games, both normal and serious ones, have been put forward as a learning and skills honing platform

Jane McGonigal gave a TED talk on 2010 supporting that video games, being so engaging, can serve as the means for us to reach goals in real life. Part of that rationale is supported by a variety of modern apps offering to "gamify" our lives in the personal and the professional environment. Those are tools that will help people self-commit to an activity or an objective and reward them accordingly. Give a try to HabitRPG or Fitocracy. Neither got me engaged but many others seem to disagree.

Rewards in video games - a copycat of the rewarding system in real life, which is itself based on reward processes in the brain - is something that all gamers understand and it is indeed the driving force in every successful game.

So what do we need to do to harness the potential of video games? The obvious answer is that we need to ensure that game developers integrate "the right messages" in their games. However, I'm not sure that this is likely to happen and I'm not even sure that I would like it to happen. After all, games are selling the fantasy element. In fact, they don't need to change. It is the other things of our lives that can use make use of the interfaces that games have created.

But there is a limit to the applicability of games. There is always a lurking danger when dealing with real life consequences bearing game-like attitudes. If that has to do with things such as college exams, getting to know new people,etc., it may be OK. But if that has to do with actions associated with serious risks of any kind, then things are completely different. There is little real-life protection one can offer in a game universe.That universe is something others may not be able to perceive the same way. The gaming world is a world that our laws don't necessarily apply (both the natural and the ones of the legal system).

Thus, we need to make absolutely sure that the borderline between gaming in real life remains clear!

After all, we only get one real life...

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