Why we Must use Games for Good

wrath_of_the_lich_king
Using games for Evil?

We must use games for good, or they will be used for evil.

You think I’m joking? Not a bit. Read on.

The release of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion set has sparked up the old ‘Are Video Games Addictive?’ debate again.

Chris Vallance over at iPM sums it up succinctly. Millions of people all around the world are playing WoW – and that’s just one of many MMOG’s. Edward Castronova estimates that the average MMOG player plays for 22 hours a week. That’s a lot of brain cycles.

In China, officials are getting mighty antsy about the millions who are being “lost to the internet . . . mainly to unhealthy online games.”

‘Web games are the biggest culprit for Internet-related crimes in China, especially World of Warcraft, which has made many young minds unable to tell the real from virtual world,’ the Xinhua News Agency quoted Dr Kong Derong, a psychologist from a hospital in central Henan Province, as saying.

iPM has gotten a lot of letters on this topic:

Mike Rochester wrote to us saying, “For 7 years I was Housemaster to 65 independent schoolboys aged 13+ to 17+ and grew concerned that several were drifting into underachievement through their obsession with computer games

WoW and other games can be so popular that they detract from people’s relationships, school or work, etc. This is not a good thing.

But let’s look at why this happens. In a way, Mr. Rochester’s boys aren’t drifting into underachievement. They’re ditching their studies because they’ve found a source of achievement that seems more rewarding.

The reason WoW is so popular is because its designers have totally fine-tuned the challenge/reward structure that is at the core of any game.

WoW (like any game) gives its users a sense of achievement. They accomplish something – they win, they fight, they kill baddies, they level up. Even if it’s only in the confines of the game, players have achieved something. The experience is exciting and full of rich sensory stimulus, so winning causes a very real dopamine release in the player’s brain.

Plus, in WoW, you’re not alone. Other players are there, to witness your triumphs and to save you from disaster. They believe in you. That makes it real.

This structure – the challenge/reward mechanic – is at the core of every game. If it’s finely tuned, as in WoW, it makes video games one of the most powerful communications media we have. It is no exaggeration to say that this medium can draw people in like a powerful narcotic.

So, are video games addictive? Yes, video games are addictive. They’re designed to be.

That is why we must use them for journalism.

I think good journalism is vital to our civilization. Democracy and a liberal civil society cannot function without good information in abundance. It follows that journalists should use the most effective tools at our disposal to get that information out to people. Ignoring a medium as powerful as the video game is the height of folly.

I haven’t made up my mind about WoW. Part of me is awed by the excellence of its game design, and part of me is scared by how it can suck people’s minds in, leaving little trace in the outside world. That’s why I haven’t played it.

But the examples of WoW makes the point: this is the most powerful communication tool known to our species. Like books, and movies, games can change peoples’ lives. The entertainers and propagandists are already using them.

Let’s get on with it.

*   *   *

If you’re interested in WoW and addiction, check out the interesting dicusssion we had about this a while back, when Rusty showed me WoW Detox.

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7 thoughts on “Why we Must use Games for Good

  1. Here’s an interesting addenda to this idea:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7746471.stm

    Posited here is the idea that MMORPGs are not addictive in the traditional psychological sense. A guy named Bakker, who runs the Smith & Jones Centre in Amsterdam – the first european clinic for gaming addicts – sums it up thus; “the more we work with these kids the less I believe we can call this addiction. What many of these kids need is their parents and their school teachers – this is a social problem.”

    Not suprising, considering that the vector is a social tool, rather than a perception-altering chemical. MMOGs may be drawing in people who don’t fit the normal psychologocal addiction profile because they may not be scratching exactly the same itch.

    Personally, I still think that thw 10% Bakker admits are traditionally or cross-addicted are a demographic that we need to take care of, but the other 90% present an equally interesting problem. Though they arguably fit the definition of psychologocal addiction:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Addiction#Psychological_dependency

    they need a different form of treatment. Social treatment. Is that proof positive that their dependency has social or interactive roots in addition to physical ones? We seem to be on the threshold of something interesting in our history as a social species.

    Assuming we can’t understate the importance of this kind of media to our future communicative endeavors, from whence comes social responsibility for the medium? Law? Education? Dora the explorer?

    those pesky journos, maybe?

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