Video Games–The New “Playgrounds of the Self?”

Just a couple of years ago, I was talking to a group of college students–mostly young men–about pressures, temptations, and challenges that come with living in our postmodern world. Predictably, many of these students mentioned challenges related to technology, such as the availability of internet pornography. What took me by surprise was their near-unanimous judgment that video games represent a persistent pattern of temptation they often find very hard to resist.

Pressing this issue a bit further, I asked the students why they identified video games as such a persistent challenge in their personal lives. They made their point clear by indicating just how many hours they and their friends often spend on video games–and just how difficult it is to maintain a clear focus between the real and the virtual while deeply engaged in gaming.

Christine Rosen, Resident Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, addresses this phenomenon in a fascinating essay entitled “Playgrounds of the Self,” published in the most recent edition of The New Atlantis. Rosen, an insightful observer of the culture, provides an absolutely fascinating glimpse into the reality of video gaming in our times.

First, Rosen dismisses many of the stereotypical perceptions held by those who look at video games from a distance. Yes, the vast majority of adolescent males are engaged in some form of video gaming. Nevertheless, she cites studies that indicate that the average age of a video gamer in America is thirty. Half of all Americans now play video games, and Rosen indicates that over 90 percent of American kids from age two to age seventeen are regulars. The Entertainment Software Association [ESA], the industry’s trade group, reports that the average adult woman gamer plays 7.4 hours per week and the average adult man gamer plays 7.6 hours. If anything, research indicates that those figures may be very low.

Douglas Lowenstein, the ESA president, recently reported that almost 100 percent of gamers between ages twelve and seventeen have been playing since age two. On average, these gamers have been playing for 9.5 years and gamers over the age of eighteen average twelve years of play.

Obviously, this represents a significant share of the consumer market. Rosen reports that the gaming industry “is poised to challenge the financial might of both the music and movie industries.” With the development of mobile gaming and revenue from gaming on the internet, “the video game industry likely will surpass the movie industry in the near future.” As Rosen summarizes, “Video games are now a permanent part of mainstream culture, one to which people devote a considerable amount of time.”

Technological advances explain why the video game industry has exploded in popularity in recent years. Today’s video games can be traced back to the now-quaint technologies of the pinball machine and games at amusement parks. But shooting arcades and pinball machines have given way to the incredibly sophisticated high-tech games that now dominate the industry. In the last quarter-century, the technology has leaped from Atari’s Video Computer System and “Pong” to today’s highly sophisticated multi-player and internet-based games. As Rosen summarizes: “In under a century, gaming has moved from the midway, to the tavern, to the mall, and into the home–where it has taken up permanent residence.”

What makes these games so popular? For some, it is the thrill of competition, racing, shooting, escaping, and the attraction of the games’ storylines. There are games of virtually every type, ranging from war games and sports games to “adult-oriented” video games rated “M” for mature audiences only.

There is more to come–Microsoft is soon to release a new version of its “Xbox” that founder Bill Gates envisions as a platform for comprehensive family entertainment and media. As Rosen suggests, the new Xbox may be “the Trojan Horse that will eventually deliver access to more than video games in the American living room.”

Interestingly, Rosen begins her article by considering these games as an experiment in self-invention. Many of these new games involve deeply intensive role-playing and the creation of artificial selves. Given the vast number of hours many persons commit to playing these games, do they even know who they are anymore? Rosen notes: “We have created video games, the new playgrounds of the self. And while we worry, with good reason, about having our identities stolen by others, we ignore the great irony of our own mass identity theft–our own high-tech ways of inventing and reinventing the protean self, wherein the line between reality and virtual reality ultimately erodes and disappears.”

Parents are often the first to notice the effect of video games. Several years ago, military analyst David Grossman argued that video games involving shooting had turned American adolescent males into excellent marksmen–demonstrating incredible eye-hand coordination. The physiology of video gaming is also of significant interest. After all, the endorphins released in the process of intense video gaming are the same chemicals released in the process of panic or sexual activity. As is now well known, these hormone releases can become addictive.

Dr. Maressa Hecht Orzack, Director of Computer Addiction Services and Clinical Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School argues, “These games are meant to be addicting.” Orzack blames parents for allowing their children to develop such addictions. “When the grades go down, that’s when the parents call me . . . . They use these as electronic babysitters, and that’s not conducive to good parenting.” Christopher Caldwell of The Weekly Standard once described his brief but intensive experience with the game “Snood,” as a form of addiction. “I also began to understand for the first time what an addiction is . . . . It’s a desperate need to simplify. An addiction is a gravitation towards anything that plausibly mimics life while being less complicated than life.”

The distinction between real life and video reality is often the most urgent concern. Many of the most popular video games–especially those involving multiple players over the internet–require participants to create alternative selves and completely new identities. These games include “MMORPGs” [Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games] that can involve hundreds of people playing out their fantasies through invented identities.

As Christine Rosen sees it, “Improved hand-eye coordination is not the reason most people play video games. It is the opportunity to be someone else–someone else with limitless powers and absolute control.” Obviously, this can become deeply problematic.

One research study indicates that a sizable percentage of online players change genders as they invent new identities. As Howard Rheingold posed the issue in The Virtual Community: “What kind of multiple distributed system do I become when I live part of the day as a teenage girl in a chatroom, part of the day as a serious professional in a web conference, part of the day slaying enemies as Zaxxon, the steel-eyed assassin of an online gaming tribe?”

Rosen also provides a glimpse into the world of “Christian game makers” who “are wary of role-playing games that promote any form of spiritual or moral relativism.” Rosen cites Jonathan Dee who noted in The New York Times Magazine, “The Christian gamers’ position is that, while you may fight the Devil and lose, you may not fight as the Devil.”

Not all video gamers become addicted to violent games, and many stay away from the intense role-playing and fantasy identities. Nevertheless, Rosen raises the question of balance, authenticity, and reality in individual lives. She explains: “In previous eras, games were supposed to provide more than mere play; they were supposed to improve us morally or physically. The conceit of contemporary times is that games improve our intelligence, and that they do this so well that we ought to integrate them into more spheres–the classroom, the boardroom, the playground–as replacements for less advanced ways of learning. Our embrace of video games is yet another chapter in the ongoing story of technology-as-liberation.”

Are children and teenagers who spend hours playing video games missing something? There is considerable evidence that many of these children and adolescents simply lack the sustained experience of playing games that require teamwork, socialization, and actual conversations with real–rather than invented–persons. Furthermore, the vast majority of these games are played inside while the participants stare at a screen while holding electronic gadgetry.

Consider Rosen’s analysis: “Video game fantasies, although graphic and sophisticated, are also sanitized in a way that real play is not. Video games carry no real risk of physical harm or personal embarrassment, as in real games and real sports. When a child plays outdoors, he might at least risk skinning a knee; when a child plays soccer on a team, she might get nervous as she stands on the field waiting for the opening whistle or embarrassed when she makes a mistake. But this is not the case of video games. It is perhaps telling that the biggest risk to gamers are ailments associated with modern adult work: carpal tunnel syndrome and eyestrain.”

The games of today will surely be replaced with the games of tomorrow, but Christine Rosen has raised some of the most significant issues that should frame our thinking about what it means to be human, what it means to play, and how we should prioritize our lives. Beyond this, she also reminds us of the distinction between the real and the imagined–and of the importance of knowing the difference.