Games, Life, and The Pursuit of Happiness

Because video games were born out of communication mediums (TV's, computers), they have been mainly examined as media artifacts rather than construed as extensions of games and past-times. The lens that has been focused on video games is mainly derived from the "media effects" tradition an attempt to examine the consequences of exposure to different kinds of media. The carryover from that perspective is quite palpable the incessant suggestion that video games can't be good, and that the more of it you're exposed to, the worse off you must be (essentially a parallel of critiques of watching TV). While this framework has mainly been used to vilify violent video games, its basic conclusions seem to have spilled into video games in general and helped ferment general paranoia about video gaming that they are pointless at best and might actually be highly addictive and dangerous. After all, media has to have an "effect" on you, right?

But in reality, video gaming is much more like a hobby or past-time than passive exposure to media, and the critiques along the lines of addictiveness seem misplaced when we consider our cultural attitudes towards other past-times and hobbies. We seldom ask avid book readers how often they stay up late at night just to finish a chapter from their favorite author. We don't ask avid mountain climbers how distracted they are while working because they are thinking of their next climb, or whether their spouses feel neglected when they go mountain climbing. We also don't ask aspiring writers or actors how often their art consumes the rest of their lives. In fact, it's perceived as noble to be consumed by artistic endeavors.

Furthermore, by categorizing MMORPGs as video games and video games as media artifacts, it allows researchers to talk about MMORPGs using an exposure model. The problem is that this implicitly denies the importance and effect the other thousands of people in the environment have on the experience. It likens MMORPGs as passive an activity as watching TV. But in fact, MMORPGs are social communities. What's frustrating when talking about MMORPGs to non-gamers or some researchers is that they are examing a social community as a media artifact - where fascinating issues of social identity and social interaction are reduced to issues of media exposure and usage.

Games have always been human constructs. The goal of any game has always been a seemingly meaningful task in a scaffolding of arbitrary rules. To a Martian, it may be incredibly difficult to understand the point of football (or golf) or why so many people are emotionally invested in how a ball is tossed on a field, or why any sentient beings would reward tossing balls on fields. When we take a step back, it seems odd that the very people who find so much value in one game deny any value to other kind of games considering that all games at an abstract level are goals defined in the context of arbitrary rules.

Non-gamers scoff at the joy derived from looting a rare item or when a dragon raid succeeds. They wonder how so much happiness can be derived from something that is not real. The answer is that it's an exact parallel of any other game. After all, achievement is entirely defined by the rules scaffolding. Getting a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal is as much a game as defeating Vox in EverQuest. It's about a set of rules that were defined by us, not some universal guideline for achievement. The universe could not care any less about what we do.

A colleague once critiqued MMORPGs this way "Why don't I just give you a black box with a crank? Every once in a while, you get a piece of candy. That's what an MMORPG is, right?" Of course, this focuses on the grind and doesn't take into account the social interactions of the environment, but even if we conceded that point, there's a problem with that analogy. The problem is that that's a good description of almost anything in life. When you take away the specifics, even something like trying to get a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal is like that black box.

Many of the frustrations associated with talking about MMORPGs to non-gamers stem from two incorrect categorizations. Either they lump MMORPGs with media artifacts, or they see MMORPGs as games but forget that much of life is a game as well. For some reason, popular culture would like us to think about video games as a very different beast from what it is. Many people talk about video games without noting its striking parallels to other activities we deem worthy and wholesome. Many would have us think that video games can never be taken seriously. The reality is that when you take a step back, most of life is a game.