Alice in the Matrix
by Nick Yee

Answering Critiques of Modern Computer Gaming


Virtual Opium

I could seriously play EverQuest until I died of tire or hunger or thirst. I once played EverQuest for 10 hours straight. The only reason I went to sleep is because I had things to do the next day. Otherwise I would have played without stop. Plus my mother was waking up soon. [m, 15]

Everyone I know who plays will openly admit they think of the game when they aren't playing and neglect other real-life activities to play EQ. [m, 22]

Wanting to play so much you don't want to go to work or school. Or playing the game till the wee hours of the morning. When I first bought the game I was only getting about 5 hours of sleep a night. I was getting very cranky at work. I finally had to set a time limit. Otherwise I would play all night. [m, 32]

Does the addictive nature of computer games make them something we should shy away from?

Addiction, defined as strong motivation towards or desire of something, is not always an unhealthy thing. For example, we don't think of addiction to crossword puzzles, oatmeal, or exercise as unhealthy. But the word addiction is so often used in the context of alcohol consumption or drug abuse, that it has become burdened with negative connotations.

These connotations make it difficult, especially for the media and for educators, to imagine computer games as anything beyond mindless contraptions that can become dangerously addictive. But once we realize that computer games can appeal to individuals from ages 12 to 35, and once we realize that it is certain elements of these games that make them so addictive, there is no reason why we cannot use these elements to create games that convey social, artistic or academic skills unobtrusively. Whatever these elements are, we can use them to our advantage to create educational modules that children can become "addicted" to. And when addiction becomes educational, would we call it unhealthy?

These modules will be much more sophisticated and unobtrusive than traditional Reader Rabbit clones. They will be interactive and progressive in a way that matches the abilities of the individual, and at the same time be able to encourage the use of those skills that need development. While it is true that game-developers seldom have educational value in mind when they design a game, many recent games could be described as proto-educational, in the sense that they are on the verge of becoming modules that could be used as teaching aides in classrooms.

For example, time-period specific games can lend a great hand in making those eras compelling to learn about. Games like Age of Empires and Pharaoh resurrect the Medieval Age and Egyptian Dynasties in a way that classroom maps and pictures will never be able to. These games allow students to not only observe those worlds, but to step into them as well. Other games like Myst or Riven allow a more introspective kind of learning. These games promote skills needed to solve both local logic puzzles and global intertwined problems at the same time. There are also many games that develop organizational and managerial skills. Games such as Master of Orion or Civilization require players to keep track of a host of competing concerns including: technology, economics, industry, military, health, and diplomacy. Moreover, successful game-play requires players to be able to balance all these factors at the same time, and to make decisive compromises.

People learn best when they are self-motivated to do so, and different people have different learning styles. Computerized game-like modules can be used to achieve both these demands with much greater ease than a traditional schooling system. To condemn computer games because of their addictive power would be naïve, and would bury the great potential these computer games have as an educational medium.

Many people see computer games as wolves in sheeps' clothing, but if we can channel the addictive appeal towards modules that promote interest in history, science, arts, logical reasoning, organizational and planning skills, then we get a sense that computer games are really sheeps in wolves' clothing. Once we understand the dynamics of game appeal, we can harness its power to our own advantage.


The Matrix Syndrome

"Guns. Lots of guns." - Neo, The Matrix

Does violence in computer games lead to violence in real life?

The media often asks us this question rhetorically. The assumption is that computer games do lead to violence, and the agenda is to demonstrate just how dangerous computer games can be. A very natural counterargument comes to mind however. When we are angry, it often helps if we can yell, or break something. Doing so relieves some of the tension inside of us. Computer games are a safe way to release pent-up aggression and stress, without actually having to break something. Why do we assume that violence in computer games leads to violence in real life? Isn't it more likely that violence in computer games helps to reduce tension and leads to less aggression in real life?

The media loves to exhibit several individuals who commit violent crimes and who have played some violent computer games. They conclude that violence in computer games lead some individuals to commit violent crimes. This conclusion is problematic for two main reasons.

First of all, this kind of reasoning is unable to demonstrate causality convincingly. Consider a researcher who is making observations at the exit of Disneyland. His findings indicate that people who come out of Disneyland are, on the average, much younger than a normal population sample. He concludes that Disneyland has the powerful ability to make people younger. The crucial error he made is that he did not bother to stand by the Disneyland entrance. He did not bother to check the average age of people entering Disneyland. If he had done so, he would have discovered that Disneyland has no effect on age whatsoever. When people watch the news and conclude that violence in computer games leads to violence in real life, they are making the same mistake. To make that conclusion, one would need to show that those individuals were not violent before they played those computer games. If those individuals would have committed those crimes whether or not they played violent computer games, then computer games have nothing to do with real-life violence.

Secondly, this line of reasoning completely ignores base rates. Imagine that the same researcher is studying how far away from their homes people usually die. He finds out that people are more than 30 times more likely to die within a 15-mile radius from their homes than anywhere beyond that range. He concludes that homes are dangerous places and encourages people to stay away from their homes to avoid dying. The researcher has completely ignored the fact that people spend most of their time within a 15-mile radius of their homes. Clearly, the number of close-to-home deaths seems disproportionately large when compared to far-away places, unless you take the base rates into account. Once we factor in these base rates, we find that people are more likely to die in far-away places where they seldom are, than in close-to-home places where they often are, even though far fewer deaths occur in those far-away places.

It may seem like the researcher made a really naive mistake, but many people make the same mistake when they talk about computer games leading to violence in real life. The media magnifies the few incidents that have occurred, and people forget about the vast majority of people who play these games who never end up killing anyone. Car accidents cause more deaths than violent crimes which could possibly be associated with computer games. Probabilistically, driving leads to more violence than computer games do. Unfortunately, car accidents do not make headline news. No one remembers car accidents. More than a year after the shooting however, everyone still remembers Colombine.

The accusation that violence in computer games leads to violence in real life also fails to take cross-cultural data into account. For example, Japanese comic books and video games, usually with unrestricted access to minors, have very sexual and violent content. Many involve rape, sodomy, and S&M, as well as blood and gore violence. The Japanese, however, are not known to be a violent culture. Their crime rates are significantly lower than crime rates in the United States, where sexual and violent materials are banned for minor access. Their clearance rates, the number of cleared offences expressed as a percentage of reported offences, is also higher than the clearance rates of the United States.

Let's also consider data we have from the Yanomano, a hunter-gatherer culture from South America. They have no access to modern technology, are not exposed to violent computer games, but 30% of all men in their culture are killed by another man.

If anything, it would seem that violence in computer games and the media in general lead to less violence in real life. In fact, these three cultures form a very nice trend. The Japanese with large amounts of violence in computer games have very little real life violence. The US, which has a moderate amount of violence in computer games, has a moderate amount of real life violence. And the Yanomano who have no computer games have a large amount of real life violence.

But this conclusion, like the original accusation, is flawed, and for the same reasons. Both are too simplistic, and fail to provide complete analysis of all the data that would be needed to make those kinds of conclusions. There are many more variables we have to account for, such as the individual's developmental history, the surrounding social milieu and so on. We don't know the real answer to this question yet, but whatever it is, it will be much more complicated than a 'yes, games lead to violence' or 'no, not at all' answer. And the reasoning will be much more refined than merely showing violent games and showing violent behavior, and then saying that violent games cause violent behavior.


Trapped in the Looking Glass

You begin to lose a sense of gender identity. I stop for moments now, and have to think hard about what gender I am. It can be hard, and I'm not sure if the benefits of being able to express myself like this outweigh the hardships. [m, 15]

In MMORPG's (massively multiplayer online role-playing games), is there the danger for the player of losing the real self in false personas?

When a common phenomenon is placed into an unfamiliar context, it may appear frighteningly alien to us. Because the context is unfamiliar, we might feel that the phenomenon is foreign to us as well. Is it the case that we've never seen this kind of role-playing? Consider the multiple roles that all of us have to play in a modern society. A teenage boy is a student, a son, a brother, a group leader and a member of a team all at the same time. Do we ask ourselves whether the brother is losing himself in the role of the son? Even prima facie, the fact is that all of us play many different, and often conflicting, roles everyday and seldom do we term such role-switching as dangerous.

One may argue that this is not a fair argument because these real-life roles are real, whereas those that game-players take on are make-believe and have no bearing on real life. But does anyone find theatre dangerous because actors take on make-believe personalities? The ability to play many different roles convincingly is a great skill and is something we praise and appreciate. Why do we praise this ability when we see it on stage, but condemn it when we see it on a computer screen?

Most MMORPG gamers are actually very able to distinguish between their own personalities and their characters' personalities.

Rayman ( like me cause he's always helpful ) ottie he's helpful too Wildwar ( not like me at all, he's too evil ) laladore I don't play that much Daleen was nice, but I play more with Rayman than him Delow is helpful Kristii is greedy , somewhat like me ( I just don't like getting screwed ) Jamie is a KSer not really like me [m, 14]

Hashar is just like me =) sometime really shy, sometime totally out of control. The only point is that he never go in an unknow zone with no documentation or without a guid. Vdiyan is just a racist guy and don't like those damn 'pale face' he is always ok to save a dark elf an ogre or a troll but will never help others. I m not like Vdiyan : i always try to help people around me. [m, 21]

Ciliy is like me, just with my tough side a little more evident. She has a dry sense of humor but is very soft-hearted; she banters a lot with group members but would never intentionally hurt someone. Isnuri is a bit more of a misanthrope and a wise-ass, if you will pardon the expression. I really think it's the hair and outfit that does it -- i am uncomfortable being her, so she tends to make more jabs at people and generally be less helpful. i don't particularly like her personality, because she has some of my not-so-nice characteristics. My baby clerics are both naive, innocent little goody-goodies, young as they are--this is the philanthropic side of me that i don't often get to indulge in RL. the others are not played often enough to have developed personalities of their own. [f, 19]

They are also able to articulate exactly what parts of themselves have been projected onto their characters when that is the case.

The paladin is my good-natured side. He is just and fair. The enchanter is my evil side. I use the enchanter to cheat, lie, and and kill steal [m, 24]

Dumbly is crazy and fun, but when it comes to business, he is professional. I feel like he is the persona of my good side. He talks in 3rd person and is like a small child, reflecting my happiness, but he is also fierce and a mighty warrior, like i feel that i am on the inside. [m, 18]

Furthermore, being able to see the world from different perspectives is a very useful skill, and is a valuable learning experience. Being able to partially understand what it means to be female, old or crippled is a very powerful experience for teenage gamers. In fact, the importance of perspective is one of the main reasons why most major universities and colleges offer study abroad programs. As one gamer writes:

People do learn. You talk to other people, learn problem solving skills, team effort. Personally, I notice I'm a much mellower person now, not as often to yell or be mad. I tend to try to make my friend's get along, not making anyone mad. [m, 15]

We are beginning to get a sense that phrasing the concern in terms of a danger is misleading, and misses the point completely, especially because the phenomenon is something we see all the time in real life. Indeed, taking on these virtual personas may be very beneficial in several ways.

First of all, the virtual worlds that exist in MMORPG's provide truly safe spaces for trying out different roles, perspectives and personalities. People who are timid in real life can try to be assertive behind their personas. People who want to know how females are treated differently from males can switch genders and experience the existing biases. Sometimes we want to be someone else, anyone else, just for a change and on the way we might learn something we didn't know before. Part of being someone is knowing what you are not, and testing out different roles and personalities is the kind of experimenting that all teenagers go through anyway. The difference is that this experimentation is much safer in these virtual worlds. Is this something we should shun?

Secondly, many people wear masks in real life already. Our families and friends expect us to act in ways that may not be how we want to be. Some of us get trapped in masks in real life. These MMORPG's give us the ability not only to be someone else, but to be who we really are.

My chars are more outgoing and act more how I would act if I could in real life. [m, 21]

My necromancer is how I wish I could be to some people. My cleric is how I wish I could be all the time, helping, although most people seem to laugh at me more than say thanks. [m, 14]

Some gamers indeed feel that their personas are more of who they really are than how they are perceived in real-life. This is analogous to acting on stage. Behind the pretense of being someone else, it is actually easier to be the real self precisely because the real self is protected by the pretense of falsehood. And the opportunity of being that real self for a very brief moment, on stage or on a screen, might give the actor or gamer the confidence to be who they want to be in real-life. If these gamer personas come closer to who someone really is than his real-life persona, who are we to say that these game personas are fake? More importantly, who are we to say that the real-life persona is real?

Now, critics might still argue that this experience must be confusing and perhaps misleading for some individuals, such as the 15 year-old quoted at the beginning of this section. Surely, what he described is worrisome. The following is a more elaborated personal account from the same 15 year-old about his experience in EverQuest.

As I wrote before, in May of 1999 I decided to load Everquest and promptly play a female character. This was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. I could now be in touch with my feminine side without fear of ridicule! I was engaged to a male several times, but never married him. I decided to turn lesbian a few months into it, as cybersex with male and having that flip side was getting to be too hard, and I was afraid he'd find out about me.

I was married to a female once; I'm not positive about that person's sex. If nobody could tell mine truly, I can make no absolute judgments about others. I was then engaged to another female, but quit the game before we were married.

Yes, I did quit Everquest, for the most part at least, a few weeks ago. I went back to it a few days ago, it was tainted with this air of... I'm not sure. I recently met a wonderful girl, and am hopelessly in love. I have started to talk to people I actually know more, gotten back into other games. Where I am male.

My time on Rallos was a wonderful one, I'll never forget. I feel in some ways I've lost a year, but I suppose EQ did help me through a part of this horrible depression I'm going through. Or it may have been a cause, as I suppose gender identity is a very hard crisis if you're unsure as to your own feelings. One few people must endure. I'm not certain as to if this was a beneficial time. I lost a year, I found myself. I used to feel I might be bisexual, I have explored and ruled that fact out in an environment where nobody will judge me. [m, 15]

I would agree that what he describes must have been confusing to a certain degree, but that kind of identity confusion is something teenagers all go through at one point or another. The focus should not be placed on the confusion, but rather on the certainty that he felt he had gained after the experience. In fact, his fuller account gives one the feeling of a very healthy kind of exploration that real-life stereotypes and prejudices would have made much more difficult, and certainly much more confusing.



What are the right questions to ask?

Once we realize that there are several aspects of these games that we can use to our advantage, one important question to ask is where this technology will take us. And one answer is that it will change our lives in very important and beneficial ways.

Even the MMORPG's we have now allow gamers to ask themselves very profound questions:

What does it mean to save someone from their death? What does it mean to be saved from your death?

What is altruism? What is cruelty? What does it mean to help your friend by lending him almost all of your money? What does it mean to be betrayed by your teammates?

When, in the midst of battle, the group begins to falter and the enemy's backup arrives, what does it mean to hold your ground and stay with your group no matter what? What does it mean to sacrifice your own life so that your friends can escape?

These are the kinds of situations that impact out lives. They give us a fuller sense of what it means to be living. Most of us, however, rarely encounter these intense experiences in everyday life. Multiplayer games like EverQuest or Asheron's Call have the uncanny ability to put you in these situations repeatedly without fail. They allow players to get a sense of how they would react in those situations. They allow players to gain a kind of wisdom without the penalty of a devastating loss.

As technology gets better and better at replicating these kinds of scenarios, players will find that they are able to get a better sense of what kindness, love, sacrifice, trust, honesty, and in the end what life means. Children and teenagers can attain a kind of wisdom that is difficult to attain in modernized societies. Virtual-reality grows to be so much more of what life is all about, that environments which attain this quality can no longer be called mere virtual-realities. They have become hyper-realities.