Alice in the Matrix
Answering Critiques of Modern Computer Gaming
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.
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.
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
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
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 steal..money
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
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
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.
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
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.