Consequences of What We Make

May 27, 2009

Effects of Videogames

Many people outside the videogame industry – mostly those that have never played a videogame – have a lot to say about what effects they think videogames have on players. They fear that we are making crime simulators that shorten attention spans, drive people to be anti-social, promote inaction, and waste the time that the last generation supposedly spent studying or walking 10 miles uphill in a foot of snow.

At first it seemed pretty harmless – Jack Thompson’s antics were hilarious, and without him Derek Yu & his friend’s never would have made the masterpiece I’M O.K. – but before the technology fearing dinosaurs go extinct, we should reflect a bit on just why their points are miles off the mark.

Practicing Violence?

Does any parent stop their kids from playing Cops and Robbers in the yard, or express outrage and fear that Super Soakers or games of paintball and laser tag are going to escalate to murderous crime sprees? The threat isn’t kids with active imaginations, it’s parents that build a fascination around the forbidden fruit of having a Nerf gun, or adults that never had enough of a healthy outlet to outgrow early fascination with the stuff.

In playing videogames, frustration or aggression just cloud the mind and increase mistakes. Someone “fighting” in a videogame, whether with guns or hand-to-hand, isn’t thinking about violence, but alternating between focus and tactical reevaluation. Those are what the game demand of the player, and they are what get rewarded. There’s more real aggression and physical danger in 1 minute of football – something we’ve come to accept as a perfectly healthy recreation – than at an entire Street Fighter or StarCraft tournament.

Short Attention Span?

A child that stays glued to to a screen for hours every day, day after day, either exploring new continents in RPGs or practicing to sharpen in-game skills from a desire to unlock new items and tracks, doesn’t have a problem with attention span. They’re curious, they’re engaged, they’re determined. Sure, they should have other things going on in life too, but someone shouldn’t spend 24 hours every day eating apples, either.

If school isn’t engaging them, because their parents haven’t established a connection between work and success, or because the curriculum is still teaching Aristotle’s ideas about composition at a pace that made sense 100 years ago, I’m not inclined to blame the X-Box. (Though if you’re a student and reading this: do your homework and stay in school. Adults doing a bad job at something is never an excuse for us to skimp out on proving we can stay on top of it.)


A lot of hubbub seems to have come out of concern that seeing someone play a videogame looks a lot like seeing them watch TV. The difference is that watching TV is practice for being passive, since nothing the viewer does matters, whereas playing a videogame is practice for being significant, since what the player does is the only thing that matters.

A child playing a videogame has an incredible amount of analytical problem solving and racing thoughts in their head being translated into theories they’re constantly testing – should I have tried the other door, which item is best for the next boss fight, which abilities should I upgrade next, are there shortcuts I’m overlooking, what more can I learn from the villagers that I haven’t questioned yet, who’s torch does a guy have to light around here to get that sliding to door open, etc.

(I think that I first found this particular point articulated in the brilliant gem “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy” by James Paul Gee)

Playing videogames as a kid, what happened when I sat inactive? In rare cases, nothing happened. In most cases, the ones that I certainly found the most engaging, my inaction led to the bad guys getting faster, the enemy base growing larger, hostages being killed, the other team scoring, losing my $0.25, or an especially powerful enemy like a pterodactyl or Baron von Blubba coming out to terrify and rush me.

My deep sense of urgency about life comes from videogames. I grew up in worlds where every problem became severely worse when nothing was done to fix them. I did right, right now, or I died. Meanwhile old people hear about the global warming they’ve put in motion, say, “huh,” then get back in their SUVs on dry, flat, city roads.


For anyone to believe that videogames promote being anti-social, not only is it clear that they have they not played many videogames, it’s also obviously that they haven’t been very social in the past 5-10 years. Guitar Hero, DDR, Wii Sports, Super Smash Brothers, Gears of War, SoulCalibur, and old gems like Goldeneye on N64, Super Bomberman on SNES, or old TMNT/X-Men/Simpsons in arcades have joined up alongside ping-pong, pool, bridge, poker, and bowling as social activities people gather around for, whether they’re staying in with friends or going out to parties.

Like any social game, these activities provide developmental opportunities like teaching new players how to play, but there are also whole new layers of dynamics made possible by watching each other’s backs, splitting bounty, verbally strategizing together, and (through co-op experiences) playing on the same side against an imaginary enemy so that everyone in the room can win. (Just try making a compelling card game or board game where everyone playing can win.)

Online multiplayer games are of course another angle at it – when I was still a kid I had a leadership opportunity through being the head of a Quake clan (“CIA” – Crazy Insane Assassins) – organizing practices, overseeing recruitment, dealing with group politics and designing our website to manage our image to the world. Today there are countless people getting their first management experience because of guilds in MMORPGs like World of Warcraft.

Even single player games promote socially healthy behavior with surprising frequency. Role-Playing Games consistently teach that it’s almost always smart to help everyone that you can, connecting the player’s good deeds to new members joining the group, later getting rare and valuable items as gifts, or even making it possible to skip difficult encounters in the game. Adventure games often build player recognition into their universe based on the world-saving deeds done, giving kids the idea that making a splash by doing good is the path to becoming famous (if they watch the evening news, that’s where they might get the dangerous idea that killing thousands of people, or being both wealthy and reckless in relationships, will make them newsworthy).


The last point that I wish to touch on – the accusation that videogames are a waste of time – is one of profound importance. I believe that the developmental opportunities afforded by videogames have been a considerable force in shaping generations X and Y, and will be ever more so in the generations that follow as developers become increasingly aware of the enormous positive effects that are possible in our work.

Videogames Don’t Discriminate

At an age when the person behind the counter at rental stores ignored me because I was just a kid, by playing Command & Conquer I had the opportunity to allocate resources in a time sensitive situation between increasing my cash flow (spend it on a resource harvester), purchasing information (sending out recon), unlocking new technologies (following tech trees), increasing insurance (defensive structures and surrounding my base with strategic unit formations), building robust infrastructure accounting for redundancy (power plants), destabilizing my opponent (small expendable assault force), etc.

A generation prior, I would have needed an MBA, 10-20 years business experience, a ton of luck, and a shark-like personality to be in that kind of decision making position. At my age then, Warren Buffer himself could have sat down with me personally for hours trying to brain transfer everything he knew, and virtually none of it would have stuck. But there I was, building mental models – new connections for the way dynamic systems can fit together – that affect my thinking about priorities, problem solving, and my business finances to this day.

Videogames Train Mental Models…

By playing through those pretend military encounters level after level, scenario after scenario, I was learning patterns of resource allocation and rapid/heuristic decision making, rather than how to follow a linear process to beat a particular level with maximum effectiveness. This wasn’t training me to follow a programatic procedure, it was training me to think and adapt on the fly.

Even better, I learned that no matter how much money I piled up in silos, that was meaningless if my army got defeated, and it didn’t carry into the next map anyway. Money was a means to an end, its presence and relevance little more than a symptom of the effort to win the battle. When I meet adults that have a mindless want of money, and I ask them what their purpose is in life, they look at me dumbfounded. Their purpose is simply to get more money. Period. Not to help people, not to accomplish a particular goal, but because they want to have more of it. Uh huh.

They should have played more videogames. Perhaps they’d have picked up on the concept that money is a means to an end, secondary to some other mission – perhaps funding research to combat diseases, raising awareness to ensure planetary survival, spreading education, identifying and eliminating systematic causes of crime, or furthering institutions that create opportunities for people to lift themselves from poverty – whatever battle they think is worth fighting. Money is useful for those things. Money isn’t useful as bigger numbers on a computer screen or buying up huge mansions and $60,000 watches when a more modest home and a Timex from Wal-Mart will do just fine.

…Shape Assumptions by Experience…

For younger audiences, when playing the Mario Kart racing games, the cart in last place gets major advantages in terms of better items (lightning!), and the car in front gets worse items (one mushroom? WTH?), plus is the special target for blue shells. A child playing this in last place on the last lap can still win. That’s experiential learning that when you don’t give up, you can put yourself in position to come out on top. This is far less likely to work in a realistic racing game (if you’re in last place on the last lap, you’re probably screwed), but the exaggerated handicap helps establish a useful way of thinking for a developing mind.

The best part is that because it’s learned by experience, not lecture or parable, it becomes part of common sense (“I’ve stuck to things before when they seemed grim, and came out on top. Duh.”), rather than a degree removed as it happens in stories, such as, “What would a blue choo-choo train do in this situation?” or “Well, Brandon told me that I shouldn’t give up. I guess he knows what he’s talking about?”

…Distill Abstractions into Clear Concepts…

When playing Final Fantasy, all 4 controlled characters in the group were me. I directed them, I divided resources between them, and I lost when they lost. The typical adventure party is set up with a strong side (warrior), a flexible side (thief or red mage), an intelligent side (dark mage), and compassionate side (white mage). When the strength is knocked dead, the flexible side isn’t flexible enough, and intelligence is sapped, the compassionate side is what revives the entire party and makes it possible to come through.

Decades later I still live by that, believing that as long as I keep my compassion strong and healthy, there’s nothing that can permanently set back the other sides of me. For some people their white mage is their religion, for some people it’s their family, for me it’s largely my veganism and sense of mission to help others. Whatever form it takes for someone it’s the piece that helps every other aspect recover and charge back into the fray, providing that it’s developed and protected, rather than ignored, even though on the surface it seems like the weakest member of the party.

…Develop Efficacy, Inspire Ambition…

By the time I was 15, I had saved the president from ninjas, halted multiple alien invasion attempts, ended wars, saved dozens of princesses, slain dragons, freed POWs, destroyed nuclear missile silos, single-handedly brought down dictators, sealed off gates to several versions of hell, broke evil spells, killed Oremor Nhoj, restored light to kingdoms, prevented an untold number of zombie apocalypses, and even fixed the proper flow of time (no kidding) on more than one occasion. And this was pretty much destined to happen, because the way those games are built, they’re all challenging but winnable, which means that I had as many chances as I needed to learn from my mistakes and overcome the goals.

To touch back on that previous inaction point, was any other character in those videogames going to save the world? Was the character walking to and from their mailbox going to break the spell that turned the queen into a statue, or was the random civilian going to put that war to an end? No. It was my responsibility to do something about it, and make all things right in the universe(s). To be trusted with great responsibility, given as many chances as I needed to prove capable of it, then to have those accomplishments recognized within the game instilled an absurd level of confidence in me to trust myself with taking on big challenges. Unlike videogames, in real life all challenges are not designed to be winnable, but more often than not it has served me (and those around me) well to go into things believing in myself, and with a willingness to hold myself personally responsible if things don’t go well.

…Demand Analysis, Adaptation…

I love “Nintendo hard” games. I grew up playing Ninja Gaiden, Battletoads, Mega Man, Gauntlet, Blaster Master, Punch-Out, Contra, Double Dragon 3, Ghosts n’ Goblins, and Paperboy, and I’ll be damned if I’ve ever done anything so hard in all my life since (including getting my college degree or first job in the game industry).

Those games set excruciatingly high standards, and weren’t flexible to player weakness. When a human tries to teach you something, if they see you’re having a hard time, they may break down and do you the disservice of going lighter on you. Life doesn’t work like that. There is a certain beauty to failing at a difficult task that is mechanically consistent, reproducible, and designed to be achievable: there’s no doubt that the failure is on behalf of yourself as a participant, either in your incorrect decisions or your lack of skill. Decisions only get better from strategic reflection, and skill only gets better by practice.

Those are powerfully positive things for an 8-year-old to be learning through daily experience. All the John Wooden quotes and Tony Robbins tapes in the world – and I love both of those guys – will go over the head of a little kid, but what will get through to them is that if they want to see the next visually inspiring world or obtain the magical mega-sword of earth-shattering destruction, the only way that’s going to happen is if they figure out what they’re doing wrong and find a way to do it better.

Experience, Experience, Experience

I believe that the positive consequences of playing videogames are mostly based in the abstract experiences: the mental models learned by trail and error, or the complex cause/effect systems that have to be internalized to succeed. What do we reward, how can we force the player to think creatively, and how else can we challenge them in a way that they’ll be drawn to overcome? By sheer nature of having to find ways to keep them engaged, developer’s learn that player’s have a very low tolerance for being handed too many problems that they’ve already figured out how to solve.

There are things in life worth knowing that can only be learned by experience, things that just don’t come across through lecture or text alone. I think there are a lot of useful skills and perspectives that aren’t taught yet, simply because we haven’t had an effective way to deliberately communicate them. I’m not just thinking about work experience either – social experiences, personal development experiences, negotiation/financial/spiritual experiences , discovery experiences, high-priced educational seminar experiences… and what are videogames but a particular form of carefully planned, distributable experiences?

Why Videogames Are Perfect For This

In the real world, people that make the right choices often still fail from things outside their control, and people that make poor choices often still succeed from things outside their control. The arbitrarily controlled and contrived conditions within a videogame are much more reliable environments for learning by experience since the results can be shaped based on player action and choices to train useful mental connections, rather than realistic ones (like belief in self that can become self-fulfilling, or consistently rewarding player honesty even though the real world doesn’t).

Videogames Don’t Require an Operator’s Attention, or a Distribution Truck

Some people have the advantage of living someplace particularly stimulating, some people have the advantage of having the right build for sports, some people have the wonderful luxury of living next door to (or being in the same family as) people that will naturally or intentionally facilitate enriching activities in life. What excites me about the learning experiences made possible through videogames is that since electricity is cheap, duplicating data is virtually free, and the internet reaches almost every corner of civilization, the best of what videogames can convey while stimulating the imagination could be all over the world tomorrow – even if said best was only released tomorrow morning.

Not to Forget Story and Art

Story and art are definitely extremely valuable in their own ways – like in any good film or a work of literature, besides drawing in an audience they also nourish and expand the imagination. However, that’s not my personal focus on what videogames have to offer because (A.) other mediums offer that too, it’s doesn’t seem as interesting to me since thousands of years have been spent studying those elements, and the inspirational value of fiction is broadly appreciated (plus B.) for every 5 or 6 dozen people that I’ve met who have an interest in videogames entirely for the story or visual side, I have met, well, zero people that seem to share my interest in how videogames can provide imaginary obstacle courses that give people new ways to think about the world.

There’s Real Value in Videogames

There are a lot of useful life lessons that athletes get from their coaches, team mates, and cooperative or skill-development experiences. I see videogames as an opportunity to take lessons like those to a far broader audience – for the other 96% of high schoolers that didn’t have the build or time for football, and for people all over the globe that may not be in environments that afford them those sort of developmental opportunities. The primal appeal to simplicity through violence isn’t ideal, but if you take a boy’s Nerf gun away he’ll just start tossing balled up socks like hand grenades anyway. Whatever we choose to put on the surface to capture imaginations, I’m hopeful that we can all start paying equal attention to the things we’ve been doing right accidentally for decades: teaching players new thinking tools, conditioning them to connect good deeds to desirable results, and keeping their hunger for new skill development strong and nurtured at all ages.

A Happy End Note

For anyone that hasn’t heard: the most outspoken and misguided anti-videogame voice out there, Jack Thompson, was finally and permanently disbarred in September last year.

(Originally posted as Vol. 2 Sec. 4)

Este artículo está disponible en español. Traducción por cortesía de Andrés de Pedro.

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