My wife asked for an Xbox for her birthday this year.
I would imagine that most of you won't get past that first line; particularly the men, who are wondering how I managed to find such a girl. But stay with me: this is a very serious essay about video games and wasting time, not about how "cool" my wife is.
This birthday request got me thinking. Unless you count flight simulators, I haven't really played video games much since I left college. Also in college, I developed an almost obsessive dislike of wasting time. The constant, oppressive weight of never-ending class assignments gave me a sort of persistent edginess such that I could only mentally justify avoiding what I had to do if I was still doing something productive. I still can’t sit down and watch TV unless I feel like I’m accomplishing something, like learning something on the History channel.
In looking around trying to decide what’s worth getting, I played a few of the games they have nowadays, and was surprised to find that I didn’t feel like I was wasting time at all. That’s kind of odd, because playing video games has been, for many years now, the quintessential time wasting activity. If anything is a waste of time, it’s video games, right? So why doesn’t it feel that way?
This really surprised and interested me. As hypersensitive as I am about using my time productively, I really expected to be as turned-off about the prospect of sitting in front of a TV controlling a virtual character as I am about watching Friends or CSI. What I came up with is that a well-written game has all of the intellectual elements of a "good use of time" that I have come to expect. These elements can all be boiled down to two basic principles:
First of all, and most importantly, these games are very intellectually stimulating. They make you think in much the same way as, say, fixing a broken radio would. Now, I’m not talking about games like Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, or any of the rescue-the-princess games we grew up with. Some of these newer games are complex puzzles with subtle clues buried deep inside intricate plots. A lot like a good murder mystery. Not all games are this way, but I’m not really interested in the others.
The other important element is that there is a sense of goals and accomplishment. This is a very common element, because games without it never become very popular. In order to spend much time with a game, you have to feel like you’re actually doing something. But that’s just it: when you turn the thing off, you realize that you’ve accomplished absolutely nothing.
So that must be it. If you haven’t really accomplished anything, you’ve wasted your time, right? Well, perhaps. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series was a great set of books; but after I read them, I had nothing new and useful to show for it. Everything I had learned from those books pertained only to a fantasy world that didn’t exist. No real-world knowledge at all; well, nothing that I hadn't already heard, at least. Furthermore it took a days to finish those books. I spent more time reading just those books alone than I did in all my video game playing over the past 8 years combined. And yet, how many parents tell their kids that reading the classics will rot your brain? No, of course not.
Video games, I think, have a certain stigma associated with them for a couple of reasons. First of all, early technology made it difficult to make a game mentally challenging but still fun to play. That, combined with a lack of imagination on the part of the programmers lead to a large divide between games like “Final Fantasy” and “Mario: Fun with Numbers.” Of course, kids do what they enjoy, and these simple but challenging games provided kids with the emotional feedback they craved by giving them simple goals which they could accomplish and feel good about. In fact, with video games, the noticeable accomplishment frequency, and therefore the reward-to-time-spent ratio, is much higher than any other readily available activity. These kids, if left to their own devices, will seek out the activity that gives them the most positive feedback—so they’ll play video games all day if they can.
Which brings me to my next point: if a child spends an inordinate amount of time at any activity, even reading, the parent will conclude that the child is wasting time. It doesn’t matter what the activity is; the child could be playing video games, watching TV, playing baseball, solving puzzles, assembling models, or even studying advanced calculus. If he fills the entirety of his free time with the same activity, the parent will be displeased. The kid will be “wasting his time playing baseball,” or “wasting his time with those stupid puzzles.” Video games are just too consistently entertaining.
I see no reason why a good game can’t be as beneficial as a decent book. It's a fairly new and novel medium that has yet to be fully exploited, I think. Most games, like most books, are, indeed, a waste of time (have you seen what passes as literature these days?). Others sharpen your mind like a good game of chess. Of course, I'm certainly not saying that Call of Duty, as educational as it is, should be used in schools to teach about WWII; but I think that we will eventually have games that will serve that exact purpose. What could better teach you what it was like than reliving the experience yourself? Oddly enough, true-to-life realism and historical accuracy are goals that the game industry is aggressively pursuing. The industry has a long way to go yet, but it also has some powerful potential that shouldn't be ignored.