Gaming as Taming

Or, How To Play Video Games Instead of Destroying the World.

By: Evan Cooper

Filed Under: Editorial

nighttime euphoria

If idle hands are the devil’s playthings, then video games are proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

I’ve known a fair number of gamers in my life, and I can say that none of them have ever killed anyone. However, they probably have about a quarter of the Earth’s population attributed to their digital body count. As shootings ring out across the US and abroad, it’s difficult not to recall the association often made between violent video games and actual violence carried out in the flesh. But strangely, most of the gamers I know who’ve obliterated countless terrorists, aliens, and Russian polygons are also some of the biggest pacifists I know.

I realize that this might be a personal bias. I am a fairly peace-loving individual, so the fact that I fraternize with like-minded folks, and folks who enjoy playing video games, could be coincidental.

But I don’t think so.

The reason is, when you’re blasting digital foes, you’re not exerting yourself on the physical world and the other people and creatures in it. Trinley Dorje, the Karmapa Lama (a high-ranking Buddhist leader), mentions in this interview that he considers video games to be a good way to rid himself of aggressive impulses and negative feelings. And that’s coming from a Buddhist monk:

“So, for me sometimes it can be a relief, a kind of decompression to just play some video games. If I’m having some negative thoughts or negative feelings, video games are one way in which I can release that energy in the context of the illusion of the game. I feel better afterwards.”

However, this aggression outlet argument is overly simplistic. The more robust argument is that when you are playing video games, you are not affecting your environment, for better or for worse. Classic axioms like “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions” beg the question: Sometimes, isn’t it prudent to simply not act? When even our most well-intentioned actions culminate in others’ misery or destruction, sometimes avoiding action seems like the most virtuous step one can take.

Humanity is driven to act. As Orson Welles once said in the charmingly sexist parlance of his times, “If there hadn’t been women we’d still be squatting in a cave eating raw meat, because we made civilization in order to impress our girlfriends.” Distilling this more for the sentiment that humanity is compelled to act, if only for social recognition, one can’t help but think of the casualties of civilization. I’m sure it hasn’t been long since you’ve smashed something with your car. Or plumber boot-heel. But I digress ….

And that’s where I think the genius of video games lies. It isn’t nihilism, though it might sound similar at first blush. I am far from condoning doing nothing but playing video games. However, there are times when our urge to manipulate our environment, to affect things, simply has no reasonable outlet. Think of the times as a youth when you damaged or destroyed something out of boredom just to see what would happen.

That said, so far we have video games diverting from needless action, and diverting from aggression. They taketh-away, but then, what do they giveth?

The answer is enrichment, though the level of it varies among games. Not only is Youth X now sniping illusory terrorists instead of shooting out car windows with a pellet gun, he is further experiencing narratives, sometimes even constructing them himself. Interactive narratives, you might say, stimulate the mind, particularly for those who may not otherwise be drawn to narrative by such art forms as film and literature. Narrative-driven games rated for younger gamers tend to focus on standard heroics and morality, such as the Legend of Zelda or the Sonic the Hedgehog series, so they also serve to help form a foundation of ethical behavior. For older gamers, for better or for worse, all games are experiences and ideas to be absorbed and analyzed, be it Grand Theft Auto’s notoriously open-ended morality sandbox or Black Ops 2’s encouragement to kill leaders of the Occupy movement. (Video games’ potential for indoctrination is an entirely different subject).

So now, not only are we re-focusing potentially destructive energies into a harmless outlet, we are doing so in a way that enriches and challenges the mind, all for the relatively low price of the power required to run a console or computer. Fortunately, video game narratives have come a long way since the harrowing saga of Pong and its existential horrors of the endlessly bounced ball.

(The “Game Over” screen was originally this but Marlon Brando required too many pixels to render).

The interactive narrative aspect of games will continue to make them one of our most engaging and compelling forms of entertainment. Losing oneself in a game need not continue to bear the time-worn stigma of robbing time and energy from real life, because this consumption can be a very good thing. So be sure and turn the tables on action-privileging cymbal-crashers by saying yes, video games do absorb time and energy. And that is why they are one of our greatest and most beneficial artistic achievements to date.

Filed Under: Editorial

About the Author:
Evan Cooper is a combat android created by a mysterious tribunal of shadow governments from another dimension to fight back the Illuminati menace with words and a mean stink eye.

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