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Playing video games and avoiding reality

At any given point in my childhood, my strongest desire was probably to play video games.

Growing up, my family enforced strict play limits. My brother and I could not play on school days. On weekends or holidays, we were allowed two thirty-minute sessions. Only on Christmas did our play limit disappear. We would often acquire new games or if we were very lucky, a new console, and spend the entire day gorging ourselves. What a great day.

We mostly played console games. Diehard Nintendo fanboys, we glued ourselves to our Super Nintendo, N64, and eventually Gamecube. When Pokemon came out, we’d try and sneak in some battles while we waited for food at Olive Garden. We got an XBOX one season but by that time, we’d started playing computer games--mostly Starcraft and Warcraft III. I got into it and played semi-seriously, ranking fairly high in competitive ladders.

Any time I wasn’t playing, I’d think about the next time I could play. For periods of my life that were less tightly monitored by my parents, I’d spend hours at a time staring at my screen. One semester in high school, some of my friends got really into DotA (Defense of the Ancients) and would regularly stay up until 2AM playing 10 person games.

Fun times, but not good for my grades.

Another semester, I got into World of Warcraft with my roommate. The girl that I would date for the rest of high school almost gave up on me because of how frequently I’d choose to play games instead of spend time with her.

I had a bad semester in college where I was playing Call of Duty non stop. I’d get back from class and play for hours. Not sure if many people noticed, but this was one of my lowest points in school. I was feeling dissociated from everything around me and Call of Duty was a world that was consistent and dependable.

These periods of heavy game play never felt good. Upon inspection, they actually looked like depression. I lost interest in things, my capacity to empathize diminished, I stopped caring for myself, my overall mood suffered, and I’d get better at video games.

I suppose I was always addicted to video games. I just never acknowledged it.

I recently learned of a woman who researches video games and its impacts on our health and behavior. Her name is Jane McGonigal and she’s most well known for her TED Talk titled Gaming can make a better world. Naturally, I was intrigued.

At a pivotal moment in her career, she suffered a concussion and started experiencing severe depression. Suicidal thoughts followed her everywhere and she decided she either had to do something to defeat these thoughts or she would eventually kill herself. This decision led her to develop a computer game that might help her get better. She called it SuperBetter.

SuperBetter let players create a character that would battle bad guys with the help of their friends. It worked for her and it worked for many others too. Here was evidence that the right games played by the right people at the right time can lead to positive outcomes.

Yet, the average gamer will probably tell you that their relationship with games is, on the whole, negative for their life. Carnegie Mellon University reports that the average young person in a country with a strong gamer culture will have spent 10,000 hours playing online games by the age of 21. That’s 10,000 hours that could have been spent on mastering something else.

When I look back at my life, I don’t wish I spent more time playing video games.

McGonigal’s conclusion: video games are bad if you are using them to run away from something but they are good if you use them in concert with a broader positive life goal like combating depression or de-stressing after work.

This seems obvious, but it had not occurred to me. I had a bit of a breakthrough.

Before, I thought that playing video games caused my problems (the depression-like symptoms). Maybe that wasn’t right. Maybe I was feeling depressed to begin with and I was using video games as an escape. Because I didn’t address my problems head-on, the problems continued to accumulate.

I’m not really sure what playing video games a lot without some kind of escape in mind looks like, but the one rule I will try to implement as of today is no solo play. I’ll play occasionally with the company of my friends for the prosocial behavior, but I’m not going to play as much on my own.

I think my relationship with video games is a good lesson in dealing with reality versus escaping from it in general. When things are hard, we want something else to consume our attention so we don’t have to think. We might sink into work or get overly attached to a new relationship. Maybe we get obsessed with a hobby or go to too many music festivals. I can relate to most of these scenarios at points throughout my life.

The biggest problem in this approach is that avoiding reality rarely leads to the best outcome. As we ignore reality, it gets more and more difficult to manage. Either we will have a bigger mess on our hands sometime down the line, or we will miss our opportunity to impact the results.

Given the choice, I’d rather face the hardship immediately. I’d wish for the awareness to identify when there’s a problem and the strength to resist hiding from it (easier said than done).

The awareness to identify problems requires dependable tools to monitor and diagnose our state of mind. Unfortunately, the tools that we use to monitor our computer performance or marketing effectiveness are more dependable than the tools we use to monitor our well-being. We don’t have apps and dashboards that flag issues and suggest ways to fix them. Instead, we only have our subjective experience and our observations of how we feel.

Habits like meditation and journaling are useful in this respect because they establish a reference point, a baseline. You become more sensitive to changes in your experience and thus more effective at identifying issues. When you can more readily identify issues, you can more readily begin to resolve them.

Video games have the opposite effect on me. I lose track of time and disconnect from reality. The awareness that something is wrong--usually experienced as feeling “off” or observing some kind of nagging feelings--is dulled. I stop caring as much about everything around me.

As much as I love playing games, that’s not a trade I’m willing to make.

This is just my personal relationship with video games. There are many who have a great relationship with gaming. Every individual has certain activities that enhance their experience of life, and others that enable them to evade realities of their experience. Writing in the mornings, reading a great book, really connecting with people, and meditating are all activities that have enriched my life experience. Video games, dull social scenarios, and superficial attachments all make me feel a little dead inside. For anyone, choosing an enriching life should be a no brainer, but for most of my life, it wasn’t obvious that playing video games was avoiding life. I had to take a step back to see that.

Thanks to Jeff Chen, Gary Sheng, and Steph Jang for reading early drafts of this

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