Why Video Games Are Bad For You

Video games have recently became very popular, and even mainstream.
Once a domain of nerds mostly, people proudly introduce themselves as “gamers” nowadays.

Everyone seems to want to be a part of the industry — between major companies sponsor the best of gamers or competitions and influencers showing off their skills on stream, gaming is being celebrated.

Tournaments of various competitive games (“eSports”) offer some of the largest prize pools ever seen ($33 million for Dota 2’s “The International 9” or $30.4 million for Fortnite’s “World Cup Finals”).

One might wonder what exactly is the catalyst behind such a massive change in the narrative regarding the video games industry, as rarely shifts in public mindset occur naturally and effortlessly.

The Hardcore Gamer

I still remember the adrenaline and excitement. It was probably 2004 or 2005, we were racing for the “server first” kill of Ragnaros, the end boss of the first “World of Warcraft” raid. Simply put, our group of 40 dedicated gamers competed against other groups of 40 dedicated gamers for the prestige of being the first in the server to defeat that boss.

The difficulty, besides defeating the encounter, is evident in many parameters — having 40 people available for a few nights a week, coordinating on voice chat and executing the strategy. And it felt exceptional, exciting and exhilarating every time I showed up to a raiding night.

There were frustrating moments, when someone screwed up or had to be offline that day. There were happy moments, when we made progress or had good times in the voice chat. There were sad moments, such as when we lost the “server first” to another guild. We did get our faction first though, and we were happy and proud.

This was my life, for quite a while. Switching everything off to go and conquer my goals in the “World of Warcraft”. I knew it all. People would turn to me for questions about how to do stuff or where to get that quest. I was “popular” and known. People would check what items my character would wear.
Needless to say, it aligned well with the positive feelings I was getting from every aspect of the game.

There is another side to this story, though. The side that is very easy to forget about, and honestly — sometimes, playing is done purposefully to forget.

It’s about a player’s kids not receiving enough attention or care the need and deserve that evening. It’s about schoolwork not being done, because you needed to prepare for the raid. It’s about skipping seeing your friends or partner that night because the guild needed you.

I was a teenager back then. Driven by the pure pleasure the game gave me, as it was basically designed by experts in psychology and human behavior to be alluring and borderline addictive, I would come home, toss my backpack somewhere, and dive into the virtual world.

Skipping schoolwork or other responsibilities became so easy. Who would choose actual work over a world of fun and excitement, that is just a few clicks away? Luckily, I still found the time to be with my friends, and even made some virtual ones too (I ended up meeting them in real life 15 years after we “met” online). Yet, the negative effect of what was my daily routine is clearly visible — and potentially life defining.

Path of Least Resistance

When it’s that easy to have fun with the illusion of achievements and social activity, it makes it very easy to gravitate towards that kind of activity.
And for some people, do it non stop.

What is the “hidden” cost of such behavior? Unsurprisingly, it interferes with processes that shape one naturally into a “regular” human being.
Especially from a social perspective.

Since it is a lot easier, especially for some individuals, to turn to the virtual worlds and “shield” themselves from the outside — they are likely to do it.
Like electrical current, humans also tend to choose the path of least resistance. People often avoid pain or work, even though things could be better once the work is done or the pain is dealt with — because not doing it is very appealing.

Instead of engaging with the world and people, you interact mostly with virtual entities, and sometimes humans. Those interactions do not train you for the real world. I know ex-gamers that their social skills were significantly deteriorated, and they now make up for lost time, if they can.

The escape from reality is sometimes a blissful option to have. But when it becomes the default one — you avoid handling stuff in your life, or use the games to avoid doing that. Perhaps its responsibilities around the house, or emotional weight you need to process — it will not get done.
And that deficit accumulates. You spend time and energy on fake objectives that will get you nowhere. By design.

Skinner’s Box

B. F. Skinner was a psychologist, behaviorist, and a professor of psychology at Harvard University. He considered “free will” to be an illusion, and that human action is depending on the consequences of previous actions.

If the consequence of an action are bad, there is a high chance it will not be repeated, and vice versa — if the consequences are good, there is a high chance it will be repeated. He named this “reinforcement”.

This is demonstrated thoroughly in his “Skinner’s Box” series of experiments, used to study animal behavior. A hungry rat was placed into the box, which had a lever on the side. The rat’s random movement would accidentally knock the lever, which released a food pellet. The rat quickly learned to go straight to the lever after a few visits in the box. It learned that pressing the lever yields a rewarding outcome, so it would repeat it again and again.

Imagine killing 10 lizards (sorry lizards!) for some quest giver in a game.
In return, you get gold coins, a valuable currency. And, you even get an ‘achievement’ for doing the same quest for 5 days straight (true story.
They even call them “daily quests”).

Strangely similar, isn’t it?

This works the other way too. The removal of an unpleasant reinforcer can also encourage certain behavior. Skinner placed a rat in the box, and shocking it with unpleasant electric current, which caused some discomfort. As the rat randomly moved around the box, it would hit a lever, which immediately switched off the current. Once again, the rats quickly learned to go straight for the lever after a few visits in the box. The consequence of pressing the lever yielded a rewarding outcome, which in this case — is removal of a negative effect, so it would be repeated again and again.

Unsurprisingly, similar mechanisms can be found in many games. If you do not accomplish an objective in a timespan, you will lose something. In order to remove the negative effect, you needed to perform an action. For example, complete a dungeon, or defeat a boss monster.

When could potentially happen when psychological methods to encourage certain behavior (hint: ones that make the encouraging entity money) are implemented into innocently seeming “games” that affect kids and teenagers, mostly?

What’s Next?

All of this is not to say video games are the root of all evil, of course. Games are fun, they bring people together, create friendships and may even improve some skills. I attribute my level of english to my gaming years.

So why am I telling you all this? I hope to raise awareness and help people make choices that would benefit them in the long run. Keep this in mind — gaming companies are ultimately businesses, and they have their own best interest in mind. Can’t blame them for that.

You need to have your own best interest in mind, not only considering gaming, to ensure you build your life in a way which favors your goals, dreams and ambitions. But if you ask me, the path towards those never crosses with excessive gaming.

I say this from first hand experience.

I decided to talk more about this topic and life defining decisions in general.
You can follow me on Twitter as I continue to document my journey.

Software Engineer at Google. I talk about life defining decisions. https://twitter.com/LiorZisman.

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