Experts claim that “excessive” video gaming is a modern-day psychological disorder based on the lack of impulse control, much the same as “compulsive” gambling. Psychiatrists prescribe medications for “video game addiction,” and some parents vilify their children for gaming when they could be “doing more productive things,” like sports or piano lessons.
But during thirty years of playing games daily, sometimes devotedly, in place of more conventional life experiences, I managed to get through high school and Columbia University cum laude and law school magna cum laude. In fact, I credit video games for sharpening my mind: Improving my critical thinking, decision making abilities, increasing my imagination and knowledge of the world at every stage of my life. And I feel better adjusted, more adaptable, socially-engaged and have a greater sense of well-being than most.
How could this be? Listening to parents, journalists and mental health experts, I should have turned antisocial, withdrawn, violent or brain-dead after gaming for so long. But instead of spiraling into such wickedness or darkness, video games plunged me into an interactive world, one in which critical thinking and imagination shaped the arc of my actions. My decisions determined the direction of the game. Make the wrong one and I would pay for it; make the right decision and I received a reward, much like life.
Video games had value for me far beyond the time I spent playing them. They inspired my curiosity. I became interested in the history behind the game, checking out books from the library about castles or medieval Europe. I learned about forms of government, got a sense of the lives behind historical figures and discovered human savagery in battles. What made my interest so consuming was that I felt I was living the material I was learning when I played each game. Perhaps, more importantly, I was experiencing something deeply meaningful — how I performed mattered — and my actions led to real results. I had to be fully engaged, cogent, intellectually incisive and responsible for my actions. I also learned how to gracefully accept defeat and feel gratified in winning, abilities that later served me well in the world.
I followed these patterns in almost every game I played, across many genres. Early on, I played a flight simulator called The Battle of Britain, in which I took the controls of various World War II aircraft and flew missions over England as if it were 1940. I piloted a German Messerschmitt fighter taking on Spitfires over the English Channel. The graphics and sounds enveloped me. I lost myself in the experience, holding my breath while reacting quickly and instinctively to new stimuli that came at me randomly. My eye-hand coordination grew more precise with every challenge as did my thinking.
Unlike many parents, mine saw the value in these games. Even when others suggested I should be out on the baseball field, they supported my gaming. They watched my curiosity widen and bought me history books when they recognized what had began as a childhood interest in war games shifted to an enthusiasm for history and geography. They respected my solitude, and rather than encouraging me to be more social with schoolmates, they appreciated the kind of cooperation I was learning in playing online games with teammates with whom I could invent and carry out group strategies. They understood that what I was learning would later serve me well in the world.
Like the crew of a ship, my teammates and I coordinated our efforts, chose specific roles, conducted online meetings in which my communication skills were sharpened by the focused conversations required to achieve our objectives No single act of heroism was enough; we could not win unless we enacted our given roles and responsibilities as a community with cooperation and exactitude.
An adolescent, in the early 90s, I sat in front of my father’s IBM DOS computer playing a game called Castles. Castles places the gamer in the role of a medieval King, usually a position in childhood fairy tales defined by magic and wonder. Instead, Castles has two objectives that have little to do with mythology. First, to build a structurally sound castle while managing a workforce consisting of masons, laborers, carpenters and a small army. Second, to make decisions through “cutscenes” in which you are presented with various legal, military, social or domestic issues demanding your attention as monarch. You must read a complicated text presenting the issue, then choose from three potential courses of action all with different consequences. Usually the three choices involve a conciliatory, moderate or Machiavellian one. Your decision determines how the story eventually unfolds. Act too mildly and your enemies might overcome you later. Act too severely and you risk alienating your own people. While the game is action-packed, with the player under constant siege, the outcome is distinctly in the gamer’s hands. It’s less about good over evil than a profound exercise in understanding the decision making process and taking responsibility for its consequences. Significantly, too, Castles requires you to manage income and expenses to pay for your enterprises–and to meet unexpected financial catastrophes.
Castles puts you in charge of a virtual world in which you must use power wisely, think critically, manage money and multitask. I felt at home in this world, learned that my decisions mattered and my intellect had value. I even learned new words and literary styles because the text in the game was so well-written. I emulated the writing in school papers and won my teachers’ praise.
Even less intellectually challenging games have benefited me. Castlevania remains a favorite. It’s a simple action side-scroller in which the gamer plays Simon Belmont, a whip-wielding vampire killer who must overcome fiendish ghouls on his way to defeating Count Dracula. Immersing myself in the game’s fantasy, I wanted to know about Transylvania, old horror films, and of course, the real Count Dracula whose life story I was inspired to read in several biographies. I even wrote a long story about Dracula illustrated by drawings I created because the game opened my imagination to exploring the popular legend.
Today, I play sophisticated descendants of some of these earlier games. In Hearts of Iron, for instance, which allows you to take control of any nation on earth between 1936 and 1953, you must navigate every aspect of the nation’s economic, political, military, technological and diplomatic situation in real time, from hour to hour, year to year. It requires consummate organizational and strategic skill.
I have played plenty of violent video games in my life. But I always understood the line between fantasy and reality. It was never that I wanted to behave aggressively because of any game. I always understood the game as a compelling pastime with borders I never felt were right to cross. If I felt aggressive in my life it had far more to do with family and peer relationships. But even there my parents’ values held steady. I watched how they behaved in the world–with respect, justice and kindness–and followed in their footsteps. The violence I experienced in games stayed in the games, sometimes providing me a powerful outlet to let off steam.
No video game can lead to violence in the world if a child has been taught to express and manage his aggression by loving supportive parents. Parents who engage their child in a power struggle over playing games are digging their own grave.
A gamer lives inside a word of fiction which, like a great novel, evokes visual images, each building upon the other. Music escorts and drives the action, a sensory accompaniment to the visuals, filling out the gaming experience. A player must continually overcome obstacles, think ahead, create strategies, satisfy goals, and navigate rules to succeed at winning the game. Imagination doesn’t end when the game does. Creative thinking carries on between games from one day to the next, extending its benefits in other areas of life.
Our society paints devoted gamers as “addicts” because, bottom line, it favors conformists over critical and imaginative thinkers whom it brands renegades, outliers, and troublemakers. But the greatest achievements in this world have always been by those who daringly challenge normative behavior, driving the world forward by applying many of the skills a person can learn from gaming.