Taking a Critical Look at Our Gaming Habits

Image credit: Will van Wingerden

There’s a fine line between using games to relax, connect or find comfort, and using them to avoid dealing with our lives — and finding that line isn’t easy. Over at Play/Paws, Melody explores the idea that the same games that are beneficial to our mental health and well-being can be the same games that later hold us back.

It’s a complicated balance to work out, and Melody takes time with it, digging into things like the latent shame many of us carry from childhoods of having games rationed like sugary treats, the many benefits that come from a good gaming experience, and the aspects that drive compulsive gaming.

I don’t think art is meaningless or a waste of time at all. Quite the contrary in fact, I think it’s extremely valuable.But at the end of the day I think it has value only insofar as it affects the real world and points back to it, whether it be by recharging your batteries and then letting you go about your day energized and refreshed, or engaging you with an interesting story or idea, or the many other, subtler ways in which art affects people and changes the world. But for this to be possible, I realized, the attitude and mindset with which the art work is approached and experienced matter at least as much as the qualities of the work itself.

The short circuit happens when art/entertainment – and the way it is approached – simply points back at itself in a closed loop. That’s when, I feel, it becomes meaningless and detrimental. Although other art forms are not exempt from this, videogames are particularly apt at creating this self-sustaining spiral in which you never come out. Videogames are good at being manipulative and addictive, even when the creators have the best intentions.

Their interactive nature makes it remarkably easy to create something profoundly dull and yet strangely compelling at the same time. It’s easy to go through the motions in a videogame without ever engaging with it, without anything interesting happening, and they have developed a whole bunch of techniques precisely to this effect. Not to mention that gameplay can make games infinite or near-infinite in length.There’s a reason why videogame addicts are overwhelmingly addicted to gameplay-focused games, and not narrative experiences.

Melody is critical of her own gaming behavior, choosing to engage and disengage with games depending on how they impact her mental health, happiness, and productivity. But as she points out, giving that decision a lot of thought doesn’t necessarily make it easier.

As I mentioned above, Final Fantasy helped me heal and grow. My mental health improved while I played it, as a direct consequence of playing it. Why and how that happened, I’m not sure. It probably was the result of a combination of factors, including that for once I let myself play without feeling guilty about it, and that I genuinely cared about something even if it took place within a “meaningless” game. That a videogame helped me heal is not something I would have been willing to admit, even just six months ago. But, thanks to that same improvement, I ended up outgrowing it, and the time came when it started holding me back from further healing, further growing. All the time and energies I put into it wanted, needed to come out and be put to use towards achieving what I find truly valuable.

There’s nothing wrong with playing games, even uncritically, even if we’re only getting enjoyment out of them. Pleasure is valuable. But when that pleasure wanes and the hours become little more than a grind, it might be time to take a good look at our gaming habits.

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