*Editors note: This is an article I wrote 7-8 years ago before coming to Austalia after I had shuttered my American website. Despite being dormant all this time, I felt that the topic still remains relevant today.
Virtual Insanity -The Dark Side of Video Games:
An Overlooked Compulsion of Our Time
By Mickey Skidmore, AMHSW, ACSW, MACSW
I’m going to say something in this article that is vastly unpopular and goes against the grain of current societal parlance. Perhaps it is more of a reflection of my advancing age or my simply becoming an increasingly disgruntled old man. Nevertheless, for some time now I have found myself coming to the undeniable conclusion that I detest video games. No let me rephrase that – I loath and despise video games. In fact, of all the recent and modern inventions that have come to pass in my lifetime, I believe that video games may very well be the scourge of the earth.
Anymore, it seems that wherever I turn, I find young people with portable, hand-held Nintendo DS devices overly absorbed in some superficial, nonsensical video-game. They stroll to their vehicle, the bus, into the living room or sometimes even to the kitchen table looking like techno-zombies. And my sense is, if the video-game contraption is pried from their hands they would be incapable of making it to their destination. And if this were not troublesome enough, when they do make it home or to the living room, they usually have another gaming system there waiting for them – not to mention yet another distinctly different system in their bedrooms in the event that American Idol is not on TV that night.
Time and again I have witnessed a young person playing what may seem to be a harmless video game – featuring a pet, for instance: a puppy dog. For hours they can be absorbed teaching the “dog” tricks, or to follow commands, etc. “Oh that is so cute!” And when you watch as a distant observer it’s almost as though you can see the synapses firing off in their brains triggering the endorphin rush of pleasure and enjoyment – over a computer simulation! And I am further perplexed with the belief that they would generally find this more pleasurable and enjoyable than the actual experience of having and interacting with a real pet, caring for it, loving it, and developing a relationship with a living, breathing companion. I find such an observation to be highly disturbing.
So, what is the fascination about video games? Well, at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, I have strong suspicion that the manufactures of these video-games are wise to the compulsive and addictive impact playing these games has on the (developing) human brain. Therefore, it is self-serving and strategic for them to exploit this whenever, and in whatever ways that are legally possible. Furthermore, utilising applications that “crossover” to other electronic devices seem to be part of their hideous (marketing) scheme.
Ever wonder how any 6 year old can seemingly navigate a cell phone keyboard like an experienced engineer? Or when an adult struggles to operate the TV remote, that any child under 12 can easily master the advanced functions in less than 5 minutes. It’s almost as though technology manufacturers have discovered how to tap into an over looked genetic predisposition of young people. But, I digress … Back to my rant about video games.
For years now, perhaps decades, a growing number of health care professionals have expressed concern about the rising rates of obesity in young people – which of course contribute to an increase in a range of other health related issues, such as diabetes. There should be no mistake about it – the influence of video games is a significant culprit associated with this unfortunate cultural phenomenon. When I was a child my parents did not allow me to stay in the house. “You’re not going to sit in this house all summer long and watch TV … go out and play.” We rode bikes, swam, played baseball or kickball, hiked, or otherwise roamed the neighbourhood. Today however, too many kids would rather be sedentary for hours on end playing mindless video games. Again, they actually get more enjoyment from playing a computer game of baseball or basketball rather than actually engaging in the game in real life with their friends.
Beyond the long-term physical ramifications stemming from the sedentary aspects of this activity, there are other negative aspects which I believe can be attributed to video games. To highlight this point, let’s consider the new and popular Wii gaming system, which features among other games a rock and roll guitar simulation, drawing upon various rock guitar legends. Recently, musician John Mayer was asked if he would be joining the list of guitarist for the Wii system in the future. Surprisingly, he was reluctant to do so, stating that it smacked of laziness … taking a short cut so to speak … rather than taking the time to actually experience the sense of accomplishment and joy in learning how to play the guitar for real. Sadly, far too many young people opt for the quicker and easier fantasy rather than reality.
And last but not least, we must also consider the personal computer in homes across the country and more and more in school systems. Despite the vast array of video gaming systems, the most popular format continues to be the personal computer (PC). In combination with the “crossover” applications mentioned earlier, increasing numbers of people now are encountering problems associated with a decrease in social interaction. I can attest to individuals who find it more comfortable to “communicate” via the impersonal method of email, instant messaging (IM), or texting (cell phone) to the point that they shun direct human interaction in favour of these virtual or psuedo communications. As a result, in severe cases, they develop social phobias and anxiety afflictions (agoraphobia) and actually experience panic attacks when forced to engage in regular social interaction.
Too often in my view, parents mistake their child’s enthusiasm for the personal computer as a sign of intelligence or early desire for learning. The truth is they could care less about the computer. What they are seeking is access to the internet. They seek out the internet to satisfy their addictive craving to engage in playing video games. Any middle school or high school teacher will tell you as much. Unfortunately, what they are really learning about is an overlooked or ignored form of compulsion or addictive behaviour. Whatever benefits you may have been told about video games (enhanced eye-hand coordination, etc.), I believe that in the long run this cultural phenomenon is far more destructive than people realise or want to admit – and is adversely impacting our children.
So one might ask where are the parents? Why don’t they do something to prevent their children from becoming fat, obese, techno-zombies who will need corpal tunnel surgery on their hands before they are 15? I suppose one answer is like many things, it is just easier. It is a lot easier to say “no” rather than to take the time to teach a better way. It is a lot easier to pop a kid on his butt as opposed to the creativity and mental energy involved with implementing positive reinforcement at every turn. Kids today seem to realise this sometimes better than parents. As a result, I suppose that many kids simply wear down their parents. If they stick with it long enough, if they are relentless, eventually many parents give in.
In my view, parents are often too soft on this issue. They struggle with their own sense of guilt over withholding something that their child strongly desires. They see the enormous popularity of these games … they see that so many of their friends have all of these gadgets … They want their child to be happy, yet may not be able to afford expensive summer camps or provide consistent opportunities for safe, structured physical activity. For many parents, the gaming industry has already won this war, and fighting such a pervasive and popular tidal wave is an exercise in futility.
Despite economic woes, consumer spending on video games has reached record levels. Even with the housing industry in shambles and gasoline costing as much or more than a gallon of milk, consumers feeling the pinch of a bleak economy seem blind to their addiction to video gaming. According to a report by market research group DFC Intelligence, the video game biz is expected to enjoy worldwide revenues in excess of $57 billion next year. That number includes hardware and software sales in 25 countries, 11 of which see annual revenue from games exceeding $1 billion. Despite overwhelming evidence that strongly suggests addictive/compulsive behaviour; despite alarm and concern about potential harm and risk to our children, it appears that there will be no downturn in this phenomenon in the near future.
Silverman, Ben. “Are Video Games Recession-Proof?” http://videogames.yahoo.com/feature/are-video-games-recession-proof-/1224659