So Law & Order: Special Victims Unit just aired an episode about video games that made the same tired arguments I've been hearing about the medium since I was a kid. Stuff like "they'll make you into a violent jerkbag" and "you won't be able to tell real-life from games" and even "you'll start using acronyms in real life conversations." And though I thought "Intimidation Game" (seriously?) was stupid and exploitative, I didn't find the depiction of gamers particularly offensive. Because the cartoonishly evil characters dreamed up as punching bags for Ice-T were just acting out the real threats I've been seeing all over the Internet for the past six months:
"Eureka! The episode writes itself!" -- an asshole.
Now let's get one thing straight: I play a ton of video games, and I'm not afraid to say it. I've been gaming ever since my cousin first showed me Rise of the Triad when I was, gosh, way too young for something like that. The happiest moment of the past month for me was discovering that I could download Baldur's Gate on to my cellphone, because it meant I could keep up my nostalgic trip down D&D lane even while pooping. Games are my favorite way to waste time, and I still think that we have, hands down, the shittiest community online that isn't an outright hate group.
But why? My theory is that it's because video games, more so than any other art form, are designed to get you addicted and that this addiction has turned a bunch of dorky but harmless people into raving lunatics. But I'm just a doofy Internet comedy writer, so I talked to Ciaran O'Connor, a psychotherapist from Brighton, U.K. who specializes in gaming addiction (he even wrote a book about it), and he told me ...
5 Gaming Addiction Is an Addiction to Feeling Powerful
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According to O'Connor, a video game addiction is largely an addiction to feeling like you matter. "We all crave this very, very basic thing, which is that we can do something and then notice how it changes the world in some way," he says. "Right now, for example, I want to give you an answer to this interview question, and I want to see you react. Games provide that."
Think about the thing that every game you've ever played has in common: You're always either the most powerful character, or working towards becoming that character. Games provide the sensation of being really important, of being someone that everyone has to listen to, and they provide it in concentrated, crack-like doses: The very first thing fellow Cracked Writer Robert Evans and I did when we got our high-definition version of Grand Theft Auto V was park on the 405 and unload RPGs into dozens of faceless commuters because fuck LA traffic. But the difference between the healthy gamer and the addict is that the addict isn't getting this kind of "I matter" fulfillment anywhere else.
"[Gaming addicts] will tell me, 'I say things, and no one listens. I make jokes, and no one laughs. I make advances, and no one responds.' Then they go into an online environment, and suddenly they can get the biggest reactions. ... The consequences are gone, so they go for the biggest reactions. That can be violence and hatred."
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Online, being a dick is like meth for your self-esteem.
This is part of why the dickishness overshadows everything else about gaming. I'll give you an example: One of the best games ever made, in my opinion, is Spec Ops: The Line. It's downright haunting, is guaranteed to keep you up at night after you've played it, and it's the most unflinching and brutal criticism of violent video games I've ever seen -- despite the fact that it is a violent video game. I'll hold it up as definitive proof of the video game medium's artistic relevance any day of the week, and really brilliant people agree with me. But I didn't play it when it came out. I didn't even hear about it until I saw it on Steam for $19.99, despite the fact that I follow video game news as closely as I can. Why? Because Spec Ops: The Line debuted in 2012, and in 2012, all the video game community wanted to do was throw a temper tantrum about a Kickstarter for a YouTube series called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, which is, to this day, more famous for the fucking outrage it caused than anything it's ever actually said. For once, this isn't because the media is biased against games or sensationalist; this is because threatening to murder somebody is a bigger news story than any video game, no matter how profound and brilliant and unique and transcendent, and I seriously can't compliment Spec Ops: The Line enough. Everyone go buy it.
And that's the connection between gaming and shitty online behavior: the feeling of power, importance, and of mattering, which is created whenever they see big results. And screaming about rape, genocide, or just stringing together a nonsensical slew of slurs is the best way to do that. That's why gamers complain about developers ignoring them, or social critiques of games -- the idea of even one game hypothetically not appealing to them reminds them that they, individually, are not the most powerful force in the universe. Which is part of why ...
4We Don't Want to Accept That Games Are Just Recreation
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Gamers have a tendency to forget that video games aren't important and don't mean anything. I mean, they're important in a cultural sense, and certainly in an economic sense, but the things we do in games? The swords we forge, and the sexy ladies we pretend to have sex with? We forget that those "accomplishments" mean less than nothing to people who aren't us -- and the best example of us forgetting this is a forum post titled "Open Letter to Parents of League of Legends Players." In it, you can read about how adult League of Legends players think the parents of the children they play with should adapt their parenting style to the gaming needs because, I quote, "you are affecting up to 10 people, not just your child." (Seriously that's a real thing they said). How were they affected? They were more or less likely to win a game that they were playing in their free time for fun.
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"Yeah, I'll factor that into the decisions I make while trying to build a person from nothing."
"But not every gamer is like that!" I know. I know. But ideas like that aren't even in the same area code as "sane," and yet huge chunks of the gaming community think they're OK, because they have no concept of games being ... ya know ... games. A while ago, Ben Kuchera at Polygon wrote an article about how video games aren't the most important thing in his life, despite the fact that he's a video game journalist. This looks, at first glance, completely stupid. "Who cares that you know how to scuba dive, Ben," you might say. "Oh, so you're a fencer, eh Ben?" others might say. "Ben Kuchera has revealed details of his personal life that I can now use in my Twitter crusade against him!" some of you are no doubt shrieking. But that's the thing: In the video game community, having a life outside of screens and projectors and 3D glasses isn't just something that you have to point out; it's something that might make other gamers think you're not really a gamer.
So why do people think their games are so important? I think it goes back to that point from the last entry: Games make the addict feel important because as power fantasies, games are designed to do precisely that. And spending too much time in that power fantasy makes addicts forget that the "importance" is just that -- a fantasy -- and that the things they accomplish in-game mean less than nothing to, say, someone trying to raise a kid, or someone trying to write about video games for a living, or even the people who made that game. And if they forget that, then they're going to get really angry and defensive against anyone whose real-life priorities start to infringe on their game time.
"For the people who are actually suffering, the addiction is not the problem. It's the cure, the answer to a problem," O'Connor explains. "So the last thing they want is someone to come along and kick away their crutch."
And because of this ...