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 ...
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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 ...
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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 ...
As quick as gamers are to defend their hobby, they're even quicker to rip on it. "Modern Gaming Sucks" is such a ubiquitous meme that you'd probably forget we're talking about a $21 billion industry.
On the one hand, you see these same complaints about movies, music, and probably books. (People still read books, right?) But on the other hand, gamers are the only people who will throw a tantrum over it.
That's a silly commercial, but no one would ever make that ad about Netflix, right? Or a board game delivery service? Or one for ... like ... books? (Leave a comment if you're a hardcore booker!) I've hung out on a lot of gaming forums over the years, from Heroes of Newerth and StarCraft to Diablo and Call of Duty, and the most common thing you see on all of those forums is bitching about change, bitching about new things, and bitching about being betrayed by the game developers (who are "only in it for the money" or "are alienating their core fan base"). According to O'Connor, this is because they've developed an increased tolerance to the "high" gaming gives them, and they're angry that they can't get it anymore.
"They get to the point where they're no longer enjoying gaming. They complain that games aren't as good as they used to be," O'Connor says. "They'll complain that 'Modern games suck.' 'The latest expansion ruined it.' And yet, they're still sinking all their time into them."
Now, I'm not saying that if someone dislikes a game, they're automatically an addict. I'm not even saying that playing a lot of games makes you an addict, because that's not how addiction works. I'm saying that if someone thinks modern games suck and can't help but complain about them constantly while still spending all his time playing them, then yeah, he may have a bit of a problem. But he may not even realize it, because ...
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Hands down, the single most embarrassing thing about video games is how they keep assuming I have the brain of a sexually repressed 14-year-old. The second most embarrassing thing is how often we prove them right: When we freak out at someone, it's always a woman, and we're always accusing them of using sex to get ahead. When we encounter women in games, we sexually harass them. And when we meet a female gamer in real life, we automatically assume she's trying to deceive us. It's agonizingly obvious what's really going on. And according to O'Connor, this is a big part of gaming addiction.
"If I think about the clients I've had -- they're young guys, and they game a lot -- the one thing they will not talk about in sessions is sex. They'll talk about everything under the sun, but if I say 'Well, what about shagging?' they'll say 'No, that doesn't work. It's not for me,'" O'Connor says. "It takes a lot of talking to make them admit that sex is a big part of their life and they're unhappy with their inability to make it happen."
O'Connor points out that a poor self-image plays a "significant role" in excessive Internet use. Of course, Internet addiction and gaming addiction are different -- but they are connected: O'Connor says that gaming addicts often have a strong "digital patrol route."
Like this, only nothing like this.
A digital patrol route is exactly what it sounds like -- a bunch of sites that we routinely check, without even thinking about it: Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, email. We hop from site to site to see what's new, and by the time we reach the end, enough time has passed that we can start over and see if anything has changed since the last time we left a comment. The bigger that route is, the harder it is to break out of it. "It's no surprise that the people who have really gotten it in the neck from [these harassment groups] are women," O'Connor says. "It's like the 'Fox and the Grapes.' The fox can't get the grapes, so it decides that they're no good. The grapes are, um, women here. I'm objectifying them here, I suppose."
Since addiction is a symptom -- something that you start doing when you're running away from a real problem -- it seems like we have a pretty clear image of who the most vocal, angry gamers on the Internet are: people very unhappy with their personal lives and personal relationships, people who have used games and safer, less nuanced interpersonal relationships on the Internet to hide, and people who are now lashing out. This is, incidentally, the stereotypical geek -- which just makes the problem worse, because ...
It's easy to look at everything I've laid out here and see it as if I've exposed vulnerability. "Ahaha, these guys are just sex-starved nerds!" you might say. "Their angry virginity is like a chink in Smaug's scaly armor, so to destroy them I must simply fire the black arrow of mockery straight into their heart!" First off, weird analogy. Second off, I've totally done that, and yeah, it's pretty fun, but I'm sort of an asshole and please don't be like me. And third off, this is probably the worst way to think about anything.
I understand that retaliation and cruelty is tempting, especially when the vulnerabilities are so glaringly obvious. But the problem is that the "bitter nerd" gets to be a bitter nerd because of a constant, screaming voice in his head. The one telling him he isn't good enough, or smart enough, or sexy enough, or strong enough. Any scrawny kid who couldn't play sports and didn't like the right music knows that voice. And when you call that bitter nerd a "stupid virgin" or insist that he deserves to be mocked, and you don't feel bad for him, then you are just making that voice louder and are officially part of the fucking problem.
We're talking about a bunch of people who are, fundamentally, scared and lonely. Yes, they're still potentially dangerous and yes, still very fucking wrong, but there is not a finite amount of victimhood or suffering in the universe. In grade school, the bully beating up the nerd is acting out of frustration and inadequacies in his own personal life, and those rules don't change once you grow up. I really think that the angriest, worst people online got that way because of their own crushing inadequacies, just like someone who joins a neo-Nazi gang. Or maybe they're just trying to numb themselves from the problems in their life, just like a heroin addict. Or maybe both.
My point is, we need to admit that our hobby can be really destructive when abused. Because unless we solve this problem, this is the only way non-gaming "normals" are ever going to see us:
For more from Sarge, check out his two-part series 6 Snobby Claims That Science Has Officially Debunked and 5 Things Every Snob Says (Confirmed by Science).
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