It is bad form to be a killjoy when it comes to gaming, so I will start by saying that there is nothing essentially wrong with it. Everyone has to relax, and there are more damaging forms of relaxation like drink, drugs and arguing with strangers on social media.
About half of Britons game, playing on consoles, computers and smartphones. On average, Brits who game do so for about ten hours a week. Millions now watch other professional gamers compete with each other. Being a pro gamer has joined ‘football player’ and ‘rock star’ among the dream ambitions of young men. What’s more, Britain has a long history of making world-class video games and the industry is worth nearly £3bn to the UK economy.
The technology giants are now starting to acknowledge that people want to game just as much as watch TV shows. Google is launching a service that offers customers the chance to stream video games. Netflix is adding games to its own line-up. Gaming is no longer a subculture; it has entered the mainstream.
The age-old fear is that gaming promotes violence, because games turn murder into entertainment. In Grand Theft Auto, you torture your opponents. In Red Dead Redemption, you can feed women to crocodiles. When I was a child my mother once walked into our living room to find me screaming, ‘There’s a monk! Kill it!’ I had been playing Age of Empires, and when monks try to convert your troops, they become the enemy.
Last month, it was revealed that Aaron Campbell, who murdered the six-year-old girl Alesha MacPhail on the Isle of Bute, ran a YouTube channel where he posted videos of himself playing dark video games. One featured the mythic child abductor ‘Slender Man’. In 2014, two girls in Wisconsin attempted to kill a school friend, after also having been inspired by Slender Man. But it is too simplistic to draw straight lines between gaming and violence. Did games make them violent or did they provide an outlet for the inherent aggression?
A bigger problem is how addictive games have become. Video games can be played repetitively until fingertips bleed and vision blurs. There are rewards for players who refuse to step away from the screen. Constant crises keep appearing. Players are encouraged to believe that they, rather than the screenwriters, are in control.
Last June, it was announced that a London hospital is opening the first treatment centre for ‘gaming disorder’. The World Health Organisation then classified it as a mental condition. ‘We are unlikely to witness an epidemic of young players with an addiction to gaming,’ said the psychiatrist Henrietta Bowden-Jones, ‘but for the ones who do struggle, the Centre for Internet Disorders will be a life-changer.’ Studies have shown that high levels of gaming are associated with poor family interaction, relationship problems, obesity and unemployment. In extreme cases, gaming obsessives will cut themselves off from the outside world.
But many of us want to retreat from the world, which is exactly why we turn to video games. Professor Andrew Przybylski, an experimental psychologist at the university of Oxford, has explained that games are a way of exploring ‘ideal aspects of [ourselves] that might not find expression in everyday life’. Virtual reality can provide comfort for people who have not found success in demanding education systems and competitive sexual and labour markets. As automation eliminates more jobs, it’s likely we’ll see more people taking up gaming as an antidote to the depressing realities of everyday life.
Wired writer Antonio Garcia Martinez has said that among the Silicon Valley figures he has spoken to about the ‘automation apocalypse’, the solutions they have offered for appeasing the masses include marijuana, virtual reality porn and gaming. Karl Marx believed that communism would allow men to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon and criticise after dinner. If Martinez is right, our greatest technological innovators imagine a future in which men smoke in the morning, masturbate in the afternoon and game late into the night.