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Looking at gaming and social media from a different perspective

by Han Cilliers (Lola)  Posted Tuesday, April 24, 2012 9:15:00 AM

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I’ve been reading, thinking and writing about the influence of gaming on gamer’s behavior for some time now. One of my friends asked me a couple of months ago; why I always write from the position that society views gamers as potentially violent, socially inept people. I only have to point to the recent uproar from respected media outlets like Times, Reuters and CNN about gaming being the culprit for the murderer Anders Breivik's actions. If you are not familiar with the case, John Walker reported on it in Rock Paper Shotgun, read more about it here.

The tragedy of the Breivik massacre and his many references to gaming did, however, lead me to ask myself this question. “Are there any other real dangers in playing video games and being involved in social media? Are we as gamers so baised about gaming that we are making the same mistake that the people who blame gaming as a catalyst for violence do? The pitfall of confirmation bias (automatically searching for evidence to support whatever you believe, reasoning not designed to pursue the truth, but to help win arguments), forces me to rethink my position on these matters with every new outcry from society blaming violent or unacceptable behavior on gaming.

I am not going to argue about video games inducing violent behavior; my views can be seen here.  Walker presents the fallacy of that argument very well in his coverage of the Breivik case.  What I want to look at is the subtle affects that gaming and social media can have on gamers. Here are three areas that I think needs a closer look.

Escapism and gaming

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 -  Escapism, an inclination to retreat from unpleasant realities through diversion or fantasy - WordWeb

“The best games are those where you can lose yourself in another world - a place that so completely captivates you that time has no meaning and where character immersion dominates your imagination. Games can provide an escape from the harsh realities we face, or from the ordinary hum drum of life. It can fill us with excitement and endless possibilities to be explored. Games can provide a platform for people - to express the parts they hide, or to live out character traits they admire or wish to be. We can experience life through a medium with no real life consequences.”  Read the rest of this article I wrote about Immersion in Games here

Escapism through gaming is not necessarily a bad thing. Unlike drugs or many of the other vices we tend to turn to, gaming is safe and doesn’t cause any obvious harm. Or does it? Most humans tend to avoid conflict and pain, physical or emotional. The question you have to ask is, “Have you ever deliberately avoided confronting a serious issue and instead escaped into a fantasy world presented in a game?” If you have, the second question would then be, “Has this form of dealing with pain turned into a habit?” Have you therefor turned to escapism though gaming rather than deal with the problems you face in real life? Has gaming become a coping mechanism that has robbed you from learning the necessary, healthy emotional skills to deal with problems? I certainly don’t think that being a gamer will automatically cause this crutch to be formed in a person’s life, but I do think that it has the potential to.

Online behavior

 "It's sad to me to think that we're the entertainment industry, and we're the most technologically advanced of all the entertainment industries, and yet we seem to be lacking in a social progressivism that matches our technological progressivism." Matt Boch Dance Central project director

A lot of gamers also get involved in social media. Hanging out in chat rooms, chatting on Skype or twitter is just a few of the many networks gamers meet up in. I hang out on IRC on a daily basis, I’ve been doing that for years, and I 've seen things that I’ve not come across in the social outlets we visit in real life (IRL). Just this last month, someone that is a complete stranger to me joined the IRC channel I was hanging out in and he randomly made comments to me that were, to say the least, utterly disgusting. People immediately started sending me private message saying that this man is known as an IRC troll who just pushes the boundaries and not to take him serious. Are you kidding me? Why should we tolerate behavior online that we would never, ever tolerate in real life? Does chatting online give people the license to be rude, disgusting, and abusive? We just wave it away saying, “This is IRC, handle it” Is it about ‘handling it’, or is it about determining what kind of society we want?

I followed the case of Jennifer Hepler, the Bioware developer who in an interview said that what she likes least about her job is the part where she has to play games and that she would like to see a ‘fast forward’ button included in gameplay to skip battle scenes. The outcry from the gaming community was on par with the outcry we would reserve for a child molester or a rapist. The abuse Hepler received from gamers escalated to her receiving threatening calls at home and requests that she should commit suicide. Gamers worldwide launched a harassment campaign against her. This is behavior that would never be acceptable in real life, yet, because it happens online we are supposed to shrug it off and deal with it?

The online world is the fastest growing and biggest nation on earth. We are laying the foundation for generations to come. We are lulled into thinking nothing matters and as long as it happens online there is no consequence. When the only way other people get to know you are how you interact online, how can that not matter? Just because something takes place in a virtual world, doesn’t mean it matters less to the person on the other end of the screen. This medium does give people the freedom to behave in any way they please; it is up to the individual to draw his or her own virtual lines, but do not be fooled, it matters. I have often wondered how it would be to live in a world where there is less governance, more freedom and lack of social restraint, where the only moral compass is that which governs your own heart.  

Online personalities

 “We all love trying on different hats in the way that only video games allow, but some of us have very oddly shaped heads.” Jamie Madigan

The recent case of “Video game sex drive ends in Cougar’s busted marriage” that featured in Kotaku got me to think about this aspect of social media again. The danger of creating a persona online that is not real, until the consequence of that spills over into real life and causes heartache.

A few years ago I met a person online. We became good friends and shared hours of meaningful conversations. He was known as a man of integrity and had many friends. We finally discovered that almost everything he told us was a lie. He created an online persona of what he thought people would like. It’s so easy to judge him, but just how many times have we not done something similar? Perhaps more than anywhere else, the internet makes it easy to be a charlatan, to be something ‘other’ than what you are in real life. To play the part you think will most appeal to your audience. We all wear masks, even IRL, but, on the internet, we have the added benefit that no one can really see what our lives look life. They are bound to the picture we paint for them. How truthful are we really when we interact online?

Conclusion

I have been guilty of escaping into gaming when I didn’t feel like facing the problems at hand. I have at times felt more attached to the ‘online world’ than to IRL friends. There’s a certain camaraderie and connection that I have founded with my like-minded online friends that sometimes lacks in non-gamers. I have also given myself over to rage fits, emo tantrums and by my silence endorsed internet bullying. Lastly, yes, I have also at times chosen to reveal sides of my personality that did not truly reflect who I am IRL or what I stand for. To one degree or another I think that, at times, we all can be found guilty of these three pitfalls.

This does not, however, mean that gaming or social media is evil. It just means like all things in life each person has to decide who he/she wants to be. It’s the easy way out to use gaming as a scapegoat, because it diverts attention from the real questions society should ask. In my opinion blaming an activity that has the potential to be used for wrong is just an excuse to not look deeper, and it’s lazy. Questions like what kind of people would society (I include here family, friends, peers, work place, religious outlets and education) produce when external governance is removed? The internet is a platform where the restraints that keep bad behavior at bay have been removed.

The internet is a good mirror ;)



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