Start ’Em Young: Embrace the Violence of Video Games

©2019 J. Wilder

I’m surrounded and the enemy is closing in.

Backing away from them, I look over my shoulder at the edge of the futuristic Egyptian garden wall and imagine myself leaping into the mists below, where I will surely perish. 

If I don’t, I will either be crushed by a well-dressed man with a giant cybernetic fist, poisoned by a one-eyed grandmother, or nuked by a South Korean esports legend. But more likely, the overly polite climatologist with a reputation for freezing her enemies, will blast me with her freeze gun and then stab me in the eye with an icicle.

I choose to rob them all of the satisfaction and step off into the void.

Multiplayer combat-oriented video games have been an growing popular form of entertainment over the last decade. With names like, “League of Legends”, “Overwatch”, and “Fortnite: Battle Royale” they rake in billions of dollars and strike fear into traditional and new media alike.

Netflix recently explained to its shareholders that it’s biggest competitor is the online multiplayer game Fortnite, not HBO.

These games are addicting, stressful, violent, and insanely fun. Parents are increasingly wary of their potential to engulf their children’s free time; to the detriment of face-to-face social interaction, outdoor time, and performance of household chores. 

While we pontificate on the terrible damage that violent video games threaten our previously peaceful and enlightened society, they are working their way into colleges and universities as electronic sports programs. The NCAA’s interests are piqued, and several universities already offer degrees and scholarships in the field of eSports. They’re building arenas for clubs and teams to fight and claim victory in virtual blood sports for the glory of their alma mater. They dream of one day going pro.

The games are here to stay, what matters now is how we integrate them into our culture. But like all contentious social issues, we’re going to ignore the effect they have on our culture and let the bad habits become honored traditions, while any potential benefits are marginalized and neglected.

The Benefits

What exactly are the benefits of team-based combat-simulation games? How could a child’s game possibly show any benefit for young adults on their vocational journey to being replaced by robots in a career they have no passion for, merely to be able to afford the rising costs of rideshares and food delivery and to make payments on a house they can barely afford?

Team-based combat-simulation games like football and basketball — whose simulations are actually quite real — have proven to be commercially successful, though their effect on culture at large has only been to encourage heightened levels of alcoholism, domestic violence, and to create extreme health crises for the players during their career and lingering long afterwards.

Computer-mediated team-based combat-simulation games, however, don’t have any track record of the sort. Instead, the culture around them is one that pushes sugar-heavy energy drinks, Ritalin abuse, and casual racism and misogyny. A cultural shift that parents in this day and age can proudly support as long as it means their kids will be able to support them in their old age.

The mental health benefits of team sports has a solid foundation in science. An Australian study found that women who engage in physical team sports had better mental health and higher satisfaction with life than the control group who exercised alone in a gym. Both groups were exercising, but the group who was part of a team benefited more from it. While a direct comparison can’t be made to esports, it gives an indication that a study of team esports and individual esports might provide some elucidating information. One could hypothesize that it’s the team-oriented aspects that are giving the boost to health and welfare.

Team sports, in general, are socially beneficial. Organized and structured sports leagues give children models for working with others to achieve mutual goals. Teamwork and group problem solving are skills that are taught through sports of all kinds. When taught properly, these skills make us better collaborators and help us build stronger institutions that are better able to achieve their goals.

Self-esteem is raised when children are given opportunities to excel at their sport. Good coaching helps children to develop skills that can be applied to activities outside of the sport.

When we are young, we are eager to learn from others what acceptable social behavior looks like. When we’re engaged in structured activities with good role models to look up to, we learn how to become better people. We carry these lessons with us into adulthood and pass them on to the next generation.

The Drawbacks

Violent video games make us violent right? That’s been the melody, the harmony, and the refrain ever since the grizzly Ms. Pac Man Murder Spree of the early 1980s. The science, however, clearly shows that our propensity for violence comes from within, not from scapegoats.

Nobody’s saying that gamers haven’t smashed more than their fair share of controllers, keyboards, and monitors. Losing a game is infuriating. Losing to a twelve-year-old who’s also challenging your sexuality, denigrating your race, and saying mean things about your mom; that’s an even more challenging emotional burden to bear.

The corporate behemoths that publish these games work overtime to build systems that try to keep people’s emotions at a low simmer, rather than a rolling boil. And when tempers overflow, their systems to punish those who make gaming an unwelcoming place for others are legendary in their a) unfairness and b) inability to stem the tide.

Trash talking in sports doesn’t have to be a fact of life, but it is a current part of our culture. Getting the opponent to lose their focus, or their temper, has always been part of the game. Eliminating trash talk is probably not the ultimate solution. Finding ways to tone down the rhetoric and keep it PG-13 is the sweet spot that everyone’s fixated on. It’s a cultural problem that’s being treated as a customer service problem. The technological solution isn’t going to be perfect, so we should stop expecting it to be.

Healthwise, electronic sports aren’t quite the calorie burners that physical sports are. Maybe so, if you count baseball and bowling.

Collegiate esports programs stress physical and mental fitness through yoga and cardiovascular exercise. It would be unfair not to point out that, at the collegiate level, physical sports education offers a similar curriculum, so the big difference is only in the amount of physical activity during play. Criticisms of professional sports organizations’ commitment to long-term employee mental and physical health are completely valid, but they are tasked with maintaining a balance between the conflicting needs to feed an insatiable public with violence as entertainment and employee rights.

They aren’t the only business interest that finds similar kinds of balance to be difficult to maintain in a competitive marketplace that privileges capital’s needs over the public’s.

It’s actually our resistance to embrace our middle-schoolers’ obsession with Fortnite that is what’s more dangerous to their health.

By keeping programs that would provide the kinds of support kids need to engage in computer gaming activities in a healthy way — because these kids aren’t playing sports that are lucrative for the school system — we aren’t investing in their physical education and mental health at all. School systems gleefully spend resources on football players and cheerleaders while ignoring the nerds and artists. This aspect of sports culture is far more dangerous to kids than any violent video game.

Keeping Cool Under Fire

Unless someone has a strategy to ban all multiplayer combat-simulation games that has a contingency plan to deal with the violent youth uprising it’s going to cause, we should instead propose ways to better equip our kids to play them in a healthy way. Instead of working against the tendencies of youth to be excited about conflict and action, let’s work with them. Let’s stop pathologizing universal rites of passage because they make us morally queasy.

Let’s use this as an opportunity to teach time management skills. Let’s make menus of activities that kids need to engage in for their benefit and help them make time to include extracurricular activities. Help them weigh the benefits and downsides of each activity. Explain the process and why it’s important so they can learn how to make good decisions and then implement them.

Let’s help kids understand and manage their emotional states, especially emotions of frustration and anger. These are emotions that we treat as taboo, unwelcome, and socially forbidden. Yet, we all have to deal with these feelings no matter what age we are and instead of confronting and processing these feelings we prefer to encourage each other to hide them and pretend they don’t exist. It’s okay to be mad: what’s more important is how we deal with that feeling and how we treat people we’re mad at.

Let’s teach kids methods of relaxation. Whether it’s yoga, meditation, or prayer, kids need to learn it’s not just okay, but essential to spend time in silent contemplation. Also, we need to teach that obsession and reflection aren’t the same thing. That not every desire that pops into our head needs to be fulfilled, we don’t have to be thoughtless consumers of everything that feeds our ravenous id.

Let’s continually express the importance of physical fitness at every age. Our bodies are meant to move and when we embrace movement, we benefit our mental and physical health. We do best when we teach by example.

Lastly, let’s teach kids that loss is a part of life. Whether it’s losing a game, losing money, or losing a family member. Loss is part of life and it’s a feeling that we need to be welcoming towards. A life spent in fear of loss is one that is destined for unhappiness and stress. Facing loss with dignity gives us an opportunity to be courageous and steadfast. Experiencing loss doesn’t dishonor us nor does reacting with anger or sadness to an unjust loss humiliate us. It’s the act of directing that anger towards someone else unfairly that disgraces us all. 

Our team lost not only that fight, but the one after and the one after that.

The murderous climate scientist pierced my skull with yet another icicle and the well-dressed fellow with the giant cybernetic arm crushed what was left again and again.

And after a painful fifteen minutes, we lost the game. 

I typed, “gg wp” in the chat, which stands for “good game, well played.” It wasn’t a good game, we lost. Nor did my teammates play all that well. The enemy team barely drew a sweat.

I say “good game” because I don’t know what’s in their heads and hearts. Maybe that was the first game the enemy team had won that day and they were feeling pretty good about it. Maybe someone on my team was trying their heart out, and that’s “well” for them. Who am I to judge?

The most deserving side doesn’t always win, not in games and definitely not in life.

To paraphrase an ancient Middle-Eastern carpenter who was well known for giving good spiritual guidance: “Sometimes you’re the hammer, sometimes you’re the nail.”

Published by

Johanna Wilder

Yes, indeedy.