The Unrealized Potential of Video Games as Character Building Exercises

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There will be a crisis of leadership someday, in which good men of sound judgment are in short supply. And the world will look for replenishing its stock of leaders to the men of my generation who played computer games like Civilization VI with character.

Or at least that is what I like to daydream from time to time.

Now, before you say it, stop. It takes more than the ability to play a strategy game well to qualify for real-life leadership. I know, and I agree with you. That goes without saying, however. It also goes without saying in baseball, football, or any of the other games coaches told us prepare for real life.

And what do those games teach, anyway? Focus. Apply yourself. Exercise self-discipline. Work with others, follow instructions, overcome obstacles and adversity.

From sports, we learn to persevere and not give up, plus we get physical exercise. That sets us up to be happier and healthier generally. In this last regard, I admit. Sitting with keyboard and mouse in hand is at a disadvantage, working in the opposite direction.

Yet I am not talking about sitting at a desk excessively. Besides, unhealthy excess can be found anywhere, including sports.

How many athletes have taken steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, or suffered career-ending injuries from excessive interest in sports? How often has academic performance suffered for a promising athlete because their athletic ability was the overriding, even exclusive, focus?

In any game or pursuit, we do well to remember the old Latin maxim “Sola dosis facit venenum” – the dose makes the poison.

 

What Games Reveal About Our Character

Yet even there, games prepare us for real life, or tell us what to expect. Cheating, being a bad sport, or becoming unhealthily obsessive – all these expose character defects.

Likewise, following the rules, handling both wins and losses with dignity, respecting the other players – this reveals more than just an attitude about a game.

This goes without saying, so why am I saying it?

I am saying it for what comes next. This thing is not so apparent, or perhaps not apparent at all. This thing I am going to say may be very controversial, actually. I believe video games all too often get a pass. We do not draw the connection between what we intuitively know about the character-building potential of sports and a similar potential in other less athletic games, including video games.

Almost exclusively, the sentiments I have heard expressed about video games are of one of two natures. The first is unrestrained, and unexamined, enthusiasm. The second is thinly-veiled disgust, contempt, and low regard generally.

You probably know who belongs in each camp in your own circle of friends and family. The people who play video games are typically all about them. They never have to tell you they are fans, nor do they feel any apparent disgust. Their support is obvious.

Those who are against video games are typically parents and grandparents who never played them; and they think of video games like they would potato chips or cotton candy – tolerable, perhaps even enjoyable in very small doses, but utterly useless except as entertainment.

People in both these camps miss something of what video games are or can be.

 

Digital Death-dealers

It took me a while because of the difficult subject matter, but I finally finished reading Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s book, On Killing. In it, Grossman outlines very clearly how human beings throughout history have demonstrated a strong, even overpowering internal objection to killing other human beings. Even in wartime, with enemies coming to kill them, soldiers are averse to taking another human life. And when they do overcome that aversion and do the deed anyhow, or see others around them kill and be killed, the psychological cost has always been great and terrible.

This has been true for all peoples and throughout history, except where leaders have deliberately worked to overcome the physical and psychological barriers to killing through military drills, dehumanizing language, and creating social pressure.

In military drills especially, Grossman points out that going through the motions of killing repeatedly, yet doing so toward evidently non-human targets, helps the warrior in training to do the deed for real once he comes to an opportunity in actual battle. Fighting inanimate objects for weeks, months, even years, he will subconsciously think of the enemy as an inanimate object. His muscle memory will take over before his own psychology causes him to freeze up.

This is important with regards to videogames because of something Grossman sounds the alarm about in his book. In On Killing, Grossman says that the development of an endless assortment of increasingly realistic violent videogames is working much the way military drills do, breaking down psychological barriers to killing, even in young children.

Someone will say they are just videogames. Yet it is the very fact that our subconscious tells us that – that we are not killing real people – which makes them so effective in desensitizing us.

 

Healing Hands

Some years ago – though whether in a book or article or conversation with a friend or family member, I no longer remember – I learned that surgeons are known to play a lot of video games, especially first-person shooters.

This may seem odd to you the way it did to me at first. Surgeons are typically thought of – at least by me – as serious professionals. Who would have less time or attention than surgeons for frivolous and brain-dead video games, especially violent first-person shooters?

Yet it made sense on explanation. The thing about fast-paced video games is that they require quick and precise hand-eye coordination. Very small movements of the fingers make all the difference between success and failure. As it turns out, this is also true of surgery. The motor skills developed, sharpened, and practiced in video games translate into the operating room.

I wonder also whether the ability to dehumanize in matters of life and death by practicing in a video games is another attraction for surgeons. They, too, like soldiers, must overcome psychological barriers to do what must be done. And if they snip the wrong place or in the wrong way or at the wrong time, or are unsteady, someone may lose their life. But if they can detach themselves to some extent, and not get too worked up emotionally, and train themselves for calm steadiness, their patients stand a better chance of being able to thank them for it.

This highlights what I believe is the great potential, both for good and for evil, in video games. They can train us for destruction, or they can prepare us to cope well under stress while we work to preserve, protect, and restore.

 

The Civilizing Potential of Video Games

Here I will circle back to my favorite game. It is not a first-person shooter. Though I have played my share of those, they stress me out too much. My body takes them too seriously. When I play, I become too tense. I sweat and want to fight and kill the real villains of the world. I become too aggressive in winning and losing and want too much to throw my controller or punch something. And, most importantly, I get too worked up about distractions. Even just writing about them now is having a physiological effect.

It turns out I do not have time for video games like I did before marriage and children. Yet being a husband now, and father to six children with a seventh on the way, I did not want to give up on them entirely. Instead, I gravitated toward a game I could walk away from whenever without much fuss. That game was Civilization.

Being turn-based instead of real-time, and being a much longer game anyway, and having more peaceful paths to victory than violent ones, Civilization was perfect for me. And with my being analytical, and prone to constant interruptions from my wife and children, I was far less stressed when someone needed to talk, or an errand needed running, or a diaper needed changing, or the floor needed vacuuming. The game paused wherever I left it.

Besides, I found Civilization to complement rather than contradict my aspirations to be a good husband and father. Taking the long view to decisions in-game trained me to do likewise in real life. Analyzing the many options for building my empire and interacting with others trained my brain to analyze the many options in life and my encounters with other people, each building their own lives.

 

Video Games as Character Building Exercises

At some point, it becomes difficult to tell whether life is influencing art more than art is influencing life. Yet it is clear that video games are a tool for psychological conditioning, for better or worse. Believing this, I try and play them with a certain code of conduct. I ask myself at every turn what the right thing would be if this were real life.

I avoid linear games. If there is only one way to win, I am not very interested. And if a game can only be played by doing immoral or stupid things, I do not play. That is to say, I have not played Super Mario for a long time. And I will never own Grand Theft Auto. I refuse to train myself to be either one-dimensional or wicked.

We ought to gravitate to games with options. Beside Civilization, I have loved the Mass Effect series, and Fallout, and several other RPGs where the world is open-ended. In all these, your character must make moral choices. He becomes good or evil in some respect. This too – being able to choose evil but deciding not to – is psychological training for real life. It builds character.

My favorite game remains Civilization, however. And I do enjoy imagining how I might look back someday on my many hours playing as a kind of investment. If some day I become the ruler of something real, my time ruling digital cities, nations, and empires will perhaps have instilled in me a confidence, cleverness, and character to rule well. Yet even if not, I at least will have trained myself. If video games are for psychological conditioning, I will have chosen the time and manner in which I have been conditioned rather than being swept up unawares by someone else.

Follow Garrett Mullet:

Christian, husband to a darling wife, and father to six kids - I enjoy pipe-smoking, playing strategy games on my computer, listening to audio books, and writing. When I'm not asking you questions out loud, I'm endlessly asking myself silent questions in my head. I believe in God's grace, hard work, love, patience, contemplation, and courage.