March 17th, 2017
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
It is not always clear when gaming is the refuge of the trapped and when it is the trap. Ashley, aged 37, is certain that gaming is not the source of his problems. He played video games in his youth, but not obsessively; like other teenagers he made plenty of time for football and skateboarding. The games took on a different cast in his 20s, when he spent time abroad teaching English: he played heavily as a way to deal with the loneliness of being in a foreign place. But he was able to let the games go when he returned.
Then he enrolled in graduate school, to become a therapist, in a programme that required him to undertake his own intensive course of therapy. He fell into a deep depression, for which he blames the therapy. Gaming became his coping strategy, “a way of switching off thoughts”, he says, and a means to turn away from responsibility. He resisted the label “addict”. But that is what he has come to understand he is.
The depression is the problem, Ashley says, not the games, but the hours he spends playing at Pro Evolution Soccer are making things worse. They get in the way of his relationship. “She hates it,” he says, when asked how his partner feels about the gaming. The potent combination of depression and gaming has also prevented him from progressing professionally. He has failed to complete his degree and his working life has stalled.
…Game designers often deploy a technique called “dynamic difficulty adjustment”. In many games, the software assesses a player’s skill and rebalances various attributes of the game accordingly, to keep the game fun and manageable for those of less ability. Gamers early in their careers, or who are simply struggling to pick up the skills necessary to succeed, are given a helping hand; their world might be more generously strewn with useful power-ups, for instance. As players advance, these helping hands are withdrawn.
There is a downside to such techniques, at least when they are used carelessly. One of my favourite game series has always been Mario Kart, a Nintendo racing game featuring characters from the Mario Brothers franchise. It uses “rubber banding” to keep the game interesting. That is: no matter how good a driver you are, your ai opponents can fall only so far behind; the software will allow them to break the rules of the game, and go faster than their little karts ought to be able to, in order to keep the game interesting. When playing human opponents, those who fall to the rear are showered with the most useful power-ups – such that a leader, after executing a near-perfect race, can be pummelled with misfortunes of one sort or another until a laggard pips him at the post. Clumsy, difficult adjustments like these make the game feel rigged and unfair, which makes it just as unappealing as one that is straightforwardly too easy, or too hard.
A life spent buried in video games, scraping by on meagre pay from irregular work or dependent on others, might seem empty and sad. Whether it is emptier and sadder than one spent buried in finance, accumulating points during long hours at the office while neglecting other aspects of life, is a matter of perspective. But what does seem clear is that the choices we make in life are shaped by the options available to us. A society that dislikes the idea of young men gaming their days away should perhaps invest in more dynamic difficulty adjustment in real life. And a society which regards such adjustments as fundamentally unfair should be more tolerant of those who choose to spend their time in an alternate reality, enjoying the distractions and the succour it provides to those who feel that the outside world is more rigged than the game.