Five lessons I learned from video games

I’ve been notably absent from this site.  That’s not good.  Here’s to some more regularity.

According to general pop-culture rules, I am not technically considered “a gamer”, because sites like Reddit, Memebase, etc. feel a “gamer” is someone who pretty much dedicates their livelihood to playing video games across multiple platforms with varying genres, storylines, and gameplay.  I realized playing FIFA and Far Cry does not make me a “gamer”.

So, being ostracized from a demographic aside, I feel my childhood, teenage years, and most of my adulthood so far have been riled with virtual reality.  And I’m okay with that.  As a graduate of a program in which media effects are stressed, I’ve researched much about “influence” of games on the feeble, pre-pubescent mind, and I’ve drawn starkly unfocused conclusions; some researchers feel video games serve no purpose whatsoever in forming the mind, while others feel Grand Theft Auto will make you stab your mom in the heart and then punch a cop.  Personally, I feel the effects of video games lie somewhere in the middle where there’s no cop punching or mom stabbing and also a lack of nothing.  In fact, I feel video games have had a pretty decent effect on my mind, and this boring conclusion will end as I sum up these effects:

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

I’ll begin my spirited discussion with what I consider to be the most perfect video game ever created.  The incredible graphics, endless hours of gameplay, immersive storylines, unlimited fun to be had in Skyrim is impressive, yes, but the most amazing thing about this game is the fact from the very beginning you are dropped into the middle of the immense, enormous world with no more instructions than “have fun”.  Since it’s a role-playing game, you are required to create a character, choosing between about 10 different “classes”  If you want to be a burly, Nordic lumberjack, that’s awesome, but if you want to be an  English-speaking lizard, that’s also cool.  There’s a main story line, but you could go the entirety of the game without actually playing a single story mission and still log hundreds of hours playing.  There are big, loud “slay this dragon and try to not destroy the town missions” and there’s “I got super high on opium so please go find my sword in this cave” missions.  The sheer bigness of the game is breathtaking, and you can, without a trace of hyperbole, live life however you choose in the world of Skyrim.  And that teaches an important lesson.  You begin as a nameless, faceless prisoner facing death at Helgen and end as a champion, dragon slaying lizard-person named “Eddie Lizzard” standing triumphantly over the slain Alduin as the god’s of a past time revere your name.  Skyrim, more than anything, is representative of life itself.  You begin with nothing, and it’s up to your to make the most of life, but you truly are the harbinger for success and glory.

Pokemon 

Pokemon is a rare game that’s remained in my adulthood despite endless hours logged as a child.  For anyone not familiar, you take the reigns of a young child in a world full of amazing, wonderful creatures known as Pokemon.  You capture, train, and fight these little critters to within inches of their lives in violent battles for the owner’s glory.  But, it’s not the camaraderie, success, or adventure that sets Pokemon apart as a real lesson-teacher; Pokemon teaches you life is meaningless unless you establish a lifelong nemesis.  In the original Pokemon games, they mirrored the television show, as your character “Red” (or “Ash”, whatever) meets with Professor Oak and his grandson Gary.  The game, however, leaves this encounter a bit more ambiguous, as the bewildered and confused Professor Oak begins your journey with a lengthy, schizophrenic explanation of the Pokemon world.  After ranting for several minutes, Oak seems to come to his senses and asks for your name.  The game, obviously, lists both “Red” and “Ash” as possible names, as hoping the player will attempt to emulate the character from their favorite television show.  I typically chose something like “Dan”, “Sgt. Awesome”, or “Jefferson Rockflex”.  Professor Oak goes on to introduce you to his grandson, a stranger he ominously refers to as “your lifelong rival” suggesting some sort of predetermined, Indian arranged relationship has gone on in Pallet Town.  Oak then displays a remarkable lack of foresight, instantly forgetting his grandson’s name in a moment of senility so severe you could almost feel his hospice nurse’s heart skip a beat.  Heroically, Jefferson Rockflex steps in to provide guidance to the confused old professor, as the game gives options such as “Blue” or “Gary”, again, hoping you emulate the television show.  Despite the game all but telling you which name to pick, society seems to have collectively decided “Gary’s” name is either “Fartface” or “Weiner”, as the rejuvenated professor declares, “Yes, I remember now, my grandson’s name is Fartface!”  You and Fartface proceed to battle your way through the game, meeting several times to fight each other, before ultimately meeting again in the final battle of the Pokemon league.  You see, Fartface was your reason for wanting to be the Pokemon champion.  The game was never about the adventure, making friends, or catching lots of Pokemon.  It was about beating Fartface.  And that’s just like life.  Behind every fast car, big house, or pile of money is a man rubbing his hands together knowing he got the better of his Fartface.

NFL Blitz

I am not one to criticize games like Battlefield and Call of Duty for making the exact same game every year, because doing so would be hypocritical of me.  This is because I’ve purchased Madden every year since 2005 despite the games possessing not much more than a different player on the cover and the exclusion of whichever players murdered their girlfriends.  In fact, I considered dedicating part of this article to Madden, as the franchise mode has taught me a lot about finances, team building, and re-working rosters to ensure I’ve built an amazing team while stockpiling seven first round draft picks.  When I was younger, another game existed, piquing both my interest in NFL football and insatiable need for violenc:  NFL Blitz combined both traditional football gameplay with a twisted, horrific alternate reality in which late hits and unnecessary roughness weren’t enforced.  Blitz was everything a child wanted in a football video game:  there was no need for strategy, as every new set of downs was an absurd first and 30, all but eliminating the possibility of establishing a running game.  Since every play was a pass and penalties weren’t enforced, kids could clothesline a receiver foolishly running an intermediate slant route with a punishing blow seconds before the ball even left the quarterback’s arm.  And most importantly, every play was followed by a rambunctious bout of leg-drops, body slams, and elbow smashes, as even successful plays were met with a helping of vengeance served in a box of violence.  Post-whistle violence was not only unpenalized, but encouraged, as the camera would pan to the tackled player, all but begging the defensive players to dogpile the crippled ball carrier.  As a kid, I loved this game more than anything.  Recently, my friends and I started playing Blitz again, and I won’t lie for a second; it’s an absolute blast.  However, I’ve learned why I stopped playing Blitz and switched to Madden as a grew older; I couldn’t stand the no-calls.  A few weeks ago I was playing with some friends, and I threw a pass, only to have my brother (on the opposite team) crush my wide receiver moments before the ball arrived.  I found myself, in all sincerity, saying “that’s pass interference!”  And at that moment I realized something: I was getting old.  Blitz taught me that the things about football I used to hate (running the ball, offsides penalties, no post-play body slams) were a great gimmick, but when it came down to it, I wanted to play real (virtual) football with real rules, real strategy, and real animation, so 340-pound Casey Hampton wasn’t designed using the same body as 200-pound Kordell Stewart.

Grand Theft Auto 3

Admittedly, I probably started playing this game too young.  The adult themes, prevalent violence, and constant disgusting humor made that game a parent’s nightmare.  And give my parents credit, they didn’t buy me that game, ever.  The first game I got was Vice City, and I think I was already like 14 at the time (it’s been that long already, wow).  I remember in 5th of 6th grade one of my buddies had GTA3 and I would play it at his house when I slept over sometimes.  I remember how much fun it was to just drive around in the car, jump over stuff, and then shoot it until it exploded.  I even loved the more morbid aspects of the game, like systemically murdering bystanders with a sniper rifle like Charles Wittman.  Even back then, I remember how controversial that game was, as people on the news talked about how it was degrading to society, it damaged kids’ minds, and games like GTA were responsible for violent behavior.  It seemed a lot of lawmakers looked to the Columbine Massacre (Eric Harris loved playing DOOM, a violent game) as an example of violent video games leading to outbreaks of violence.  And honestly, I can recall hearing those things and thinking, “Wow, what if these games make me develop violent behavior?” and then I remembered my parents had raised me to not be an idiot so quickly dismissed such an absurd notion.  Grand Theft Auto 3, at the time, was the most amazing piece of video gaming I’d ever seen, and back then I didn’t think they would ever top it.  Even when I had my own Grand Theft Auto game, I was 13 or 14 years old, I was reasonably intelligent, mature, and possessed the understanding that it was NOT okay to shoot a police station with a rocket launcher.  You see, the most common problem critics of games like GTA point to is called the “desensitization effect”.  In any mass medium, whether it be television, movies, music, video games, or a Scrabble tournament, researchers point to an excess amount of anything; sex, drugs, violence, leads to viewers building up a “tolerance” for such despicable depictions.  In fact, researchers have even concluded violent games, for example, have been shown to lead to “increased aggression” amongst juveniles.  What they fail to include, however, is the fact prior aggression wasn’t tested, which means their theories are sort of flawed.  If a kid is already, say, prone to spray-painting cats, shooting a couple of police officers might make him act more aggressively.  Another excuse that gets annoying is how “modern day things are so realistic it just adds fuel to the violence fire” (i’m paraphrasing).  To that, I welcome anyone old enough to dig deep into their collective memories and remember either the Woody Woodpecker episode where he commits suicide or the Tom and Jerry episode where Tom’s points a loaded gun at Jerry, in a children’s cartoon.  And don’t even get me started on the “news” broadcasts that being as: “tonight at 11, are violent video games dangerous to kids?  But first, here’s a story about a serial killer who burned down 10 orphanages with a lighter made of dead bald eagles.”  GTA has taught me the opposite of aggression and violence, and any reasonable person should know the different.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Geez, that last entry got a little rant-ey.  No matter.  The very first game I can remember playing as a child is Sonic the Hedgehog.  I was not welcomed to an expansive open world, I didn’t have a lifelong rival to compete with, I couldn’t hit anyone after the whistle, and I certainly couldn’t murder any cops, but what I could do was run really fast across a pixellated rainforest level with a blue, supersonic hedgehog.  This game had no purpose than get from point A to point B as quickly as possible, and it’s one of the greatest video games of all time.  Across the level lay thousand of gold rings, which Sonic could collect, which contributed to his high score, allowed him to generate hit points, and every hundred granted an extra life.  Sonic could collect as many rings as possible in any given level, where they would be forfeited every time he advanced through a zone.  If Sonic absorbed damage from an enemy, he would lose all the rings, watching helplessly as hundreds of rings exit his tiny, blue body.  If Sonic possessed no rings, then he would die instantly from a hit.  And in the rings lies the lesson.  As I mentioned, the goal of the game was to get from one end of the level to the other, as quickly as possible.  In fact, this sentiment is reaffirmed by the fact extra bonus points were awarded for completing a level as quickly as possible, and by the obvious fact Sonic’s name implies he’s quite the speedy critter.  With this in mind, you have two choices:  power through the levels at breakneck speeds and attempt to clear levels as fast as possible, or take your time and collect as many rings as possible to account for the time lost to make it up in the final score.  Despite taking it slowly and acquiring coins seemed like the smart way to go, I’ve learned the faster way is actually the way to go, a fact which translates to everyday life.  Look at the rings as wealth.  The slow, careful Sonic will acquire more wealth in the short term, moving along ensuring he acquires every last bit of wealth.  This serves as a bit of an old fashioned approach to wealth management.  Although the wealth will grow in the form of both rings and extra lives, some obvious downfalls exist.  For one, even if Sonic has, let’s say, 300 rings, a single hit from an enemy will lead to him losing most of them.  Then, you are left with no rings, and a poor time score, which makes the overall score suffer.  Even if Sonic is able to finish an entire zone with all his rings in tact, entering a new zone means he forfeits all of his wealth, which makes it all for nothing.  Meanwhile, the speed-rounder is adopting a new strategy on the fly to account for his lack of rings.  To me, this is comparable to the current state of the economy.  We have all the slower, old-fashioned folks who were the rare breed to finish college, finished with almost no loans, and were given jobs easily.  Because of the simplicity of acquiring jobs, they never had to strive for more with their skill set.  An older doctor would be unlikely to relearn all the newer technologies, while an aging journalist is great with the pen, but can’t design, perform photography, or manage web traffic, readership, or package an entire story.  Meanwhile, people like myself are holding college degrees at a higher rate than ever, meaning there’s much more competition.  This means jobs are harder, meaning we don’t have time to just carefully, slowly take our time with things.  We needs to constantly be learning on the fly, increasing our knowledge, and being multi-proficient, and with the overall higher level of knowledge, teamed with the competition, my generation will be an amazing workforce.  You see, innovation (going fast through levels, ignoring rings) reigns supreme over settling with older strategies (taking your time with rings.)

You are welcome for the greatest analogy of all time.

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