My older brother despises the movie “Grandma’s Boy.” He’s a 27-year old video game producer in San Francisco, Calif. who works for Electronic Arts. Whenever I tell anyone about his job the most common response is, “Oh, you mean like in ‘Grandma’s Boy’?” For those of you who are unfamiliar, “Grandma’s Boy” is the 2006 movie about an adult game designer who lives in his grandma’s basement with his geeky design team. The movie is pretty indicative of what people tend to imagine when they hear the phrase “video game.”
But let’s contrast that image with a different one. This summer, my friend Daniel developed a Facebook Scrabble rivalry with my other friend’s mother, Mrs. Hanrahan. The two could play each other with their iPhones over the course of several days. This is the same mother who used to tell us to eat more fruit and go play outside. But now, Daniel could expect trash talk whenever he walked into the Hanrahan household.
The video game world is currently going through big changes, and whether you realize it or not, you’ve probably already taken part. Sure, there is still a large market for games that attract Dungeons and Dragons aficionados and fraternity guys, but the industry is continually looking to attract a wider audience. We can see it in the rise of online games like Bejewelled and Farmville, active games on the Nintendo Wii and novelties like Guitar Hero. According to Ph.D. and game designer Jane McGonigal, 69 percent of all heads of households play computer games or video games and 40 percent of all gamers are women.
Yet, the “Grandma’s Boy” image still persists, and what’s more, games — both those for casual and intense users — are continually viewed as a waste of time or a distraction at best. In her new book, “Reality is Broken,” McGonigal argues that common perceptions of video games are flat-out wrong, citing research showing that gaming is often very beneficial. She goes as far as to say that games can offer people many things that the real world can’t and that gaming’s new mass appeal shows how reality is broken. Take what you will from someone who has worked in the industry, but McGonigal does provide lots of useful information that challenges common perceptions about the role of video games in society.
As evidenced in the anecdote above, games like iPhone Scrabble are helping to shape relationships by providing new forums for social interaction (bear with me here). As with Facebook, these interactions obviously aren’t a substitute for the face-to-face interactions people experience with those close to them. But games likely forge new relationships that would hardly be commonplace in any other scenario — like competition between a college student and his friend’s mother. As McGonigal puts it, “If you haven’t pwned your Mom, you’re clearly missing out.”
Another useful piece of research shows that people who play games during work breaks are more refreshed than those who participate in activities that are less mentally strenuous like watching Internet videos. When faced with a challenge in a video game, participants can see the direct outcome of their actions, which makes games more satisfying than real work in which one’s individual agency to effect outcomes is more diffuse. This psychological benefit has spillover effects — games make real work more enjoyable. In fact, McGonigal sites a study from the University of Hamburg that found “70 percent of (high-level executives) regularly play casual computer games while working.”
In a column at the beginning of the school year, I argued that socially conservative critiques of technological change are frequently reactionary. If you listen to people’s arguments against Facebook or BBM, they point out things that are different from the past more often than things that are clearly negative for society. I believe video games serve as the ultimate example of this phenomenon.
But the research is real and robust — games are much more than a drain on our societal well-being, and more people play them than ever before. While there are drawbacks to mass game consumption, the benefits are too often overlooked. Games aren’t just for the realm of low-life grandma’s boys, and you could save yourself some stress if you stopped thinking about them as such.
Jeremy Levy can be reached at email@example.com.