R. Justin Shepherd | PART-TIME PUNDIT

Pathology or playtime?
9.September.2007, 10.49 pm
Filed under: psychology, video games

Intergalactic bounty hunterI’ve been playing a lot of Metroid Prime 3: Corruption lately… it’s a long, complicated video game, but loads of fun. I think I’m about halfway through it, although I haven’t scanned everything (quickly, your character has a scanner that adds info to a logbook. In order to finish the game with a “100 percent” completion rating, you’re supposed to scan everything… but sometimes you miss stuff, and other times you’re in a hurry.).

Anyway, I thought this would be a good time to share with anyone interested an article I came across a couple months ago, called “The Pathology of Video Game Design,” as well as my response to it.

Note that the response wasn’t published… Apparently they didn’t take to it, and I’m guessing it’s because of a Biblical theme. Not that it’s evangelistic or even Christian, but uses an old tale to back up the argument.

Anyway, here is the first article (it’s long, and so you may just want to skim it): The Pathology of Video Game Design

Now, below, is my response:

    Saving the world, one game at a time

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. (Gen. 6:11-14)

Thus begins one of mankind’s oldest and most well-known stories of objective and assignment: One man, called on by his mysterious creator, sent on a mission to save humanity through a series of tasks: Build an ark. Gather two of each animal. And, presumably, wait for the rain.


In a recent essay here, Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh spent a lot of time—and, it’s worth noting, a lot of high-sounding reference to art, science and psychology—explaining what he seems to think is a major downfall of the video game: namely, that it doesn’t really mean anything.

His argument went something like this: Video games lead to isolation. The isolated player makes few (if any) significant choices. The choices he does make are “petty” at best. These petty choices are dehumanizing, leading the player to find satisfaction in “achievement” of goals that are basically predetermined. And since a predetermined outcome doesn’t spur much thinking, it follows that playing the typical video game is an immature endeavor. And pathological.

If you’ve got time, check out the essay. It’s a good read with a lot to chew on. In the end, though, it’s the tail wagging the dog: Video games don’t mean anything, he says, and here’s the proof.


This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. Make a roof for it, leaving below the roof an opening one cubit high all around. Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks. (Gen. 6:15-16)

After his initial assignment, Noah gets some directions on completing his task. He’s told not only the dimensions of this thing he supposed to build—and understand, he’d probably never even SEEN a boat in his life—but also a location for a door and a specific number of levels.

The typical video game is no different: I unpack the game, briefly read up on the controls, and begin playing, navigating my way through a series of levels. Yes, LEVELS. I have a defined set of tools, and I often have to complete my tasks in a given amount of time. Just as Noah had to finish his boat before the rains came, I have to get to the end point or the level before the timer runs out—otherwise, Noah and I, we both die.

“It sure seems trivial when you put it like that!” you exclaim, and I concede the fact. Any project, if we have the proper knowledge, is just that. Cause and effect, while unromantic, is the stuff of life: hence the term “natural” to explain so much of our world. Yet that’s what the naysayer points to when he criticizes the gamer: to sit in front of a screen, pushing buttons in an attempt to achieve fantastic goals in a fantastic world, is just unnatural, or at best, immature.

Of course, this same critic may just want his TV back… to cheer on uniformed men as they put all their effort toward getting a ball to a certain place, or to watch starry-eyed teens and 20-somethings reach for the crown of “American Idol,” or to be transported to another place and time, watching made-up characters do made-up things in their made-up worlds.

It’s entertainment, and it’s trivial. Nature didn’t dream this up, we did.


At this point, I need to confess that I’m no hardcore gamer. There were times when I was: Mario had me hooked as a child, and Sonic won my heart soon afterward. The excitement of battling my friends to the death in “Goldeneye” took up way too much of my study time while in college, and I’ve recently turned into a flailing bowler, boxer and golfer in front of my Father’s Day present, a Nintendo Wii. But by and large my life hasn’t been consumed by video games, and I doubt it ever will be—there’s just too much work to do, too many books to read, too much furniture to rearrange.

Which is why I was alarmed to find out that I was pathological—or at least, that my playing video games in my spare time was changing my brain, making me less human. Sure, there are people (mostly male) who get so drunk on the power of a joystick that their lives genuinely suffer for it. But the same can be said of film or art (both of which Waugh speaks fondly of) or sports or food. Video games aren’t inhuman, they’re utterly, completely human—the logical extension of the mind’s search for challenge and fulfillment in a flashy, privileged, high-tech society.

All rhetoric of Pavlov aside, “fun” almost always comes bundled with rather meaningless objectives. Throw the Frisbee, and I attempt to catch it … you can throw it elsewhere, if you want, but it won’t be as much fun.


I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. (Gen 6:17)

The elephant in the room, of course, is violence: It’s one thing for a kid to waste his time, but quite another for him to waste his time by shooting at monsters (in my day) or other people (these days). Just a few days ago, it was announced that Rockstar Games’ “Manhunt 2” will be banned in both Britain and Ireland, and will likely receive the United States’ strictest “Adults Only” rating from the ESRB. The reasons given: “gross, unrelenting and gratuitous violence … sustained and cumulative casual sadism.”

I won’t spend useful space attempting to defend this type of game: If it’s pathological we’re after, a game like “Manhunt 2” would seem to break the mold. “Grand Theft Auto” and its spinoffs have given the gaming world a lot of bad press—and, admittedly, an astounding amount of profits—with their misogynistic, heartless portrayals of humanity and their setting up murder and mayhem as goals to be achieved. But it’s worth noting that “Raging Bull,” one of the most violent and unredeeming movies of all time, sits at No. 52 on AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies list… what’s the difference between the two?

“One requires action,” you reply, “the other is just a movie.” And you’re right: It’s not really a valid comparison. But it’s one of Waugh’s main hooks: Film as art has excelled and matured, while video games haven’t.

Yet that’s not what a video game is meant to do; in fact, ask most any gamer about his favorite titles, and you’ll hear about games with relatively simple premises, attainable goals, and (possibly) fantastic graphics. What you won’t hear about are games that make him think—emotionally, ethically THINK. By and large, those games may not exist, but even if they did, they wouldn’t be FUN.


My father didn’t care for video games. He’d rather I’d have been out riding horses, repairing tractors, shooting hoops. Yet some of my fondest memories are of the few moments we shared together, in front of the TV, playing “Duck Hunt” on the original Nintendo. And as my own son turns a year old this week, I look forward to someday standing in front of our TV, competing at “Wii Sports” and sharing laughs—in other words, I look forward to wasting time.

Waugh points out that video games are a great time-waster, and he’s right. But in my life, at least, that’s a great thing: There’s plenty to keep me busy, and I can work straight through my days if I’m not careful. But “wasting time,” however negative the connotation, is often a way of saying “relaxing” or “winding down” or “living life.” I’ve met people who don’t waste any time—some of them are rich, successful, the envy of their peers—but on further glance, I rarely envy them at all.

As Kevin Smith put it in the opening frames of “Dogma,” a God that invented a platypus must have a sense of humor… Do what you will, but I think I’ll use mine.


You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive. You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them. (Gen 6:19-21)

The story of Noah—and there are countless other ancient tales, strikingly similar, about virtuous people saving an otherwise vile world through some series of actions—has lasted the test of time; whether or not we believe it, it tells us something about the human condition, which is that we’re supposed to DO THINGS. A lot of those things will have meaning; plenty of others won’t. Often, though, the meaning is in the doing.

Let’s consider, though, the game that Mr. Waugh would have us design: one where we’d be empowered, face dilemmas, have meaningful decisions to make. In other words, he wants a game of life. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think we do, in fact, have this… it’s called “Second Life,” and it’s WAY more likely to lead to pathological addiction and isolation than any other game I know of.

I recently bought “Super Mario World” (Super Nintendo era) for my Wii… it’s a title from a simpler, kinder period of gaming. The object is pretty simple: Collect coins, get through the levels within the time limit, beat the bosses and save the Princess. But within that lies a world of nuance. I jump and see a key… do I need the key? Not really. I can finish the game without it. But the key will open up more mysteries, and so I turn around, losing life upon life, trying to figure out how in the world to get that key. The same goes for secret areas, secret bonuses… the fun’s not just completing the task, but finding otherwise unknown features in the fantasy world of the game.

Meanwhile, let’s revisit Noah one more time, and notice what DOESN’T happen. He’s told to keep the animals alive; he’s not told how. And what’s he going to do with forty days’ worth of excrement? That’s where his challenge lies, and it’s not too different than the challenge facing a gamer.

As the next verse states, “Noah did everything just as God commanded him,” and humanity lived to fight another day. Likewise, the average gamer will live to fight another boss, at the end of another level, and manage—somehow—to lead a relatively normal life.

About the author: R. Justin Shepherd is a freelance writer, journalist and coffeehouse owner in Bowling Green, KY. He’s also a member of Foxhole, an instrumental post-rock band based in Nashville, recordings available from Philadelphia’s Burnt Toast Vinyl record label. He blogs at rjustin.wordpress.com.


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