Monday, December 31, 2012

The Net Value of Video Games

One of the Christmas books I received this year (from my younger son) was John Dies at the End by David Wong, an author whose blog post I recently linked to. I liked it enough to finish it, not enough to want to read the forthcoming sequel. One of the things I didn't like was the degree to which the central characters seemed to be acting irrationally, along with consuming considerable quantities of alcohol and, in one case, drugs. Another was the degree to which the whole picture did not entirely make sense and the feeling that that was not an issue the author cared much about. It occurred to me that perhaps my response was the flip side of the objection some readers make to my fiction, that everyone, and everything that happens, is too rational. Partly, I suppose, that is a disagreement about what people are like, partly about what they should be like, partly about what is interesting or entertaining about other people's behavior.

One of the throwaway lines in the book was the suggestion that violent video games are an alien plot introduced recently to human society by agents from an alternate timeline capable of making the introduction retroactive by changing our memories to fit the new reality. Which started me wondering ...  .

My natural prejudice as an economist is to assume that people act in their own interest, hence that spending time playing video games is a net benefit, at least to those who play them—a prejudice perhaps reinforced by the amount of time I have myself spent playing and enjoying video games (mostly the computer versions). But people are not entirely rational, and the designers of successful computer games, like successful creators of earlier forms of entertainment, are presumably skilled at taking advantage of the irrational elements in their customers' behavior. Which suggests several questions:

1. As compared to earlier forms of mass entertainment—novels, movies, television—are video games better or worse for their consumers? Are you more likely to end up failing out of college, losing your job, breaking up with your girlfriend, through devoting too much of your time to playing video games than from the earlier equivalents? As one very mild piece of evidence, I offer my own observation, long ago, that the way you knew a computer game was really good was that when you took a break to go to the bathroom, it was because you really, really had to go. I have never been much of a viewer of movies or television, but I have read a lot of books and do not remember a comparable effect for them. 

On the other  hand, it's easier to read in the bathroom than to play (most forms of) computer games there. 

2. The same question, with regard to the effect on others. The implication of the line in the novel was that video games were designed to coarsen sensitivities, make us more tolerant of people being killed, dismembered, tortured, generally mistreated. I am not sure that is any more true of them than of comic books and thrillers, but I suppose one could argue that the visual element, and the involvement of the player in the plot, makes a difference. You are not just watching someone else engaged in mass mayhem, you are doing it yourself.

But then, one of the reasons thrillers are thrilling is that the reader is imagining himself as the protagonist.

3. What about positive effects? Novels and films can educate (or miseducate) you about history, geography, human behavior. So can computer games. Quite a large fraction of my son's knowledge of geography and history comes from playing war games; he  taught himself to type at a young age in order to communicate with fellow players online and learned to spell so as not to look stupid while doing so. If anything, the interactive nature of computer games ought to make them more educational than earlier equivalents, since doing things wrong, failing to see the logic of the situation, sometimes results in losing, which is less fun than winning.

All of which leaves out the big question which I have discussed in the past: In what sense is doing things in virtual worlds less valuable than doing them in the real world?


Power Child said...

I'm guessing your objection to drug abuse in that book was because you found it boring to read about more than because it offended your sense of right and wrong. Otherwise, you might have been tempted to start drawing comparisons between drug addiction and video game addiction, both of which are very real and, at least relative to most other consumables, somewhat widespread.

Daublin said...

Video games help one see an alternate reality, and they--like any form of gaming--help develop certain mental skills. A life with no video games at all seems frankly barren. I know that is not a popular view of people who view computer games as mere dalliance and flashing lights, but I certainly feel there is some depth to my thinking and skill set that wouldn't be there if I had only done more practical things with life.

Video games also seem hands down better than watching movies or television.

On the other hand, past an initial increment that gets most of the benefit, they start to consume large numbers of hours. The opportunity cost then becomes large compared to, say, building something in the real world. Or learning a skill that is more obviously useful in the real world.

Stepping back, do we really want a population that has no dreamers? With everyone studiously doing practical things? It sounds rather dreary, and I strongly suspect we'd miss out on quite a lot of big improvements due to lack of imagination.

William H. Stoddard said...

Well, for certain definitions of "value" . . . if you reproduce in the virtual world, but not in the real world, subsequent generations in the virtual world will not contain representatives of whatever genes make you think the virtual world is just as good, or better.

On the other hand, surely the proper economic question is, at what point does the marginal utility of doing a thing once more in the virtual world fall below the marginal utility of doing it in the real world? or more broadly, when does the marginal utility of the best thing you can do in the real world exceed the marginal utility of the best thing you can do in the virtual world?

John Barnes had some interesting things to say about this in the third Giraut Leones novel, The Merchants of Souls.

As for me, I have never been tempted by virtual experience games, whether first person shooters or games that are more like novels. But when I had Civilization installed, I twice played it till my eyes were raw. After that I uninstalled it, which I suppose says something about my personal marginal utility.

John Cunningham said...

Dave Grossman has a book, Stop Teaching our Kids to Kill, which argues that highly realistic and gory first person shooter games have been obsessions of every school shooter. every shooter is an FPS devotee, but only a handful of devotees kill.

William Friedman said...

With regard to John Cunningham's comment: Yes. They also tend to read violent books, enjoy violent movies, and, in general, seek other outlets for their natural inclinations towards violence.

I have trouble believing that the cause and effect is the way that a title like 'Stop Teaching Our Kids To Kill' would suggest.

Anonymous said...

It seems easy to denigrate video games as lacking value, since they don't seem to have much to do with the "real world". There are two problems with this - A) there have been many pursuits in human history considered valuable but with a similar disconnection from the "real world", including: mathematics, physics, philosophy, religion, and storytelling itself (which video games are just a modern variant of). And B) while I do believe there is an objective reality, the truth is that a lot of what constitutes our experience is subjective, personal, and immaterial. Things like love, justice, and truth are immaterial and few would want to get rid of them. So you can't convincingly argue against video games on this ground without throwing out other immaterial aspects of experience which are important. In fact why even engage in an argument about it if you don't care about immaterial things, isn't disputation itself immaterial?

Video game addiction is certainly a problem, but that's not a particular objection against games since immoderate use of anything is a problem. I'll be more concerned about this when full Matrix-style virtual reality is developed and people start living their lives in there while everyone else lives in the "real world" (since if everybody agrees to live in the Matrix for some reason then I suppose it would be fine).

TheVidra said...

This is completely unscientific, but based on personal experience (and I was never a big player or a big fan of video games, although I did have a few stints where I experienced the "I must stop now to go to the bathroom or else" phenomenon) - I am not sure they are very healthy on the eyes or the brain (the fast-moving games anyway). I would feel fatigued after even an hour and a half of playing, and my ability to concentrate on a formula or a serious thought would diminish. As a teenager I preferred to go outside in the sunshine a lot more than to play video games and I felt much healthier when I did the former. The exercise, fresh air, sunlight, and human interaction made me feel a lot better than any video game. Recently my belief was somehow vindicated by some news articles about a link between epilepsy attacks and prolonged gaming. Again, all my observations have to do with fast-moving games, not with strategy games, which I suppose have the same effect as an elaborate board game - they encourage sedentarism but not much else in terms of harm, and the benefits might be worth it...

Anonymous said...

"The Sorrows of Young Werther" allegedly leaded to a lot of suicides when it was first released. I believe that many people wanted to see it banned. Now it is required reading in some high schools (at least it was in mine). Maybe everyone will have to play through Doom in 100 years?

At least one ancient philosopher (I think it may have even been Plato) believed that writing is harmful and destroys the ability to learn.

I am also reminded of Socrates being executed for supposedly destroying the morals of the youth.

See also: opposition to movies, sound movies, television, comic books

Joe said...

I wonder if you have heard of the occulus rift:

I suspect there is going to be less value in visiting other countries, historical sites, natural wonders, etc, knowing what this and other future tech will be capable of. It could even replace museums and art galleries.