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?