"Stop wasting your time with games" - part 1

That's a sentence I'm sure many of you have heard a lot. From your parents, partners, co-workers, friends - both gamers and non-gamers. I have, too, and most of the time I felt offended, but you know what? I've said it a few times in my life as well. Obviously, calling games a waste of time by default is an extremely biased thing to do, but it doesn't mean games always a valuable pastime.

Games can give us many wonderful things, but, like with every other activity, we need to know how to make the most of it. Like with a sport. You can do it purely for recreation, and that's fine. You can also try to get better at it - not necessarily to become a world champion, but just for the sake of being better than some of your friends. But ultimately, making the most of sports is letting it contribute to your own personal development. To apply lessons you've learned to other things, beyond sport. Games can be used in exactly same way.

Over the next three articles, I will be talking about three ways in which games can contribute to your life. I will start with the most obvious and the least measurable of the three. It seems to be the least convincing of the three, but I just can't ignore it and also, I like to save the big guns for later. I am very sorry if you are an attentive gamer - what I will write here will most probably be a parade of obvious arguments for you, but this article's goal is to clear it up for people who might not be into games too much or kids who would just swallow any game without thinking. I promise the next two articles will be less painfully obvious. 

The first way in which games can contribute to your life is enriching with new experiences. This is actually something every piece of media does better or worse. As with any other media, you get a fair amount of crap - games, books, movies, plays, music - they can all be created purely for money without any potential for depth of any kind. And that's okay, I guess... If consumers want it, well, they vote with money, don't they? But, for the sake of our argument, let's focus on the games that actually have some real value.

Games tell stories. What's more, being interactive, they let the player be a part of the story. I have touched the topic of narrative in the article on Dark Souls vs. Heavy Rain, but to sum up quickly: The story in the game is not only what is seen in cutscenes and told in dialogues. It is also what the player does. Every won battle. Every solved puzzle. Every explored area. They are a crucial part of the story, told in most cases without a single word.

This means that games let us live through experiences like no other media ever before. They let us take actions and make decissions. When books teach us the value of friendship, they show us characters whose friendship lets them overcome hardships. When games teach us the value of friendship, they let the player become friends with game characters. An average player will always be closer to the main character than an average reader. An average player will much easier learn the value of friendship from Persona series than from Lord of the Rings. 

Games put the players in situations they don't encounter so easily in real life. Players make relevant decissions that have often serious consequences for the further development of the game or at least one of its quests. Games let players save princesses or even worlds. Especially Japanese games start exploring the "difficult topics" like tolerance, fidelity, sexual orientation, religion or death. But... to really benefit from that, you actually have to pay attention.

The sad truth is, most of the players click through dialogues without reading them and skip cutscenes, to get to the "gameplay". In majority of games, gameplay without context of the backstory is deprived of meaning. When you pay attention in BioShock, you get a game about a failed utopia, about man's dream of greatness and where it might lead. When you don't pay attention in BioShock, you get a shooter with pretty clunky mechanics, where it's sometimes too dark to see the enemy. 

Next time you are playing a game, ask yourself - are you just mindlessly killing mob after mob or actually benefitting from what the game offers your, well... soul, or any other equivalent you accept as a part of yourself. Next time your kid tells you about this awesome game he/she is playing, listen carefully. Is your kid talking about the journey he embarked on? A story of the characters he met in the game? A dilemma the game presented? A question it asked and now your kid is struggling with? All of these indicate, that your kid is an attentive and empathic human being. You should be happy and proud. You should encourage these kinds of observations in all media.

And if your kid just tells you about the number of guys he killed? About the raids he's been on? About the bases he built under opponent's nose or rushes he pushed back? It still doesn't mean your kid has necessarily wasted his/her time with a game. There are other ways to benefit from games, but that will be the topic of the next two parts of this topic. Stay tuned. :)
This article was also translated to Polish and published on zgranarodzina.edu.pl