I’ve said many times before that I not only like my kids playing games but I think a lot can be learned from the experience. But there are a few lines I draw in the sand. The first is games targeted at adults with themes I don’t want the kids dealing with yet. The second is open-ended games which black-hole-like come to absorb your entire life.
Recently I’ve been playing a fabulous game with some of my gaming friends. Path of Exile is in open beta but is more polished and compelling than most of the released games I’ve played recently – and, by the way, it comes from New Zealand. One of its very nice features is that there’s a hardcore league where there’s no re-spawning; if your character dies it gets relegated to the default league permanently. The problem, then, is that default league characters can’t play with hardcore league characters. So if your character dies you need to start a new character if you want to keep playing with your friends. I found myself having to start the game for the eighth time recently and realised that not only was I not looking forward to grinding through the lower levels again, but that the game was absorbing all of my free time. So with what I consider to be great fortitude of character I put it aside.
I’ve seen this happen before. I used to play EVE, the most massive of massive multiplayer games. But again I eventually realised that it was becoming like a job (if you’ve ever tried mining asteroids in EVE you’ll know what I mean) and that it was sopping up all of my time.
These games are designed to be addictive. I don’t mean that in a silly ‘all kids are addicted to video games, the world is coming to an end’ kind of way. I mean that in a ‘they are produced by clever people and are paid for on a subscription model’ kind of way. The lure of better skills and equipment constantly floating ahead of you keeps you moving forward like a donkey following a carrot on a stick. No matter what you achieve there’s always something more to be done, something better to find. The next level is always coming with its rewards of kudos and power.
Then there’s the social nature of the games. These are games you play with others; either on a regular or a casual basis. To play with others means you have to be roughly at the same level as them in the game. And that in turn means you need to put in the hours to keep your character developing lest everyone else goes orc-hunting or spaceship-pirating without you.
And this is why I won’t let my kids play World of Warcraft or EVE or Path of Exile. The games have no end, no stopping point – they will, if you let them, absorb your life. That’s why I’m more comfortable with a game like Borderlands where the levels have a maximum ceiling and the addiction-limiting factor is simple boredom once your character can dominate anything the game throws at it. And I’m even more comfortable with something like Team Fortress 2 which really doesn’t have a leveling process to speak of and individual games come to a natural end after 20 or 30 minutes.
Like everything in life, some balance is the key. Addiction implies that your use of a substance or a game is compulsive and is interfering with normal daily life. These days using a computer and playing games is part of normal daily life. But for kids in particular it’s important to maintain that balance; to be sure they can walk away; and, frankly, to be sure that they don’t confuse getting their wizard character to level 29 with real life. And part of achieving that end is looking carefully not just at the content of games, but at the type of games they are playing.