Is Gaming Mindless Waste of Time?

There was a period in my life when I used to think gaming was mindless waste of time. Maybe good for stress relief, but not much more than that. I used to play a lot of games when I was younger, but there was a ten year patch when I didn’t play almost anything. When I started researching learning games around 2011, I started playing other games too. I used to joke that I was doing research playing Angry Birds Space, Cut the Rope, Braid or Psychonauts way past midnight, but the fact is, through those experiences I rediscovered myself as a gamer.

Last weekend, we finished Ratchet & Clank on PlayStation 4 with my kids. It was easily one of the best console games I’ve ever played. Kind of like watching a Pixar movie and playing Super Mario at the same time. Best of both worlds.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading a lot of criticism about screentime. It’s growing an increasingly big topic, especially in the contexts of kids and education. I think it’s important to take this criticism seriously. People play on average two hours of mobile games a day. It’s a lot of screen-staring.

I think, however, that the issue of screentime and gaming is far from simple. People also used to watch TV twice the amount of time they now play on mobile. Meanwhile, in the last two decades, the amount of eight-graders who watch TV more than four hours a day has halved. I would also venture to claim that playing a game is easily a thousand-fold more useful to you or your brain than watching gameshows and reality TV. (Of course, if people play two hours of Angry Birds on top of four hours of Big Brother and Celebrity Apprentice, we do have a problem.)

It’s been argued that gaming predicts academic success. Yet many people think, like I used to, that games are a mindless waste of time. And this is why I thought about this post while finishing Ratchet & Clank.

The final boss in the game, Doctor Nefarious, was painstakingly difficult to beat. It took us several evenings to finally find the right combination of Groovitrons, Warmongers, Pixelizers, rocketpack refuellings and Zurkon Jr. deployments to beat the Doc. What it took to overcome that final obstacle was a combination of resourcefulness and resilience.

I believe the notion of games being an easy pastime is rooted in a misunderstanding of what a great game is. Great games are not easy. In great games, the difficulty varies. At first, it has to be easy to not to churn players away. But then, it must also be maddeningly hard, to really commit you to playing. If you’re not challenged enough, you will soon grow bored with the game. (As a side note, I believe the same dynamics apply to learning too.)

A great game is not mindless waste of time, but rather a set of challenges that engage you again and again. A great game teaches you new ways to think, and it also teaches you resilience: not giving up in the face of adversity.  I bet every parent with gamer kids knows this well.

In discussing screentime, it might do us good to move from discussing the quantity of screentime to the quality of it. Every step we take do to guide people from mindless couch potatoes hypnotized by reality TV to engaged shiny eyed gamers is a step we should, in my opinion, take.

Or you can always also choose to watch a great movie.

The challenge is not the medium, but what we use the medium to convey.