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Why I Play Video Games (jackmcdade.com)
117 points by jackmcdade on Sept 17, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 65 comments

There are a lot of things that make videogames special with respect to all sorts of stress relief and recreational activities. I think games are special in ways exercise is not, and we should really appreciate why.

Games are uniquely a tremendous exercise of the mind and body. When compared to a laboratory game designed without violence, Medal of Honor improved the vision of congenitally-handicapped children while the laboratory game did not. The author of the study speculated that the violence in Medal of Honor put kids into more of a neuro-plastic mood, while its emphasis on hand-eye coordination exercised the brain, the eyes and the hands in a way that improved senses.[0]

The game trains your strategic and tactical planning and it helps you socialize through teamwork, but that wasn't tested. Suffice it to say, the same features cannot be said to exist in yoga, television, or cooking.

Games are also universal. Girls and boys, young and old, physically fit and physically infirm, poor and rich: pretty much everyone can enjoy a game.[1] It is a form of entertainment that is capable of demanding zero to full emotional, financial and intellectual engagement.

Compare to sports, where we can barely figure out how to have men compete fairly against women. Or playing music, where an instrument represents a minimum investment that immediately makes it inaccessible to many kids. As the most successful games favor a viral, free, multiplayer and social design, games have evolved in a Darwinian way to be as accessible and entertaining as possible.

I don't think it's bad to exercise or to be outside. I just don't think it's substitutable, and I think it's trivializing just how different Civilization is from canoeing. Without a doubt we ought to do both, but you can't learn diplomacy from an oar.

[0] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/28/science/how-video-games-co...

[1] http://www.theesa.com/facts/gameplayer.asp

"Games are also universal. Girls and boys, young and old, physically fit and physically infirm, poor and rich: pretty much everyone can enjoy a game.[1] It is a form of entertainment that is capable of demanding zero to full emotional, financial and intellectual engagement."

Really well put. My wife and I play FPS's as a way to chill out at night. Despite being violent, fast paced and the lobbies are typically full of boys, my wife loves it. As a result we purchased a 1ms response monitor, Scuf controller and new Billion (Broadcom chipset) fiber-ready modem so that we could play more competitively (financial-intellectual-engagement).

Anecdotally, we've both noticed our reflexes to real-world things such as driving, traversing busy sidewalks, making quick decisions, catching objects etc has improved. I guess when the difference between dead or alive is seeing something, forming a strategy of engagement, and pressing a combination of buttons while manoeuvering - all in the space of a second - helps you process unforeseen events a little quicker.

A sport that is uniquely suited for mixed genders is Ultimate Frisbee. As long as men guard men, and women guard women, it works out pretty well. I'd say it works better for mixed play than a sport like tennis, which features a mixed doubles bracket at each of the four major tournaments (Wimbledon, US Open, Australian Open, French Open).

By extension Ultimate is also well suited for a wide range of athleticism. For throwers (aka handlers) it is more of a skill sport, involving repeated practice of the throwing motion but not necessarily speed or strength, while receivers (cutters) typically rely on pure athleticism.

It also exercises the mind for me, as do all sports. I spend a lot of time thinking, on the field and off, how to improve my play, conserve energy, what my opponent's tendencies are, etc. If you're not using your mind playing sports, you're not doing it right.

As far as benefits from playing action video games go, improved vision is only a small part. Many other spatial skills benefit.

1. http://www.polygon.com/2013/1/30/3932876/research-playing-fi...

2. https://encrypted.google.com/search?q=site:rochester.edu+act...

3. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/228091955_Video_Game...

There are many good things to say about video games (after many studies about positive effects on brain development), but I've come to realize that there is also a huge downside: games satisfy your yearning for accomplishments and there seems to be a finite amount of that (one could say that they give you a cheap, false sense of accomplishment, even though what people achieve in games are often real accomplishments). So by achieving much in games, you will have less "hunger" left to pursue achievements elsewhere and this will potentially affect careers, relationships, self-development.

I have been stressing this to everyone I work with who have kids somewhat younger than myself for over a year now (I'm 24) when I realized how many of my friends ruined their lives playing video games. I have played a lot of video games since I was 3 years old and I still do every day, but I made a conscience effort to not let it affect me too much (although my grades in college could have been better). My brother, on the other hand, has been so obsessed with World of Warcraft that at the age of 22 he works part time at a department store without even a high school degree because he stopped caring about anything else in his life. Another of my friends spent 4 years coasting in college never choosing a major until he finally dropped out and now has $28k in debt with nothing to show for it but his own World of Warcraft characters.

Playing video games is good for you in moderation (it is what led me into a career in software), but I always try to stress to parents how easy it is for kids to get lost in the feeling of achievement. My brother is always talking about how he has "the most gold of anyone on the server" as though he is set for life but even now when my parents and I constantly try to remind him that his life isn't that great he is so far gone that there is no hope. Why be successful in real life when it is so easy to be "successful" in a fantasy world?

I played video games since 1976 with typing in code from books and magazines. Some programs were on tape and took 30 minutes to load.

In the late 1990's I wrote for websites strategies and even won several tournaments and won hundreds in cash and some perks. I even attended the first World Cybergames as a MVP.

In that time 1993 - 2003, I went to college, went to 7 semesters got a 3.95685 gpa (I could scream still why I got a B+ in my last class). I also started a non-profit organization gave almost 100,000 pounds of food to poor children in Florida. Started a record studio in 2000 and helped start two bands' careers that ended with them touring the world and landing on MTV. I ended up thousands poorer but it was a good experience and learned I am not the personality type to sit behind a mixing board and computer.

My Rules)

1) If someone asks me to do something in real life that I am doing on the computer, real life wins and I do it. So anyone says let's play basketball I play basketball.

2) I worked out 6 days a week for 20 minutes to 1.5 hours.

3) I volunteered about 5-10 hours a week.

4) I read about 2-3 books a month (Altered between fiction and non-fiction)

5) I did not watch tv or movies (instead of doing passive entertainment I always want to do active entertainment)

All of these went out the door when I got married in 2003. My wife HATES video games :) So now I play very sparingly. I started playing board games and those = video games to her. So I love my wife, kids and life so I choose not to annoy her with playing video games. I feel like I am less accomplished without games. I felt that they propelled me to always be an active person mentally. I missed them but I am guessing I will not be a active video game player in the future. Video games benefited my life.

I think the following separates you from the average games player and makes your story (interesting as it is) out of place:

> In the late 1990's I wrote for websites strategies and even won several tournaments and won hundreds in cash and some perks. I even attended the first World Cybergames as a MVP.

That's a productive career and time well spent; it is a fact that not everybody can have that outcome. (This reminds me of all the guys at school obsessing over football; the effect under discussion is not limited to computer games.)

For the average game player, time spent playing games is time not spent working towards some other achievement. This is precisely why I pretty much stopped playing games years ago and focus on spending my free time on other goals.

Maybe your brother 'lost' himself into world of warcraft for a reason. I am not saying that the apparent consequence of his gaming habits haven't lead him to be lacking socially accepted success in life, I am merely suggesting that your brother might have been in a completely different mental place than you and your family.

That being said, I do agree that moderation is probably key to balance in life.

Some basic exercise routines would probably have the same beneficial effects and a bunch of added ones as well. You can't replace video games with exercise altogether (2 hours is a pretty long workout), but making it part of your "unwind" routine would benefit you greatly.

Exactly, especially if your job has you sitting in front of a computer for most of the day.

Getting rid of my TV, unsubscribing from mailing lists and limiting the time I spend on reddit/facebook/hn/etc to 10 minutes a day was one of the best decisions I've made in a while.

> limiting the time I spend on reddit/facebook/hn/etc to 10 minutes a day

For anyone who struggles with limiting the time -- not necessarily for lack of self control, but simply losing track of the time spent, [this plugin for Chrome](https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/stayfocusd/laankej...) is a life saver!

I set it for exactly 10 minutes on sites, and once I cross that threshold, it redirects whatever page you're currently browsing to one that simply says "Shouldn't you be working?".

[This xkcd comic](http://xkcd.com/386/) unfortunately describes my personality to a tee. I've spent literally hours in a single day simply arguing with people on reddit over trivial things that don't matter. Having the abrupt redirect to a page that tells me to question how I'm spending my time is just the kick I needed to realize that, yeah, I should be doing something else other than arguing with strangers on the internet.

Yeah I also use stayfocused. 10 minutes is just enough to skim my facebook feed and check if there's anything interesting here on hn.

I'm a keen gamer and pretty serious about my fitness, and my experience is that they both have very different benefits. Exercise does have benefits that gaming doesn't, but gaming also has benefits that exercise - even quite "gaming-like" exercise like kickboxing - doesn't.

Depends on the person. I love to exercise first thing as it carries me through my day; conversely, exercising too late in the evening means I have trouble sleeping, and historically I'm more likely to find an excuse if I'm already tired from a day's work. Gaming, on the other hand, is a perfect evening activity for me. It's certainly possible to have both.

I do love hitting the gym as well. I usually go right before lunch :)

People are going to say that there's nothing about this that's specific to video games, which I guess is the point, right? You can work yourself to death if you want, but every piece of research I've read says that recreation -- up to a certain point, of course -- is going to be a long-term investment in your productivity.

My new post-work ritual is going for a nice run or lift and then ruining all of that physical activity with a beer/cocktail. On the upside, I'm getting more fit than I've ever been; on the downside, there are significantly less explosions along the Puget Sound than there are in Pandaria or Ivalice.

Absolutely true. Video games do it for me (I also hit the gym a few times a week, watch tv, play board games, etc), but they're certainly not a silver bullet. They just happen to intersect many points of entertainment and self-involvement, which makes them pretty ideal for clearing your head and winding down.

This article could just well be titled "Why I have a hobby/life".

Gaming, for better or for worse, represents a very low-barrier-to-entry sort of activity, where in fact good design intentionally structures games in a way to provide a gratifying learning curve and risk/reward. Yet I feel at some point in time we need to consider opportunity cost and externalities:

-Assuming that I have finite time and I derive similar amounts of joy playing video games and tabletop games, do I spend time grouping with old college roomies on Halo and shoot aliens, or do I try to coordinate a time with 4 other busy professionals, drive across town, grab some snacks, and roleplay some Call of Cthulhu on a weekly basis? Or maybe I hang out with some buddies at TechShop and we build a robot that uses facial recognition to launch whiskey shots at people?

-If I wanted to enjoy a narrative, do I allocate three hours, send an FB blast for movie buddies, and spend $15 sitting in a dark room with others watching a common story, or do I allocate 20-30 hours over a few days to experience the story of GTA V? Or do I pick up a book and spend a day to let my imagination take me to Westeros or Battle School?

-If I wanted to enjoy some music, do I play some Guitar Hero and press some controller buttons? Or join a structured choir? Or pick up some social dancing (a co-op music game with a social externality, essentially)?

I think gaming is FANTASTIC as an efficient way to get quick jollies, with a low barrier to entry as well as high skill requirement for advanced levels; MOBAs such as League of Legends or shooters such as Call of Duty come to mind for "gaming as a skill". However, I do think other activities such as swimming, cooking, biking, amongst others, provide different externalities. And for some people these things are just better in the long run.

PS -- I've had a long history of gaming since the NES came out and love it. It's just that personally I find it harder to manage and regulate my gaming consumption (attention span and time are the main caps) vs other activities, and I also feel that I've had less to show for as a gamer of twenty years (did the semipro Starcraft thing for a bit but not much more) than as a concert violinist of ten, or salsa dancer for five; so on and so forth.

That being said, the analytical mindset of optimizing resources given victory conditions in games probably was the main reason how I ended up being a data scientist. I feel strongly that a positive way to direct our "fun" towards something productive is powerful for individuals and beautiful for a society... but that's a later step in our happiness, and for a different conversation.

Personally I receive a great deal of angst when I try to make all my hobbies productive. If I watch TV and it's not a documentary or a classic, I immediately get the feeling that I'm "wasting" my time. I don't think this is healthy, and I think many could benefit from separating their productive and unproductive time completely.

"Productive" and "unproductive" are understandably pretty relative terms. I've accepted productivity is like efficiency -- I'm going to have some waste/inefficiencies and that's okay. That doesn't stop me from trying to make value judgments in choosing what I think are better activities for myself though.

Some people liken this to "hacking oneself"; I won't abuse the term "hack" quite so much, but I do think of it as a subproblem of "finding a job you love and you won't have to work a day in your life" -- finding a hobby you enjoy that enriches you as a person.

Great reply! I definitely agree with you all across the board. Video games do represent an interesting location on the Venn diagram of hobbies, in that they can have great storytelling, character development, action, immersion, and emotional involvement, as well as be just plain fun.

I'm also a big board game geek and will probably blog about that in the future. I have bi-weekly game nights at my place and really into the new(ish) wave of Living Card Games like Netrunner: Android. I really love the social aspect, kicking back for a few hours with beers and buds. And then they leave and I fire up my PS3 :)

Or you know. Spend time with my wife and kids. Usually that.

Would love to hear your thoughts on Netrunner: Android! Been thinking about getting into it but a bit unsure if it's something my significant other can get into as well.

It's a really cool game with some really interesting mechanics. What other games does your SO enjoy? Feel free to email jack {at} jackmcdade.com.

I used to play video games a ton growing up (most of the ones mentioned in the article). I have tried picking up modern games as an adult, but don't get quite the same thrill/zone as I did as a kid. I haven't felt immersed. I get that feeling now from rock climbing, cycling and skiing. I think it's because after spending all day working on programming, staring at a screen and working through challenges seems too much like work.

I know what you mean. I did more or less retire from video games for a while until a few solid ones brought me back. Honestly, everything Naughty Dog released is incredible. The Unchartered series and The Last of Us are absolute masterpieces in storytelling and immersion. I love my PS3 :)

I find playing certain old games I grew up with and have lots of mastery and muscle memory around unwind me very quickly.

Lots of modern games, puzzle platformers etc. just make me feel stressful.

(I also find watching retrogaming videos and longplay videos on youtube is almost as good of an unwinder)

Indeed. I think this has a lot to do with 'fluff'. More modern games have a lot of fluff to make the difficulty increase less abrupt and, of course, because we demand it.

There are a few games, even relatively new ones, that don't have much 'fluff'. They're often considered very difficult, but because they're so lean and well-designed, they don't generally feel unfair.

These games remind me of what I used to play growing up, and they often offer much more satisfaction in a shorter time-span.

A good, new-ish example of this is Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox, which at times feels overwhelmingly difficult, and yet after playing for a while you notice improvement. It rarely feels truly unfair, and I find it more enjoyable than 'fluffier' games.

Other examples would be games like Ikaruga, F-Zero.

I find I like to load up Axelay in an emulator and play a few levels. It has an amazing balance of playability and difficulty once you get how it works and is a very relaxing game to play through.

Strangely, I also love playing a few levels of Elevator Action. Something about jumping around and plugging bad guys from that little side arm is very satisfying.

Killer story lines, character development, a few hours of play a day... I recommend Portal. It's short, but it kicks ass. Not many games have I considered playing through a second time immediately after the first.

Portal and Portal 2 are both great games! Loved em both in every way.

Altough many user have already addressed most of the good and the bad of videogames, I feel like I must share my mind.

Videogames are an integral part of my life. They are my main hobby. I play them, I design them and I develop them. They are my main medium and form of art.

I like them for exploring new worlds. To have a safe place to interact with stuff, poke them and see what they do. To experience larger than life stories. And sometimes some tiny really intimate ones.

It's escapism, I know. But I usually escape to places where it would be impossible for me to go, or to be people I will never be.

To end this, I'll leave you with my favourite gaming add, the one that really sums up what I feel about this beautiful, expansive and still young medium: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Bqq38WZctA

I think "I started playing video games and now feel fantastic and am more productive" could be generalized to "I allowed myself to unwind after my daily routine and now I feel fantastic and more productive"

Anecdotally, I've recently started playing TF2 again after work instead of exclusively working on a side-project, and I'll be damned if I haven't slept better in months and have had more creativity and stamina to put toward my projects after work. For me, the takeaway from Jack's post was to just make sure you're giving your brain enough time to recharge. and think about other things.

Yup, you're definitely right. Video games are almost a short-cut to unwinding, but they're certainly not a silver bullet.

Holy crap! The author and I are on the exact same page. I reached crazy levels of burnout over a year ago, and I found out that the only thing that could take my mind off of my work was fast paced shooters, namely UT99. Little did I know, becoming an integral part of the old UT99 community (see globalunreal.com) has actually improved my ability to code tenfold while giving me some pretty invaluable team-building/management experience.

Dude are you kidding me, people are still playing UT99?? That was MY GAME back in the day! I was ranked in the top 25 and my buddy was #2 waaaaay back. I even got pretty hardcore into mapping and got a stage or two into regular rotation on a few servers.

Now I'm going to have to get my old gaming machine back out. Damn you sir. Damn you.


I actually play UT99. There are some of the mods that bring some very interesting game play.

Gaming certainly helps my reflects and keeps my mind sharp.

It probably doesn't have many players anymore, but my favorite mod was Thievery UT. I've played some rounds that were, no hyperbole, the most fun I've ever had playing games.

One of the guys involved was actually working on Splinter Cell and I'm pretty sure much of what we were experimenting with has, in some ways, influenced that game. And two of the guys ended up doing games full-time for Valve after working on Alien Swarm, and now Left 4 Dead. If only they'd do a new version of Thievery! Back to their roots...

Yeah man! Sign up for our tournaments and leagues! It's still going strong and actually seems to be growing since the advent of newnet, a modern netcode that smooths out gameplay a ton and lets people from all over the world play together.

I watched season 1 of house of cards on netflix. I noticed kevin spacey's character plated halo late at night to unwind. Realized it would probably work for me too, so I bought the new metal gear game on xbox the other day. So far it's working.

I suspect that it was a paid product placement and it seems to have worked on you although it wasn't HALO or an Xbox itself that you bought.

Awesome, that's a great show too and a great reference in the media :)

You don't have kids, do you?

I have not played anything but short streaks of casual games since the infancy of my first, maybe with the exception of 2011/12 winter break, when I snatched a $0 deal on Broken Sword reissued for iPad and played for several days in a row, which was very recreational indeed.

I do actually -- I have 2 boys, 4 and 18 months old. They go to bed around 8pm and my wife at 11pm or so. I'm self-employed and work from home, so I stay up for a few hours and game (or work some more depending on the week), and then sleep in until 7:30 or 8. It works out pretty well, not gonna lie.

You just convinced me to never have kids.

Oh? Why's that?

You shouldn't need escapism to be functional. You were burned out, that's what should be avoided. Like gambling, video games provide a reward loop that keep people coming back to them, and it only gets worse.

It's odd that people in general want to stop watching television and enjoy life more, but get involved with video games, which is just as mind numbing as television.

I also find it very odd that in a website such as Hacker News, where hackers praise themselves as smart and productive people get carried away by playing games, which hardly generates anything.

Such as the studies that showed that by playing chess, you get better at chess, playing video games will make you better at one thing, playing video games. There are some side gains, but they are negligible. One would benefit a lot more from other activities.

Well, what about fun? Both for games and television I'd argue that they're fine in moderation, and that it depends on what particular game or film/show.

The Wire? Awesome and very educational. Planescape Torment (or other RPG's)? Better, in some ways, than a great book.

Also, chess is a game too, so really just a subset of 'games'. I don't really see what you're trying to point out with that comparison.

you're probably resetting your brain's systems and reassuring your brain that, yes, there are systems with a logical flow from action to consequence to success and reward! Probably not a bad way to avoid burnout.

I also think that video games give you small victories and and sense of achievement, and failure can be undone. It's a good (albeit unrealistic) type of positive reinforcement that keeps me from getting too hard on myself.

This article really hit home for me, as I had a similar experience this year: burnout after high-stress software dev (after which I didn't even want to look at code), followed by getting back into gaming, then suddenly finding renewed motivation for (and enjoyment of) programming.

How do I limit my game-time to 1 hour daily? Easy, I set the Family Timer on my Xbox. I know the password, so I can extend it, but at least it's a conscious decision. I'd highly recommend this approach to anyone who wants to try out gaming but is afraid of it sucking away too much time.

The point about having an outlet to destress is a really good one; its something I struggle with (feeling guilty about "wasting time" even though I know some amount of relaxation is necessary to stay productive).

Tangentially related, the author's product looks awesome too. I'm probably going to need to make some websites for my parents businesses soon and I'd like something that I can maintain happily with emacs but that they can post to and modify from their browser; this thing looks like it might just be the ticket.

That's the biggest thing I came to grips with, which really has nothing to do with video games. You need to balance work with the rest of your life. Family is important. Faith (to me) is important. Friends, fitness, and food are all important (and all start with "F").

Video games worked as a tool to help me disconnect from a brain that was lying to me, telling me that I should be working. That I should be billing. That I should be devoting even more time into my work. When in fact, the opposite was true. Less of me, more of everything else, and everything began to work out.

And relating to your tangent, let me know if you have questions about Statamic just shout {at} jackmcdade.com. That sounds like a perfect use case for it :)

Why did he pick one up from craigslist? People are overpricing them so much. I found new ones on amazon for the same price.

$250 for a PS3, 4 controllers, and 25 games wasn't a bundle I found on Amazon :)

Superb deal. But consider having PS+ one year subscription. Totally worth it.

in a local bookstore here, I found one for 125 for a refurbished one :)

I've been getting so many recommendations for games I had to update the post. Thanks for the great feedback, I'm glad my post resonated with so many of you!


Jack, you need to finish Bioshock, one of the best story-lines in a game I've ever played.

My top 3 games:

Red Dead Redemption

Deus Ex (the very first one)


I also think this is why I find myself enjoying good TV so much more now that I'm full-timing my startup. I can just sit, relax, and totally focus on something else for an hour a night.

I plan to :) I got a little bit caught up in the older-school graphic style, big chunky HUDs and whatnot, but I think I'm really only a few hours from the end. I plan to finish it real soon.

I also watch tv with my wife regularly. I'm a fan of many, many good shows.

I'll second the recommendation on Bioshock. Such a great storyline. It's set in a world that follows the tenets of Objectivism.

My top games are: Bioshock Infinite, Bioshock 1, and The Last Of Us.

Sounds like he just needed some stress-relief, rather than video-games specifically...

I really think video games are a sweet spot in the stress-relief category. Reading (I'm an avid reader) didn't cut it, watching movies or tv, running, weight lifting... none of them relax me like gaming. Well, maybe drinking, but that's a different story :)

A bit of self-promotion here. If you're into games, and like hearing two guys rant about them, you should check out my gaming podcast: www.chips-and-bits.com and tell me how terrible it is. Feedback welcome, of course.

Hi, Jack.

Well hey there Kenny! I'm definitely gonna check out your podcast. I see Joel and Ellie there on the homepage so I definitely need to see what that's all about.

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