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Can video games make you a better person?

For many, video games are simply a recreational activity. After a long day of work, it can feel great to sit back and zone out to a game of Overwatch or League of Legends. But thanks to technology and gaming advances, video games offer much more than relaxation and distraction; players are now able to explore new relationships with themselves, peers, and humanity. Video games may actually make you a better person.

Moral choices are no longer black or white

Moral choices are a classic gameplay mechanic. Games such as Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption, and Infamous let the player act as the hero or villain, depending on the choices they make. But, the issue with these choices is that the game is predefined. The game already knows if the decision is “good or bad.” In Infamous, the main character discovers a drop-supply of food. If the player chooses to give the food to the nearby starving crowd of people, the character will earn “good karma.” The player can also electrocute the crowd and keep the food for themselves, which would earn the character “bad karma.”

Now there is a new twist. No longer are you always judged on the moral decision that you make.

In the 2013 indie game, Papers, Please, the player is in control of an immigration officer in the fictional, dystopian country of Arstotzka. The player’s main objective is to process visas to earn money to take care of their family. The more visas the player processes correctly, the more the player can earn. As the player progresses through the game—just as in real life—they need to make challenging, often difficult decisions. When a couple prepares to enter the country, but the woman fails to produce a necessary document, do you allow her to pass? Or do you separate her from her husband? Do you change your mind even though she claims she will be killed upon return? Does it matter that you will receive a fine (which you cannot afford) if you spare her life?

Unlike many other games, Papers, Please does not tell you if what you did is “right” or “wrong.” It’s up to the player to be introspective. It’s up to the player to weigh the morality of their behavior.

Surviving the zombie apocalypse

In DayZ, a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game based in the zombie apocalypse, a player is initially ill-equipped and must scavenge for food, supplies, and tools in order to survive.

There are two elements that make DayZ unique. The game features “permadeath,” which means that when a player’s character is killed, they will have to start the entire game over again from the beginning. And the biggest threat that the player faces is not from zombies or nature, but other players.

DayZ adds to the tension by not giving players directions or restrictions on how they should interact with each other.

While it may seem smart to work together with other players, there is always the risk that a “new friend” will shoot you in the back and steal all your supplies. Knowing this, players are faced with real-life moral decisions every time they interact with a new “human.” Some players instinctively play as a “good guy” while others capture other players and force them to fight in mortal combat or leave them stranded on an island to starve.

While it may seem smart to work together with other players, there is always the risk that a “new friend” will shoot you in the back and steal all your supplies.

Chris Livingston, a writer for PC Gamer, documented his experiences playing DayZ in the appropriately named “Hey, Are You Cool?” article. By approaching every player with the declaration of “friend,” Livingston saw the spectrum of human actions and reactions—from being given supplies and forming alliances to being robbed and killed.

Brendan Caldwell, a writer for Rock Paper Shotgun, discussed his feelings after he explored the game as a troll. “It isn’t that DayZ is a catalyst for cruelty any more than it’s a catalyst for kindness. It’s just that, when you’re playing a cruel game set in a cruel world and that game is ostensibly a role-playing game, you begin to think: should I be cruel too? I’ve already shot a guy. How much crueler can I get? And then, when you start to explore all the possibilities, it turns out the answer to that question is: A LOT.”

This realization can be troubling to some people. “The truth is that DayZ is just a generator of feelings,” says Caldwell. “Malice, pity, guilt, empathy, fear, reprieve—they come at you in waves. Sometimes they come when you don’t expect them.”

“Distracted conversations” improve relationships

Video games can also serve as a way to improve relationships with others. Ubisoft’s Vice President of Digital Sales, Chris Early, used his shared interest in video games to spend time with his son. Not only did the two share epic gaming moments, but they were able to deepen their relationship.

Early talks about “distracted conversation” and how having another activity to focus on allowed he and his son to broach conversation topics that would normally be difficult.

“I remember conversations about college applications while we were sitting on the couch,” shares Early. “He was stressing out about the whole thing and couldn't figure out a way to bring it up, but here we were, in the middle of playing Halo and he's like, ‘Yeah, I'm having trouble with my entrance essays.’ I was like, ‘We should work on that instead, but I'm glad you're talking to me, so let's just keep playing and we'll get all this out and we'll make there be no consequence for having brought it up, about losing the game moment.’”

Video games also allowed Early to create a safe environment, free from consequence, where he and his son could develop their relationship dynamics.

Video games also allowed Early to create a safe environment, free from consequence, where he and his son could develop their relationship dynamics.

“There were times he would get frustrated at the fact that I was holding up his progress and I'm sure there were other times when I was frustrated with him,” shares Early. “Now we have this interesting modeling of behavior, which is, hey, conflict arises, you deal with it, and then you move on and things can be enjoyable again. Boy, wouldn't that be great if every teenager had that experience with their parents and was able to count on that later in life?"

It’s not just Early and his son either, research shows that 78 percent of teens feel that playing online games strengthens the relationship they have with their friends. Other studies show that while shy gamers are better at making friends online than in real life, gaming may help bridge the gap.

When a game is more than a game

When Turbine decided to shut down Asheron's Call, a 74-year-old man named Julien recorded a video saying goodbye to the MMO that he had been playing for 17 years. In an interview with Waypoint, Julien said, “I love meeting people. I love chatting with friends. That's my greatest thrill in life: Having friends and being able to talk to friends. And that's what the game gave me. That's the biggest shocker of this whole shutdown. I'm going to lose contact with all my good friends."

Video game connections

Julien’s loss shows the power that video games have when gamers from around the world can forge relationships. In one moment, he recalls a touching tale of how his community worked together after one of their friends passed away from a stroke.

"Everybody pulled together. I found out where his wife lived. I also got together all the people in our group and guys got songs going, they got a video going. It was unbelievable. We all went to Eastham [location in the game] with our characters and stood in a circle for this memorial for this gentleman. I sent the tape to her in Texas. To me, I was blown away with the whole procedure, but can you imagine how she felt, that her husband was such a factor in the game?"

Video games and empathy

Video games are a powerful tool to understand others and their experiences. One particularly great example is That Dragon, Cancer, which was released in January 2016. The game was created by Ryan and Amy Green and is based on the true account of their third son Joel, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at just twelve months old. Doctors informed the Greens that Joel had months to live, but Joel went on to live for four more years.

From the onset, the player knows that there is no miraculous story where Joel recovers. Instead, the game is an exploration on the decisions and hardships that the Greens faced. Small victories such as Joel finally falling asleep or making him laugh feel incredibly fulfilling.

That Dragon, Cancer is the best of games,” says Colin Campbell, in his review on Polygon. “It reveals to us what it means to be a fellow human being finding the strength to survive terrible circumstances. It shares through words, pictures, sounds and actions. The actions give us a sense of the pain of others. They show, rather than tell. This story is unique in that it tackles the most dreaded of human experiences in the form of a video game.

Video games are not just a great way to have fun; video games can provide us with a safe space to learn from ourselves, connect with each other, and empathize. These skills don’t just stay in our save files, they carry on with us into real life. Again, and again, and again.

Edwin Zee is a writer and comedian living in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wonderful wife, Chelsea. He enjoys playing cards, wearing hats, and watching birds. Contrary to popular belief, he is not 80 years-old. Find more of his writing at edwinzee.com and at Twitter at @eddiemczee.

Original illustrations by Chelsea Larsson.

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