are games actually good for people?
The question posed is actually impossible to answer. There is no absolute right or wrong when it comes to this issue. As a creator in the world of interactive media, I do have an insider's look into the pain and struggle that make games come to life, and the incredible array of multidisciplinary effort that makes such experiences possible. At the same time, I have also been a firsthand witness to the destructive effect that gaming addiction can have on people's lives.
Within all of this, however, it is worth stepping outside the realm of designing games and considering, from the viewpoint of a designer, the impact that games have on our audiences and on society as a whole.
For the first time, the World Health Organization (WHO) 2018 International Classification of Diseases includes a subsection for a "Gaming disorder" under "Disorders due to addictive behaviors." Its description states,
"Gaming disorder is characterized by a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour (‘digital gaming’ or ‘video-gaming’), which may be online (i.e., over the internet) or offline, manifested by: 1) impaired control over gaming (e.g., onset, frequency, intensity, duration, termination, context); 2) increasing priority given to gaming to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other life interests and daily activities; and 3) continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences. The behaviour pattern is of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning. The pattern of gaming behaviour may be continuous or episodic and recurrent. The gaming behaviour and other features are normally evident over a period of at least 12 months in order for a diagnosis to be assigned, although the required duration may be shortened if all diagnostic requirements are met and symptoms are severe."
There is a similar subsection subsection for "Hazardous gaming" under "Problems associated with health behaviors." In a chillingly similar description,
"Hazardous gaming refers to a pattern of gaming, either online or offline that appreciably increases the risk of harmful physical or mental health consequences to the individual or to others around this individual. The increased risk may be from the frequency of gaming, from the amount of time spent on these activities, from the neglect of other activities and priorities, from risky behaviours associated with gaming or its context, from the adverse consequences of gaming, or from the combination of these. The pattern of gaming is often persists in spite of awareness of increased risk of harm to the individual or to others."
These entries are in response to the increased use and consumption of video games all over the world. The South Korean government imposed a midnight gaming ban to combat online addiction to a select group of online games, in order to protect their students. China has established military-like camps to treat internet addiction. In the US, internet addiction rehab centers modeled after programs designed for substance abuse are also opening and guides for dealing starting to feel more relevant.
In contrast, the American Psychological Association has published a paper, "The Benefits of Playing Video Games" (2013) that recognizes the powerful impact that games can have on developing children's learning, health, and social behaviors. They discuss the emotional, cognitive, and social benefits of gaming, pointing out research that has been done in this field and also pointing out gaps in which more research could be done to capitalize on and use the power of games.
The paper also includes a significant section on how well designed games can have a great impact on the treatment of mental health disorders, and are a great educational tool for teaching people how to cope with these sorts of issues.
As designers who are working in a dominantly digital environment, it is worth struggling with the reality that games aren't always good for people, because games can have such transformative power beyond the experience itself. These worlds have the power to affect the very minds and emotions of other human beings when designed correctly; what kind of responsibility does that bring, then, to designers?
It is easy to completely push the responsibility of the consumption of these worlds we create onto the players as individuals, to create distance between ourselves and the issue being discussed. In many ways, it is also a struggle that seems largely pointless and futile; technology isn't going anywhere, and it will only become ever more ingrained into the fabric of modern life, and as a medium, games are what push the development of interactive technology ever further. It is a question of responsibility and accountability, and how much we decide to take on our shoulders as designers of these experiences. Indeed, being a game designer seems to be at odds with caring about this issue at all; the ultimate goal of our work is to keep players engaged and coming back for more. The scale of the question is similar to asking the owner of a vineyard if she feels responsible for enabling alcoholism.
This question is further complicated by the fact that games themselves exist on a vast spectrum; there are specifically games designed with more blatant malicious intent (like casino games), to those that are primarily motivated by being experiences to be enjoyed. Being practical, all games need to make money somehow in order to support the people who make them. The extent to which the design is affected to take these motives into consideration is crucial when considering this question. (Battlefront II controversy, anyone?)
And yet, as circular as this discussion may be, I believe it is still a worthwhile circle to run. Asking how much responsibility we have as designers for this growing issue isn't a question that is meant to have a concrete answer, but the act of struggling itself is worthwhile in the practice of being an empathetic human being. Understanding motives is key to understanding design that echos with desires. Struggle is the refinery for skill.
Personally, the moral dilemma here is one that I face every single day. One of my siblings has suffered from gaming addiction from the age of seven or eight to the detriment of his academics, his friendships, his relationship with our parents, his physical well-being, his confidence... It has been a long, and heartbreaking journey for my family, which makes for a strange juxtaposition with my career choices at the dinner table.
I largely channel my frustration with this question into analyzing the "why" of every single layer of games I play, games I create, experiences I consume, interactions that I have with people. Through this, I've developed a layered lens of the world; I am hard coded to see the surface mechanics while simultaneously analyzing the underlying motives on several different levels. It's often disorienting and I've needed to develop extensive systems around daily life because it can make it difficult for me to function, but I fundamentally believe that this makes me a better designer, and human being overall. I have to. What would you say?