Friday, October 27, 2006

Gaming and time

I just finished answering a lot of questions about WoW. Very few of them were about research, most were about the fear of addiction, and the fear of misspent time.

Time is a big deal for those who care about a player who is not able to control his or her own time in relation to the game. Time spent ingame is time spent not interacting with those non-players you live with. This is however not a problem that is limited to people playing WoW. Academics know it well - one of the most dangerous periods for an academic marriage is when one of the spouses is doing their PhD. The work takes so much time and so much mental energy that you neglect the people who are not involved in te topic. It is also very easy to become infatuated with somebody who really understand what you are trying to do, and can help out.

While gaming isn't the same as a PhD, there are similarities between games and other challenges. What we all need to learn, often the hard way, is to prioritise our time. In group based play, such as the level 60 or endgame play in WoW, your use of time influences not just the people around you in the physical world, but also people on computers all over the world. Drop out of a raid, and 39 other people are influenced by it.

To deal with the dual demands of the partners in the flesh world and partners in the game world, players need to learn to be extremely disciplined. To make it work well they have to establish routines to maintain all spheres, and not let the use of time blur too much. Some just can't do it, raiding and work and their loved ones and their health - the fact that there are only 24 hours and some of those must be spent sleeping doesn't add up. And if it is a choice between spending your precious time helping 39 people who think you are a great main tank get through Black Wing Lair, or spend it doing dishes, laundry and other chores... Well, I know what I think is more fun. And those dishes will wait, right?

A lot of what is mistaken for addiction is this kind of prioritising between conflicting demands. I grew up with a mother who loved her garden over everything. From spring to fall, she was outdoors planting, weeding, tending, picking. She left cooking, doing dishes and cleaning to her children, including tending to each other. She hated to have to make dinner at a certain time, so she made us do it. My patient father ate endless amounts of burned fish pudding and badly cooked potatoes, while the garden was an amazing jungle of flowers, herbs, vegetables and berries. Was my mother addicted to her garden? She ignored her children, she let the work in the garden come before participating in our lives, before other chores and the health of others (all that burned fish pudding can't have been healthy), and she was mentally and socially absent. But who would use the word "addiction" about this activity? She just thought having a nice garden was important, and anyway, we learned to cook, clean and do dishes early, and became very independent.

Prioritising time isn't easy, and time is probably the real currency available to individuals today. Money is a way to buy or swap time. The other big hard currency is energy, but individuals only trade in energy when we swap time (money) for it. So when somebody spends a lot of time on an activity we don't share, we think it is wasted - wasted as it would be if the person spent all their hard earned money on fancy clothing or a big powertool that's never used, to use some examples I suspect some of the worried parents may recognize... And so time becomes a field fraught with conflict and a source of power-struggles in all kinds of relationships. When gaming adds to all the other things which use time, of course gaming will cause problems for kids, teens, adults, partners and everybody else who share time. Until we have worked ways to negotiate this into the daily set of etiquette it will continue to be an issue.

When my kids were younger, the meetings at their school were about how many hours the kids in their class should be allowed to watch television. Now parents of kids that age discuss how many hours their children should be allowed to play games. The need to help kids administrate their time is real. The activities that needs to be negotiated are interchangeable.


s4dfish said...

Great post. It's a nice change to see someone put "game addiction" into the larger context of hobbies. Yes, people can spend too much time with a hobby, but to label it 'addiction' seems to minimize the problem of 'real' addiction. And by real I am referring to physical, chemical addiction.

bw said...

I agree. It it very problematic to label too much time spent with a hobby or game as an "addiction." Great post!

SLS said...

I think the competition for our attention/time is getting more intense as it becomes more profitable. Of course media corporations like television companies and games publishers want you to spend more time on their products - it makes them more money. So their marketing campaigns are intense, and for children, quite hard to resist. the increasing commodification of leisure time has meant time management has become an issue for more people for more of their 24 hours of every day. I take your point about our mother gardening - and that was not about profit seeking media corps (well, not that I can see anyway), but it seems to me that games in particular are very good at creating the mechanisms (like the 'state of flow' from Csikszentmihalyi for instance) that are seductive and hard to resist. Not sure where I'm going with this ....

Torill said...

sls, I don't disagree with any of those issues. I also think that computer games solve a lot of other problems for parents, such as how to keep children busy with a relatively safe activity, while we are busy consuming the pleasant commodities we are filling our lives with. The main point is that "addiction" is a far too simple label. If we say it's all because games are "addicting", we stop looking at other issues, such as the marketing and commodification of leisure time which you mention.

One of my hobby horses - which really is a hobby as I have done no research on the environment and expectations of teen agers - is that modern teen-agers get absolutely no real rewards for being good. "Do your homework and you will make lots of money in 20 years." At 12 and at 18 you want somebody to tell you right now that you have been doing great. At school you hear that you need to work harder, at home you are told you need to work harder, go out and you're told you need to look better, be in better shape, be more than you are - but the game gives you challenges which it's within your ability to overcome, and you get the reward right away! This makes me wonder if the overwhelming response people give games comes from a great need in our society for challenge, mastery and rewards.

SLS said...

I agree that power or empowerment is a real issue for kids - teenagers especially. Although I'm really aware that gamer demographics have changed and it's not just kids who are deriving satisfactions from games, it seems passibly clear that games are something tht they can not only gain mastery over, but can be better than adults at the same time. I'll never forget the glow on the face of the 12 year old boy I interviewed who told me all about his level 56 mage in EQ, and who had an uncle who was only a level 35. The uncle was always coming to him for advice. It was such a great role reversal for the kid to be the one with the knowledge and expertise and he was sucking it up!

I tend to think too, going back to the demographics changing, that as adults we don't get that much positive feedback about our work, or many other things in life and games do provide a reasonably quick route to a feeling of competency. (except if you really suck, like I do often, in which case it's a downward spiral!)