The paradox of social video games

Despite the entertainment value and fun video games provide, video games may be making us more depressed as a society.

More socially-oriented video games like MMORPGs prey on our fear of loneliness and desire for companionship. But these games fulfill our desire in temporary and minimal ways, keeping us addicted to fleeting sources of social activity and never quite satisfying us over the long term to build the most personally meaningful experiences. In this way, social video games are a false panacea to our isolation and loneliness.

To fulfill our social desires, we need to keep playing these video games – especially if video games are our main source of social interaction. We hole ourselves up in our game dens, hooking up to gaming headsets to transport ourselves to another world. But the technological requirements needed to play are very isolating. LAN parties are not the norm, and they require more coordination than is sustainable for most gamers.

In college, I met several upper-middle-class children who grew up without siblings and with parents who worked long hours. We all ended up playing MMORPGs in our middle school years. And we all had to acknowledge and address our addictions to these games – never returning to these virtual worlds after graduating high school.

Why did we all grow out of these comfortable spaces? My hunch is that living in college dorms and building in-person social communities within these spaces weaned us off MMORPGs. A few other less outgoing students who lived in my dorm holed themselves up in their rooms playing video games though, and virtual spaces like League of Legends seemed like a convenient escape and/or coping mechanism for socioemotional struggles.

Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections spoke a bit on technology’s impact on our social relationships during his talk with Ezra Klein: “Is modern society making us depressed?”

According to Hari, reciprocal relationships help loneliness – not just access to people and people who provide services for you. We’re not that individualistic. We want people who need our help and contributions. We don’t want to feel like charity cases. I would rather have a friend who needs me like I need her – rather than a friend who makes me feel unneeded. Since humans are social animals, we need to feel needed by other people (even if that is just one other person).

Depression and anxiety are responses to unmet needs. If unmet, we often resort to virtual worlds, drugs, and other escapes from reality.

A great use of technology is to facilitate in-person interactions, much like how Meetup.com and Tinder operate to bring people together. I’ve been trying to find an app to make friends, but there’s a strong stigma where people assume that people who need an app to make friends have severe social issues (which is not entirely untrue, depending on how you define social norms).

Given all this, I think board games may be a much better tool for mental health, education, and social change than video games. Social relatedness is a huge intrinsic motivator, and this can be leveraged naturally by in-person board game interactions. If we could use VR to bridge this gap to successfully trick the brain and mimic in-person interactions, this may be functionally ideal but potentially over-reliant on technology to stay happy and healthy.

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