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The dangers of an adolescent, abusive relationship with gaming

We need a proactive and empathetic understanding of why some teenagers seem glued to their screens.

By the age of fifteen my PS3 was my entire world
By the age of fifteen my PS3 was my entire world. Photograph: Getty Images

Confusion, embarrassment and an overwhelming sense of disappointment are all emotions people associate with their first time.

This isn’t the case however, when it comes to discussing the first time you fall in love with a video game, especially if that game happens to be Pokémon Red/Blue. For me, it was playing Crash Bandicoot Warped on my friend’s PS1. After my first taste of the enjoyable platformer I was totally and utterly enchanted with gaming of every sort. Many of my friends moved on as they grew up, but my fascination only increased. By the age of fifteen my PS3 was my entire world and I did little else with my time. Gaming was no longer a leisure activity – it was the focus of my existence.

This was, as you can imagine, a profoundly unhealthy relationship. It wasn’t just that I was wasting my time – I was actively avoiding the pressing emotional realities of growing up. I don’t believe that I was alone in experiencing this enforced hermithood. Innumerable young men across the planet use gaming to hide from the unpleasant process of growing up, to the bafflement of their parents and wider society. This is my attempt to convey what is really going on in the minds of the world’s young couch potatoes.

As well as having to deal with a hormonal tsunami and appearance of acne, teenagers are obligated to contend with an array of societal demands on their character. Along with added responsibilities, adolescents are imbued with the desire to claim some level of status and respect from wider society. Young men have always been obsessed with gaining recognition – in some cultures this might take the form of military service, or in gang culture, or in higher education. Video games can meet the same longing, but in the form of a solitary, unproductive leisure activity.

When one achieves a high level in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (games like World of Warcraft) there is an automatic respect given by other players. Gaining status in these games requires hours and hours of hard work, but it’s codified and easy to understand. While personal progress in the real world is uncertain, virtual progress is measured in numbers. The player knows that the repetition of certain actions will be rewarded by a visually pleasing confirmation of advancement. The drive to go out and achieve something in the real world is thus circumvented. The unpleasant feelings that propel us into action are self-medicated through participation in far safer virtual realities. The game doesn’t necessarily have to be a social one – as long as the player is rewarded with a coherent simulation of status and authority it is vulnerable to be overused. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mindless shooter or a story driven role-playing game, the seductive opportunity to medicate one’s cognitive growing pains can be hard to resist.

What makes this process so damaging is the isolation it inflicts upon the individual. Thousands of hours that should be spent learning the rules of basic social interaction are thrown to the wind. Conversing with girls becomes an insurmountable challenge and the teenager is further burdened with feelings of inadequacy and frustration. Once the increasingly despondent individual has become accustomed to avoiding these feelings it becomes difficult to break out of the cycle.

When an adolescent has answered every life issue with obsessional gaming since the age of thirteen, he is woefully ill-equipped to step up to the mark. This disempowerment is something that can hamper development for a long time – despite the fact that I’ve managed to fashion something equating to a happy existence, I am still living with the legacy of my ill-spent youth. I didn’t climb trees or ride my bike through the countryside – I sat in my room and hid from the intimidating world of expectations and pretty girls.

If a mother spots that their son is dealing with their problems through consumption of drugs or alcohol, it is unlikely that they will look the other way. The danger with abusive gaming is that it is accepted by society. A mum is far more likely to tut and complain about the PS3 than call an intervention. That’s not to go over the top – I acknowledge that the vast majority of people can enjoy video games for what they are, an absorbingly and brilliant way to relax and have fun. I merely wish that I could travel back four years, give my fifteen-year-old self a hearty slap round the face, throw the PS3 out the window and get him a girlfriend.

 There’s an awful lot of fear-mongering about video games, but most of it is total cobblers. There needs to be a deeper, more empathic narrative regarding the relationship many young males have with gaming. Panic-stricken headlines help nobody, but a proactive understanding of why some teenagers seem glued to their screens may prevent a lot of demotivated young men from chronic underachievement.

To witness Will Hazell try and figure out how hashtags work, visit @WiltHazell