Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Video Game Almost Ruined My Life

It was my 13th birthday. My family had a tradition of always going out to dinner on someone's birthday, and buying presents for each other has never been a popular practice. However just this one time, I decided to ask my mom if we could save the money that we would spend on a family dinner for my birthday and instead, buy a Nintendo 64 with the game Super Smash Bros. On only one of the handful of instances throughout my life, my mom agreed to fulfill my request. This was only the beginning of the my obsession with video games which simultaneously began the downward spiral of my life.. First it was Nintendo 64, then the new Gameboys, Playstation, Xbox, Playstation 2, Computers, and most recently the Xbox 360. The next generation of gaming consoles, the Xbox One and the Playstation 4  are set to release in the coming fall as well.

During middle school, my best friend introduced me to a new computer game that had just released called Starcraft. Starcraft is a real-time strategy game. These games incorporate developing economies and gathering resources, establishing defendable bases or fortresses with means of producing and training armies, and using those armies to attack and eliminate the opponent or opponents. Starcraft was an international success and there are professional leagues and communities dedicated to playing the game. South Korea is the country that is most recognized for popularizing the game and turning it into a profession. They have two cable television channels with programming dedicated to the game.

I immediately became obsessed with the game and in becoming the best I can be. At first I could only play against the computer and not against other people, but in 9th grade when my family gained access to the internet and bought a new computer, that's when the game transformed from a hobby into an obsession. I played the game religiously during high school. I skipped school often and in my spare time I played Starcraft. There was one point when I played over forty hours straight with no sleep, only stopping to eat or to use the bathroom. I met people and joined gaming communities known as "clans" or "teams". I made friendships with some of the other players which have continued even to this day. In short, I was playing more Starcraft than any other activity I did including sleeping. I was committed to being the best I could be and there were many connections to learning skills that were displayed while trying to get good at the game. I studied replays of professional players and learned their strategies and tactics. I practiced my mouse control and typing speed to get faster and more precise with hand movements. I studied replays of my own games to see where I can improve based on what mistakes I had made during those games. I analyzed statistics of my gameplay and gameplay of others, I broke down data about units and characters, their damage output to other unit types, characteristics such as speed and fire rate, strengths, weaknesses, counters to different units, tendencies of others players, time management, etc. I learned team strategies and tactics for any given situation. Due to my competitive nature, I took pride in being better than average at the game, and I took it pretty hard whenever I lost a game.

To give you an idea of how much I played. If you were to combine all of the recorded games from all of the accounts I had online, I probably had approximately 25,000 games played and remember that these are only the games that were recorded online. I played the game offline as well. Each game took anywhere from 5 minutes to over 1 hour. On average, each game probably took around 15 minutes. So this is only an approximation, but using math:

Total minutes played online: 25,000 x 15 = 375,000
Total hours played online: 375,000 / 60 = 6,250
Total days played online: 6,250 / 24 = 260

The total time I played online is approximately equivalent to 260 days. I spent almost 3/4 of a year of my life playing a video game. If you include the amount of time I played offline, and also included the amount of time I've played video games on consoles, this playing time would most likely total over a year. Wow. It's no wonder my grades were so bad in high school. This leads to the questions: Was there any educational value in this game? Why were video games more engaging to me than education?

Starcraft incorporates thinking about systems. You have to construct and main a economy, production, and manage your armies. It teaches you have to develop and identity you can associate with, and teaches you how to interact with others and with a complex system. It encourages taking on challenges without fear of consequences. It develops cognitive processes that can be generalized and applied to other areas such as multi-tasking, making processes automatic, learning how to analyze and apply new strategies and techniques from past failures, applying math to improve in a game, learning the responsibility of being a part of a team and how to function within a team, etc. Is there a way I can incorporate the use of video games in my practice to help develop cognitive skills? I don't know how practical it would be for me to use Starcraft to teach students how to analyze or teach statistics.

I carry a lot of regret from high school. Even though those events have led to me developing into the person I am today, I find myself constantly asking the question: What if I studied as much or even half as much as I played video games? The answer: I would probably have an advanced degree from a prestigious university or I would be some kind of doctor or lawyer by now. I think. And what if I took an approach to education in the same way I approached Starcraft? Would I have developed more intellectually and academically?

One of the most important challenges that educators face daily in their practice is the problem of finding ways to keep students engaged in academic tasks. I know from personal experience, I will try reading long pieces of text and lose my focus, get bored, and take a break or even fall asleep. When I come home tired and sleepy, it's almost impossible for me to read or think critically and my ability to retain information goes out the window. However, when I'm tired or sleepy and I play a video game, my attention and thinking become more focused. I'm awake, engaged, and want to play more. I do agree there are learning skills that are associated with video games that educators can utilize in their own practice like the skills as described by James Paul Gee in his article "Good Video Games and Good Learning". I wrote in the above paragraphs about several techniques and skills often found and encouraged in educational settings. Nevertheless, I think the greatest potential lies in the motivating factor of video games. This leads to the question of how to transform education to become more "game-like" as Gee states in his article. Would that really be beneficial to all students?


  1. Jonathan,

    I found your commentary so interesting. It seems like most people we have heard from are advocates for making school more "game-like". It sounds like you think this is not such a good idea because it may be distracting from traditional learning, but how do you think your experience would have changed if it was more game like? Would you have been more engaged? It is hard to think about "what-ifs." It is interesting to think about though...

  2. Jonathan,

    Thanks for sharing your journey with video gaming and the impact that it has had on your learning. I was struck by your description of the mesmerizing and engaging nature of video games. I have friends who had similar experiences in high school and college. I have always wondered, "What's the draw?" However, your story has helped me to understand more the "intrinsically" motivating components of these games (if I'm allowed to apply that ed psych term here, albeit loosely). For example, you said that you could come home from a full day of work and be energized by gaming. The typical homework assignment doesn't have that kind of draw for me. Should it? Maybe as the cognitive load is shifted more to the student and they are given greater autonomy in their learning, learning may become more energizing?

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on the topic! They were very helpful and insightful!


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  4. Jonathan, I really enjoyed reading your blog. I too have had my share of video games that I seemingly couldn't put down given the free time. I also had to convince my parents to let me buy a Nintendo 64 in the mid to late 90's. The first game I bought was Super Mario kart and still enjoy playing it once in a great while. I never played Starcraft and am glad I didn't, because I would have probably played it just as much. lol I find that when I do get hooked on a video game that I am usually motivated to play it intrinsically. I want to beat it, and beat every aspect of it so that I can feel a sense of accomplishment of mastering the game.

  5. Thanks for sharing this powerful story, Jonathan.
    You might find it interesting to listen to a podcast interview that James Gee did three years ago, especially near the end when he gives a response to a question about much more extreme instances of the kind of obsession you describe with Starcraft. While seriously acknowledging the potential danger of such extreme behavior, he reminds listeners that such cases are rare, and he also raises questions about what it is about the kind of void that a well-designed game fills for people, and here his narrative overlaps with yours as he describes some of the powerful and compelling challenges it offers, challenges that aren't being offered at school or at work.