I mentioned in another article my teenage son's struggles with depression after the break-up of our family.  Having first lived for six months a life of going to school, coming home, going to bed, getting up and eating, and then going back to bed, he began to emerge after therapy and the first thing he started doing for himself was to resume playing video games.  He favorite games are those called First Person Shooter games (FPS) where the player either alone or with a team plays in a combat unit whose job is to search and destroy enemies (human and non-human).  The first person part comes from the fact that one view the whole game from behind the weapon one is using.

These games are very well constructed in that the graphics can be spectacular.  They are also very violent.  There is a whole literature saying that these games can make the player violent and also that they can become addictive, in the sense that a drug addict is addicted, with withdrawal pains and everything if one stops.  While I had seen them played I had never played one myself.  But I knew adults my age that played them for relaxation or to socialize with their children who played them.

My ex-wife, who tends to be a fearful person, felt that playing a lot of video games was bad as such (she rolls video games and television together as something she calls "screen time" even though the children had always been encouraged to read on their Kindles).  I myself was not so sure. So I looked into video games more carefully and am I glad that I did.



Did you know that in Korea (probably the video gaming capital of the world where it's possible to make a good living doing it) and Taiwan, people have been known to play a video game until they drop dead?  This is merely an extension of the image that some people have of the teenager or young adult locked in his darkened room eating junk food away from all human contact playing all day and all night (if possible).  When I didn't look at it very closely, this seemed to be what my son was doing after he stopped hiding under the blankets.  But then, rather than try to get him to do something else that he was not yet ready to enjoy, I decided to observe him for a while.  

I discovered that the modern video game player, especially in any team game, has a fairly sophisticated means to engage in intensive social contact with their friends.  Either the games themselves contain this as a function or the players can do it via a simultaneous Skype interaction.  My son wasn't alone after all.  He was hanging out with his friends.

The team games required a lot of fast problem solving and this included problems of social interaction.  The players had to make fast strategic decisions and they also had to communicate well to coordinate themselves as a team.  The games also had a steep learning curve, which I found the players helping each other through.  There were several types of mastery possible and required.  Some games were set in historical periods, and I found my son asking me questions about them.  They also learned about what they referred to as "glitches" in the gaming software, which enable them to break the rules to their advantage.  In the case of my son and some of his friends, this has led to an interest in computer programming, since some of these "glitches" can be added to the games by the players themselves.

In short, I realized (and I tell my son) that the video games he is playing is providing him with many of this things he needs in order to recover from his depression.  They provide him with a social setting (where he still feels otherwise a bit shy in his face to face social interactions). They provide him with something he needs to master and (most importantly) a sense of mastery.  They keep him linked in to the culture of many of his peers.  They are fun (and a sense of fun is one of the hardest things to regain after having been depressed) and he looks forward to them.  In trying to study them more, he has been regaining his love of reading, and I have been seeing this spilling over into this school work.  In fact, reading; a desire to master things; learning math to become a better programmer; focusing on his music studies in school since music programming is part of gaming; a new desire to learn history and to learn English etc. all seem to be coming out of his video game experiences.

I have told him that he has to be careful of several things.  Since he is already a natural introvert, I remind him that while his social interactions on line are reasonable, they should not replace actual physical social interactions.  (To compromise for the time being, he has friends over or goes over to their houses on the weekends....where they play video games usually).  I also tell him that he should not become too sedentary, for the image of the overweight computer programmer is not exactly a myth.  But all and all, as a stepping stone back to the world from the pits of depression, video games seem to have been very good for him.

Of course, if I ever catch him playing Grand Theft Auto (a game where the player plays a professional thug and criminal) I'll break his neck.



unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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