Saturday, 16 January 2016

Writing and Videogaming: A Marriage Made in Heaven or Hell?

We all know the media has something of a love-hate relationship with gaming and gamers - as in, they love how much they can get away with hating them. Whether that's on the PC, the PlayStation, XBox, Wii or any of the other game-playing doodahs, in the eyes of the chattering media classes gaming and gamers are responsible for all of society's problems and disasters.

Global Recession? That'll be all those bloody World of Warcraft players, buying their +5 Swords of Awesome with fake money in a fake world instead of their real money in a real world. Terrorism? That'll be the GTA players, racking up driving offences and bonking pseudo-human hookers in a fake Los Angeles. Polar ice-caps melting? Well.... that's probably gamers' fault as well, spending too long playing games and -  and overheating their plasma screens or something...

But the media aren't fools. They know they can't go ranting about a large section of society without presenting some sort of 'evidence' that what they're saying has some very specific scientific types nodding their heads and looking slightly perturbed. That's why they point to various 'studies' that have been done, suggesting that playing computer and console games will, in the long term, almost maybe lead to entire generations being incapable of communicating with other humans except in monosyllabic grunts, or bashing them in the face with a baseball bat and then running off with their wallet.

These 'studies' have been performed on children, so that tabloids like the Daily Mail in the UK can print articles with headlines like 'Computer Games Turn Children into Drooling Vegetables.' They've been done on adult males in the 16-25 age bracket, so those same tabloids can say things like 'Violent Computer Games Turn Sweet Innocent Young Men into Savage, Gun-Toting Criminals.' Whenever a violent crime takes place - particularly one where innocent people die - the first thing certain sections of the media leap on is the perpetrators' collection of video games. "Look, he played Call of Duty and Halo! That's how he learned to be a psychopath! "Ah, so the fact that he managed to get hold of an actual shotgun had nothing to do with it then...?

 (It always amazes me how many of the people that want violent videogames banned are the same people who will defend to the death their 'constitutional right' to keep a firearm in their house. You can't shoot real people with the guns in a videogame, guys... just sayin'...)

Yes, this type of nonsense does irk me because, as well as being a writer, I'm also a gamer. And so is my husband, my son and most of our friends. My son loves Minecraft, Dragon City and Plants vs. Zombies, and is doing very well at school in spite of The Studies' dire hypothesis that he should be semi-literate and have the attention span of a wasp. My husband plays Call of Duty and all the GTA series, and has managed to remain a mild-mannered Chartered Surveyor instead of morphing into Mr. T from The A-Team.

And me? Well, Gems of War is my main squeeze at the moment, but I like me a bit of  RPG-ing action as well, along with very occasional dips into online MMOs like The Elder Scrolls Online and DCUniverse Online (I am the very definition of 'casual gamer' in that sense; not so much 'love 'em and leave 'em' as 'likely to stand them up if they try and hold me to an actual, proper date.' I've heard of this concept that you can have 'maximum-level characters' in these games, but it's not something I'm ever likely to achieve.)

Buuuuuuut.... (you knew that was coming, didn't you?)

One of least productive time periods in my life for writing - heck, for pretty much anything, if I'm gonna be brutally honest here - was the four years I spent playing a certain game called World of Warcraft.

Looking back, I can see now that I was pretty cheesed off with my life. I was in a job I hated; a dull, dull office job where you could barely blow your nose without having to fill in a form, doing those menial hamster-jobs that never have an actual end to them but the world will still apparently fall down if they're not done, day after day until the end of time. I worked full-time Monday to Friday, while my husband's full-time job meant he had to work weekends - so we next to never had any free time together. We'd only recently moved to the area we were living in, and most of my work colleagues were a lot older than me and had families, so I spent most weekends on my own, catching up on chores and then... well, bumming around trying to find something to do until my husband came home. Now of course I wish I'd used that time to write - and sometimes I did, when the mood struck me. But most times it was easier to log on to World of Warcraft and lose myself in that for a few hours.

Because here's the thing; unlike real life, World of Warcraft - and indeed all other massively-multiplayer online games - reward you every step of the way for taking part. Sure, grinding to get those xp points can be dull as hell - but once you earned those points they're yours, and they are your guaranteed ticket to levelling up. And levelling up, in turn, is your guaranteed ticket to getting better gear, becoming faster, stronger and better and gaining access to a ton of other privileges not offered to the lower-level players. You put in the effort, you get the rewards; no debate, no procrastination. It's a fair, unprejudiced system for success.

Real life doesn't have a system like that. In real life, you can slog your arse off day after day for years, accumulating experience points by the trolley-load, and still never seem to level up. No wonder they're addictive for people who feel like they're treading water, just going through the motions of living. If I actually counted up the hours I spent pretending to be a cartoon hero in a make-believe computer world the total would probably horrify me. I could have spent them learning to become a better writer instead. But hindsight is like a plaster cast; only useful when you've already broken your leg.

I gave  up playing World of Warcraft when I finally quit that soul-sucking job. I haven't played it since, and haven't missed doing so. Didn't need it any more once the root cause of my misery was gone. And while I have discovered The Elder Scrolls and DCUniverse Online since, my writing is now my focus in life so I make sure that I do things in the right order; writing first, gaming when everything else is done. In fact, after a good session of writing the thought of playing an MMO feels more like a chore than a reward and I often don't bother.

I've seen certain writing and time management books that advocate shunning gaming completely, proclaiming it a deadly time-sink that will suck you in and lure you away from your writing or whatever projects are dear to you. Having experienced that siren call for myself, I get what they're saying but at the same time I believe they're thinking too simplistically. If you're reasonably okay with your life - and by that I mean you're not so drained of spirit that you go to bed most nights thinking about the next morning with a sinking heart - you can be a dedicated writer, artist or whatever and still play computer games in your leisure time. Even the most workaholic of writers need regular doses of non-writing fun.

If you are finding computer games addictive, I'd argue there are things missing from your real life that need fixing before you can even start to break any addiction to gaming, and working on those issues first will probably solve the gaming addiction as a natural by-product. If you have good intentions to write but somehow always end up gaming instead, change your schedule; be firm with yourself and make a plan to do x amount of writing before you're 'allowed' to play your game. And then stick to that plan.

But don't feel you have to give up gaming completely to have any hope of being a 'proper' writer, artist or whatever. Gaming is not evil like the media would have you believe, and it doesn't mean you're a hopeless loser who'll never amount to anything. Just ask Chuck Wendig, Rhianna Pratchett, Charlie Brooker, Jakub Szamalek, Dara o' Briain...

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