Updated: Jul 26, 2020
With most households playing more games than ever during the pandemic, this was the perfect time to engage in some nostalgia while looking at the debate of whether video games are ultimately a good or bad force in the world. You'll find that as with many things, games like Fortnite are a Golden Goose that can give to you, or they become a Golden Goose for someone else.
Computer Creator versus Console Consumer
My parents were not a fan of console games, but preferred computers because "a computer is a tool." As it turned out, that decision gave me a technological edge in life because while other people's children were only playing closed systems such as Nintendo, I started at 9 years old typing on the command line with an IBM PC AT clone (286) computer my father bought mainly to use for a business he co-founded.
My uncle, a technophile who worked at defense contractor McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing), was our family IT guru and I used to sit behind him as a kid while he typed away at our computer using MS-DOS commands. It was like magic to me. You could make the computer do your bidding!
For lifelong learning, the unglamorous computer wins over glamorous Nintendo. This is the IBM AT clone we owned (though we had EGA with a sparkling 16 color display).
Because of this upbringing, not only did I play games, but with a starter kit from my uncle, I'd try to create my own using QBasic. We grew up with Madlibs, so I created a game that pulled words from dictionary files and randomly added them to a pre-set story. I called it "Radlibs!" to avoid copyright infringement. It had color, music, the works, but unfortunately I lost the source code.
Once we had AOL and the internet, at the age of 13 I started an email group where I shared the most interesting programs written in BASIC I'd found around the 'net. Through the group, I met highly accomplished people who taught me I had a lot to learn.
Did this keep me from playing console games? Not at all, I played them all the time with my friends, and enjoyed the competive aspect of sitting next to your friend as you crushed them (or were crushed) in Evander Holyfield's Real Deal Boxing or Goldeneye 007.
Growing up with Games
Computer games were plentiful and accessible thanks to the shareware revolution and plentiful demos, and I found ways to tinker with files to show friends how to make the game operate with less gravity in Carmageddon, or more "ludicrious gibs" in Duke Nukem 3D. Monkey Island made us laugh, The Bard's Tale and Life & Death made us think, and Wolfenstein 3D tested our reflexes.
After making friends in the "demoscene", an underground group of coders, artists, and musicians, my dad and I partnered to produce and release an album of music by a record label we started called Trakked Records (demoscene music was called "tracker music"), with the first release, MindTrap, from a Finnish musician going under the handle Nitro. Even being ahead of the EDM craze in the late nineties wasn't enough to get sales going without a touring artist, however. Nitro was moonlighting as a musician with a full time job in Finland and the demoscene was ironically too underground to crack into the mainstream, leading to us give away a lot of CDs.
This is the demoscene now - it's come a long way since bouncing polygons around. All of the above is generated by code and runs in real-time, like a video game.
After graduating to the C programming language before starting college, while I enjoyed the challenge of coding, I didn't want to code games for a living, so this put me at a loss of what to do. This resulted in me going into flight school, a product of a lifelong fascination with flight since reading Chuck Yeager's sound barrier-breaking autobiography as a kid.
It was during flight school that I started reading up on finance after my dad gifted me a brokerage account at E-Trade with some Cray Supercomputer stock in 1999, probably the second most influential decision on my career after buying us a household computer.
During my flight career, I merged coding and finance with a currency trading algorithm I created in MetaQuotes after digging through online forums and reading books. It made 30% over two months after going live, then promptly gave it all back and then some due to a MetaQuotes bug which prevented the program from only booking one order at a time.
Looking back, this was just an evolution in my "gaming" career to the real world, which was instrumental in giving me the technical foundation for IT jobs later in life, first for a government contractor, then investment management. Rather than high scores and leveling up, I was now going for education and career development.
Before starting flight training I was playing Falcon 4.0, a hyper-realistic F-16 flight simulator with a steep learning curve and an equally thick manual. I still remember how to recover from an inverted "deep stall" and the game realistically showed how difficult it was to land a fighter jet after a complete flameout. Most games forgave bad landings and let you bounce planes onto the runway - but not this one. The game was so ambitious that it, along with Fly! by Terminal Reality, prepped me well for flight school. My first university flight course was just a re-tread.
In college, I unofficially retired from video games. That's what I told people who were constantly trying to drag me into long, drawn-out epic battles over the university network. Now in my second semester, I'd had my share of gaming in my first semester after being hooked on Age of Empires, I needed to focus on the education I was overpaying for.
My first realization was that my campus gamer friends were far more serious about gaming than I was, using clever strategies such as racing to build the first trebuchet (a long-range medieval catapult) and hurling rocks at my double-fortified castle walls. After defending with a bull charge of war elephants, only to be overrun when my walls fell, my friends taught me that complex games, just as life, required a clear strategy to win. From trebuchets to business, the longer range always wins.
Because driving out to pilot training at the airport along with aviation mechanic classes and labs required an enourmous time commitment, along with a part-time job as a flight dispatcher at the airport, I just didn't have much time for games anymore, unlike many of my colleagues with less strenuous programs, much to my annoyance. Real life was keeping me more than occupied between college, learning finance, and keeping fit.
However, because my friends still played games, I occasionally jumped on the head-to-head challenge of a Gran Turismo race or join in the Grand Theft Auto mayhem.
For Better or Worse?
After a childhood spent playing a large variety of games, would I change anything? Given the diversity in what I played given we had a computer at home, I often found myself problem-solving and believe it's a fundamentally healthy practice to mix it up. The more you attempt and learn new types of games or activities that make you think, the more your brain has to blaze new neural pathways that are beneficial to your cognative development.
This brain-bending experience happened when I moved from the left seat of a trainer airplane to the right seat as a flight instructor, then right as a First Officer, left as Captain, and finally filled both seats and roles as a reserve pilot. After moving from the USA to the UK after Belle and I were married, it was re-learning to drive on the left side of narrow roads with hedges on either side, in the right seat of the car while shifting with your left hand.
This shouldn't come at the expense of hands-on activities, though, as no virtual world can completely replicate the one our senses are naturally designed to interact with. Growing up on a farm, we had outdoor activities to supplement our lifestyle and this often felt refreshing after looking at a screen. Jump on a bicycle and you have the best video game ever made, 576 megapixels with stereo 3D surround sound and perfect force feedback. This is why Belle and I love living in the English countryside, surrounded by a huge network of public trails, rivers, and the sea.
A recent mass review of studies for video gaming's influence on the brain shows that while studies are overwhelmingly supportive of video games overall (112 of 116 studies showed that cognative performance increased), they have found that addiction to video games, like any other addiction, can cause a reduction in brain matter in certain areas.
Early on my parents encouraged buying certain kinds of games that educated and overlapped with real life, especially the Maxis' series of games. Prior to The Sims, they came out with clever and challenging construction and management simulations like SimCity and SimFarm, each of which explored its domain in surprising detail. In fact, it was SimFarm where I first learned as a kid about balance sheets and selling commodity futures in the markets to hedge your crop prices. Not only did you run a farm, but it had to turn a profit.
One major difference from retro games is we used to spend a lot of time on older games just reading. Reading itself has had a huge impact on my learning. This gave mystery-solving games like Ultima VII, which contained over 500 pages of novel-style writing, and Interactive Fiction like Zork more influence on reading comprehension, because they took place before (usually cheesy and bad) voice acting became predominate in games.
In a recent version of The Sims video games, Discover University, you can experience the reality of slowly digging yourself out of the deep hole of student loan debt. This is brilliant, because up until this point, the board game “Life” was a little idealized when it came to showing a child what big decisions can do for your long-term financial health.
More realistic than The Sims, Grand Theft Auto 5 depicts the struggles of poverty and the fight for survival which results from it. This game, surprisingly, is also more likely to keep you in poverty in real-life, as it allows you to purchase in-game "virtual assets" to maintain your lavish kingpin lifestyle. This brings me to my biggest problem with modern gaming.
Subscriptions, Virtual Assets and Loot Boxes
Many games today look more like casinos than video games of the past. To keep users playing, many developers have moved from the old "buy once" model, to subscription models which can cost you as much as a premium gym subscription.
People playing GTA5 are hooked on "virtual assets" like buying your digital self a $5 million dollar mansion or fake exotic cars. How did this catch on? I remember when only nerds were buying these things for online role playing games, but now they've hit the mainstream and are an entire business model for gaming companies.
Loot boxes are another version of the slot machine, allowing anyone, even children, to buy in-game treasure chests than give you a random assortment of virtual goods that can make your character more powerful or personalized. The problem is that many parents have their mobile app stores set up with payment, so it's too easy for their kids to buy something before they realize it's even happened.
Addiction is sometimes built into online games that require you to sign in and "maintain" your character or business to prevent atrophy. The Facebook game Farmville received negative publicity due to its requirement that either your farm be maintained day and night, or wither away if you decide to take a break. It also promoted recruitment by making outside help to chip in on farm chores more lucrative; practically everything short of ask you to join a Farmville cult.
Let's Play Fortnight
Even one of the most popular games in the world right now, Fortnite, by Epic Games, has helped reinvent the old shareware model by offering the game for free, but making billions on in-game purchases with a clever currency model, using "V-bucks" to let you express your character with an assortment of outfits and dance moves, without knowing how much you're really spending until it's gone. Parents have found themseleves in the position of being asked for V-bucks for Christmas.
A recent survey by LendEDU found that an incredible 77% of Fortnite-playing respondents had spent money on V-bucks. The average yearly spend was $102.42. This is accomplished through micro-transactions, which psychologically are much easier for impulse buyers to find tempting. For comparison, Doom (1993) was estimated to have less than 1% of users pay for the full trilogy when it was released with the first episode as shareware.
I loaded up Fortnite on my computer to see how they did this. Not even one minute into the game and I'm being encouraged by animated characters to buy a "Battle Pass", while all the cool items to equip my player remain unlocked unless I buy them. Many buyable things are prominently paraded in front of you as you go, like an annoying shopkeeper who pesters you as you customize your player and equipment.
The gameplay itself is incredibly fun. In Battle Royale mode you parachute onto an island and battle a group of other players to the death (PG-13 at the most) like the Hunger Games. I hadn't done a circle-strafe in a while, but found myself having nearly as much fun as a trip to the arcade with friends, even as I fought someone wearing cat pajamas.
How to Beat the System
The best thing you can do is buy a computer. Having an "open system" gives you a huge array of learning possibilities and creative control unlike any other platform. You can create an entire career or business from a laptop, and gaming-optimized desktops are powerful, relatively low-cost and upgradable. TVs, consoles, mobile phones, and tablets are mostly consumer devices, while you want creative freedom.
We are being gamed. Gaming companies know that they are fighting for market share of your time, along with everything else that feeds in digitally to your house. As Silicon Valley has pioneered, because your time is most valuable, some will take time now by offering services for free and pry away at your wallet later. Games like Fortnite appeal to our sense of identity and are designed to make you feel like your playing experience is incomplete unless you keep up with your gamer friends. However, free-to-play games can be a great source of gaming for those with spending discipline, as other players effectively foot your gaming bill.
My nieces and nephews know that mobile phones are the quickest access to games and while it's free and fun to play Bowmasters (their favorite) with them, it's filled with online ads and the subscription is a bank account-draining $8 per week ($416 per year!). Get rid of subscriptions and and avoid microtransactions by removing your payment details from app stores. Consider the yearly cost of subscriptions compared to a one-time purchase.
Meanwhile, you have hundreds of free games available on Windows PCs, along with demos, retro games, and at least 2,000 free games just on Steam. Seek out games that overlap with useful skills in real life, such as those offering a mystery, puzzle, or memory challenge, construction and management games, or realistic simulations (i.e., your SimFarm can lose money). Play repetitive games sparingly and don't forget great releases from indie studios.
Therefore, if you do buy a game, buy a critically acclaimed, thoughtfully handcrafted game like Ori and the Blind Forest (or its brilliant sequel). No subscriptions or in-game purchases required to enjoy the full experience, just as it should be.
Finally, gaming is at it's best a window into the showroom of technology. I highly recommend stoking your creative curiosity to the highest level your technical ability allows. Learn how others have made these achievements and it can lead to education or knowledge that opens doors professionally in any field, as in both of my careers. Learn how to use free, powerful creative platforms like the Unreal Engine, which Fortnite uses, and this can lead to learning a programming language and a high-paying career.
My latest Ultimate Game: Real Life perfectly simulates cycling around England. I bought a used bike for the cost of a new PS4 game and the South Downs National Park landscapes, with its rolling chalk hills, carved streams and wheat fields is scenic beyond compare.
But when it's pouring down rain outside? Game on.
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