Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 137 / JANUARY 1992 / PAGE 110

The games users play. (psychological aspects of computer games) (Column)
by Howard Millman

The single most important factor fueling the accelerating success of computer games is their ability to substitute variety for routine. As a means to put your brain in neutral, idle the cares of the day, or drive away boredom, electronic games have no legal equal. Like the magic genie imprisoned in a bottle, your computer remains poised to release its silicon sorcery to entertain on demand.

The advantages of recreational software over more traditional games are many. Unlike sports, they can be played alone. While most other forms of gameplay from football to Monopoly encourage mixing and mingling, computer games promote isolation. Then again, unlike static board games, computer games are dynamic; they can deliver nonstop action, realistic sound, and vibrant color.

Jay Novins, a White Plains, New York, psychiatrist, recognizes the value computer games have in relieving boredom but echoes a caution that was sounded a decade ago, when electronic games meant Atari 2600 and Colecovision: Don't overindulge or let games become an obsession. Novins says playing computer games is "fine so long as it's in the context of a healthy lifestyle. That means keeping it in balance. Otherwise, this constant interaction with a machine can lead to a self-imposed isolation."

What's wrong with wanting to be by yourself? Is a desire for solitude necessarily unhealthy? That depends on whom you're getting away from and why.

Roger Kallhovd, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry, Phelps Hospital, North Tarrytown, New York, likewise stresses moderation to avoid unpleasant side effects. "Yes, computer game playing can lead to isolation and withdrawal. Many games are deeply absorbing and entirely solitary activities," he says. Some of the complaints he hears about computer games are "from wives who complain that their husbands spend so much time with their computer games [that] they exclude other kinds of interaction." I didn't ask him to elaborate, but the computer widow (or widower) has taken a place in our society right beside spouses widowed by football and golf.

According to mental health professionals, occasional short-term solitude is beneficial. However, ongoing lack of social interaction can lead to isolation, particularly among those who already tend to shy away from social situations.

Steven Witzl, vice president of marketing at Access Software, comments that traditionally "people all across America communicated by sitting on the front porch. They talked with each other. Now that's gone, taken away by the speed of everyday living and replaced with technology." Witzl sees technology both creating and solving the problem of isolationism. "It helps people keep pace with the faster lifestyle we've adopted. It helps them relax." Computer games can help people relax by enabling them to focus on completing more passes in a football simulation, amassing a taller mound of dead mutants, or even getting higher marks in geometry.

Educational software disguised as games will capture and hold a student's interest. Compared to learning by rote, learning with colorful, dynamic computer screens will prevail every time. Judith Bliss, president of Mindplay (a producer of educational software in Tucson, Arizona), asserts that educational software needs to be fun. "As with adults, life for children is filled with stress. Relief from that stress is healthy and beneficial." Software that entertains "will more effectively communicate its educational message," says Bliss. The range of educational software extends from teaching first graders reading skills to teaching astronauts how to pilot the space shuttle.

Tomorrow's multimedia technology will present mind-bogglingly realistic and innovative games. Online services like America Online and the Sierra Network will allow us to interact socially while playing computer games.

Beyond bolstering intelligence, game playing builds confidence. According to Novins, "It imparts a sense of accomplishment and mastery over the environment that can increase self-esteem." Game playing can enable players to become symbolically triumphant over others, an important, perhaps necessary victory for some.