Get Off the Couch?

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May 11th, 2021
Back Get Off the Couch?

What is there that is inherently bad about a given hobby? 

Anything?

Personally, I think there are very few hobbies that are automatically a bad thing to do. Granted, there might be some extreme examples, but those would usually involve some sort of a crime in most jurisdictions.

Every hobby is what a person makes of it, and just like there is something to be said for having a healthy work/life balance, the same can be said for having a healthy hobby/life balance.

There’s some concern that children and young adults today are spending too much time in the realm of online gaming. I definitely agree that more time is spent in that pursuit than before, after all, online gambling essentially didn’t exist in its current form as recently as twenty years ago! There were a few basic games out there, but you certainly couldn’t play games with as many as twenty other people, in real time and enjoy console-quality graphics.

Video games themselves are also not a new thing. While the sales leaders (all-time):

Are relatively recent games such as Minecraft (200M sales) and Grand Theft Auto V (140M sales) some older console games still occupy the Top 10 for all-time sales. The original Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System comes in 6th with 58M sales and Tetris for the NES is good for 43M sales and tenth place all-time. 

Can you imagine going back to 1985 and telling players of Super Mario Bros. that there would come a game just twenty years later that would enable you to design your own Mario levels that anyone in the world could play and compete for the best time? They’d laugh at you! Video game technology was in its infancy then and Nintendo was trying to just reestablish video games as a legitimate form of entertainment as Atari (and many other third-rate systems) spent the last several years releasing a bunch of garbage games that often didn’t even work.

The fact of the matter is that these things change and develop over time and so does society.

The new replaces the old and those who prefer the old decry the perceived negatives of the new. That’s how it has always been, it’s how it is and it is how it will always be.

I imagine a fair number of LCB readers are fans of football, by which I mean what us uncultured Americans call, “Soccer,” but would it surprise you to know that football was banned in the early days? I know, centuries-old game, so you’d never think it, but it’s true.

According to the book Football/Soccer History and Tactics, by Jamie Orejan, we find on Page 18:

Complaints by London merchants led King Edward II of England to issue a proclamation banning football in London on 13 April 1314 because, "...there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls from which many evils may arise which God forbid; we command and forbid, on behalf of the King, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future.

The way that it was in the 14th Century is that football was seen as an inferior and barbaric sport compared to archery, which was the most popular sport at that time. Football was considered a raucous and uncultured affair whereas archery was considered civilized and dignified. Therefore, as football started to spread and people became more interested in it, those who preferred archery did what they could do quash the spread of football.

It remains that way today as we hear people dismiss online gaming by saying things like, “It’s a nice day, wouldn’t you rather go outside and do something?”, which is the same thing that a parent might have asked a child who was sitting around playing Mario Bros. for the third consecutive hour in the late-80’s.

By the way, the original Mario has still not decreased in popularity! Believe it or not, Internet culture has kept the game alive and the, “Last Second Barrier,” was recently broken in a world record achieved by Niftski:

You’re probably asking yourself, “What is the last second barrier?”

Okay, so the Super Mario Bros. last second barrier is beating the entire game (warp zones are allowed) in under four minutes and fifty-five seconds. 

The reason that it is called the, “Last Second Barrier,” is because it is currently believed that there is no way to beat the game in under four minutes and fifty-four seconds, so even if someone beats this record, the starting three digits will still be 4:54:xx.

This is believed to be true because there now exists a thing called, “Tool-Assisted Speedruns,” and the way those work is that you can program a computer to put in controller inputs and, “Play,” a video game this way. These programs can work all the way down to the microsecond, in theory, for hitting a specific button at a specific point in the game. 

Tool-Assisted Speedruns have been instrumental in perfecting human speedruns for many video games, of which are included, “Retro,” video games such as the original Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System. By optimizing the character’s actions and having the computer reproduce the desired actions perfectly, players can come to know what the fastest, “Human possible,” time is for them to beat. 

Anyway, it is currently believed that there is no possible way to beat the game in under 4:54 using only those controller inputs that are possible for a human to do. Tool-Assisted Speedruns can achieve times that are technically possible, but one of the key tricks to doing that is to hit Left+Right on the directional pad at the exact same time, which is literally impossible on the original Nintendo Entertainment System hardware, therefore, it is not within speedrun rules for a human to do that. 

I would expect a fractions of seconds to continue to be shaved off here and there using a series of, “Wall clip,” and, “Flagpole Glitches,” (you can look those things up if you want to) which have a low probability of success, but will be necessary to improve the world record. There’s no indication that the current crop of SMB speedrunners will ever fully give up on bettering the time and, sooner or later, there will come a player who will be determined to just keep playing it until he or she achieves the fastest human possible time. 

Goals And Accomplishments

goals_and_accomplishmentsAll of this leads back to one of the benefits of not just video games, but also of all forms of online gaming: The feeling of accomplishment when a player wins in a game such as fortnite, or achieves a goal as in the case of single-player games. 

The purpose that all forms of gaming serve is twofold, and are also true of Phone App type games:

1.) Many players consider it a fun way to pass the time. 

2.) Some players get a tremendous feeling of accomplishment from winning. 

Is it really possible to put a maximum time cost on finally accomplishing something that you really want to accomplish? Many people consider such endeavors, in the context of video games, to be a, “Waste of time,” but that’s fine...because they don’t have to do it if they don’t want to. 

The only difference between online gaming and any other hobby is the fact that online gaming takes place online and doesn’t have any real physical benefit aside from perhaps improving hand-eye coordination. 

However, for comparison in achieving a goal, compare this to someone who runs as a hobby and is trying to get in shape to complete a 26.2 mile marathon, which is standard marathon length. I’m certainly not about to get up out of my chair and do that, but there are people who can and they put an amazing amount of work into getting their bodies and physical endurance to the point where they can get that accomplished. 

Naturally, people who complete their first marathon feel a tremendous sense of achievement, and why shouldn’t they? It’s a terrific accomplishment. 

However, when it comes to a feeling of accomplishment, what makes a marathon any different than achieving any other goal that took a tremendous amount of time and energy? 

If you want, just skip to 5:30 in the video that we’ve linked above and listen to Niftski’s reaction to breaking that Last Second Barrier and setting a world record on the game. You will never convince me that he is not as happy as someone who completed their first 26.2 mile marathon. All of the work and practice he put into optimizing his run had finally paid off and, at that moment in time, he played the game better than any human in the history of the world. 

And...is anyone really going to tell me that it was a waste of time?

Years...months...weeks...days...hours...minutes...seconds. 

We’re only going to be here for so long, so I don’t think any activity that doesn’t hurt anyone (and provided that a person is tending his/her other responsibilities) is a waste of time. 

Any real value that our lives could ever have boils down to one thing---experiencing as many moments of happiness as we possibly can. Otherwise, what are we even doing here?

Counterargument:

However, there is a counter to the position I take on this that can be summed up with this article.

That article highlights:

On May 25, the WHO officially voted to include “gaming disorder” as a behavioral (spelling error corrected) addiction in its latest edition of the “International Classification of Diseases.” Many of the behaviors exhibited by frequent gamers are similar to symptoms displayed by other types of addicts, such as spending excessive time thinking about the game even when not playing, and not being able to stop when playing, even to the point it interferes in one’s life.

That article concludes with its author basically suggesting that parents should limit online time and send kids, “Outside to play.”

My Response:

my_responseThe first thing that I will concede to the author of that article is that too much of anything can be considered a, “Behavioral Disorder,” provided a person is doing an unhealthy amount of it. This article here relates mostly to drug and alcohol abuse:

However, the same concept applies to anything else. 

For one example, the author encourages the kids to be sent outside to play, and while most kids who do that won’t experience any sort of addiction as a result.

Some of them inevitably will. 

The above link lists these four attributes as signs of exercise addiction:

-obsessing over the behavior

-engaging in the behavior even though it’s causing physical harm

-engaging in the behavior despite wanting to stop

-engaging in the behavior in secret.

You’ll forgive me if I think that sounds suspiciously similar to LITERALLY ANY type of addiction. It’s true that we don’t often hear about people who were so obsessed with exercise and body image that they stopped even going to work.

However, it happens. As we can see with Promises Behavioral Health, they even have a program specifically tailored to help people who are suffering from bodybuilding addiction. 

It all comes back to balance, which we were talking about earlier. If you become so obsessed with bodybuilding that it is the only thing that you care about and you ignore everything else about your life in the process, then that’s unhealthy. That’s true of online gaming, video games, gambling, drug/alcohol use, smoking...pretty much anything. 

An obsession with engaging in ANY behavior, to the exclusion of all else, is a negative. However, it’s important to understand that all of this comes down to an individual’s brain and doesn’t have quite so much to do with the behavior itself. 

Most studies on addiction focus on the most common types of activities that are frequently classified as addictive, such as drinking, smoking and gambling, but there are factors to addiction that exist outside of the activity itself as you can see here.

In part:

Addiction is a chronic and often relapsing disorder. It is often preceded by other emotional problems. Nevertheless, people can and do recover from addiction, often on their own. If not on their own, people can recover with the help of their social network or a treatment provider. Usually, recovery from addiction requires many attempts.

The big takeaway is that addiction is often preceded by other emotional problems. Most people who engage in any behavior casually that may become, “Addictive,” for others do not generally get addicted to it. The fact is that most people who become addicted to something might have a generally negative view on life, on themselves and simply do not have a wide variety of interests.

The way that this manifests itself into addiction is that, when they finally find that ONE thing that they do like to do---the one way the reward centers in the brain.

Get those neurons lighting up like fireworks and the brain releasing dopamine...they want more of it. Those who are addicted also have a tendency not to otherwise have a wide variety of interests, so when they find those one or two things that they do like, they tend to seek out doing more of those things at all costs. 

The reason that other types of addiction seem more prevalent, particularly drugs, alcohol and smoking is because they result in the introduction of other chemicals to the brain that help in the process of the release of dopamine. It’s for that reason that certain other types of addictions were once not really thought of as addictions, but thought of more as simply behaviors that the person was choosing not to keep under control. 

Dopamine is itself an addictive chemical, even though it is produced and released from within. Because of that, a person doesn’t necessarily have to have additional outside chemicals entering the bloodstream to find themselves engaging in addictive behavior. Addictive behavior is really just seeking out the one thing that makes you happy above all others to the exclusion of everything else. 

From the link above:

The mesolimbic dopamine pathway is thought to play a primary role in the reward system. It connects the ventral tegmental area (VTA), one of the principal dopamine-producing areas in the brain, with the nucleus accumbens, an area found in the ventral striatum that is strongly associated with motivation and reward. Another major dopamine pathway, the mesocortical pathway, travels from the VTA to the cerebral cortex and is also considered part of the reward system. So, the reward system is generally considered to be made up of the main dopamine pathways of the brain (especially the mesolimbic pathway) and structures like the VTA and nucleus accumbens, which are connected by these dopamine pathways.

The page also details an interesting study involving lab rats, which I recommend reading. The cliffnotes version is that the scientists would either want the rats to repeatedly press a lever, or alternatively, to stop pressing the lever. The experiment began by influencing a release of dopamine when the lever was pressed, which led to the rats continuing to press it hoping for it to happen again. Eventually, it was adjusted so the rats would actually receive less dopamine when they pressed the lever, so as a result, they eventually learned that and stopped pressing it.

Perhaps we would all be better off if we each had a scientist monitoring all of our actions and restricting our dopamine when we are engaging in, “Too much,” of a certain action. Unfortunately, that’s not possible, so many people find themselves addicted to one thing or another when that is one of the only activities (or the only activity) that lights up the reward center of the brain for them.

Pragmatically Speaking…

Pragmatically speaking, and even ignoring addiction, I still don’t see what automatically makes a particular hobby better than another.

If I could list my outdoor-activity/sports related injuries, you’d still be reading my list an hour from now. I’m obviously not suggesting that getting outside and engaging in sports is a bad thing (that would be ridiculous) just that such engagements come with hazards of their own.

Another thing is that society, as a whole, is very rapidly moving more towards the technological. If a person even wants to work at the counter of a McDonald’s these days, they have to have a little bit of know-how with computer systems. Everything is technology, that’s just the way of it.

Many school systems have recognized this and increasing numbers of them are getting away from physical textbooks and moving towards issuing students tablets, and other electronic devices, to aid them in their studies. The simple fact of the matter is that many segments of society have, quite simply, moved beyond, “Playing outside.”

It’s no different than thirty, or more, years ago when kids would be warned that watching too much television would, “Rot your brain,” the only difference between Youtube and TV is that Youtube has a lot more to offer when it comes to catering to specific interests. There are Youtube channels, for one example, totally devoted to the customization of dolls as arts & crafts projects...you’ll forgive me if I don’t remember that channel being on cable.

Personally, I don’t watch those, but what I do watch is documentaries of just about every conceivable thing you can think of. I watch documentaries on history, other countries and I’ve always had an interest in what other people do at their jobs---so I watch documentaries and self-made videos that detail what people in different jobs do at work every day.

One of the reasons that Internet culture is becoming so pervasive and tech is the default in our social and recreational lives is simply because it has more to offer.

There are only so many ways you can play baseball.

One thing I remember growing up is that we would play ridiculous amounts of baseball, but it eventually got boring. We would eventually come up with weird rule variants such as having to run the bases backwards, or maybe we’d have a game with only four people on defense, but you had to bat left-handed if you were normally a right-handed hitter. Just anything to break the monotony.

There’s no monotony anymore, at least, there shouldn’t be. In the space of an hour I can gamble online a little bit, get some writing work done, watch a brief documentary on Catherine the Great, see if there are any good deals at restaurants in my area and order a new shirt from Society 6.

It’s my theory that, as humans, the only thing that we REALLY want is to not be bored. There’s nothing worse than boredom. Technology prevents us from being bored.

And...Back to Gaming

and.._back_to_gamingOkay, so we have acknowledged that online gaming can be addictive, but that’s simply because virtually anything has the potential to be addictive. Addiction doesn’t always rest in the activity itself as much as it does in the brain of the person who is engaged in the activity.

We look at this study.

The first thing to note is that the gaming industry is enjoyed by billions and actually outperformed the film industry in terms of revenues. Essentially, this just comes back to not being bored and is simply an example of one form of entertainment replacing another. 

How is archery doing these days compared to football/soccer, by the way?

The point is that society changes and entertainment tastes change. Playing a video game is like being in your own movie because you feel like you are interacting with it and have some degree of control over the outcome. If you win in the game, or complete a particular level, then you feel a sense of accomplishment. In comparison, all you do with a movie is watch it and whatever happens is what happens. 

While the study defends gaming, it notes that there remains a lot to be studied in the realm of gaming disorder:

Globally speaking, the most contentious debates surrounding the potential effects of video game engagement are focused on the mental health of players. For example, the American Psychiatric Association did not identify any psychiatric conditions related to video games in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), but it does recommend Internet Gaming Disorder as a topic for further research [14]. The World Health Organization adopted a more definitive approach and included Gaming Disorder in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), emphasizing excessive play time as a necessary component [15]. In sharp contrast, the US Food and Drug Administration recently approved the use of a so-called ‘serious video game’ for treatment of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, providing some evidence that there are mental health benefits of some kinds of play time [16]. These examples illustrate the central role video game engagement plays as a potential public health issue.

However, we see that some video games have a positive role in treatment when it comes to those kids with hyperactivity disorder. That should come as no surprise because it forces them to focus on something which, we would think, might lead to them being able to better focus on other things, such as school.

The studies that the article highlights mainly seem to be concerned with the amount of time that some people spend playing video games. Of course, that’s a valid concern. However, as we pointed out earlier, it’s not good to do anything obsessively and even an obsession with physical fitness is capable of reaching the level of addiction.

In other words, too much of virtually anything can be harmful, but it doesn’t make that activity harmful in and of itself. As we have maintained and will continue to maintain, it all comes back to balance.

Interestingly, the study above used Animal Crossings: New Horizons as one of the games for the basis of its study.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, I will say that I generally do not look at video games as, ‘Positive,’ or, ‘Negative,’ by themselves, but if I did, I would consider Animal Crossing to be one of the most positive games out there.

The way the game works is that your character has an island that belongs to him/her, as you progress through the game, you will gain new items, expand your house and generally make improvements to your island as more and more new neighbors (up to ten at a time) come to live on your island. You will form relationships with these neighbors through your interactions, which are almost always positive and exchange presents with them.

Unlike most other games, Animal Crossing does not have any set conditions for winning. You basically just play the game and customize your island and your character until you don’t feel like playing anymore. If the game has an, “Objective,” at all, then the objective could best be described as creating your own little world that looks however you might want your own little world to look. I don’t personally play the game, but I have seen it in action (and there are no shortage of Youtube videos on it) and it seems to make its players profoundly happy!

The study linked above summarizes:

Next, we investigated the interaction effects, which showed how the relation between play time and well-being varied with different levels of experienced need satisfaction and motivation. The results indicated no consistent pattern in the moderating roles of motivational experiences on how play time related to well-being. For example, the more experiences of autonomy a player experienced, the more positively was their play time related to well-being, but this interaction was not significant in either game. Even with the larger AC:NH sample, no significant interactions were detected. However, experienced autonomy and relatedness emerged as consistent predictors of well-being, and extrinsic motivations as a negative predictor. Taken together, these results suggested that players' in-game motivational experiences can contribute to affective well-being, but they do not affect the degree to which play time relates to well-being.

Overall, it indicates that, in general, the amount of time that people spent playing video games and their overall well-being did not go hand-in-hand in any meaningful way. For those who enjoyed certain aspects of the game, such as a feeling of autonomy, they tended to play more...which is really no surprise.

In other words, people play video games for the same reasons that people engage in any other hobby, it breaks the monotony of day-to-day life and it serves as a mechanism for escapism. It’s the technological equivalent of spending a lot of time reading mystery novels (if you enjoyed those) may have been before the internet was a major thing.

In short, people have always spent their, “Free time,” doing something that is escapist in nature and it’s not an unhealthy behavior at all, provided it is not taken to the extreme of doing it to such an extent that one ignores everything else about life---including responsibilities. It’s simply one type of hobby (internet-based) replacing other types of hobbies just like football/soccer largely replaced archery.

Even those readers out there are better off with something like Kindle than they would have been many decades ago. Once upon a time, those folks might have been limited to whatever they could find at any local library or bookstore that they could either drive or walk to, but now, people should be able to find virtually any book ever written if they are really determined to do so. That failing, just order it off of Amazon.

Of course, while that article suggests no correlation between gaming and well-being, this article from The Guardian seems to suggest that video games can actually improve mental health.

Here’s a great paragraph:

If you look at the way video games are still predominantly covered on TV and in the news, however, it’s easy to see why a study about their positive effects might prompt such shock. It speaks to a bafflingly persistent negative stigma: video games are still seen by many as, at best, a waste of time, and at worst downright sinister. Coverage always focuses on how much money the video games industry makes, and how violent they may or may not be. Every time a game gets popular with kids, the columns and TV news segments take on a wary, alarmist tone, as if the nation’s children are all getting into heroin.

Why should video games have a more negative stigma than other things? Why is it that the profits made on video games are considered some kind of negative when all that means is that people like them?

If we look at the NFL (American Football) what we see is a sports league that enjoys wide popularity, and football continues to be a popular youth and college sport. The similarity between the two pastimes is that lots of money gets spent on it.

In 2019, the NFL made sixteen BILLION dollars in profits. Not only does the NFL account for a ton of football-related revenue, but there are video games (the most popular being the Madden series of games) that also link football to video game culture. The Madden series has enjoyed tremendous popularity for several decades and is also a big contributor to online gaming by way of peer-to-peer games. In fact, the Madden 2021 tournament.

Itself has a record prize pool of 1.4 million dollars! 

In addition to all of that, youth sports alone

Is a five BILLION dollar per year industry, so to decry something simply on the basis that it generates a lot of revenues is not a valid criticism. It’s a ridiculous argument and is the equivalent of someone saying, “It’s popular, so it must be bad.”

In any other context, such an argument would be seen as complete nonsense. 

Conclusion

The fact of the matter is this: People have always had pastimes and have always played games. This is true when we were often engaged in archery as a pastime, football, playing the Monopoly board game, watching I Love Lucy in the relatively early days of TV, playing Super Mario Bros. on the original Nintendo Entertainment System and even now with online gaming. 

The truth of the matter is that virtually anything can be harmful when it leads to addictive behaviors, but absent direct influence of additional chemicals (such as with drugs) the addiction lies more in the person’s brain (and is usually linked to depression) than it does with the activity itself. 

When a healthy amount of video games is played, online and otherwise, it can lead to not only the escapism that comes from other, more traditional, entertainment venues...but also to feelings of great accomplishment when a player achieves a goal. 

If there is a reason that video games gained in popularity, which we see expressed in the realm of online gaming, it’s because video games are interactive, which is something that could only previously be said about physical pastimes. You don’t interact with a book, movie or TV show; you just watch it and see what happens. With video games, you control the fate of your character and are responsible for whether or not a particular objective is accomplished. 

Whether more old school people like it or not, online gaming, in terms of peer-to-peer games, is also a form of social interaction. Humans tend to be social creatures, so now we are simply combining the escapism that comes from gaming with the predilection we also have for social pursuits. 

In short, the result is that you have escapism, the achieving of goals, interaction and socialization all in one convenient place. Overall, it’s tough to understand why some people would see that as a bad thing. 

“The fact of the matter is that these things change and develop over time and so does society. ”

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