STAUNTON – You open your eyes and glance at the clock sitting on the bedside table. It’s 4 a.m. You turn your head in the direction of the doorway and glance down the hallway. You can hear it. That faint familiar sound you have come to know so well. As you put on your robe and make your way to your child’s bedroom you see the flickering light seeping through the cracks of his door.
You take a deep breath and pause. You need a moment to collect yourself. You are tired, frustrated and very concerned. How do I stop this? He’s going to be exhausted for school in the morning. You feel helpless and scared.
You open the door and find your child awake playing video games. He waited for you to fall asleep to sneak out of bed. That’s all he does. Play these video games. He has trouble making friends at school. He doesn’t like to play sports. You have to force him to do his homework. But you feel bad. He was bullied in school a few years ago and the games make him happy. Maybe you let him play more than you should have, but you just want him to be happy and say to yourself that you don’t really understand these games. Maybe it’s okay. Now you worry all the time about him. Now you despise these video games. Like a drug, your child is addicted and lost to a virtual world you can’t access.
You walk into the room and he quickly shuts it off and jumps back into bed. He knows he isn’t supposed to be playing. Gamer’s shame. Whether gamers play for an hour or all night, it’s something they’ve learned to feel. That what they are doing is wrong.
Your child escaped into the virtual world to get away from his reality. You don’t even need to say anything. He looks at you and says he is sorry. You tell yourself we will sit down and talk about it tomorrow when he gets home from school. You go back to your bedroom, sit on the edge of the bed and begin to cry. You don’t know what to do.
Although the percentage of players who develop this behavior is low, about 20% according to the American Psychological Association, this is the dark side of video games.
Staunton’s Tony Robertson wants that percentage to be zero.
“Gaming –– there’s a spectrum of good and bad, and I’ve lived all of it.”
Founder of Greater Good Gaming, or G3, Robertson is a gamer himself.
A millennial, he grew up in the electronic age. And like most millennials, electronics is second only to their native language. For some, it is their primary means of communicating with the world. For Robertson and other gamers, the virtual world is their canvas. They use it to learn, create, meet others, connect with friends, compete, feel victorious, and sometimes, escape.
“I’ve had times where I’ve used the gaming to escape stress and problems in my life, which is very bad. Essentially, as bad as drugs or alcohol. But then there’s very serious connections I’ve kept and maintained through gaming.”
Robertson grew up with two big brothers and a dad who played games with him. He still plays games with them now.
“It never felt like this socially isolating or weird thing, which is one of the classic stereotypes you think of when you think of gaming –– alone in the basement, 4:30 in the morning. And it can get there if you’re not careful, and it’s that getting there that we want to step in and prevent.”
He thinks his parents balanced his video game playing with other activities, priorities and boundaries.
“They did a good job of not shaming me for playing,” says Robertson. “They were very accepting and then fit it into my growing up as part of who I was. I had a very nurturing environment.”
He discovered that his experience was unusual.
“Most people who play do it with a phenomenon known as gamer regret.”
Even when you accomplish great things that you should be proud of such as high scores or mastery of a complicated skill, you experience gamer regret, says Robertson.
“A jump rope record or a 32-point basketball game –– parents get so proud of their kids for those sorts of achievements, and they don’t really have their thumb on the pulse of their virtual reality achievements.”
“When I watch Mario jump around the screen with perfect precision, it’s the same phenomenon for me.”
Robertson thinks parents should learn how to connect with their child’s game playing and celebrate their achievements. His team offers insight and ideas to help parents cross that bridge to make the virtual connection.
G3 also wants to help gamers identify when they are playing to escape and playing with a purpose. A purpose they hope will enrich the game player’s life and their community. This is the mission behind the Staunton-based video gaming group.
“We meet every week and talk about what do we want to do next? What’s the best, most important thing we can be doing?”
G3 strives to be a resource for parents. A place where they can learn how to interact with their kids who love video games. Join them. Celebrate their victories and understand what it is their children are experiencing within the game environment, setting healthy boundaries that develop good gaming habits for their kids.
“I really try to immerse myself in the good and the bad and figure out what’s healthy, what’s not, and where to find the balance. There’s a lot of misinformation that parents and educators flock to that’s wrong.”
G3 aims to end gamer regret by using gaming for the greater good and preventing the isolation that happens inside the home.
“I think that kids that are into gaming fall through the cracks in terms of mentorship opportunities and extracurricular activities. These things that have been proven to be so important for kids’ development. Kids who aren’t into traditional things, who are into gaming –– there’s thousands of them –– even in Staunton who play alone and should be playing together.”
Teaching what you love
Robertson grew up an active kid involved in sports and social activities. He went on to study music education at University of Virginia, taught English in Cambodia for a while and then became a teacher.
It was while teaching at a school in Baltimore that Robertson found his purpose. One day in his classroom he was trying to get his kids to pay attention. They were distracted in a conversation about Minecraft. He was somewhat familiar with the game, so he decided to set aside the assignment and join the discussion. Their eyes lit up. Their enthusiasm soared. An adult was interested.
“To have an adult teacher that understood what they were talking about and could converse with them about it. It was really a special moment.”
He was fully connecting to his students as they shared the things they were creating within the game, the challenges they were facing, the feeling of accomplishment. And Robertson discovered how passionate he became himself.
“That was when I realized, I need to be doing that.”
The experience inspired Robertson to launch G3.
“It’s sharing that bond with people,” says Robertson. “Football would be a really good example of a game where people are instantly connected because they can talk about their favorite players or their favorite teams.”
One day while watching a livestream of a gaming tournament set up as a fundraiser, he discovered this one stream raised over $1.7 million for two charities; $12 million in a week. He always wondered how he could make playing games a platform to help others, and he finally found his answer.
Gaming for the greater good
He and his video gaming friends formed Greater Good Gaming with this objective in mind. They held a charity event to test it out and made $400 the first night. Since then, they have raised $3,000 for UVA Children’s Hospital.
Last April, G3 partnered with CASA’s superhero 5K event and set up tents to add an element of fun and variety at the event.
“We like to do things that are really interactive and interesting and different, so we decided to run a superhero training camp.”
They dressed up as doctors, scientists and superheroes.
“We did role playing where the kids would start with us, and they go through this training process with different games.”
G3 took cardboard boxes and made them look like Minecraft boxes and then used them to create a pattern-matching game to give kids a tactile game-playing experience and provided information about each game.
“We had these cool scientific write-ups,” he says. “This helps train your brain to do this… or do that… or it will help in science or math.”
They plan to do something similar at the Augusta Out of the Darkness Walk on Oct. 21 while also introducing the community to G3’s gaming camp they plan to roll out next summer. He wants parents and kids to have fun, ask questions, learn about the camp and preregister. He also hopes to create an after-school program where gamers can meet up in public spaces, interact, exercise and do what they love –– play video games. G3 already has a group that gets together at Gypsy Hill Park, and they hope to expand on the idea into something scheduled for age-specific groups in the community.
“Our primary objective is to unite gamers together to do great things in our community,” says Robertson. “Bring kids together and let them feel good about what they do.”
With this objective in mind, G3 created an account so players can compete to earn money for charity through the online streaming site Extra Life, which is in partnership with the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Any funds raised go directly to an account’s local children’s hospital. For G3, it is UVA Children’s Hospital.
“I would like to take these concepts – the streaming – and make it a community effort where people who play games work with local charities to make their events more successful and fun.”
Addiction vs. playing with a purpose
Referred to as a modern-day psychological disorder, gaming addiction occurs when reality doesn’t live up to virtual reality.
“It is essentially this idea that real life is failing to fulfill people’s needs, and they are finding it in these game worlds,” says Robertson. “In real life, they think they’re this loser-nobody-likes-them teenager, but in the game world they’re essentially a superhero.”
When a gamer has the choice of which reality to live, they choose virtual reality.
“And that’s obviously very, very dangerous.”
There’s a line, says Robertson. And he and his G3 team understand the risks and rewards from their experience as lifelong gamers.
“We think we are qualified to help kids navigate this world. This old idea: ‘Turn that game off, it’s bad for you’ is really steeped in a lot of ignorance. The game is not bad. Why they are playing could be.”
This is where Greater Good Gaming enters the picture. To help kids and parents understand the situation in order to address it in a healthy and purposeful way.
The dark side of gaming
“We never want to shame them for being gamers,” says Robertson. “That’s been the dialogue for the last 20 years.” He makes reference to Columbine.
After the Columbine massacre, the American Medical Association considered classifying video gaming addiction as a mental illness. They determined further studies were needed. On April 20, 1999, two Columbine High School students entered the school and within an hour killed 13 and injured 21 people. It sparked a controversy and dialogue surrounding violence and video games that continues now. Families of the victims sued 11 video game companies, including the company that created the video game Doom. The killers were avid players of the game. The case was dismissed on the grounds that video games are not subject to liability laws. This doesn’t stop academic circles from studying the correlation between violence in gaming and aggressive behavior.
“All these sorts of discussions started to come up,” says Robertson. Along with gamer’s shame, he says, came the idea that playing a video game is wrong.
Why are you playing?
Robertson talks about the good and bad behind the why: “Ask yourself, why am I sitting down to play this game right now?”
When playing is good:
- to have fun
- make friends
- learn sportsmanship
- training for real-world environments
- increase skills
- improve personal performance
- learning new things
- challenging yourself
When playing is bad:
- playing when you are stressed
- playing to escape
- playing when you are sad
- to distract yourself from real life
- to avoid doing homework
“One of the things we want to address with kids early on is [understanding] those distinctions.”
They also stress moderation and balance. If a gamer is not getting exercise, skipping meals, staying up late then those are obvious signs a person is playing for the wrong reasons, which can lead to psychologically addictive behavior.
“Every parent I talk to has this dilemma, which is why we kind of came into existence.”
The good in games and playing them
The benefits of playing video games are encouraging. The research itself is fairly new. In 2014, the American Psychological Association published a study of these benefits in four areas: cognitive, motivational, emotional and social. Applying that research in real world applications is now an emerging industry. G3 is part of this emergence to take that information and then use it to guide young gamers down a productive path.
Individuals who play fast-paced action and racing games, such as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto enjoy the following cognitive benefits:
- Improved visual attention and spacial intelligence skills which predict higher achievements in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
- Faster and more accurate decision making in high-stress, time-sensitive contexts.
- Improved ability to track multiple streams of information simultaneously, up to three times as much information as an infrequent game-player.
- More efficient neural processing (players’ brains use fewer resources during difficult tasks).
Cognitive neuroscientist and professor Daphne Bevelier, who received her doctorate from MIT, conducted a study that exposed non-gamers to video games. Their visual acuity and multitasking improved.
What does this mean in the physical world? For parents concerned with young teenage driving, Bevelier’s studies demonstrated that gamers are able to react quickly to a swerving car or deer crossing the road that could ultimately save the driver’s life.
Those who play strategy games such as Starcraft, Civilization or XCom also see improvements in concrete problem-solving skills that predict academic success and higher achievement in daily life.
- More effective information gathering.
- Faster and more accurate evaluation of options.
- Stronger ability to formulate and follow strategic plans.
- Greater flexibility in generating alternative strategies or goals.
APA’s study concluded playing video games boosts your mood and helps improve your emotional state. Benefits are particularly noticeable in puzzle games like Angry Birds or Tetris, or in platform games like Super Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog.
- Improve mood immediately.
- Ward off anxiety.
- Experience more frequent positive emotions, such as delight, curiosity, surprise, pride, wonder and contentment.
Multiplayer and massively multiplayer online games teach social skills. People who play MMO team-based games like League of Legends, DotA (Defense of the Ancients) or Team Fortress show strong cooperative mindsets in daily life and improved communication and collaboration skills.
People who frequently play games that require them to organize and meet up with other players in like-minded efforts, such as in World of Warcraft and Minecraft, are rated by others as better leaders, more effective motivators and are more likely to engage in civic behavior such as volunteering and raising money for charity.
“Gaming also allows people to bond across generations,” adds Robertson.
All genres of games have been linked to greater creativity. Children who play games score high on tests that involve storytelling, drawing and problem solving.
“Anyone familiar with our public education system knows that creative thinking and problem-solving skills are the primary objectives of teachers,” says Robertson. “I know I noticed that my ‘nerdy’ kids with the Minecraft shirts on tended to be pretty darn smart and creative.”
Grit and determination
Gamers fail a lot. About 80% of the time, according to game designer Nicole Lazzaro, a Stanford University psychology graduate, who pioneered measuring emotions on players faces as they play. Well-designed games push the player to the edge of their abilities. Gamers spend most of their time trying to solve difficult problems.
Games created for a purpose
Allow players to share in a character’s experience… even if the character suffers from schizophrenia
“The game delves into the world of psychosis and schizophrenia,” says G3’s Brandon Jones. “I highly recommend trying this game out with headphones as it really gets you into the world of dealing with mental illness. You’ll hear voices around you while playing. I hope more games like this continue to come out so we can bring awareness to disabilities both physical and mental.”
Brandon is talking about Ninja Theory’s Senua’s Sacrifice, a video game where the main character suffers from psychosis and schizophrenia. Within the game environment, players share in the character’s experience.
“Working with Ninja Theory has shown me the potential that gaming has for sharing in a character’s experiences and engendering empathy in ways that go well beyond those offered by simple academic descriptions,” said Paul Fletcher, psychiatrist and professor from the University of Cambridge. “Maybe this approach will contribute powerful new ways of challenging stigma.”
The medical field has picked up on the positive effects of designing games for medical interventions and health, which includes using virtual reality to treat pain. Nonprofit organizations like Games for Health bring together game designers and medical professionals to advance game technologies to improve health and delivery of health care.
IRL – In Real Life
A video game player since he was a child, Vietnamese American Andy Dinh went on to play games professionally and become the owner of one of the biggest eSports organizations in the world, Team SoloMid.
Reitred U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor worked with game designers to create iCivics.org, lesson plans and games for civics. Initially a video game skeptic, after working with game designers and seeing improved test scores, she became a video game advocate.
Native Israeli Asi Burak enjoyed a long military career. He was really into Call of Duty and Counter Strike, two games that require strategic and tactical skills. He is now the CEO of Power Play and chairman of Games for Change, a nonprofit organization that facilitates the creation of social impact games that serve as tools in humanitarian and educational efforts.
Games for Change created a pilot program with the New York City Dept. of Education that invited middle and high school students to create original games about real-world issues impacting their communities.
As the video game industry continues to expand and branch out into new areas, purposeful game playing and game design is showing up in the real world in meaningful ways.
At its core, Greater Good Gaming nourishes this philosophy in a supportive and healthy environment. Educators and explorers – they are problem solving much like they do in the game world. Trying to figure out how to harness their love of playing games in a way that helps game players move forward powerfully while enriching their community.
Meet G3 at the Augusta Out of the Darkness Walk Oct. 21 at Gypsy Hill Park in Staunton. The group will offer game activities and information about game summer camp, meet-ups and events. To learn more, visit Greater Good Gaming.