When I was a youngin, I used to be deeply involved in the online gaming community. I played religiously, placing myself in front of the computer for 3-4 hours on end each night. Throughout high school, homework got done, but it was secondary. While other kids experimented with weed, drinks, and the opposite (or same) sex, I spent my time online. The "real world" wasn't really a priority.
I played all sorts of games, but the majority of time was spent on Starcraft, Diablo II, Age of Empires and Half Life's online team component.
The gaming community (and I don't use the word community lightly) drew me in because of its inclusiveness. Unlike the social exclusion of high school, I felt accepted by my fellow anonymous mystery gamers who had user names like Morlock67 and CommanderCXX8X. We were all connected in our love of play. We chatted, played together, swapped stories of the past (gaming experiences) and joined into groups (clans) adding pals that you wanted to play with in future games. After a while you'd get to know some of the more familiar faces.
Once you jumped into a game, one of the first questions you might be asked (prior even to where are you were on the game's map) might be where abouts everyone was from? San Diego, Virgina, Korea, Frankfurt might all pop up and in an instant you'd see just how far ranging our online community was.
The community of online gaming was recently chronicled by the London Times, though in a different light. According to a new study quoted in the article, 1 in 10 American kids are pathologically addicted to computer games. These kids display the symptoms of addiction including lying about the number of hours spent online, using games to escape their problems, and becoming irritable and frustrated when not playing games.
The article goes on to declare 90% of the children admitted to playing at one time or another with the average for boys of 16.4 hours spent online a week. The study further connected "pathological addition to video games" with poor school marks and generally with social dysfunction.
While few people would argue that maintaining a work ethic (and some perspective) is important while indulging in any community, I tend to wonder whether many critics of online gaming and its effects on youth give the idea of community in the online gaming world much credence. Is it just wasting time playing games or is there something more at work here?
Often the amount of time kids play online is lamented by critics. While I would certainly not argue that when you start lying about the amount of time you're online or can't function in everyday life without playing games is problematic, I think it behooves us to take a step back and sperate the idea of addiction from the connection to community that it is often masked by.
I don't doubt that sports, theatre, television, or other hobby enthusiasts would feel similar feelings of irritation should they be told constantly that they should not be indulging more than an hour or so a day (if that...) in their chosen hobby and passion. Further, the sportstar would probably be even more non-plussed by the social and communal ramifications of his scaled down participation in the team.
Gaming, and the community it fosters no different than this in many cases. In the end, many critics - and parents - to paraphrase Carmine Falconi of Batman Begins, "will always fear what they don't understand." But by not trying to understand the unique online community and its draw to young people, many critics are doing a serious disservice to their children and themselves. The end result can put strains on the partent and child's relationship, while at the same time disconnecting the teen from one of the few communities they still feel a connection to. Not a good thing for anyone.