These days, the moral panic over video games already feels a bit quaint — like the freak-outs of yesteryear over rock music, comic books or Dungeons & Dragons. Over the past 20 years, video games have grown more and more popular while violent crime plummets further and further. By 2011, even the U.S. Supreme Court opined in a ruling that no study proved exposure to violence in video games made minors more violent.
Yet, as someone raised by video games — I've contracted dysentery in The Oregon Trail, headcrabs in Half-Life and zombie-ism in The Walking Dead — I now believe they are, in fact, dangerous. Not because they make us aggressive. Because they make us feel like we've truly done something.
Our psyche craves accomplishment. Without it, we're left with unease, a desperate desire to become somebody better, create something grander, do something bigger. It's a craving that drives midlife or quarter-life crises. It's a catalyst to change careers, move to a new country or launch a startup. It makes us work harder and longer, sends us to hit the gym or the library or the learning annex.
One problem: Video games satisfy that same urge. They're like cheat codes, allowing us to wallhack through all those barriers and hurdles standing between us and a feeling of triumph.
Yes, some games make you earn that feeling of success, requiring you to solve fiendish puzzles or reforge muscle memory to adapt to convoluted dodge-attack patterns. But for many others, you're just a "match three" game away from the sounding of trumpets. "Divine!" the Candy Crush announcer shouts in a silky baritone after successfully lining up three virtual candies. "Tasty!"
The Plinko-style game Peggle bathes you in bright colors and pleasing sound effects, and literally plays "Ode to Joy" when you clear the board. Form a long word in the Boggle-style Bookworm Adventures and a little cartoon worm cries out, in high-pitched awe, "ASTONISHING!"
All that praise and easy accomplishment goes a long way toward soothing us angsty types. A 2011 East Carolina University study measured biofeedback of subjects playing Bookworm Adventures and Peggle and found the games significantly reduced their symptoms of depression and anxiety.
But it's precisely that ability to distract from more complicated feelings where video games pose the biggest risk. It's not that video games are bad for you. It's that they're good enough to work as a substitute — an escape — for tougher, more important things. According to a 2013 Psychology Today overview of research, those who play games to get "a sense of victory or control over" their lives are more likely to get addicted than those who play to have fun.
"Internet Gaming Disorder" made a cameo in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, warning that the rhythm of reward and achievement in online games, like World of Warcraft, can rewire a brain in a manner similar to drug addiction.
Consider Simpsons: Tapped Out, a mobile game I compulsively played this winter. Ultimately, there was no actual game to it, other than tapping coins on a cellphone screen. But when I used those coins to plop down Moe's Taverns and Duff Breweries onto the game's empty lots, I saw my little Springfield grow. In a season when I felt directionless, I was building something, no matter how tiny, no matter how fictional.
Virtual achievement, no matter how petty, feels like victory. Xbox 360 games reward players with "Achievement Unlocked" pop-ups upon completing specific feats. Naturally, some players set out to accomplish even the most mind-numbing achievements — finding all 200 virtual pigeons, say, or playing for 14 straight hours — just for that tiny victory.
But reality's an even rougher grind. You can't learn Spanish by trading in experience points. You can't select "master the piano" on a level-up skill tree. And real life achievements — "Put away money for retirement" or "Called elderly family member" — are rarely as flashy as saving princesses, shooting down Star Destroyers or slaying Lords of Terror.
In adulthood, progression can be elusive and immeasurable. In video games, it's virtual, yet feels tangible. Your success is displayed with cold numbers on a stats screen, with the ever-more-wicked armor you drop on your barbarian, with the way you can effortlessly smite the dragons and giants that once crushed and charbroiled you.
Some clever developers have tried to take fix this fact, dressing up dull, real-life tasks with the addictive glitz of games. In my halting, sporadic attempts to learn Spanish, I've been using a mobile app called Duolingo — which, in fact, does try to teach you Spanish with experience points. It has achievements, levels and a currency to buy upgrades, just like a video game. Similar apps tackle running, weightlifting and dieting.
But aesthetic makeovers, sadly, can't change fundamental truths: Learning a new language hurts your brain. Running makes you tired. Weights are heavy. Life's much easier slouched in a computer chair, feeling like you're really getting somewhere, one click, swipe or button mash at a time. ♦