In the realm of virtual fantasy, any landscape you can imagine is only a few clicks away. You can be an Italian plumber searching through a castle or a soldier stuck in a desert. But with a generation of ambitious developers and constant technological breakthroughs, video games are set to become more realistic and immersive than ever thought imaginable. But this may come at a cost.
Video game addiction is already an area of public concern and it could be set to worsen. While Australian studies are limited, a study in the medical journal of Pedatrics examined video game usage rates of 3,034 children and teens. The result found the average time they spent playing was 20 hours a week, with 4 percent of the subjects exceeding 50 hours gameplay.
Graphical innovation and broadening game play capabilities could give people more reason to pass up social activities in favour of playing video games The development of online multiplayer has removed a social aspect of gaming; Those memorable split-screen sessions with friends have become obsolete in favour of convenience; and whilst Retro consoles are considered by many to be socially advantageous, the games have not aged well.
In 1972, the hottest breakthrough in gaming technology was Pong. Pong had the player control a white line, tasked with hitting a full stop across a non-existent net to an opposing nemesis line in a battle of virtual supremacy. Fast forward to graphics today and fine details like the quivering of a sprinting athlete’s calves go unnoticed.
Surprisingly, games like Pong are yet to become dust collectors. Some gamers actually prefer these pixelated masterpieces to their life-like counterparts.
One of those gamers is Brad Richards. Despite being married and operating a business, Brad’s passion for multiplayer gaming hasn’t faded. For 15 years he has been organising video game parties– or LANs– where he and others with a love for mashing buttons meet up and play games. These events helped Brad make “unforgettable life-time friends” that he would never have met if he only played online.
The atmosphere at one of Brads ‘Supergamer’ events is distinctly different to that of a competitive tournament. The venue is very small and informal, ensuring players are relaxed and comfortable. Game memorabilia lines the plaster walls on makeshift shelves. Players are all seated alongside each other in front of the wall mounted screens. The set-up is inviting and allows for ease of mid-game banter and laughs but most importantly: all Supergamer events are free.
The difference between Brad’s events and other video game meet-ups or tournaments is that his host simplistic retro games rather than competitive modern shooters. His gaming glory days began in the ‘80s during the time when arcade game centres were flourishing, so it was easy to find someone to play with. Revisiting those games now takes him on a stroll down nostalgia lane, to a place where, he says, it was “more about having a good time, and less serious.”
“The same way that listening to an old song can remind you of a particular time in your life, playing retro games is a great way to take you back to the good old days.”
A big change in game development came in the late 90’s, early 200’s. The rapid growth of new technologies and the emergence of online gaming called for many games to be more strategic and competitive. Shooters like Halo, Call of Duty and Counter-Strike all began introducing heavy reward schemes that reward the player with incentives for playing the game often, and of course, for winning.
It did not take long before huge corporations were founded with the sole purpose of hosting gaming leagues, tournaments and championships for cash prizes. Major League Gaming, Dream Hack, and ESL have been operating for well over 10 years, and have had such success that many of their tournaments offer cash rewards in the millions.
Championship tournaments are held in stadiums and competitive players are treated in the same regard as professional athletes. This phenomenon has come to be known as ‘e-Sports’ and it gives almost any keen gamer the opportunity to cement a career, and achieve a heightened social status.
Someone with a tight grasp on the brass ring of competitive gaming is 21 year old Albert Nassif. Albert works full time in Sydney as an optical dispenser and unofficially full time as a Call of Duty champion. He plays with three other teammates in ‘Team Immunity’, a gaming organisation with huge sponsors like Intel, Redbull and BenQ. Despite his age, Albert manages to balance a career, a relationship, and this high demand gaming lifestyle.
“I do it because I’m competitive. I want to be the best, and I like to win. I couldn’t see it any other way,” Albert says with great determination.
Computer game players of this nature often have a hard time with insults from others. Comments such as ‘nerd’, ‘loser’ and ‘no-life’ are thrown around constantly, but Albert can only laugh when he hears them. Albert said from one tournament alone he won a trip with all expenses paid to Los Angeles, as well as $4000. If that’s nerdy, he says, then “sign me up”.
The trip to LA was to take part in a LAN, but a very different one to Brad’s retro home setup. This LAN was the ‘Call of Duty World Championship,’ and it was for more than just enjoyment. The annual competition sees 32 professional gaming teams battle it out for a share of a $1 million dollar prize pool and the title of World Champion.
This event is the Super Bowl equivalent of console gaming and a phenomenon to witness. The arena figuratively splits at the seams accommodating the thousands of rowdy fans, hundreds of film crew and several jumbo screens that showcase every moment. There is a great deal of animosity and tension amongst the teams, with players keeping to themselves in the interest of strategy. It truly visualises one of the big differences between retro games and modern games.
Brad Richards prefers games like Mario Kart for his smaller gatherings, because they are based around mindless fun and are “the best for everyone to enjoy themselves”. He groups hard-core shooters into a different category of social interaction because of the emphasis on winning.
Even if they wanted to try out a modern shooter, they’d have a problem. Halo MasterChief-Collection, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, and StarCraft 2 are among the biggest titles to have removed the LAN feature all together. While a lot of gamers do still enjoy meeting up to play, developers seem to think physical get-together gaming is dated.
That is not to say that the social aspect of gaming is diminishing. Bond University’s Dr Jeffery Brand specialises in researching the effects of computer games and their interactivity with audiences. Brand says that while the type of social interactions with retro games differs greatly from interactions seen today, it does not necessary mean players today are less social.
“If one looks at the YouTube game exchanges and the many wikis and the endless foray for online social exchange, it would be surprising to conclude that game players are less social than they once were,” he says.
Brand regards video gaming as no more addictive than many other common behaviours, but he recognises the scope is widening for game designers to “produce content and create hooks that will increase consumption”. Growing technological capacity presents greater opportunity for players to ease into unhealthy gaming habits, but he urges there are many other factors involved in anti-social tendencies.
“The criticality of a good home, educational opportunities, and access to employment are the three big factors in preventing anti-social behaviour,” he says.
Not everybody holds this opinion. Someone who has a strong opinion on the social facet of video gaming is mother of one, Victoria. She’s watched her son’s enthusiasm for leisurely gaming transform into a complete lifestyle based around sleepless nights, mood swings and League of Legends. The online multiplayer battle arena game which pits players against each other encapsulates most of his life.
“When he’s not playing, he’s often tired and grumpy and short fused,” she says. “And when he does play, his temper depends on how much he’s enjoying the game.”
Sometimes her son becomes so angry she considers “leaving the house.” The toughest pill for Victoria to swallow is that she was the one who introduced her son to video games a few years prior. Her son’s first console was a Nintendo GameCube and back then the machine served as a relief for when his friends were busy, or on a rainy day. Now gaming is almost a full time commitment for him.
Zelda, Super Smash Brothers and Star Fox were some of his favourite games. These games had no online capability, essentially limiting playability. Once the games were complete, there was no reason to keep playing. Victoria wishes modern games “actually finished, and didn’t go on forever.”
“As soon as he gets home from school he plays it until the early morning. He barely makes time to even eat because the game goes on and on and he doesn’t want to fall behind. It worries me.”