By Ming Ming Chiu

Contrary to popular belief, playing video games does not make children violent or loners. However, playing single-player video games a lot can increase loneliness and unhappiness. In contrast, playing multi-player video games can cultivate collaborative skills that increase protester effectiveness.

First, let’s dive into a video game’s design elements to understand why players love them. In the single-player Witcher series, a monster hunter with magic spells overcomes many challenges and makes consequential decisions to rescue a child and save a kingdom.

This captivating character with a simple, clear goal entices a player to assume his identity and become a hero. By succeeding on easy early challenges, like finding a key, the player becomes more confident.

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Successive challenges, like killing deadlier monsters, are harder but have increasing value. If a player initially fails to kill a monster, she can try again and again, with different strategies, at her own pace, on her own time, under her control. Eventually, she kills it, revels in her success, and feels excited about the next challenge.

As consequential decisions in Witcher drive different endings, the player can change her previous choices to explore different outcomes. If she persists, she eventually saves both the child and the kingdom. Together, these design elements drive players to spend countless hours enjoying them.

Since the 1970s, video games have spread world-wide, so that more than 2 billion people play them, according to the 2017 Global Games Market Report. If playing them increased violence, violent crime rates should have skyrocketed, but they haven’t.

As players distinguish virtual violence from actual violence, countless studies show no link between playing video games and actual violence. Indeed, playing video games often leaves little time to commit violent crimes, and world-wide homicide rates have fallen over time, according the 2019 Global Study on Homicide.

While simply playing video games doesn’t create loners, excessive video game playing can reduce socialising. A person with positive social attitudes and good social skills before playing a video game, still has them afterwards. Video games don’t make people want to be alone or destroy their social skills.

When excessive video game play interferes with socialising, however, such players spend less time with friends, becoming lonelier and unhappier.

July 1 china extradition protest
Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

Also, after the thrill of video game heroics, returning to mundane, real life can be a letdown. Casual players engage in other activities afterwards and mostly forget their recent game playing. However, a player perpetually immersed in a video game builds extensive memories of her heroic gaming, to which her real life pales, thereby making her less happy.

Building on the engaging design of single-player games, Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), like World of Warcraft, add self-organising cooperation. At the start of an MMORPG, strangers often form a team and quickly organise.

For example, World of Warcraft players have about a minute to decide who should do what and when before their battle begins. There’s no time to choose a leader. Instead, each player identifies her capabilities and takes on tasks, so the MMORPG facilitates participation.

During these fast-paced MMORPGs, they have little time to chat. Instead, they share bits of information, identify problems, ask for and give help. Regardless of whether they win or lose an MMORPG, they do it together for the group’s greater cause, so playing MMORPGs generally enhances players’ shared identity, group-supported confidence, collaborative attitudes and skills.

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A poster for World of Warcraft. Photo: Blizzard Entertainment.

World of Warcraft players sound like recent Hong Kong protesters, don’t they? A Hong Kong protester typically receives social media calls to join various protests, picks one, and becomes part of a group with a shared cause. She donates her pack of masks and volunteers to create barricades with metal railings and cable ties.

During the protest, she shares information and resources, identifies problems, asks for and gives help. Through fluid self-organising, protesters can suddenly appear in flash mobs, create efficient communication and supply chains, open and close travel lanes, and then disappear (“be water” a la Bruce Lee).

Compared with a single leader, these leaderless, self-organising, crowd-sourced intelligence MMORPGs and protests have more coordination failures but superior monitoring and creativity. Without a clear leader, MMORPG team members might misunderstand their tasks or go rogue, leaving defence gaps that enemies exploit to kill them.

Likewise, Hong Kong protesters sometimes split; on August 10, 2019, some protesters continued demonstrating at Tai Po, but several hundred moved to Tai Wai. Worse, rogue protesters attacked two mainland Chinese men and a policeman at the Hong Kong airport on August 13. Angered by these attacks, pro-government demonstrators launched their largest march on August 17.

However, MMORPG players and protesters monitor more effectively and are more creative than a single leader. They listen to one another closely to detect and correct errors, resulting in superior decisions and executions. After playing a game, MMORPG players identify one another’s flawed battle tactics and specify corrections.

In the same way, protesters recognised their misconduct at the airport and mostly left on August 14, leaving a few protesters behind with signs apologising for their misbehaviour. To help correct their mistakes, they showcased their non-violence with an August 18 peaceful demonstration of 1.7 million people, according to the organisers.

kwun tong china extradition august 24
Photo: May James/HKFP.

Leaderless MMORPG players and protesters also freely express diverse ideas and build on them to launch more creative initiatives than single leaders do. Confronted with a deadly monster, MMORPG players brainstorm different attack strategies, evaluate them, and apply them to eventually kill it.

Likewise, protesters devised many creative tactics: (a) countering police weapons with umbrellas, (b) neutralising tear gas with traffic cones and water, (c) covering Lennon Walls with paper sculptures and protester action figures, and (e) igniting same-day demonstrations against China Extradition in 40 foreign cities on August 18.

Is playing video games harmful? Generally, no, unless it interferes with work, school, or socialising with friends. Also, you can practice your collaborative skills in MMORPGs, whether for protests, school, or work.

Ming Ming Chiu is Chair Professor of Analytics and Diversity in the Department of Special Education and Counseling at The Education University of Hong Kong.

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