On Useful Entertainment

It's rare that I actually write something for this site. It's an even rarer occasion if what I write gets published. I quite commonly have views on things (for example I wrote an article about how I thought Battlefield 3 for PC integrated into the web well, but how Origin detracted from the experience) but they simply aren't meaningful enough to other people to warrant me publishing them. So know that this article is about more than me justifying why I like certain video games and not others. It's about how some kinds of entertainment can make you a more interesting person, and other kinds will do nothing for you.

As Jeff Atwood says in an episode of Herding Code from October 2011, it is poisonous to adopt the attitude toward video games and other sources of entertainment that closed-mindedly holds all entertainment as a waste of time. The grand fallacy, as he says, is that every second we do not spend working toward, say, a cure for cancer, is a second that helps cancer spread further and claim more lives. I will make several arguments against this attitude and conclude with the type of entertainment that I think is okay to consume.

There are practical arguments against working 24/7: Human beings need rest to be their most productive, and work without sleep would eventually grind to a halt as our productivity decreased due to simply being unable to focus anymore. Eight hours of sleep nightly would presumably allow us to continue functioning well the rest of the time. Given another two hours for eating throughout the day, and we have a total of 10 hours that we use simply to maintain our productivity during the other 14 hours. This gets us down to 14 hours of work per day, but can't really apply any more, since the marginal benefit of more sleep or more eating time isn't great enough to be worth pursuing.

Can we work the 14 hours? Probably. There are arguments to be made for not doing so, such as working 14 hour work days (of hard, continuous, thoughtful work) would quickly wear one out and in the long run one would be less happy and be less productive. This argument has little scientific basis, so I won't explicity argue it. Instead I choose to believe that with our lives we simply have come to expect a certain quality of life, and that we expect to be allowed a certain amount of entertainment for however much work we do.

Once we accept this, I think it is reasonable based on societal standards and laws to define that of our 14 hours, 8 will probably be spent working, and say 2 will be spent commuting. This allow us a maximum of 4 hours for entertainment daily, although depending on schedule, this may in fact be less or more.

The debate now comes to how to spend the limited time we have for entertainment. Even if time spent on entertainment (therefore not being spent on work) isn't in fact causing cancer, it doesn't mean that the time should be entirely wasted. I would define a waste of entertainment time by what one is left with after the time is spent. In particular, I think it is espeically important to be cognizant of the long-term results of our entertainment choice. For example, it may greatly relieve my stress to practice a piano piece that I've been working on. After say, 6 months of practice, I will have learned a few new pieces, improved a marketable and useful skill, (the long term benefits) and in the short term the action will have relaxed me.

It is interesting to think about how humans are so short-term focused. I maybe be almost indifferent to practicing piano and watching television in the short term because they both allow me to relax to some extent, but I often don't even consider the long term benefits of each, which are easy to name for playing piano, and extremely difficult to find for watching television. It almost makes me think that the way we are taught to think about things simply isn't appropriate for our lifespans. There are numerous hurtful behaviors that can be explained by placing a value on present gain above long-term gain (this statement could be applied to everything from the stock market to relationships!) and these could be corrected if we could train our minds to focus on the long-term.

I would argue that everything on television that is not informative (no need to name specific channels here, but if it isn't a documentary or an educational program in some way) has very little long term value, and comparable short term value to other forms of entertainment. I would argue that the only long term value present in watching a tv show, or any televised sports, for that matter, is knowledge that is extremely specific only to that show or sport, and cannot be transferred as a skill anywhere else.

There are many media that, unlike TV, do actually have long-term benefits. Books are one example. Reading a lot of even the most average novels will improve your writing and the way you organize your thoughts. This is not to say that all books will do this, but given access to some basic book review websites, it is not difficult to find something one enjoys that also stimulates the mind.

Video games are another media that have huge potential for long-term benefits. The interactive nature of video games leads them to be able to condition the player into developing habits and skills that can then quite easily transfer over into other areas of life. Take the Role Playing Game Dark Souls, for example. This RPG has game mechanics that punish players if they don't pay attention and understand exactly what they are doing. For example, at one point in the game, I came across a knight in golden armor in a jail cell. It seemed rude to leave him there, (plus his armor was cool and he had these awesome daggers) so I set him free. I later saw him back at my basecamp. I thought nothing of the deed, until two hours later he had killed an important NPC (non-player character) back at my basecamp, making it so I could no longer save and recouperate my health there. After checking online, I other more experienced players told me that there were a lot of clues that he was an assassin, all of which I had missed because I wasn't really paying that close attention. The game reinforces this every second I play. It is not uncommon for a player to go back to a low-level area when they are much higher level and have great weapons and armor and be killed because they are reckless. This is so much the case, that on a completely separate note, after you die enough times in this game, you no longer blame the game's difficulty. Players blame only their own foolishness and insist that the game was, if anything, too merciful. This is a real phenomenon that I have observed in myself and countless others (via the internet and conversation). I can honestly say that playing this game has made me more observant in everything I do. I literally appreciate things now on walks with my dog that I used to not even notice.

Another great thing about Dark Souls is that you completely craft your own story. You are not told where to go, and given only vague objectives, like, "Ring the two bells of awakening" and "Bring four lord souls to the lordvessel". At the start of the game, your character is thrown a key in a jail cell and is guided by the level design through the end of the tutorial. After your character arrives at the game's main basecamp, entitled "Firelink Shrine", there are no more tips. You can choose to travel in any direction, and the only way you'll know if you can progress in this direction is if you can kill the enemies and survive there. This is refreshing compared to many of today's games, which are linear in nature and if not, are extremely guided experiences that tell you exactly what to do, to the point of having a line showing you where to go. This strategy of dipping your toe in the water and seeing if it gets bitten off by a piranha is another aspect of Dark Souls that is easily applied outside of the game (although not in such literal examples, obviously). The problem with linear games is that they don't reflect life. In life, no one tells you how to take care of yourself, where to go next, and what to do. I suspect that for many people this is the appeal of video games- they like having a clear sense of a path to improvement because they lack one in their lives. What Dark Souls does is teach one method of exploring options that anyone who has played Dark Souls now has with them and can apply to a new job position, a potential move to a city, or any other major life choice. It may seem ridiculous that you can learn how to deal with these things from a game, but in many ways the choices you make for your character in the game prepare you to make choices when the consequences actually really do matter in your own life.

The last aspect of dark souls I want to mention is the cooperative element. This is a huge part of the game that is reinforced first and foremost by the game's difficulty. There are also more specific mechanics that reinforce this. For example, enemies that carrying giant shields covering the front of them are much easier to take down when attacked from two sides. Players can leave messages for each other on the ground, chosen from a set of phrases. These recommendations are indispensable, especially in one area where the path is invisible(!). The game also lets players summon other players (that are within 10% of their level to ensure that a new character cannot be assisted by an extremely high level character) to help for boss fights and particularly difficult parts of levels. The following video shows what happens when a player attempts to take on one of the game's boss encounters on his own:

In the final 20 seconds of the video above, "Swiftor" finally gives in and summons someone to help him, and defeats the encounter on his first try. There is no doubt that the experience he gained by attempting it so many times himself helped him immensely to understand the fight, in particular the boss' movements and attacks, but due to the multi-target nature of the fight, it is simply easier with two or more people.

Games like Dark Souls cannot even be compared to the modern-day fps, which is the equivalent of an interactive movie. There's stuff happening, you have to do these things, you do them, stuff happens. It's a reaction cycle that isn't really altered by the things the player does, it is only altered by the things the player is told to do (which have of course been set far in advance by the developer). It's worth noting that there are games from every genre at fault here. I would say one of the most egregious offenders is Farmville, which exploits human psychology and gamification methods to create an addicting experience that has very little real substance to it. There is extremely little if any long-term benefit to games like this. Players stay motivated because of the psychological quirk of loss aversion. These games also do not contribute toward social relationships, in fact if you want to play with your friends, you pretty much have to define them to the game. You can't meet new or interesting people through it.

There are some exceptions to this rule. There are obviously films which have something to teach people and these films frequenty change peoples' lives. I am not saying it is bad to spend time watching these films. However, I think if you are going to see a film it is better to filter them to only those that have been recommmended by other people than it is to see all films and have many of them be a waste of time. To me personally, it's also worth considering the most basic fact that if I see a movie, I'm going to spend two hours of my time passively absorbing something where I instead could be actively participating in a video game.

All in all, playing Dark Souls is an extremely fulfilling gaming experience. I am learning things from this experience that can actually be applied as skills in my life. These are skills that help me make critical decisions and sharpened my social skills- things that American middle/high school education doesn't touch on at all. Going forward, it will be difficult for me to enjoy things that do not have a long-term benefit to them, as I now know of activities that definitely have the relaxing qualities of time-wasters in the short term, but actually improve skills in the long term. I guess what I'm trying to say is I'm sorry that most people don't know about the wealth of useful knowledge that can be obtained from games like Dark Souls.