The new-age craze of intense video game play may appear, at first glance, to be a strange choice of hobby. Hours spent staring at a screen alone in a dark room, fueled by soda and candy and the joy of pixelated explosions, seems like the last thing this generation should be invested in. But thankfully, there is far more to gaming than most realize: improved cognitive functions, emotional comprehension, and even better social skills.
The University of Mississippi has a club dedicated to gaming, the Ole Miss eSports club.
Abbie Thornton, club secretary, said, “I hope that more gamers find us, and join us. I want to see gaming as this big community thing on campus, kind of like how people get together to watch sports. I really want people to play together and have fun together, and I want it to be a big social activity. Something other than, like, just going out and partying on the Square.”
The eSports club hosts a variety of activities, such as “Rebel Rumbles,” which are pay-to-play gaming competitions, and casual game nights that are open to the public and offer a variety of genres. At these events, members can bring friends, and curious passersby can meet others who share their passions. The club hopes to appeal to students who are seeking a niche other than Greek life and physical sports.
MMO (massive multiplayer online) games suit groups, such as the eSports club, as friends can work together as teams to take down enemies or solve puzzles, which boost cooperation and communication abilities.
Thornton, a big fan of Nintendo games, said, “I play a lot on the weekends, and then I also play after classes when I need to destress. You know. I did some work. Time to take a break, play some games.”
Thornton began playing video games at a young age and got back into it after joining eSports. “I enjoy entering another world, you know,” she said. “You become the character you play as. A lot of games are objective oriented, so you have a specific task you have to do. You’re just set on meeting a specific goal; everything is well-defined. I like achieving something.”
Thornton’s games of choice are typically Mario Cart and Splatoon. “I play with friends locally, or I’ll play a lot online with people,” she said. “I use Discord, an online community where you can find people to play with.”
The reach of video games is worldwide, with public platforms and websites allowing complete strangers to work together. In her time as an officer and club secretary, Thornton said she has met many individuals who have difficulty having a conversation.
“You know, they’re just not very socially-oriented people,” said Thornton, “But video games give people something to talk about it. It gives people an in to find people like themselves, when otherwise they might be too shy…I know a lot of people who, the only friends they have is through gaming.”
When frustrated, it is cathartic to vent in a virtual space where nobody can actually be harmed. Video games offer a space where players can process their emotions and actions from a removed perspective.
Cray Pennison is the current president of Ole Miss eSports. He founded the club in the spring of 2017. He had the vision and makes connections. He hopes to hold bigger club events in the future. Currently, the club doesn’t quite have the right outreach. “People just don’t know the club exists,” said Pennison. “We hope to get scholarships, receive recognition with the university and the SEC in general, to be recognized as a really good eSports program.”
After years of playing, Pennison said his problem-solving skills have improved. “Games challenge you in different scenarios,” he said. He has also seen refinement in his hand-eye coordination, reaction time and awareness. “Before, objects would just fly past me seemingly out of nowhere,” he said. “Now I can pick up on tiny movements in mini-maps.”
Articles from the likes of Science Alert and the Association for Psychological Science have reported that playing video games improves sensorimotor and visuomotor abilities. Bettering these skills can lead to safer driving, and fine motor control in acts such writing and playing instruments.
Alex Watson, research and instruction librarian and faculty advisor for the eSports club, prefers single-player games to massive online arenas. “I tend to play games in order to blow off some steam, in order to relax and kick back,” said Watson. “To be honest, I’m not terribly good at video games,” he said, smiling wryly, “so if I’m playing the single player experience, that means that if I beat the game, I only have to beat the game, whereas if I’m playing against somebody else, I actually need to beat somebody else, and that person is probably half my age, but somehow has twice my experience.”
Video games as a medium are a separate experience from physical sports or movies because, said Watson, “They are definitely unique in that they are interactive, especially with a lot of those multiplayer games. Whatever narrative side there is, it is almost entirely spontaneously generated. Even playing the same level, the same people, the same characters won’t result in the same outcome.”
The community of gamers is slowly making an impact on the student body at large, and is a scaled representative of how the modern growth of video games has impacted the public. Video games may have, in the past, appealed to only a selective, geeky group, but gaming’s outreach has grown in leaps and bounds. For example, League of Legends is a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) that hosts a yearly worldwide championship with teams from various countries. In 2016, the finalists were competing for a prize pool of $5.07 million, with 43 million viewers.
“There’s sort of a stigma to a lot of things they’re doing, that this is not worthy of people’s time, that this is frivolous,” said Watson. “And I think they are kind of helping to show – especially people who are not that interested in traditional sports – showing them that there is something that they can be interested in without having to feel that stigma. I’m not going to say that normal sports aren’t important, because they’re not, but they and eSports are at least equally frivolous.
“There’s nothing wrong with being a fan of either one of them,” said Watson,“but the notion that following, I don’t know, football is somehow better than following eSports is rubbish.”
Watson said the virtual world has great appeal. “The thing about playing physical sports, versus esports, the bar is a lot lower,” he said. “If you can handle a controller, if you can understand the inputs, you can participate. You may not be good, but you can participate. Whereas playing a physical sport, there is definitely a barrier to entry.
“If you can’t walk, you can’t run. If you’re not very good at any of those things, you probably won’t be playing soccer. If you’re not very good at smacking into things at highly concussive speeds, it’s probably gonna be difficult for you to play football. If your hand-eye coordination is such that you find it difficult to track moving objects, it could be difficult or you to play baseball.
“Whereas with esports, especially considering many people come from a background where they understand the basics of video games – they understand what the analog sticks do, what the buttons do – it’s easier for them to pick up and play. Now, I’m not gonna say it’s easy for them to master. And it’s also open to people who have disabilities that would prevent them from playing traditional sports.”
There has been concern, particularly among parents, that playing games that feature gore and war could lead to violent behaviors in children. “I definitely don’t see any merit to people saying that they have negative psychological impact,” Watson said. “That’s just alarmism and things like that. Every time a new form of media comes out, people say that it’s the Devil, and it incites people to violence.”
According to a meta-analysis by John Sherry at Purdue University, and Science Daily’s report on research from the University of New York, studies show video games do not cause people to become violent.
Colleges can benefit from students’ gaming interests as well. “Considering that a lot of people that would be participating in eSports would be interested in field positions where the university is trying to grow,” said Watson. “Obviously that’s not true of everybody, but people in STEM fields, people interested in digital things….there’s even a place for that in the humanities.”
Some say video games can better people’s mental abilities, social intelligence, and provide a sense of community. As young adults educate themselves and prepare to enter the workforce, higher education can foster a love of gaming into full-on careers.
“It seems like, where I’m sitting,” said Watson, “that the eSports team does have a positive impact on the people that are participating, and the people that are spectating. And by that metric, I would say it’s definitely a success and should definitely be continued.”