I crossed paths with the topic of computer games a surprising number of times in this week just past. I dabble in gaming but there is a very vocal part of me which can’t justify all those hours spent in front of a screen. A bit now and then to switch off and relax, for a bit of distraction, is fine. But anything more is just unproductive – that’s the issue for me.

Three casual things that happened in the last week made me rethink this. So, when are video games not just computer games?

1- Institute for the Future (IFTF)’s games for a better world

In the course of doing some research at work, I stumbled upon the Institute for the Future‘s website and discovered they’ve developed a whole raft of games with a social purpose.

The one I happened to look at was MMOWGLI, which presents a complex scenario (piracy, navy inefficiency, energy issues) and the premise of the game is to generate ideas and build on other people’s ideas for points, canvassing, along the way, potential problems that may arise.

So basically their games are a giant brainstorm in the form of a game – but tackling real world issues and engaging citizens in the process of imagining and designing the future. I think it’s a concept with a lot of potential.

2– Minecraft therapy

Minecraft has been around for a while and I thought it was just a couple of my gaming friends who were into it. I’ve never played it myself; it seems like it would be a tedious game focused on micromanagement of resources, yet with the sinister potential to mutate into an addiction.

It is essentially a type of virtual Lego and you can build anything and everything. Some crazy dudes have spent hours hacking out enough units of all sorts of materials to recreate the Taj Mahal, brick by brick, to name just one example.

Last week, my colleague told me it was all the rage at her sons’ primary school (asking me if she should be concerned!). Then another lady from church raved about how Minecraft was helping her son manage his dyspraxia, facilitating his learning of motor and developmental skills – things like writing and even speaking – in a way that traditional methods simply could not. The game engages him and using the the touchscreen is a big part of how it works as a form of therapy.

Using games to treat health issues isn’t a new idea (think Wii Fit, movement games for injured people in rehab) – but it made me look at video games in a new way.

3- Civilization IV/Fall from Heaven 2: hangin’ out with friends in Erebus

Now as yet, I don’t know of any educational or world-saving potential inherent in Civ4 FfH2. What I do know is that it is currently pretty much the best way for me to stay in touch with a couple of friends who live interstate.

Yes, I could give them a call. Yes, we could chat on Facebook. But it actually isn’t the same thing.

In terms of friendship, I like to develop my relationship with someone by having a good yarn and talking about everything and anything. But other people like to do things together – and playing this computer game is a form of doing things together, of hanging out. Even if it takes 6.5 hours out of my Saturday. Even if we don’t actually talk much about what’s happening in our lives.

I’m not sure exactly when I had this realisation. It’s a logical next step from when I first saw that as much as I was averse to spending so much time on Facebook, that is how young people in Ecuador (and in Australia too, truth be told) relate with each other, and conversations that happen there have real significance and effect here in what I arrogantly call “the real world”.

So computer games are like sport?

Pretty much.

Sport has famously been an arena of peace in the midst of war and a tool for peace-building.

It contains the obvious health and physical well-being component, and activities like swimming have been used to treat physical conditions and for rehabilitation.

It’s a social thing, especially team sports and in many cases we will play sport or encourage kids to play sport in order to make friends.

Computer games are like sports. Except sport doesn’t cop the same kind of flack and never made any kid/grown man a geek.

Given the world is becoming increasingly tech-driven and internet-dependent, it is natural that a virtual platform should also gain greater prominence, growing in sophistication in the process. Having had cause to consider the three examples I outline above, I’m interested to see what the future of video games will look like.

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