Leisure was just the beginning

Nour is a young Syrian woman who undertakes a dangerous journey to reach Europe and escape the war and misery of her native country. She is alone. Her husband, Majd, stayed at her home to take care of her family. As Nour continues her journey, she communicates with Majd through text messages. What does Nour have to do? Should she stay in a newly found refugee camp or follow her path? Tell her husband how hard the trip was or lie so as not to worry him. It will not depend on her, but on the player of the video game that this fictional character stars in, with a story similar to that of thousands of people who try to cross borders to reach Europe.

This is Bury Me, My Love, published in 2017, of the subgenre known as serious games, video games that present stories that seek to educate or raise awareness among players, generating empathy with Syrian migrants through an interactive experience. This is just one example of how video games have transcended the initial purpose they were born seventy years ago: entertainment. Now they are capable of “changing the ways of relating to others and reality”, emphasizes Eurídice Cabañes, a scientific philosopher specializing in this field and author of the book Learning at Play. Video games have overcome the barrier of leisure and permeate more and more areas of society: economy, health, education… They have become sophisticated instruments of socialization and contribute to technological development.

But video games have not completely freed themselves from the stigmas that have weighed them down for decades. They have historically been associated with the image of the antisocial child or maladjusted adult. And its abusive use has generated addictions as dangerous as alcoholism or drug addiction.

The industry, meanwhile, has been growing to become a sector that generates more income than music and cinema combined, with a turnover that last year stood at around 180,000 million euros worldwide. And, although it is still far from television, the mass entertainment medium par excellence, the business is on the rise.

Rapid economic development has gone hand in hand with its insertion into other living environments. The games have left the living rooms of the houses and have been introduced in the academy, culture, hospitals, and every corner of society. “They are the first contact we make with technology and the first way in which we establish human-machine interaction,” explains Cabañes.

This dynamic with video games experienced a significant boost in 2020. That year, during the covid-19 pandemic, the WHO recommended turning to video games as an escape route to improve mental health in confinement. The thesis that they can be beneficial for the mind was supported by a study from the University of Oxford that same year, which showed a relationship between playing time and people’s well-being, according to a survey of more than 2,700 people. Virtual worlds had always been a refuge for some players, but what happened then was a radical change: those virtual spaces were no longer a source of shame. Embark on a dragon hunt or treasure hunt with friends in World of Warcraft, one of the world’s most famous online multiplayer video games, was as valid a therapy as listening to a Chopin waltz.

There are other spaces where video games have enjoyed a privileged position for some time, as is the case with technological innovation. They are at the forefront and new advances arise from them. They are the test object in the development of better processors, more advanced graphics cards, and new algorithms that are later implemented in various fields. Years ago it would have seemed like science fiction that after a hip fracture an elderly person could be rehabilitated thanks to virtual reality, or that the neurological effects of a stroke could be mitigated thanks to digital games with motion sensors. More and more projects use these technologies to make life easier.

If video games are a key to technological advances, mental health, socialization, and culture, where else can they go? Everywhere. Cabañes maintains that reality will be “increasingly like a video game.”

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