Out of the dumpster fire: games and well-being

I noticed a few similar headlines appearing in my news feed one day towards the end of November. A new report had apparently found a surprising discovery: time spent playing video games is positively associated with wellbeing.

I scrolled past at first and wasn’t going to give them a second glance. Gaming bloggers have become so used to seeing newspapers publish articles about studies like this, where the author disputes the findings and then questions the value of gaming. But one title ended up catching my eye because it mentioned the way the data had been collected for this latest report from Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, entitled Video game play is positively correlated with well-being.

Previous studies have relied upon asking participants to estimate how much time they spend playing and this can obviously be unreliable. For the latest research however, industry data on actual play time was provided by Nintendo and Electronic Arts (EA) for Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville respectively. The companies then reached out to regular players to invite them to take part, and participants responded to a survey from the university.

I had the chance to see a session given by Professor Pete Etchells on the psychology of gaming addiction at the Rezzed event last year and remember him talking about data. Scientists are always playing catch-up because they don’t have any information on trends around what the nation is playing; and while the information held by publishers would be invaluable to researchers, they often don’t want to provide it in case the resulting investigations indicate that gaming is bad for us.

Perhaps times are changing then. The fact that big organisations like Nintendo and EA have willingly helped with the Oxford Internet Institute’s study could finally indicate acknowledgement of a need to understand more about our interactions with video games, and encourage other companies to be more open to providing useful data too. The findings here are valuable, not because of what they’ve shown in connection with well-being but because of the method used to arrive at their conclusion.

You see, it’s not really much of a surprise that video games can help improve our mental health. This is something we as gamers have been shouting about for years and we’ve all got our own story of how they’ve helped us through a tough time. We see them as something of worth rather than the ‘mindless entertainment’ view usually held by newspapers and non-gamers, and know that spending your weekend playing the latest release is just as worthwhile as watching a movie or reading a book.

The COVID-19 lockdown has highlighted the benefits of gaming with more people taking up the hobby since March. For some, it has been a way to fill the free hours brought on by being furloughed from work. For others, video games have provided a means to escape from everything going on in the world when a break is needed. And for a lot of us, playing online with friends and family has meant we’ve been able to feel as though they’re still spending time with those closest to us.

I asked my blogger-friends to tell me about their own experiences. Luke from Hundstrasse said that replaying two games he’d completed previously was comforting during the lockdown. Pix1001 from Shoot the Rookie said that although she felt her habits hadn’t changed, gaming has given her a certain sense of normalcy over the past several months. And Athena from AmbiGaming mentioned that watching streams has made her feel as though she’s playing with friends.

These aren’t the sort of stories frequently reported by the media though because they don’t bring in the clicks. Newspapers are usually more content to focus their content on loot boxes, and how they’re a form of gambling which is going to corrupt our children. Unscrupulous publishers who make money from unsuspecting parents when their unchecked kids make in-game purchases. And horrible games which contain too much violence and are surely going to lead to acts of aggression in real life.

But video games aren’t always the cause – playing could be more a symptom, and an interesting example was given by Professor Etchells during his talk. If your guardians had a more ‘relaxed’ parenting style, you may have been given access to titles that contained more violence as a child; but if you become aggressive later in life, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s those games that were the origin of that behaviour. It could instead have something to do with the way you were brought up.

This is something also picked up on in the latest study too. Director of Research and lead-author Professor Andrew Przybylski said of his team’s report: “Our findings show video games aren’t necessarily bad for your health; there are other psychological factors which have a significant effect on a persons’ well-being. In fact, play can be an activity that relates positively to people’s mental health – and regulating video games could withhold those benefits from players.”

To quote Professor Etchells’ talk: “I think video games do have an effect on us. Everything has an effect on us… but by focusing on video games, are we missing more important factors?”. The problem is the lack of available data, something mentioned by Professor Przybylski in his interview with The Guardian. He added: “You have really respected, important bodies, like the WHO and the NHS, allocating attention and resources to something that there’s literally no good data on… For them to turn around and be like, ‘Hey, this thing that 95% of teenagers do? Yeah, that’s addictive, no, we don’t have any data’ – that makes no sense.”

Maybe this latest study will change things and more companies like Nintendo and EA will be willing to share information for the benefit of further research. Perhaps then more news outlets will then start reporting on the positivity of video games and the findings of reports based on valuable data. As Professor Przybylski said: “This is about bringing games into the fold of psychology research that’s not a dumpster fire. This lets us explain and understand games as a leisure activity.”

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A Way Out: not the ending we wanted

When the schedule for our GameBlast19 marathon stream was revealed in January, I was pleased that A Way Out had made the cut. I’d been looking forward to playing it for a while and it seemed as though it would be great for an extended gaming session: something with a good narrative to rope us in and simple controls.

I wasn’t wrong. What I’ve learnt during five years of GameBlast events is that if you haven’t got your hands on a controller, you’re going to fall asleep at some point during those 24-hours. The cooperative style of A Way Out meant my other-half and I could play at the same time, so we were both involved in that section of the stream and it made it somewhat easier to keep going. After a few minutes’ debate we picked our characters and jumped right into the story.

If you haven’t played this game yet and intend to do so, I’d highly recommend navigating away from this post now and coming back later. There will be some major spoilers in the paragraphs towards the end.

I went for Leo Caruso: a man who has completed six months of an eight-year prison sentence for grand theft, assault and armed robbery, after a plan to steal and sell a famous diamond went horribly wrong. He may initially come across as insensitive and headstrong, but it’s obvious he cares deeply for his son Alex and wife Linda. The most touching moments in-game are those where he’s with his family and for all his faults and misdemeanours, you can see he really does want to be a good father.

The story begins when Vincent Moretti (Pete’s character) arrives in the same jail after being convicted for fraud and murder. They become reluctant friends when a thug sent in by crime boss Harvey tries to murder Leo – and it turns out that Vincent has a history with this dodgy villain too. Together the pair complete a daring escape plan so they can seek their revenge, during which they become closer and more trusting; but neither protagonist is aware of what it will cost both them and their families (more about that later).

A Way Out is only playable in either online or local split-screen co-op, so it’s not a release you’ll be able to get through on your own. The players need to cooperate and help each other in order to progress; this might consist of taking on different roles, such as one distracting a nurse while the other steals a chisel, or timing button presses correctly. One of the best parts for this is when it’s necessary for Leo and Vincent to climb up a tall shaft, and they do so by linking arms and walking upwards with coordinated steps.

There are more action-focused sections also where, for example, one character has to steer a vehicle while the other takes shots at pursuers. There are several Uncharted-style gun-rights towards the end of the game although these aren’t particularly long or difficult. You’re usually presented with a choice of choosing Leo or Vincent’s way of dealing with a situation (head-on and somewhat reckless compared to more strategic), and both players must agree before you can move on.

Ultimately though, A Way Out is a series of quick-time events (QTE) set to a plot so you might want to give it a miss if you’re not a fan of Quantic-Dream-type titles. I don’t mind a QTE every once in a while though as long as the narrative is good enough to hold my attention, so I found Hazelight Studios’ release it to be a pleasant and casual experience for around seven hours. That was until the end however, when something happened to make me almost completely change my positive opinion.

The reason why Vincent is on the scene is very personal: he’s a police officer who’s on the hunt for Harvey, his detective brother’s murderer. His sibling was shot dead six months earlier after going undercover to expose the theft of the famous diamond by Leo and the crime boss. He essentially uses his new ‘friend’ to track down Harvey before killing him in act of revenge – and then turns the table on Leo, knowing that a whole lot of police are going to be waiting for him when they land at an airport.

A Way Out, video game, criminals, police, police car, gun, hostage, Leo, Vincent

It’s not this plot-twist both Pete and I objected to but rather what came after it. Leo manages to subdue Vincent and uses him as a hostage in order to hijack a car. It eventually ends with a gun-fight between the pair on a rooftop in the rain where there can only be one survivor. In that space of time, we were continually thinking that Vincent would come up with a way of letting Leo escape as he finally had what he wanted in Harvey’s death… but no. The cop was going to pursue him until the bitter end, one way or another.

This absolutely sucks. Not the most eloquent phrase I’ve ever used in a review but it really does suck and for two reasons. First, the characters bond over the course of the game and eventually develop a level of trust, sharing their worries about their futures and their families. Leo even provides Vincent with a certain level of ‘marriage counselling’ on the flight to the airport mentioned above and this is what keeps him together with his wife, if he survives the final confrontation.

So it therefore doesn’t feel right to have Vincent betray his partner throughout the game. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking for an entirely happy ending and I understand he’s a police officer who’s ‘doing his job’, but it just didn’t feel as though it flowed with the rest of the title. There’s also the fact that the switch in gameplay from cooperative to competitive is incredibly jarring – although I have to admit this does effectively imitate the emotion the protagonists must be going through themselves.

The second reason for the huge suckage is that the player isn’t given a choice about the characters’ fate: they’re simply told to battle it out with button bashes to see who reaches the gun first and therefore lives. When Leo was successful and a scene showing an aim icon over Vincent appeared, Pete and I sat staring at the screen for a while because neither of us wanted to see either protagonist die. Eventually we had to give in because there was no other way to move the game forward.

A Way Out, video game, men, gun, shooting, rain, Leo, Vincent

I know all video games present an illusion of choice and it’s ultimately the developer’s path we’re walking, but players want to feel as though they’re able to affect an outcome. To not offer the chance to save both Leo and Vincent seems inappropriate almost. There was a chance for the criminal to now be with the family he loves, even if he’ll spend the rest of his life constantly looking over his shoulder; and there was a chance for the cop to move on after his brother’s death and realise his wife and new daughter are the most important things in the world.

Although I wouldn’t necessarily now say A Way Out is a bad release, the ending has tainted my opinion of it somewhat. Perhaps that makes me a selfish gamer and I should accept the experience of the story that Hazelight Studios wanted to tell. If you’ve played the game, I’d be interested to know what you think: how did the ending make you feel and would you have made a different choice if you could?

Anthem: video game Marmite

Ok, cards on the table… Here it comes… Confession time: I like Anthem. I get the criticism, I really do. The lore is opaque, the loot is dull, the systems for tracking quests and equipping gear are clunky at best and the loading screens… oh god, the loading screens are awful.

I also agree that underneath all the rubbish is, potentially, a real gem. A diamond in the rough. Why? Because the actual gameplay is superb. Flying your Javelin (think Iron Man armour) through the world is a thrill, the combat is excellent and the game looks gorgeous. Hovering about the battlefield in my Storm Javelin (Mage), I get a glorious view of the Colossus (Tank) and Interceptor (Rogue) working their way around at ground level, as the Ranger adds support at close quarters or range. Once you get your head around the combat it’s a treat. Each mission lasts around ten or twenty minutes and it’s done. Alternatively you can explore the world at your leisure.

Then it’s back to Fort Tarsis where you switch to first person mode to speak to characters and accept quests. Here it’s a completely different pace. Hectic combat replaced by slow exploration and in depth reading of the lore. It’s the complete opposite of what’s gone before.

And that, for me, is why it works.

I have limited time to game and so I need something that will work with both my time and what I want to play. Some days I’m in the mood for a few short missions, other days I might want to zone out and fly around to explore. There are also days when I want to immerse myself in the world and its characters. Anthem allows me to do it all and as a result we really suit each other.

Despite all that, I’m not going to recommend people jump in and buy it. I just can’t. Yes, it works for me but taking a step back I know it’s not a good game overall. There are so many things that need work, and if you want a mission-upgrade-mission-repeat scenario you’re going to lose your mind over the loading screens and inaccessibility of it all. It’s a game that the majority will lose patience with very quickly unless BioWare and EA address it.

It’s something I take no pleasure in saying either. It feels so much like it wants to be The Division or Destiny and yet hasn’t learned from any of their mistakes.

So, Anthem. Do you love it or hate it?

Welcome Back, Pilot

I have a strange relationship with battle-royale games. I love the concept of them and enjoy playing but once I’ve won a round I lose interest really quickly. In some part of my brain I see it as the point at which I ‘complete’ the game and lose the desire to go back for more.

It might be because I was brought up on releases in the 80s and 90s where once you finished the game’s objective that was it. No online component, no DLC, no expansion packs, no nothing. What you bought is what you got.

So what’s the endgame now? You win a round and then win some more I suppose. Grind for some cosmetic stuff (or pay for it if the mood takes you) and that’s it. I don’t entirely get it but millions of people do and that’s actually a very good thing. It means they play the games, pay the money and support developers and other staff across the industry. Cool.

Needless to say I jumped into Apex Legends when it launched the other week and soon added a victory there to my PUBG, Fortnite and Blackout wins. As before, the desire to play it slowly left me but this time something was different. This time I had been inspired to play Titanfall 2 again.

Why? Because when Respawn Entertainment developed Apex Legends they not only set it inside the Titanfall universe but used a very similar game engine. Movement is slow fluid, the shooting is spot on and the design impeccable, as the rave reviews for the Ping system will attest.

Jumping back into Titanfall 2 has been a brilliant decision. I’d forgotten just how good it was. Apex Legends doesn’t have the double-jump, wall-running or giant mechs and I can see why. They wouldn’t work in that environment. In Titanfall 2 however, they’re amazing. Grappling up to a wall, dashing along it, jumping to another, shooting, sliding off and into your Titan is a fantastic feeling.

The single-player campaign is a masterclass in design too. The way each level is structured is reminiscent of the best design Nintendo have used with Mario: start with a game mechanic, show player how to use it, make it progressively more complicated, end simply. In Titanfall those mechanics are everything from grappling, to wall running, to messing with time to just blowing stuff up with a huge Titan. It’s inspired.

The multiplayer is superb too with multiple game types. My favourites are Attrition and Frontier Defence. The first is effectively a standard deathmatch and you start off just trying to take down other pilots. Simply bunny-hopping around won’t help you here, you’ve got to be alert to walls, grapples, zip lines and all sorts. There are also AI ground troops running around the battlefield too. Then as the round progresses, Titans start dropping in and you’ve got massive mechs to deal with also. That these machines can operate independently of the player means that you could have both Titan and pilot trying to kill you at the same time. By the end of each round it’s absolute chaos.

Frontier Defence is horde mode by any other name and you team up with three others to face five waves of soldiers, robots and titans. It’s harder than it sounds but the five rounds are a perfect length, the two guys commentating are spot on and the level progression (player, titan and difficulty) is perfectly balanced.

Multiplayer servers are pretty slim in terms of player numbers and I’ve seen them as low as 1,500 recently but also as high as 20,000 on Xbox in the last week or so. It’s the nature of a game that never got the mainstream traction it deserved in an already crowded market.

I hope the success of Apex Legends continues for Respawn and allows them to build more in the Titanfall universe. Whether it’s a third game in the series, expanding the Apex Legends world to include mechs or something else I know it’ll be superb and worth a lot of play time.