M&G: Games of our lives

Gaming is no longer a solitary occupation — now it is becoming a social event with the emphasis on competing.

As far as gaming is concerned, Justin Naidoo has come of age—for his 13th birthday he and four of his best buddies make their pilgrimage to Zaps Computers at Brightwater Commons in Randburg for an ­afternoon of LAN gaming.

“I started gaming when I was eight years old. My all-time favourite game is Halo,” he said excitedly.

His sister, Kasmira, is 14. She is the only girl in the group but the boys reckon she is “pretty good”.

Inside the store, the children form a unified force as they play Left 4 Dead. They each assume their favourite character—armed with weapons and a medical pack—and head out to fight frightening zombies. They move well as a team, jumping over obstacles, protecting one another and defeating the enemy. The store is abuzz with energy as they shout instructions at one another: “Hey, watch out, he’s right behind you!” or “Hey, get this sucker off my back—somebody help me!”

Social gaming is fast becoming a popular interest among South African youths under the age of 18.

Some begin at age five and carry their passion into adulthood. A gamer often moves between ­various mediums: console gaming on an Xbox or PlayStation, PC ­gaming online, or connecting to an online game on a cellphone.

Gamers are no longer interested in playing in solitude against a machine. The idea is to compete: whether against your mates or with them, joining forces to overcome a common enemy.

A world of their own
The gaming world is connected to a greater social network, online or in real time. Avid gamers confess to spending up to 10 hours a day consumed by a world of make-believe that can have psychological, emotional and financial ramifications.

In February online news source Mashable, which monitors digital culture and social media, estimated that 68.7-million Americans would be playing social games by 2012. Mark van Diggelen, chief executive and founder of South African gaming company SkillPod, told local website Techcentral in April that “game development in South Africa is not as big as it is internationally — it will take another two or three years before we start seeing a real interest”.

But there is proof of “real interest” in South Africa already. The annual rAge expo, one of South Africa’s premier gaming and technology trade fairs, boasted an attendance record last year of 20 316 gamers. Organiser Michael James attests to an estimated 15% increase in attendance each year.

Local computer stores like Zaps now offer LAN gaming spaces with a variety of games from which to choose. In one Randburg shopping ­centre there are three stores with social-­gaming ­facilities.

In Soweto local businessmen Musa Maphongwane and Amos Mtsolongo have successfully pioneered nine Gaming Zone stores in shipping containers. The first opened its doors in Pimville in 2006 and Maphongwane described the scene on that day as “unbelievable”.

“There was so much excitement—we had such a long queue outside and some children had travelled up to 10km just to play games.”

Gaming Zone, which specialises in console games because internet access is “too expensive”, provides a social hub for hundreds of Soweto children on a weekly basis.

“Children come here after school, they spend about three hours playing games and it costs only R1 a game,” said Maphongwane. “The youths, mostly of school-going age, are from disadvantaged economic backgrounds and although they’re fully aware of the digital gaming industry, many have never experienced it.”

Accessing the world
Craig Rodney, managing director of Cerebra, a digital communications agency that offers businesses insight into trends and technologies of social media, believes that although fewer than 10-million South Africans have access to the internet via a computer, the majority of people have access through their phones. “As upgrade cycles happen and phones evolve from entry-level to smartphones, people won’t even need to make the jump to a computer to understand how the ­internet works.”

Young people with cellphones are constantly online, playing games or chatting on social networks, and they are interlinked. Games that are played on social media websites are known as “casual” games—they allow you to log on to sites such as Facebook through your cellphone or computer and play with your community of friends.

An example is FarmVille, which is played by an estimated 70-million users on Facebook. It works on a “neighbour” system in which friends are responsible for harvesting crops to increase productivity. Facebook sends each player a deluge of FarmVille updates on their news feed and players are constantly tempted to check on the progress of their farm.

“The idea that playing a computer game is antisocial is a myth. It’s antisocial only to the people who aren’t playing,” said Adrian Scott-Dawkins, a technician at Zaps.

Because the gaming environment is communal, people can have all the negative traits they exhibit in the real world. Children can easily become victims of bullying, fraud and theft and Rodney advised young people to be cautious when creating their profiles, making sure that they do not divulge too much information. Cerebra estimates that 75% of children have been contacted by a stranger online.

Getting hooked
Health and sports psychologist Dr Helgo Schomer believes that some teenagers can overdo gaming, at which point it can become an addiction. He said some gamers become “moody and aggressive” when deprived of their games.

Schomer said that being addicted to gaming can stunt the emotional development of a child. “It doesn’t let you develop the complex skills that come with human interaction like compromise, diplomacy and ­negotiation. Instead you learn selfish disengagement,” he said.

Gaming is a form of escapism that allows a young child to develop an alter ego with enormous power, Schomer said. “They are dynamic in front of a computer but in real life they are just babies.”

He recommended that parents allow gaming as a small part of an adolescent’s overall balanced lifestyle in which games do not become a “baby-sitter” at the cost of human interaction.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Rodney champions social gaming as more than just an amusing pastime. He said children who spend their time gaming online are more technologically savvy than those who do not and pointed out that there is a variety of educational games online.

“There are now courses at South African tertiary institutions specifically tailored for game development,” said Van Diggelen. “When the education system starts to focus on this space, South Africans will start seeing game development as a viable career option.”

But Schomer said he would like to ask gamers how they will benefit from a lifetime of gaming. “You will have successfully distracted yourself, but will you have contributed to society?”