Game On!: Framingham’s “digital athletes,” gaming enthusiasts weigh in on gaming culture

The roughly eight hours per day that freshman Andrew Sychtysz spent during his high school years playing video games, particularly his specialty the “Halo” franchise on Xbox, were not just for recreation, and were certainly not a waste of time. They had practical purpose.

As a “digital athlete” of sorts, Sychtysz’s hours of practice helped him earn over a thousand dollars in cash, as well as another $500 or so in prizes, through competitive gaming in tournaments around Massachusetts, and even one in Tennessee.

“I like trying to be the best at the things I enjoy doing,” he said. “I still will never regret dabbling in competitive gaming, and I still plan on doing it if I have opportunities in the future.”

While he never truly considered himself a “professional” gamer, Sychtysz’s dedication to “Halo” became an amorphous combination of recreation, a lucrative hobby and, most importantly, community engagement. The people, it seems, were the most memorable part of this experience.

“I have met plenty of people at these tournaments and events – I had come to a first name basis with some of these professional players,” he said.

Upon arriving at FSU, the fastest and most natural way for Sychtysz to find a social niche was a no-brainer.

“I actually met one of my best friends at college because I found out that he played ‘Halo,’” he said. “Turns out, he is actually pretty skilled at the game, and just the fact that we both share the same love for it, we became extremely good friends. I do not know what I would’ve done if it wasn’t for ‘Halo’ introducing me to the awesome friends I have today.”

Sychtysz is not unique in forging deep friendships and personal bonds with individuals and whole communities of people while holding the controller and peering into the screen – into the world of his favorite games – night after night. Framingham State has an extensive community of gamers that takes many forms, and engulfs the campus – almost universally acting as a central pillar of the social scenes in which they appear.

Junior Joe Grigg, who spends an estimated 15-25 hours per week gaming, said, “The role gaming plays in my campus life is a social life and friend-making opportunity. … Most of my friends now are from playing ‘Smash Bros’ with.”

Grigg described how video gaming, particularly multiplayer games such as first-person shooter “Call of Duty” and party favorite “Super Smash Bros,” draws him and his closest friends in with the endless appeal of “good fun,” “bragging rights” and, of course, the timeless art of friendly smack talk as they attempt to best one another.

But campus gaming goes far beyond the playtime joystick gladiators of the

McCarthy Center Game Room. For some, gaming as a concept is a way of life in itself, with the games acting as a glue that holds together their various social microcosms none more apparent than the Gaming Club.

The club’s assistant director, Zach Brien, a junior, described his group as an all-purpose meeting place, useful not just for playing and

discussing videogames,

but for general hangouts and R&R.

“It’s a huge social thing,” he said.

“The whole point is to create a community of gamers.”

Gaming Club Treasurer Liz Dresser, a junior, called gaming at the club “relaxing after classes,” and “a fun hobby that I can do with friends I’ve made here.”

She added, “Since I’ve been in college, I have gamed more

socially, whether it’s multiplayer games or just playing a solo game with others nearby.”

Helpful in fostering this     casual,

open culture is the fact that the games played at Gaming Club are as diverse as the people and personalities it attracts. Game types range from the usual

console video games and computer games to board games, card games and

“Dungeons & Dragons”-

esque tabletop role-

playing games (sometimes known as pen-and-paper), which can last several sessions for each match or “campaign.” The club even holds campus-wide matches of “assassin,” which involves sneaking up on targets when they least expect it, and tagging them out.

“You can pretty much bring any kind of game or idea at all in, and there’ll be at least a few people there who will be willing to play,” Brien said.

Gaming Club President Greg Rainville, a senior, said, “Gaming is in a unique position where it can act as multiple things.

“On one hand, it acts as a form of stress relief, or escapism,” he said, describing a good game’s ability to transport the player into a new and engaging fictional world just as a good movie, television show or book can through its “immense amount of value and character.

“If I’m having a long day, and nothing is due immediately, I usually just sit down and play a game to relax a bit,” he said.

Rainville noted the powerful emotional connection that can be formed between an individual and his or her game, such as with fan favorites like “The Legend of Zelda” series, which has been captivating the imaginations of millions with Homeric storylines and lovable characters since the mid ‘80s. More recently, players have been transported into full-scale galactic struggles complete with political intrigue and futuristic warfare in games franchises like “Halo” and “Mass Effect.”

“Everyone personally experiences these kinds of games differently, even if it’s the same game, or the same series,” he said.

Students and game enthusiasts are not the only ones who recognize gaming’s potential for a strong positive effect on the individual.

FSU Health Center Counselor Jeanne Haley said that “the benefits of gaming include having an interest that is relaxing and can release stress. Gaming also is an activity that can increase concentration and help practice goal-directed behavior and problem solving.”

These qualities – the notions of working toward an objective and getting things done in the virtual world of the games – are exemplified in the group who represents the more competitive niche of the gaming landscape at FSU, known as E-Sports Club.

Brought together by their first president, Raymond Van Liew, in Spring of 2014, the E-Sportsters are the closest thing on the Framingham State campus to the “digital athletes” that Sychtysz met so many of while gaming in tournaments.

Currently, the members spend their meeting time, as with some of their free time, playing the online action/strategy game “League of Legends,” holding occasional tournaments with prizes for winners.

“‘League of Legends’ is something everyone has in common,” current E-Sports Club President Anders Anderson said, calling the game “easy to learn and hard to master.”

“League,” which generally involves teams of five working strategically to destroy an opposing team’s base, shows the strong cooperative nature of most e-sports. Even at the most serious levels of play, gaming is a social experience.

At FSU, Anderson said, e-sports are “a fun way to hang out with friends,” even as the competition rages.

“Who doesn’t like winning against their friends?” he added.

Haley, similarly, said that “gaming also is a way of being socially connected.

“People meet others online when they engage in multi-player games,” she said. “People can meet others with similar interests, and spend time with them sharing that interest.”

With this combination of meaningful personal entertainment and a kindred social foundation, gaming starts to seem like the perfect hobby for the college student – or for just about anyone.

But of course, gaming, as with any highly compelling form of entertainment, can be overdone. There is the ever-present stereotype of the gaming “addict” – poor hygiene, bloodshot eyes glued to the screen for hour number “who knows,” surrounded by a profusion of empty Cheetos bags and Mountain Dew bottles. This stereotype, though a comparatively rare case, is based in reality.

“It’s certainly easy to lose track of time while playing,” Rainville said.

For Sychtysz, one major gaming event – the release of the “Halo: Master Chief Collection” in November, resulted in an all-night playing session. Upon arriving to his classes the next morning on no sleep, Sychtysz realized he had pushed himself too hard for the love of the game.

Haley said that “the negative aspects would be related to excessive gaming.

“If someone is spending time gaming and it is interfering in other parts of their life, then it is more of an addictive behavior, with possible harmful effects,” she said.

Haley said that the staff at the Counseling Center are no strangers to such media addictions, and have dealt with them before, even having to refer students to addiction programs like that of McLean Hospital in Belmont.

In the college setting, the most obvious way for gaming to negatively affect an individual is by getting in the way of time that could otherwise be spent preparing for class and doing homework.

Dresser admitted that she has at least one friend whose grades have suffered due to the hours put into gaming, and sophomore Joe Sutherby of E-Sports Club described occasionally logging on for a quick game of “League” during a free time block only to have it run longer than expected and result in lateness, rather than choosing an untimely surrender.

Haley warned against “any activity or behavior which interferes with the student’s primary job – being a student – or puts them at risk of harm,” which can include gaming, if the hobby becomes “excessive.

“Possible reasons for concern would be if a student is losing interest in all other activities, is missing class/assignments due to gaming, is not sleeping/eating because of use, is losing relationships or feels significant emotional distress if they cannot spend time gaming,” she said.

This concern has been the subject of scientific research, such as one study conducted at Oklahoma State University in 2012, which found that “video game playing was significantly negatively correlated with college GPA.” Gaming, as a highly engaging and time-consuming activity, the study says, is liable to push aside time for schoolwork or studying in the minds of college students – a tendency known as the “time displacement hypothesis.”

However, the authors of the study admit that the relationship of gaming to academic performance (based on the displacement of study time) is difficult to truly quantify, and the results of their study in relation to previous studies are “inconsistent.”

Furthermore, the discussion within the study also admits one crucial aspect of the effect that gaming, or nearly any other conceivable hobby, has on school performance and preparation: the “time-displacement hypothesis,” and its associated effects, is flawed in its inability to truthfully gauge whether the games are what actually cause the student to disregard his or her academic duties, or, as the authors say, “merely the most attractive option available to those that would not engage, or those that are less likely to engage, in academic behaviors.”

In other words, the fact that a student could possibly play games and do poorly in school does not necessarily mean that a student who plays games is more likely to do poorly in school in comparison to a student who is just as interested in television shows, movies or other media. Games, that is to say, cannot be proven to be more addictive than these other media for a single student. Rather, they are often the go-to for students looking to do something other than their work.

Such is the case with Dresser’s friend whose grades have suffered along with his gaming reaching its peak.

“I think that if these people didn’t have games, they would find something else to replace it with as to not do their work,” she said. “I think that it is just the type of person that they are. Not all people who game have grades that suffer.”

Sophomore E-Sports Club member Max Goneau said that “the addictive part of gaming is more about addictive personalities.

“People who get addicted to things could get addicted to anything,” he added.

Additionally, as the authors of the Oklahoma study repeatedly note, “Today’s young adults have had the opportunity to grow up with video games as part of the mainstream culture.

“The potential effects of video game playing may be changing as more people are playing at younger ages and continuing to play into adulthood,” the study says. Thus, to condemn games – even those as engrossing as modern video games – borders on condemning modern American culture itself, into which these types of media are deeply interwoven, the authors conclude.

For some of these modern American youths, falling hard into the gaming world but growing out of it seems a mere rite of passage. E-Sports member Luigi Gonzalez, a freshman, told of a friend in high school who was “addicted” to video games, playing them all day and night throughout the week. However, once graduation came, the friend knew it was time to grow up.

“He just got a job and stopped playing,” Gonzalez said simply.

“It’s not like crack – it’s not going to ruin your life,” said sophomore Tyler Lainer, E-Sports Club vice president, adding that he is able to game seriously with his friends while still maintaining a spot on the President’s List for academics.

Members of Gaming Club also said for FSU students who engage in gaming communities, the risk of overdoing it is low.

“Schoolwork should always take precedence over everything,” Brien said. “We would never shun someone or kick them out of a campaign because they need to focus on classes instead. We would rather you graduate than play a make-believe game with us.”

Rainville agreed, adding, “It’s just a matter of knowing when you have time to goof off. … As long as you’re attentive enough to the time, it’s almost never a problem.”

Though the consensus on campus is of gaming as a casual community pastime, on the opposite extreme, as Sychtysz’ high school experience demonstrated, there is the lingering possibility of gaming for a career. But, beside the astronomical amount of practice hours one must log, luck is also a leading factor in professional gaming.

Although there are “League of Legends” celebrity players who stream their games live online, making a living wage in the process, these are people who were in the right place at the right time when the game took off, rather than hard-workers to emulate. Furthermore, it’s the pro players’ personalities, the E-Sportsters explained, that keep their shows going. Essentially, they are half gamers, half comedians.

For the average player, the obligations of serious competitive gaming are not worth the enticements, as with E-Sports’ Jaime Yaneza. Now a sophomore, Yaneza at one point made a brief foray into online competition, but, since none of his friends wanted to join up with his group, he simply got bored and moved on.

Campus gamers agree that school is a better option. And with the gaming industry now one of the world’s largest – worth almost $100 billion worldwide in 2013 according to IT research agency Gartner – the two need not necessarily be so far divided.

Lainer, a business major, said he has considered, and may consider even more seriously in the future, using his degree to work in collaboration with friends who do computer coding to develop a career in game production and sales. It is even possible, he said, to start an independent production company of one’s own with relative ease due to online game marketplaces such as Steam, which currently hosts over 8 million gamers, according to their Web site.

Although Sychtysz’s relationship with gaming has changed significantly over the past year since leaving high school – and his competitive gaming career – behind, the passion and pride of digital warfare is still there, as it always was. And the truth of the matter, as he explained, is that gaming is not going anywhere.

With some prestigious schools offering scholarships for, and even majors in, competitive gaming, college campuses will be a formative arena for the future generation of digital athletes.

“Who knows,” he said, “if the game ever picks up again, I might try competing again.”

Once FSU adds that major in “Halo,” it’ll be no surprise who signs up first.

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