In a League of her own

A few weeks ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced a “small quarantine accomplishment”: She’s made it to rank Silver III in League of Legends. Predictably, the lively congresswoman’s tweet met with a scornful backlash – she should give back her salary or resign because she’s playing games while Americans are getting sick and dying.

I don’t play League myself – at my age, I wouldn’t have the necessary reflexes. My younger son is on our university’s varsity League of Legends team, though, so I’m familiar with the intense focus it requires.

League of Legends is a multiplayer online arena game from Riot Games. It’s a team sport played with five players on (usually) ad hoc teams. Each player takes on one of five strictly defined roles using one of a vast range of possible characters, each with its own strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities.

Players can enjoy the game casually or work to earn a rank. The ranking system begins at Iron IV, with skilled players advancing to Iron III, Iron II, and Iron I, then moving from Iron to Bronze, and later to Silver, Gold, and Platinum, and finally to Diamond. AOC’s rank of Silver III puts her in the top 60% of several million ranked players – it’s a fine achievement, but hardly evidence that she’s devoting too much free time to the game.

Meanwhile, many of the retorts to the angry tweets hold up Trump’s expensive golf hobby as equally problematic. They’re both wrong. League and golf each provide excellent mental health benefits. Any immersive activity that takes your attention away from work and other stressful responsibilities provides a restorative mini-vacation – League being more analogous to Obama’s basketball playing than either president’s golfing. It requires a complete mental and physical focus sustained for up to an hour at a time; the mind can hardly wander elsewhere, let alone ruminate on problems back at the office. It’s an excellent strategy for switching gears and ensuring we have the mental resources to respond to new challenges.

Another value of recreational games was described by psychologist Daniel Berlyne back in the 1960s. When we sit down to play a game (or watch a movie or sporting event, or read fiction), our feelings of anticipation and excitement provide an “arousal boost” that is later relieved abruptly, in an “arousal jag” that releases tension. It’s the same mechanism that lets us unwind when we’re watching fast-paced or suspenseful films (or reading the latest Murderbot novel, my own preferred downtime activity). Yet games are better than more passive forms of recreation because they also let us use recreation to help meet our psychological need for developing competence – and to see evidence that we’re doing so through a rank system that compares us with our peers.

Complaints that Ocasio-Cortez isn’t doing her job just reveal that the commenters see her one-dimensionally. It’s the kind of mild dehumanizing that comes naturally to those not versed in perspective-taking, as if she ought to be a legislation-making machine that switches on at daybreak and powers down 16 hours or so later.

The constituents in New York’s 14th congressional district can be reassured. League of Legends is probably an excellent quarantine activity for its congresswoman. But keep watching – if she tells us she’s made Diamond II, maybe Congress should get back to work.

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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