A recent discussion in one of my classes regarding video games inspired me to summarize my thoughts on the topic here. There are two issues that must be considered when evaluating if and to what extent a video game is acceptable.
The first area to be evaluated relates to the content of the game itself. Any game in which a player is rewarded for behavior which would be wrong in real life should not be tolerated. Grand Theft Auto, in which players are encouraged to shoot police officers and prostitutes, is an obvious example of this sort of game. Some might argue that the rules are different in virtual reality – after all, you aren’t actually shooting anybody, and a computer pixel is just a computer pixel. Nobody is actually hurt when you beat up the prostitute or line up your sights on the back of the police officer’s head.
And that’s true. The problem, though, is not what you are doing to the policeman; rather, what shooting the policeman is doing to you. Every choice we make inexorably changes who we are on a fundamental level. We create our character by the choices we make, and no choice is without consequence. Every time I look away when someone is in trouble, I become a little more of a coward; every time I ignore the bank error in my favor, I become a little more of a cheat; every time I kick the dog, a little more cruel. Our choices make us. Hoping otherwise is like wishing that gravity would relent.
How does this apply to video games? Because video games make us choose as well. We must choose to beat the prostitute or shoot the policeman. Of course, doing so in virtual reality is less-worse than doing so in real life, but it’s merely a question of degree. American soldiers train with video-game-style simulators because experience in virtual reality transfers so easily to real life.
Beating the prostitute draws you a little closer to being the sort of man who beats women. Shooting the cop makes you value innocent life a little bit less. Obviously, this does not mean that everyone who plays GTA will becoming a cop-killing woman-beater. However, their soul has been nudged a bit farther in that direction. It is simply impossible to choose evil – even virtually – without effect. Do we really want to make the argument, “Well, yes, my soul is becoming more and more the soul of a man who would beat a woman, but I wouldn’t ever actually beat women, so it’s okay”?
It should be noted that the foregoing is not intended to be an argument against all violent video games. After all, violence is not inherently evil. Who would not want a man to be ready to defend those in need, or fight against an invading enemy, or perhaps braid a scourge of cords and clear the Temple courts? Now, I’m not suggesting that video games are the best training for such acts of appropriate violence, but a game in which players battle a legitimate enemy while following specified rules of engagement (like many war games, for example), would at least not carry the same inherent moral danger as a game in which the violence is unequivocally immoral. On the other hand, there are other concerns to be raised against even a game with unobjectionable content, which brings us to the second issue that must be considered in a discussion of the value of video games.
In a nutshell, the interactive, immersive quality of video gaming (one that will only increase) creates the possibility of its serving as a sort of “life placebo.” Why bother with the challenges, struggles, and hard-bitten victories of real life when you can pull up a game and experience the same feelings of triumph without the trouble and with the added benefit of a “reset” button if things get out of hand? In Boys Adrift, Dr. Leonard Sax writes,
It’s not hard to see how boys motivated by the will to power might have been successful in earlier generations. They might have grown up to be successful entrepreneurs, daring innovators, explorers, politicians, or soldiers. They could readily create a productive niche for themselves. […]
If these men were reborn today, it is less likely that they would undertake a meaningful career. I suspect that a boy born today with the DNA of General Patton or Howard Hughes would more likely become a video game addict. He might have a job, but there’s a real risk that his drive and his energy would be directed into the video games rather than into his career. […]
Football coach Greg Sullivan, Mr. Welsh’s colleague, says that he sees fewer and fewer boys playing outside when he drives around northern Virginia. “They are inside playing video games,” he says. “More kids are finding real sports too demanding.”
I’ve talked with other football coaches who describe, with amazement, teenage boys who think that because they can win at Madden NFL, they therefore know something about playing the real-life game of football. “These guys are five-minute wonders,” one coach told me. “They get out on the field, run around for a few minutes, and then they’re done. They have no endurance. They’re in pathetic shape. And they don’t want to do the work that they would have to do, to train the way they would have to train, to get in shape.”
Virtual success is much easier than real life, and no less satisfying if one doesn’t think about it too much. The flood of endorphins from a virtual touchdown or a virtual military victory is just as real, even if the accomplishment itself is not. Because video games so effectively mimic the rewards that once could only be achieved by actually living, they can divert the drive that pushes a young man toward lasting and meaningful accomplishment. If a boy has been too busy developing his skills in virtual reality to learn how to grit his teeth, dig his heels in, and do something real, when will he ever learn?
Of course, a few hours of Halo aren’t going to destroy a boy’s life, and most boys who play video games are able to do so in moderation. Picking up a joystick doesn’t immediately condemn you to a life in which your greatest accomplishment is saved on a hard drive. However, video games should be approached with the cautious awareness that they offer a powerful draw to invest too much of ourselves into struggles which are ultimately without meaning. As Plutarch observes in his Lives, “He who busies himself in mean occupations produces, in the very pains he takes about things of little or no use, an evidence against himself of his negligence and indisposition to what is really good.”