Are video games harmful in themselves? Do they tear down or elevate our culture? Should they be avoided altogether?
Most people will agree that “too much” gaming is harmful. Many more will acknowledge that Grand Theft Auto, which glorifies crime, or esoteric and violent games such as The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, or Fallout are bad. But the question still stands: How much is too much? How bad is too bad? And what about apparently innocuous games like Angry Birds?
Escape from Reality
Video games are designed to give the player a sense of instant satisfaction. Whenever a virtual goal is achieved, the player gets a rush and tends to want more and more. Gaming presents an imaginary world detached from reality and offers an easy “escape” from the natural limitations humans encounter in this vale of tears. In real life, accomplishment is tied to reality, hard work, effort, sacrifice and talent. But in the make-believe world of video games, you can pretend to be and do things that are completely unrealistic.
This is further complicated when the person faces problems such as a broken family, depression and addictions. Take the case of Elliot Rodger.(1) This 22-year-old student lived a frustrated life. He despised social interaction, did not have many friends, and became obsessed with World of Warcraft. Rather than overcome his shortcomings, he withdrew and filled the void with gaming and pornography. He later killed six, injured thirteen, and committed suicide. His video game addiction was considered a factor in his tragic course.
A Waste of Time?
Another problem with video gaming is the tendency to spend inordinate amounts of time doing absolutely nothing meaningful. It could be argued that video gaming is simply a pastime, a way to combat boredom. But what is the point of engaging in a pastime that has no palpable goal, no real accomplishment and no deeper meaning? Since the purpose of gaming is undefined, players often find themselves compelled to play more and more.
According to the Boy Genius Report, “there are currently over 34 million core gamers in the United States, and they are playing video games for an average of 22 hours every week.”2
Twenty-two hours a week is roughly equivalent to a part time job. Is that time well spent?
Drug-Like Effects that Rewire the Brain
According to a study featured in Neurology Now, a publication of the American Academy of Neurology, nine out of ten American children play video games — about 64 million. The study found that “excessive gaming before age 21 or 22 can physically rewire the brain.”
“‘Playing video games floods the pleasure center of the brain with dopamine,’ says David Greenfield, Ph.D., founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. That gives gamers a rush—but only temporarily, he explains. With all that extra dopamine lurking around, the brain gets the message to produce less of this critical neurotransmitter. The end result: players can end up with a diminished supply of dopamine.”3
For the welfare of children, South Korea has regulated the use of video games, treating them like drugs or controlled substances. Like drugs, video games provide instant gratification. When one resorts to them over and over again, dependency similar to a heroin addiction is created.
Violence and Video Games
There are countless cases of violence and crime connected directly or indirectly with video gaming. Grand Theft Auto, for example, has created a long death trail in its wake. However, few have had the courage to call its designers and promoters to task, halt its production and reverse the severe damage it has unleashed. Here are only some of the many crimes connected to Grand Theft Auto:
- A man was stabbed and his copy of the game was stolen;4
- A college student stole a car, kidnapped a woman and slammed into nine parked vehicles. He said he wanted to play the game “in real life”;5
- A teenager in Thailand killed a taxi driver in a copycat crime from the game (Thailand banned the game afterwards);6
- An 8-year-old boy in Louisiana shot and killed his 90-year-old caregiver minutes after playing the game (this was ruled a homicide);7
- Students as young as six acted out drug and rape scenes from the game.8
It is also noteworthy how some observers have recognized similarities between the virtual riots enacted in Grand Theft Auto and the real life riots over the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
More crimes tied to other video games can be seen in the following cases:
- After his Call of Duty game was taken away, a 13-year-old boy shot his own mother multiple times, killed her, and proceeded to attempt to rape her;9
- The father of a two-year old son punched his child in the face, killing him, in order to stop him from crying while he was playing his video game;10
- A 17-year-old in China was stabbed through the skull with a kitchen knife after being caught cheating in an Internet café while playing an online game;11
- A 16-year-old boy killed his mother with a hammer while she was sleeping after she took his Play Station away;12
- A couple in South Korea allowed their real child to starve to death while they were feeding a “virtual” child on a game called Second Life;13
- An 8-year-old hung himself after he was scolded for spending too much time playing video games.14
Gaming to Death
Video game addiction can be so overpowering that players sometimes lose their most basic instinct of self-preservation. Dozens of people have injured and killed themselves playing video games as can be seen in these examples:
- A young man was found slumped over his keyboard at an Internet café after playing for over 15 hours. He died of an heart attack caused by lack of sleep and dehydration;15
- A 20-year-old died from a blood clot after playing 12-hour binges, sometimes staying up all night on the computer;16
- Another man died after a 40-hour binge playing a game called Diablo III. He passed out at a computer terminal at an Internet café. When an employee woke him up, he promptly stood up, took a few steps and collapsed and died;17
- A man in China played for an unbelievable 27 days straight (650 hours of consecutive gaming), and died of heart failure and malnutrition;
- A 13-year-old girl, while playing video games, called to her mother, “Mom, I can’t breathe.” She had a severe heart attack and later died.
When Imagination Overpowers the Mind
Video gaming frequently allows the imagination to cloud the intellect and weaken the will. The player sees a virtual “world” on a screen and interacts with it as if it were real. The distinction between real and false is blurred. Even in extremely simple games such as Angry Birds, impulse and imagination rule. Because of the “respawn” — when the digital player or human player comes back to life after being killed — gamers act first and think later.
To win, the player makes split decisions, ignoring all danger. After all, it is only a game. However, this behavior lends itself to a real imbalance. If you routinely “do” things you would never dare do in reality, there is a chance you might behave in real life as you behaved during the video games. The player can “do” crazy things — usually involving violence — that would be horrible crimes in real life. This mental dichotomy desensitizes the player.
For example, in countless games the player can rip out throats, slit necks, shoot and stab people, and run over people with a car. Imagine the mind of a young man who just played six hours of Gears of War II, an extremely violent game. He walks into the (real) street after “killing” people with a chainsaw, but suddenly, that’s no longer a good idea. He must switch “realities.” If the same fellow sees a chainsaw in a yard, images of human carnage will flash into his mind. He might chuckle to himself, thinking, “I wish I could do that in real life.”
In fact, Grand Theft Auto V is so realistic that there are Google maps that show real-life locations used in the game set to Los Angeles, California. The designers of the game took pictures of buildings, intersections, and places of interest to make the game more life-like: “There’s always new things to see, and layers of detail on the ambient life that really makes it feel like there’s stuff going on without you,” said video game architect Aaron Garbut. “It’s a world with which you interact and exist, it doesn’t feel like a facade that’s created around you.”18 Grand Theft Auto V, which cost $265 million to make,19 promotes criminal activity, cop killings and prostitution while the player visually “walks” on real California streets. Can this have a positive effect?
What is the Solution?
The simple solution: turn off the computer or gadget and find a meaningful activity. Even if one chooses a “clean” game that is free of immorality or violence, and plays with time limits, the activity itself is of questionable value.
What are some alternatives? What did people do with their free time before video games were invented?
Read a good book: Read books that have the ability to uplift the mind, inspire the soul and strengthen the will.
Visit places with family or friends: Try visiting a state or local park, places of interest such as museums, libraries, aquariums or historic sites. Visit the ocean and other beautiful places.
Physical activities: Try hunting, fishing, swimming, camping, hiking, sledding or skating. Try an adventurous activity: rock-climbing, whitewater rafting, deep-sea fishing or mountain biking. Clock your running time and distance. Beat your previous record of push-ups or pull-ups. Better yet, compete with a friend.
Try old-fashion games, hobbies or pastimes: Risk, Monopoly, Hearts, Spades, chess, checkers, Go Fish, charades, poker — the list goes on. Try wood carving, drawing (if you have talent), writing, photography, cooking, baking, archery, brewing beer, or sport shooting.
Develop the art of conversation: Spend time with friends and family. Talk and enjoy their company. Ask an older family member or acquaintance, such as a war veteran, to tell you stories from their past.
Get a helper: Encourage others to help or join you in avoiding video games. It is much easier to stay busy without playing video games if you have the help of a friend.
Pray. Foster a lively spiritual life. Recite the Rosary daily with your family and try to attend daily Mass. Spend time in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.
Finding True Happiness
Video gaming is a problem that stems from a deep cause. In his brilliant book, Return to Order, John Horvat II observes how our culture has lost its appetite for the marvelous and sacred. Man once had a vision of God that permeated society and influenced every field of life. In today’s world, however, this higher vision has almost completely disappeared.
Mr. Horvat speaks of acedia, a “weariness for holy and spiritual things and a subsequent sadness of living.” “Despite huge opportunities for entertainment, pleasure, and excitement, happiness eludes us. This is all the more incomprehensible since the unhappiness persists even among those surrounded by riches, consumer goods, technological progress, or good health.”20
Video games do not satisfy the yearning of the soul for a life of meaning and purpose, but instead simply feed the fire of acedia. Isn’t it time to put the controller down? Why pretend to be a fake hero on a screen when you can admire real heroes and strive to become one yourself? Why play with a controller when you can prove yourself in reality? Acedia needs to be fought and overcome. Only then will we have a true sense of accomplishment and joy — a sense of true happiness that no video game console can ever give.
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