Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak is nonplussed about video games. Her children are addicted to the popular game Fortnite, so much so that they’ve spent much of their summer indoors. She urges her pale progeny: “Go outside and get a sunburn. Please.”
This is a tad ironic coming from the same person who a few years ago indulged in Pokémon Go with her kids all over DC. What is a parent to do? Dvorak summarizes her parental dilemma: cut the cord and isolate her children from all their friends, or allow them to waste their summers away on the couch.
From one who once struggled with video game addiction and now has three young ’uns, here’s my advice: keep your kids as far away from these games as possible.
I was first introduced to video games when I was five years old — a neighbor had the original Nintendo. Before too long, I’d persuaded my parents to get me a system. Super Mario and some baseball game whose name I’ve long forgotten were my first guilty pleasures.
Then there was Super Nintendo, N64, and a host of games on my parents’ desktop computer. I remember summer days as a child and teenager, staring at the screen for hours on end while the world turned. It wasn’t until college and after that I realized the problem.
My Roommate’s Addiction Was Legendary
I’ve lived with a number of guys whose relationships to these games can only be described as addictive. The worst was one roommate after college. On Saturday mornings, I would wake up and come downstairs to eat breakfast and read the newspaper. Passing by his room, I’d find my friend already awake, playing at his desktop.
I’d leave a few hours later to go play a sport, and he’d still be going strong. Come back, change, and run some errands. Still going. Lunch, followed by chores around the house. Still going. Go out with friends for dinner and maybe a party. Still going.
Late at night, back to my room, and his light would be on, his eyes glued to the computer. He had been playing that stupid game for more than 14 hours.
It is certainly possible to be addicted to video games. As one mental health professional explains, “It’s a clinical impulse control disorder,” an addiction similar to compulsive gambling. The addicts requires more of the behavior to be happy, and when the addicted person doesn’t get enough, irritability or misery follow.
Even If They’re Not Addicted, They’re Wasting Time
Medical professionals have witnessed withdrawal symptoms: “They become angry, violent, or depressed. If [parents] take away the computer, their child sits in the corner and cries, refuses to eat, sleep, or do anything.” Such addictions are often associated with reduced emotional intelligence and social skills, as exhibited by one character in the “Karate Kid” spinoff “Cobra Kai.” Sometimes these addictions even jeopardize jobs or relationships.
Most people can play games safely without suffering such severe consequences. One estimate is that about 80 percent of people can play games “safely.” My experience falls into that category. I competed in high school athletic competitions at the state level, got good grades, and had a steady job beginning in tenth grade.
Yet when I estimate the hours of gaming for all those years of school, it’s something worth mourning. When I think about the most important experiences from my teenage years, I can’t single out any of those great “victories” on my desktop or holding a controller. My memories are athletic or in-person social events with my friends and family. I remember books I read and how they shaped my view of myself and the world. I remember the girls I liked and the dates I went on.
Video Games Aren’t a True Leisure Activity, Either
There’s a more essential reason video games are unhealthy: proponents often present the games as a leisure activity, yet they are anything but. Philosopher Joseph Pieper in “Leisure the Basis of Culture” explains the true definition of leisure as one of receptivity, rather than action.
Much of American culture has obscured this idea of leisure. Pragmatist John Dewey, often considered the father of American public education, taught that learning is primarily about experimentation and creating new reality (he was, no surprise, a relativist). Friedrich Nietzsche, whose thought has also seeped deep into Western culture, urged men to will and act in such a way that they can transcend traditional ideas and values, creating new values.
This kind of educational paradigm focused on creating and manipulating leaves young people suffering from acedia, or a “deep-seated lack of calm which makes leisure impossible.” It is a restlessness that encompasses, as philosopher Soren Kierkegaard noted, a “despairing refusal to be oneself.”
The effects of acedia are visible both in the couch potato and the workaholic. This affects American amusement culture, as leisure is understood as entertainment and consumption. Yet these do the opposite of making us relaxed or rested. Instead we become restless, bored, sluggish, anxious, and apathetic. As Pieper notes, “only someone who has lost the spiritual power to be at leisure can be bored.”
This doesn’t mean that entertainment is intrinsically bad, but that it fails to give us what we need. Entertainment cannot satisfy the human heart and mind, because it is not an engagement with reality, but the escape from it.
Authentic leisure is the capacity of the soul to receive reality, enabling man to participate in something beyond himself. It is, as one scholar has defined it, “an attitude of mind and a condition of the soul.” Leisure is not the attitude of the one who intervenes but of the one who opens himself; “not of someone who seizes but of one who lets go, who lets himself go,” as Pieper argues. It takes forms like silence, prayer, Sabbath, worship, and forms of service where one is with those in need rather than doing things for them.
How to Truly Be at Leisure
Pieper offers three components of authentic leisure. First, it is a form of silence and stillness, in which one stops and allows reality to present itself. Second, it is a form of celebration, of festivity: “in leisure man, too, celebrates the end of his work by allowing his inner eye to dwell for a while upon the reality of Creation. He looks and he affirms: it is good.”
This celebration is not aimless but sacrificial, an offering of one’s self. This is why the Sabbath for the ancient Jews was intended to be the day of worship of God. Third and finally, leisure is non-instrumental. It should not be defined by producing or creating anything.
Video games do not incorporate any of these components. They are inherently active, celebratory only for the sake of personal pleasure, and aimed at creating, if only in an unreal, digital world. “So,” the video game proponent may counter, “video gaming may not fit this narrow definition of leisure, but it still entertains me and you said there’s nothing wrong with that.”
My argument is not that video games are inherently evil, although I am increasingly inclined to view them as anti-human, in that they weaken our ability to be fully human. Indeed, considering what it means to be fully human, I find it difficult to discern where video games fit in.
What People Should Do With Their Time
Humans work. It is one of the qualities that separates humans from the beasts, as even Karl Marx understood. This work is done either to prepare oneself for adulthood (i.e., education) or to provide for oneself and one’s family.
We are also social beings, requiring intentional social interaction with our friends and family different from that at work meetings or lunch breaks. Those two obligations alone require a significant part of our waking hours.
Apart from these, we need exercise to remain strong and healthy, and activities that make us good citizens (keeping up on the news, reading books and publications that sharpen our intellects and broaden our knowledge). Then there are chores that demand our daily attention — maintaining our homes and vehicles, self-grooming, shopping for necessities, etc. Then there’s commuting.
Once these are all added up, there might be an hour or two left for entertainment like video games. They could just as easily be spent on more of the above, or something else that is of value — community service, for example. Otherwise one would have to sacrifice sleep or some other basic human necessity to play these games (which is what most gamers seem to do).
Working to Be at True Leisure Is the Ideal
Indeed, I didn’t include leisure, which, a la Pieper, is the thing we really need, and which all of our work is aimed at acquiring. As Aristotle taught, “we are not-at-leisure in order to be-at-leisure.”
There’s a reason so many of the greatest men and women of history had a contemplative side. Pope John Paul II, who contributed to the defeat the Soviet Union, was a deep contemplative, as was Nobel Prize recipient Mother Teresa, who spent an hour in prayer every day. In one story about Mother Teresa, a nun came to her for advice, because the nun was having trouble getting everything done. Mother Teresa told her she needed to send more time in prayer.
Seeing friends struggle with video game addiction certainly helped me to distance myself from that form of entertainment. Ultimately I suppose it was a tour in Afghanistan that truly clarified things. One starts to think about how one spends his life when the rockets and bullets are flying, and when people he knows die, never offered a chance to change their ways. Marriage solidified my opinion, both because we soon had kids who required a lot of my time, but also because my wife inspired me to devote my free time to more human-affirming pursuits.
I know saying “no” to video games is hard. As Dvorak mourns, “denying them video games only amplified their desire to play them.” I can see this with my own kids. The few times we let them watch a movie or show, they demand more of the same for many days after.
Yet I also know what saying “yes” can do. My kids look like zombies whenever they watch a screen, and it terrifies me. I’ll do anything to ensure they spend their time doing just about anything else — reading, athletics, music, art — that fosters their humanity, rather than undermining it.
Although I know I’ll upset some pro-gaming Federalist contributors, my advice to Dvorak and everyone else is to drop the video games. Find some real leisure instead, and find yourself. In the silence, you might even find God.