One of my first memories is when my father brought home the Nintendo Entertainment System. It seemed like the systems grew up with my sister and I: we got the SNES and played Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country like fiends. I remember being excited beyond all description when we got an N64 for Christmas, and my friends and I all tried to be the first to get 120 stars in Super Mario 64 (no one was surprised when Ryan accomplished this first) and we played GoldenEye and Perfect Dark together on the weekends. When I was in high school, I got a job and bought an Xbox, and my friends and I played Halo 2 to the point of hyper-competitvness, and after some time I stopped enjoying playing the game with strangers because my friends and I got too good at it. It was no longer a challenge when I played outside of the group. At a certain point I mostly drifted away from videogames and stopped thinking about them, and stopped wanting to play the new ones.
A few months ago, I was doing deliveries at a restaurant and I noticed something. My boss (early to mid 40’s) and one of our line cooks (late 30’s) were discussing strategies and aspects of a current videogame. They were discussing one of the games on a next-gen console that I had never owned. They were talking about Mass Effect or BioShock or something, one of those games that combines the aspects of an FPS and an RPG into a non-linear structure, sort of like Grand Theft Auto, minus the sarcasm and satiric sense of humor. What struck me, was that I considered these people adults, and since they were older than me by a distinct measure, presumed they must be more mature than me. Of course maturity has nothing to do with it. Regardless they were discussing something I associated with adolescence or college-aged time-wasting. But here were two people, both married, one with children talking about videogames. And not just talking about them, but in an erudite and eloquent fashion, with passionate knowledge. I heard them, and older males at the restaurant, talk shop about games and watched them swap games around. It came to light that the line cooks wife allocates hours that he is allowed to play Xbox, and if he disappoints her or screws up, she takes his Xbox time away from him, like a mother punishing a child.
The question became this: what does an attachment to videogames do to the concept of the modern adult male?
To be fair, these men played videogames about as long as I did, the NES was, for the sake of this argument, the first true home console game. Instead of starting to play at the age of two or three, they started at sixteen or seventeen, and became adult, married men as the games grew up. They could watch it from start to finish. But it was still strange to hear adult men talk about current video games; hearing the boss get nostalgic about the arcade 8-bit classics was one thing, but hearing him talk about the new ones? It felt weird. It felt like something a grown man with a wife and kids wouldn’t be interested in. It sounded…childish.
The tools of the modern hunter-gatherers
It’s important to consider the mental and physical ramifications that increased usage of simulations and increased attention to digital stimuli in this burgeoning digital world. And to avoid a sprawling poorly directed New Yorker type piece, I will contain my analysis to videogames. But, it is important to remember that the changes videogames have on male archetypes can have similar or common parallels in other parts of our lives. How does our attention to glowing entertaining objects, effect our identities, our perception of nature, and how we perceive and sense our physical surroundings? And not just now but for the coming generation, who won’t know a world without cell phones or the internet? Ultimately the psychological undercurrent of the choices these current adults make is secondary – what strikes me is what it may be doing to the next generation as to how they see their elders. Specifically what they see as a male role model. Is your five-year old son watching you play Halo 3 and achieving Killtacular going to associate this as a strong male archetype?
Of course, the male role has evolved over time. In the Western world, men are not taking their sons on hunter-gathererish weeks-long excursions to kill and cut up animals for survival, where the sons will do most of his learning about being a man. If directed to do that, most men wouldn’t even know where to begin, much less not get themselves and everyone else killed in a matter of hours. The modern world has increasing retreated away from nature into simulations of what we did hundreds of years ago; and like all progressions in society there are some good parts and bad parts to this, but definitely substantially more good. Much, much, much more good. Otherwise, we would still be doing the arcane method. Today, we drive instead of ride horses, when we rode horses instead of walked. Just as today we use stoves and ovens instead of open flames, and we used open flames instead of eating our meat raw and getting infections and dying at the age of 30. It is a sign of progress. Overall, shit is looking pretty good.
And outside of our instinctual advantages – food, shelter and procreation – things are also looking pretty different. For this essay I will (attempt) to focus on how men currently entertained themselves, be it intellectually or not (which is all pretty subjective usage anyway,) and the resultant ramifications of those choices. I will also make a concerted effort to not to come off like some hippy-dippy wacko hypocrite Luddite.
The man actually looked a lot like this.
There was a man I used to make deliveries to regularly on Friday nights. From what I could tell, he was divorced and took the kids on the weekends, and in all likelihood probably wasn’t the greatest cook so I’m guessing he ordered out on Friday’s so he could relax and enjoy the limited time he had with his kids. What was interesting, was that each time I made this delivery (roughly fifty times) the man was sitting behind his computer playing World of Warcraft with his son sitting next to him, watching him play and asking questions about what he was doing. Without him or his son looking up, he directed the younger daughter in making out a check to me, while I stood in the doorway. He described to his daughter where to sign. She always signed. This man had no concept of what I look like. Frankly, I found the whole thing kind of disturbing, not because of the mans lifestyle choices ( which he has the right to make,) but because of the seeming comfort and ease the children existed in this environment (which they did not have a choice or concept of how weird it was) – with Daddy leaning forward into a glowing screen, seemingly unable to interact in the physical world. I could also make the logical leap that these choices, and this environment may have some reason to do with his apparent divorce or separation and consequent singledom. He was slightly overweight, balding and looked like he didn’t care much for personal hygiene or physical appearance. The man was completely disconnected from physical reality. And he was a role model for two young children, if not setting a horrible standard, then at least screwing them up for a good chunk of their lives. WOW is a game most adults cannot even keep in check, I knew guys who played at least ten or so hours a day and not doing much else (well one thing..) so good luck to children who are watching their primary main role model choose to use maximal free time playing it.
This is of course a worst-case scenario, and obviously not what every man who plays MMORPG’s and has children sets as an example. I do not look down on men who play videogames: as I stated before I played them for a long time myself. I can understand the allure of the game, of the relaxation and calmness that it can give. In small doses, it can be refreshing and a positive thing. However, it has the potential to become dangerous. One could make the argument that television and movies can have the same negative impact; yes it can, but not to the dangerous degree or potential that videogames and the internet offers. Consider that a movie ends, that a program ends, that commercials come on, or sometimes there is nothing on or nothing that you would enjoy watching. There are limits and prescribed ends.
The internet offers a limitless option, sort of like Pandora’s Box or smoking inside. It’s a bit of a game changer. The allure of non-linear games isn’t just total gameplay freedom, but that it can in theory never end. You can play GTA or Morrowind or Fallout 3 for the rest of eternity. And aside from going to the bathroom and eating, which can be remedied by having a subservient significant other or a phone on the desk, or a bag strapped to your leg to piss in, you can theoretically never get up, with provided financial freedom. It only ends when you want it to end. The same thing with the internet versus a newspaper. A newspaper has only so many articles, you read it all then you’re done for the day. But you can read or watch videos or do whatever you want on the internet; it only ends when you want it to end. Be it cigarettes, cat food or a television channel, that is the ultimate goal of any business or product, to keep you using it for the longest possible time. And they will deceive and entreat you to keep you using the product, to have your consumer loyalty. Confusing these products as entertainment or toys is not recognizing it for what it is – just because you torrented the game doesn’t make it not a business interaction. They usually don’t care if you didn’t pay the first time, as long as you pay sometime. It’s like how a bar gives you a free drink on your 21st birthday, or how a businessperson treats their client to dinner, drinks and a ballgame. If they can’t get their money, they’re happy they got your time, because it wasn’t going to their competitions product and affecting their market share.
I used to say i would play a game for an hour or so, and would play past that and lose track of time. I found myself not wanting to quit, wanting to go another level or another life, until I actually had to force myself to stop, and the next thing I knew it was four in the morning. You will find you will nearly always play longer than you imagine you would – you are a gaming time-optimist, and you tell yourself the wrong figure because the product is addictive. And like all addictive things, be it food, cigarettes, drugs, or videogames, there is a degree of shame involved. And like most things that involve complete and utter focus- you lose all concept of time passing (which is also probably something worth a whole essay to discuss.) Time flies when you’re having fun, and I think we can all admit the fun choice isn’t always the right choice. Like sticking up a convenience store, or driving your car off the road and through a park.
Would this man play WOW?
My father was fifty-two years old when he had me, his youngest child. I am thankful that my father is and for the most part still isn’t plugged in. My father doesn’t give a shit about the internet, Google, YouTube or ever talk about his computer. Actually I am pretty sure he doesn’t know what YouTube is. He is still what I would consider a man involved and dedicated to physical-reality. He is more active and alert then many twenty year old males I know. Today, I would say my male idols are Steve McQueen, Ivan Illich and Graham Greene. All of these people are pretty old-school, so for the sake of having one of my idols being alive and an active participant in contemporary culture, Christian Bale. My perspective on what makes a good man is a strong work ethic, a giving nature, consistency, openness, moderation and an inquisitively observative outlook. I cannot even begin to imagine Steve McQueen sitting Indian-style in front of a big screen, with a few beers out and a bag of Doritos playing Mass Effect. It’s just impossible to visualize. So clearly there has been a transition in male role models, or in at least how males choose to spend their leisure time.
I clarify this because my father made an interesting point to me – does his evening leisure time activity – doing the crossword and eating cheese with a knife – equal to playing videogames for leisure?
I am an advocate that video games do not make actively make you dumber (please read Everything Bad is Good for You if you’re interested in this topic.) However, I don’t believe that when you’ve become a fully developed sentient adult (for the sake of argument let’s just say 25) that the popular games my coworkers were playing will make you any smarter in a useful way. Sure, it may benefit a child or a teenager in developing problem solving skills with a real world example by letting them raise taxes in Sim City, but once you’ve reached adulthood and you actually pay taxes, the exercise loses its value. I am skeptical that the skills acquired in any popular game can be communed to things outside of the game in any sort of way that makes it worth your time to play a game more than two or three hours a week.
The only skill being good at Madden may have is that it makes you good at Madden ( and NCAA after you get over the control issues.) Sure, maybe playing Dynasty mode may get you interested in the actual career of sports management, so maybe you attend a university that has a sports management degree (Washington State University) and you learn the ins-and-outs of managing a professional sports organization and maybe you get a job with a team and have a nice comfortable career. But since maybe seventeen people ever have done that or will do that, using that as an excuse to play too much isn’t really just. The skills that are acquired playing games may only help you play other or different video games better – and work to keep you plugged in, because if you’ve developed the skill you may as well use it…right? If you didn’t it would become a total waste of time. Staying plugged in is good for the self-esteem, it avoids admittance.
An addiction is an addiction – it works to keep you thinking about, pining for, and strategizing playing the game when you are not playing it. You may have an extremely advanced understanding of a game or a certain level in a game (I have had a three-hour long conversation,while sober, regarding the absolute perfection that is Ascension in Halo 2, divulging strategies, tips, thoughts and team-battle philosophies on that map. (A sniper-shotgun two-man team well executed is absolutely unbeatable when played intelligently.)) Does this PhD level of understanding of a videogame have any practical knowledge? If the bomb dropped or if the Rapture occurred, or if the zombie acapolypse happened, would it serve in any way to help me survive, live sustainably or feed my children? Better yet, if there was no magically no such thing as television or videogames, and I somehow still had the skills – would they be of any use? Can one argue that the amount of time spent learning, studying and creating a guide like this, anything a but a complete practical waste? And that this isn’t the only one and that they aren’t being done by one or two people but thousands of young men who have decided this is the way to spend time?
And even more, if you took a week off from playing the game and tried to play it again with your buddies, wouldn’t you not be as good as before?
And this is my answer for my father: that crosswords have a larger benefit because they actively test your cultural I.Q. If you don’t know an answer it exposes you to ideas, people or places you are completely unfamiliar with. And if you do know at least half, it is a great mental exercise. Like a great piece of art, a crossword points outside of the crossword itself into the real tangible world. A videogame ultimately points inwards – what you learn in a videogame, e.g. the proper time to use the lightning bolt in Wario Stadium or the weapon respawn time on Ascension, is limited to the imaginary world of videogames – sort of like when rappers get successful and all they can do is rap about money and fame. It’s not really very useful or entertaining unless you are drinking the Kool-Aid.
Don't Drink the Kool-Aid!
As preachy and condemning as all this may come off, I actually do believe that videogames can be healthy to play. As I have said before I enjoy playing sports-franchise simulations. I like to take my favorite team in the world, the Seattle Mariners, and rework their roster to my liking, make a few trades, and pretend I am the G.M. or alternately the players. I am aware that this is silly, and am slightly embarrassed by it; before now, only a small handful of my friends were aware of my intellectual involvement with it and the number of years and amount of time I have played pretend with my alternative universe version of the Seahawks or Mariners or Bulls or Bears or Sonics (ahhhh!)
I know a few people who have gone to the extreme and made videogames the central focus of their lives. They played games so much, that it wasn’t even entertaining, it was simply it, and they got so good that they learned code, became programmers, wrote games, made a shit ton of money and have great lives. What separates them from everyone else is that they don’t see games as the only fun to be had. They saw how games could improve their lives and took advantage of it, akin to the person who thinks they can work for the sports club because they play Madden. These people went the full-nine yards and saw something as more than just entertainment. It’s just like the film-student who studies films and also gets to enjoy them. This is the crucial difference. It became neither work or play. It became craft.
So I don’t play the game anymore, because I didn’t bring a system with me when I left Washington. I am aware that the real-world implications and capacity for intellectual growth by playing videogames even a few hours a week is severely limited at this stage in my life. However, if I did still have a PS2 and my copy of 2K Sports Baseball, I may have been playing it rather than writing this. If I had made the decision to pony up the money for an Xbox 360, I may not have been able to travel and see parts of the world and experience things I never thought I would have done. I may have never met my girlfriend, I may have never had the close wonderful relationships I have had with my friends and family.
Like a drug, if I chose to regularly abuse drugs for a continual portion of my life, I would be an entirely different person. The person I was before this decision, easily would’ve outlined my life with the presence of drugs. I never could have been able to come close to guessing, much less outline, the person I became without them. Yeah, go ahead and play the game for a few hours a week if that’s what you know you need sometimes, drink a few beers to relax or smoke a bowl. But for the love of god don’t play videogames all day, everyday or drink all day, everyday or smoke pot all day, everyday. Recognize the positive use and take advantage of it if it works for you. Everything in moderation;and yeah sometimes even moderation.
I like to think about the advice that a doctor gave to my friend when he told him he really enjoyed getting high. I’ll paraphrase it for you:
Think of all the things you didn’t do because you were playing videogames, and think of the example you are setting for your children.