Video games were a significant part of my young adult life. But several years ago I made a conscious decision to swear them off completely. In this article, I explain exactly why I don’t play video games anymore.
But please understand this was a personal decision. I’ve been hesitant to write this post because I know it has the potential to be misunderstood as a legalistic, blanket condemnation of video games. It’s not. I do not mean to suggest that I think video games are a sinful form of entertainment. In many ways, video games are a superior form of entertainment to most other media, since they encourage critical thinking. Plenty of folks play games in moderation, and that’s great. Nevertheless, I have some concerns.
If what I’m saying here resonates with you, please know there is nothing legalistic about removing something from your life that you find to be a hindrance to holiness or responsibility. Gaming had become an idol for me, so I had to smash it. For you, it might be sports, politics, social media, or something else. As Christians, we must be willing to lay aside anything that keeps us from full-hearted obedience to our Master, Jesus Christ,
even especially if that thing is something we really love. For me, that was video games.
Video Games are Designed to Addict
The primary reason I don’t play video games is because they are designed to be addicting, and that design works all too well on me. Modern game developers have worked hard to perfect the challenge-reward cycle of their games. They know how to make games that keep you putting in more hours and coming back for more sessions. This isn’t some nefarious plot to ruin your life. It’s just good business.
The monetization strategy of video games of the past did not rely so heavily on the attention economy. In the early days, the goal was to sell you a game, and hopefully, it would be good enough that you’d tell your friends to buy a copy. These days, however, many games are monetized not only through an initial purchase but through reselling your attention to third-party advertisers or by luring you into more and more microtransactions. Whether it’s through showing you ads, encouraging you to purchase skins, renew a subscription, or snag a premium upgrade, the economy of modern games has a pecuniary interest in sustaining your attention. And they’ve become very, very good at this.
Call of Duty knows exactly when to give you that next reward or upgrade so that your brain will get a little squirt of dopamine. Other games keep you coming back for more by helping to draw you into what brain scientists call a flow state—a feeling of extreme concentration and focus that is immensely satisfying. These features make video games unique to other forms of entertainment.
The reason I had to give up video games was that I found that I was particularly susceptible to these addicting design features and thus was unable to play in moderation. This was especially true with online competitive games and their inducement of flow state. I discovered that even with a deliberate effort I couldn’t stop once I started, so I stopped starting.
Video Games are Simulated Success
A secondary reason I kicked gaming was the realization that they are quite literally a waste of time.
One of the attractive qualities of video games is that in them, just like in real life, you overcome obstacles and gain a sense of accomplishment as you meet and succeed in each challenge. This feeling of accomplishment makes you feel good about yourself. Seeing the stats on your character rise, or beating that particularly difficult boss then standing up and yelling, “Yes!” is a high that we crave. It feels like winning; it feels like success.
The problem, however, is that this sense of success is simulated. It’s fake. You didn’t do anything of any real consequence. The boss was just a computer program, the stats are just a number in a database, and the results of your success are an illusion. I think this is similar to sports-obsession. When “your team” wins, you get a similar high to when you yourself win at something. But in fact, you did nothing, you just happened to have an imaginary solidarity with the winning team. It too is a simulated success.
Here, you might say “who cares? It’s just harmless fun.” Or “Shut up, you idiot.” Both of which are fair responses. And while I am adamantly not anti-fun, I do see two potential issues with over-indulging in simulated success as entertainment. And I think the general weakness of the men of my generation corroborates these suspicions.
Simulated Success is an Illusion
First, since video games only simulate success, they can cause us to waste vast swaths of time without feeling that we were really wasting it. I remember playing one of those games where you run a little business and you try to raise profits, cut costs, and deal with cute little emergencies. And I felt really good that I was doing well. Sure, I’d put in a lot of hours, but they were finally paying off! I was succeeding. Then I had the sinking realization, “You could have spent all that time doing things that generate actual success, you could have been managing a real business, but instead you were just playing games like a child.“
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Mankind was created to dominate and subdue the world around him (Genesis 1:26–28). And I think we all feel the craving still to live out that creation mandate. We want to create order and overcome obstacles because that’s what we were made for. So, there’s something particularly sad about taking that divine drive and redirecting it toward make-believe games or other diversions, while neglecting our real responsibilities.
But this redirection toward fantasy is understandable, because in the real world in order to succeed we have to face the thistles and thorns of the curse. We have to take on risk and potential embarrassment. In a game, however, if I lose I haven’t really lost anything. My concern with this arrangement is that I fear using games to stimulate and substitute success can’t possibly be good for us in the long run. No real risk means no real results. I also fear we might be doing damage to our drive and work-ethic by only tossing it the softballs of imaginary challenges with simple answers.
Simulated Success offers Simulated Satisfaction
Second, since video games only simulate success, they offer an opportunity to satisfy our God-given desire to create and build. As I said, I think herein lies the attraction. But they may be keeping us from actually creating and building in real life as we ought to. Those young men of today who in ages past would have built expansive gardens, erected great cities, or designed astounding inventions, are now hunched over their laptops stacking blocks in Minecraft. Women who would have been managing flourishing homes and bringing up their children in the Lord are now carefully nurturing imaginary animals on their iPhones.
I think the danger in video games offering simulated success is that they are a sterilized version of real work and accomplishment, one which offers all of the highs with none of the lows. And if we aren’t careful we may come to feel that what they offer us is even better than the real thing. But that would be a mistake. Because video games are not real. All that we create and succeed at in video games, in the final analysis, will be burnt up like so much wood, hay, and stubble.
So, if you, like me, find that your use of video games has gone beyond innocent entertainment to becoming a spiritual encumbrance, maybe it’s time to put down the controller, pick up a spade, and plant a garden.
“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us“Hebrews 12:1