Like many young men during faced with months at home with only a girlfriend and regular shipments of craft beer for company, I returned to video games during lockdown. Our Nintendo Switch became among the most-used objects in the flat, while my dormant Steam account was re-awoken.
I never exactly left video games, but when I became a journalist I had less time for them (indeed, less time for everything). What had been a daily habit became an occasional pastime, as less important but more financially pressing matters took over.
My return to gaming has coincided with an outbreak of anti-gaming sentiment. This time it is not the anti-violence, anti-sex agenda of Jack Thompson, but – in keeping with our times – concerns about whether video games could be confining young men to their mum’s basements.
Like so many, the story starts with podcaster Joe Rogan. Earlier in the summer Rogan worried that video games might be too fun, and distracting people from more worthwhile endeavours. His own addictive personality – his comedy career was once put at risk by an obsession with the cue sport pool – doubtless informs this.
Video games are a real problem. They’re a real problem. You know why? Because they’re fucking fun. I have a real problem with them. You do ’em and they’re real exciting, but you don’t get anywhere.
Rogan offered up the unrelatable alternative of learning a martial art and working towards running your own school. But if you take his point generously, he thinks that instead of playing video games it’s better for people to make something of themselves in the real world.
Addictive gaming mechanics are increasingly commmon today. In the dark ages players were dropped into games with minimal instruction and left to figure things out for themselves. This learning curve had been eased when I started playing in the nineties, and now many games offer constant reinforcement to keep you playing.
That will sound like a gamer’s version of the four Yorkshireman sketch, but it’s true. Over lockdown I booted up Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, a brutal platforming game with unforgiving controls and the ever-present threat of dying and being returned to the start. If anything the developers seemed to be discouraging you from playing.
Many games are now designed to be as addictive as the smartphone apps they compete with. Unsurprisingly some people have trouble with it. I’m sure that for young men especially there is a risk of it distracting them from more ‘worthy’ pursuits for evolutionary reasons outlined by Louise Perry on UnHerd.
Yet I disagree with Rogan’s analysis on two counts. First, there’s nothing innately more worthwhile in pursuing a real world hobby over a virtual one. Sports can give you exercise that mashing a game controller can’t, but the sense of achievement, friendships and enjoyment are all as valid in gaming. Even the odds of becoming a martial arts instructor and a YouTube gamer are probably not that different.
More imporantly, the fixation on real world achievement is ill-advised. People will always be obsessed with status, particularly young men who need it to get laid. Yet not everyone can win life’s contests, and inculcating a healthy attitude to triumph and disaster – to borrow Rudyard Kipling’s phrase – seems better for society than urging everyone on.
The writer Ben Sixsmith, in one of the few analyses of Rogan not written through a progressive’s gritted teeth, put it like this:
Rogan talks about minimalism, and ordering your life around what you want to do. Again, there is wisdom in that. There is no point killing yourself working a job that you hate and then blowing your money on a slightly nicer car to take you to the job. But having a safe, comfortable home is expensive by its very nature — and, besides, what many people ‘want to do’ is essentially exclusive. The world does not have room for a million Joe Rogans.
Video games are a meaningful, good hobby for many people, and far from the problem Rogan describes. Like most things they are better in moderation than excess, and people with addictive personalities might do well to eschew them. Yet the same could be said for Rogan’s beloved weed, or even martial arts.
Like the martial arts programmes that Rogan does punditry for, video game systems increasingly tally your total playtime with each game. My sojourn in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild lately hit hours in three figures, while I’ve notched up 500 hours on Europa Universalis IV, and maybe as long on Team Fortress 2.
What would I have done instead? Studied harder at school? Put in more time at the office? Those hours were well spent.