culture life Musing

On Moral Equivalency and Xbox

A friend of mine got a (predictably) hostile reaction on Facebook when he recently posted this status:

If you are a young man wishing he had a young woman with whom to spend Valentine’s Day, the single biggest thing you can do to improve your prospects is to stop playing video games. I am not suggesting video games are inherently wrong, I’m just stating a fact. To the *vast* majority of women, they scream “feckless man-child.” They are the single biggest turnoff.

Now, the post, taken literally, is probably untrue. Anyone, man or woman, who claims to know what the “vast majority of women” feel on a topic should be treated with suspicion. Further, most men who are stuck in unwanted singleness are probably not stuck in it primarily because of their video games. Even if my friend is correct that many women find gaming unattractive, it doesn’t take 40 years of life experience to know that few things are unattractive enough to keep a man in perpetual bachelorhood if he has a job and at least passable hygiene. Hobbies can be annoying, but people live with annoying hobbies in their significant others all the time.

So I’ll chalk my friend’s advice up to a moment of hyperbole. But does he have a point? The reason this question matters to me is that last year, I wrote a piece for First Things called “America’s Lost Boys.” The blog was a reflection on data from sociologist Erik Hurst, who told an interviewer that single men without a college degree were spending an enormous amount of time and capital on video games. In my article, I wondered whether this phenomenon could be related to the socioeconomic struggles of American males, many of whom seem to be behind their female peers in terms of education, career, and relational connections. While I explicitly refused to wholesale condemn gaming, I did draw a contrast between young men who live emotionally connected lives with others, and those who seem trapped in their own fantasy worlds.

While most of the response to the piece was positive, I did note that the critical reactions were virtually identical. They went something like this: “This is an unfair caricature of gaming; I am a married man with two kids and I regularly play video games. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Any hobby can be addictive if a person has no self-control.”

I completely agree. As a husband and father who owns an Xbox One, I would only be condemning myself if I argued that video gaming is categorically immature or beneath “real” manhood. But as I saw with my friend’s Facebook status, and with the response to my own article, it sure seems to me that most people who respond thusly are assuming a moral equivalency between video games and, say, reading, that I don’t think holds up. What I mean to say is this: It can simultaneously be true that there is nothing wrong or harmful about playing video games, and that video gaming as a hobby is intellectually inferior and psychologically more risky than other kinds of hobbies. In order for gaming to be “OK” to do, it doesn’t need to be more or less the same as reading novels, or playing chess, or hiking–because it’s not. There are unique aspects to gaming that do make it a more insular, less personally enriching activity. That would be bad news for gamers if Christianity categorically condemned any and all activities that were more insular and less enriching than others. But it doesn’t. And that’s OK.

It seems to me that this kind of argument always exposes a human tendency to mix pleasure with pride. It’s not enough to enjoy our activities and be thankful that we get to experience them. We want others to assume that our activity is just as good as theirs. When we hear someone argue to the contrary, we reach for moral equivalency, out of pride. If you’re trying to lose weight, it may be a good idea to have an apple with your lunch instead of some Cheetos. Otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a few Cheetos. But a Cheeto isn’t an apple, and trying to say that it is the same is far, far worse than eating it.

So yes, my friend is guilty of exaggeration. But, if you’re a single guy who would love to marry a good woman, but seem to spend far more hours per week answering the Call of Duty than trying to know and be known, maybe consider shaking your lifestyle up. You may be surprised at how much fun you can have without batteries.

By Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.

4 replies on “On Moral Equivalency and Xbox”

Video gaming is not what it was in the 90’s, an experimental form of entertainment for nerds. It has gone mainstream! Everyone games, much as we would have said years ago that everyone watches television. Video games compete seriously with movies and television for entertainment dollars now.

As is the case with something with such broad appeal, the activity is really varied. Most movies are a waste of time, but many enrich. Most books are a waste of time, but many are deeply worthwhile. So it is with games.

Video games are now used to train pilots, to teach foreign languages, and to train soldiers. Professional poker and chess players train using video games. Minecraft could be considered the lego of the current generation of children, and exposure to it is better for getting into their little worlds than exposure to children’s TV shows. Sharing a console with family and friends is no less valid a way to enjoy each other than sharing a board game, and much more popular! Perhaps learning about birds is more classically respectable than learning about Pokémon, but you really do make friends over Pokémon.

As with any activity so popular, it’s all in what you do it for, and what you do with it. Reading a comic book, a casual novel, a dense classic, and a textbook, are far from equivalent pursuits, even though they are all reading. The same can be said for playing a casual browser game, a mass market shooter, a demanding strategy game at a high level, and a high fidelity flight sim. These are very different pursuits, and to lump them all together under the heading of ‘video gaming’ and from there evaluate their value in personal enrichment is to ignore the distinctions in what is – like nearly every human endeavor! – a broad and varied field.

It is not the medium that matters. It’s what you do with. Hiking, too, can be a means to isolation or a means to socialization, a road to destruction or self-improvement, a distraction from life or an expression of it. And while the point is well taken that some video games are clearly a form of junk food, the genre is much bigger than that.

I grew up with a mother who criticized television as something that made you stupid, and she wasn’t wrong – not on the whole. It was a fair warning. But even she seemed to consider Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers time reasonably well spent.


As someone who’s likely spent around 10k hours gaming in his life…yeah, pretty much. There are precious few games that even begin to approach the impact any decent book will have on the mind, and those are niche indie titles that tend to be avoided by the majority of gamers. For example, the near-universal comments I read about the powerful exploration of suffering the death of a child, That Dragon, Cancer were to the effect of, “I refuse to play this game because I am afraid of how it will affect me.”

Which gets into what I see as the main problem of videogames—it’s not that young men are “trapped in fantasy worlds” (an eye-rolling canard), but trapped in the stimulus-seeking patterns of a drug addict. Many mainstream games are designed as pleasurable content delivery platforms which hook players with addictive randomized reward handouts (known as “gachapons”) and then encourage them to open their wallets to buy more chances to win those prizes. Overwatch and Counterstrike: GO are two mainstream examples. MMOs like WoW have similar (but not identical) mechanisms.

There are many avenues to critique videogames, like how the biggest sellers are shallow, joyless, and cynical corporate byproducts, or how as computer programs the aesthetic experience of videogames is regularly interrupted by technical errors. However, what concerns me most as a Christian, and what I think is what traps most wayward men, is how popular games are built to be as functionally addictive as gambling.

It’s not that many single men don’t want the better, richer life offscreen; it’s that many physically struggle to break away from a medium deliberately designed to induce and reward compulsive behavior (and spending).


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