“Living the good life,” wrote Nikolai Berdyaev, “is frequently dull and flat and commonplace.” Our greatest problem, he claimed, is to make it fiery and creative and capable of spiritual struggle.
I agree. Life, except for a favored few, like poets and children and athletes and saints, is pretty much of a bore. Given the choice, most of us would give up the reality of today for the memory of yesterday or the fantasy of tomorrow. We desire to live anywhere but in the present.
Dr. George Sheehan
It began in Kindergarten: shooting ducks on the Nintendo Entertainment System.
I’d stand in front of the television with the barrel shoved against the glass, looking for pixelated victims to come flying across the screen. Pew pew pew. One after another. My mother always said it was bad for my eyes to stand that close, but I didn’t care. The closer I got, the more the world disappeared and I felt like I was part of the game.
Although I loved books and arrived in Kindergarten reading at a high school level, I think I liked video games just a bit more. Books took my imagination to magical lands and far-off places, but video games actually showed them to me.
And I’m hardly unique in that respect.
As of this year, forty-two percent of Americans play video games for at least three hours per week. Four out of five households contain a game system, and the despite the narrative that games are for kids and college students, the average gamer is thirty-five years old.
I’m thirty, and I thought I’d play them for the rest of my life.
But I recently stopped.
Back to Duck Hunt though: it was fun, but it got old real quick. I soon discovered the lands of Hyrule, the world of Mario, and one system gave way to the next.
Many of my favorite childhood memories involve video games. Playing Sim City 2000 or Goldeneye 007 with my dad, unwrapping a Nintendo 64 the Christmas when it launched, battling Pokemon over the link cable with my stepbrother. That first playthrough of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
I had video games at my mom’s house, and I had them at my dad’s. They were everywhere. I owned almost every system, and I had no shortage of games or rentals from Blockbuster. Although I did other things with my time–read books, draw, play with friends, ride my dirtbike or four-wheeler, zip around on my bicycle–I played a lot of games.
I even identified as a gamer before it was trendy. I was generally athletic and active–especially in high school–but I was more interested in fantasy, science fiction, and other supposedly nerdy pursuits. I didn’t look like the stereotypical gamer, but I liked that dichotomy since it made me feel unique and special.
And when I discovered the Final Fantasy franchise, that identity was sealed. Nothing had ever captured my attention like those games. I began to identify with them as if they were uniquely mine. They became the topic of school research papers, I sold a website for Final Fantasy XI to the online-currency behemoth IGE before leaving for college, and not even the prospect of chasing girls could pry me from those games. I also imported CDs from the artists who were on the soundtracks. I didn’t understand a word they said, but that didn’t matter.
My best friend loved games too. Although we went to elementary school together, we reconnected in ninth grade after discovering a shared love for all things Final Fantasy. We played DDR at the arcades, organized group outings to the local cyber cafe, and spent much of our high school graduation money on a pair of lime-green, fully-loaded Alienware laptops.
“I don’t think I could ever date a girl who doesn’t like video games,” he told me once, after a sweaty session of DDR. We’d just played a few rounds with a random guy and his cute, nerdy girlfriend. I think my buddy was still thinking about her.
“Me either,” I said. “That just wouldn’t work.”
The games continued into college.
I had Halo parties with guys and girls in my freshman dorm, organized a massive Halo tournament as a fundraiser for my paintball club–which was sponsored by Bawls Energy Drink and paid out hundreds of dollars to the winners–and I even dabbled in World of Warcraft.
But everything changed after graduation.
I purchased an Xbox 360 that fall. I was late to the party since I’d been too busy and too tight on money to purchase one during college, but I eagerly jumped into Modern Warfare 2. I previously played Call of Duty on the PC–I even copied the original game from a professor–and I couldn’t wait to get back online.
Besides, my job was stressful. Unlike those in Teach For America who ended up at good charter schools or halfway-decent public ones, I taught at the lowest-performing school in my district. It was bad. And although I’d begun to make some real progress by the end of my first year, I returned that fall to a completely different situation. We’d taken in middle school students with severe behavior problems from another school–which they’d practically run into the ground–and our Vice Principal was gone, leaving us with a Principal who either could not or would not support us.
To make matters worse, Teach For America eventually decided to blame me. Nevermind that I was the only teacher in my district who got students accepted into the Greater Kansas City Science and Engineering Fair–which took months of unpaid, after-school tutoring–they saw the poor behavior of certain students and concluded that it was my fault. To actually acknowledge that it might be larger than myself…well, that doesn’t mesh well with marketing about teacher leadership being the one-size-fits-all solution for education.
The stress stripped away my idealism and excitement. In the words of Dr. Sheehan, I desired to live anywhere but the present.
So I played a lot of video games.
I also started drinking more. I ate poorly, stopped going to the gym, did less with friends, and generally became a shut-in. I tried to pretend that everything was fine, but the truth is that I was miserable.
One year, after Christmas break, we missed an entire week of school due to snow storms. I was so thrilled at the prospect of doing nothing that I’d wake up, check the news, and upon reading that school was canceled, get right back to playing Modern Warfare 2. I didn’t shower once that week. I only got up to use the restroom, put a pizza in the oven, or get another glass of Southern Comfort. When I was tired, I just passed out on the couch.
I’d like to say that I climbed out of that mess right away, but that’s not how it played out.
After turning down law school, I was left with little to no options after my commitment with Teach For America. I wasn’t good at networking, and I didn’t know what I was doing, so I just applied to jobs online. Tons of them. I moved back home to save money, and it took roughly seven months before I found anything.
Video games helped pass the time.
They relieved the stress and boredom; or rather, they helped me to avoid dealing with it. So did Netflix, DVDs, and the movie theater. I had nothing better going on, I told myself. So why not?
It wasn’t until years later that I took a hard look at myself and realized that although there were external issues that had negatively affected my life, the most significant problem was me. I’d become someone that my teenage-self would be ashamed of. I’d completely let myself go. Forget the job troubles, because that was the least of it: I’d gained significant weight, forgotten about my hobbies, dreams, and aspirations, and I’d spent so much time wallowing in self-pity that the world was passing me by.
I had to do better.
So I did. I lost the weight, redesigned my life, tried new activities, became more social, and discovered a passion for cycling that eventually led to running. I even worked up the courage to ask out a girl that I’d wanted to get to know for years–and we’re still dating.
Some time later, however, I realized that I’d stopped playing video games. Time had passed, the next generation of systems were out, and new versions of my favorite games were due for release.
I barely noticed.
I didn’t consciously choose to stop; rather, the urge had just withered away. Video games had numbed the stress and made boredom comfortable, but I wasn’t bored anymore. It’s not that I didn’t want play games; I just wanted to do other things even more.
I see folks online who want to stop gaming. They talk about depriving themselves, selling their systems, and lament the hours upon hours that they spend in front of a screen. I sympathize with them, but they’re going about it the wrong way.
Deprivation isn’t the answer. Nor is “growing up” or any of the typical solutions proposed by folks who don’t understand games. It’s not about filling your time with responsibilities that prevent you from playing.
Rather, it’s about finding better options.
Why would you spend your evenings on League of Legends when you could start that business, write that book, pursue that cute girl from the coffee shop, or start building your personal brand? Why would you spend countless hours on Call of Duty when you can run through scenic trails, explore the countryside with your cycling club, study philosophy, train for a triathlon, or learn to draw comics?
Sitting in front of a screen, behind a controller?
It’s a poor substitute for actually living your life.