The allure of gaming
We never had game systems in my house growing up. I didn’t even play PAC-MAN until I reached my teen years. So when my parents finally caved and bought my brother and me a console one Christmas, we made up for lost time. I recall well (and somewhat fondly) the hours spent with him mashing controller buttons, barely mindful of the fact that our plasma rifles and energy swords were so many pixels on a television.
For boys, this is an intoxicating experience. Trust me, I know. But when you add a final ingredient, that intoxication reaches a kind of fever pitch.
That ingredient is heroism—and the most popular games of our day thrive on it. This month alone, the releases of two sequels to titans of the game universe, Halo 4 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, broke numerous sales records, riding almost entirely on the familiar tsunami of young, male demand. Both of these games primarily offer players the chance to step into the boots of iconic heroes—cybernetic, alien-mowing supersoldier John-117, and elite operatives in a new Cold War—to achieve variations on the perennial action story’s endgame: saving the world/the galaxy/mankind.
Playing the prequels to these games (not that I don’t plan to try their latest installments), I had my fun, I rescued my share of planets from holocaust, but I never really got hooked. And I think I know why: My parents spent years getting into my head the conviction that heroic deeds happen in real life—not the digital realm. And they don’t always involve stopping a nuclear missile or shutting down Forerunner super-weapons. A hero, they taught me, was anyone with unshakeable character willing to pay a price to do the right thing.
This delighted my inner boy. I was not consigned to ignominy. With faith in Christ, I was imminently capable of accomplishing—and fully intended to accomplish—great things. Compared with this, video games were merely a sweet treat—like dessert after a satisfying meal.
What makes boys tick?
Sadly, if you ask a random sampling of 100 young men in your neighborhood whether they feel themselves likely heroes, a good number might answer with an eye roll or a dispirited chuckle, and most of them for the same reason: They’ve had the burgeoning soldiers and astronauts juiced out of them. They’ve been installed behind desks, drilled in rote memorization and piously equipped to pay homage to the standardized test. They’ve been forbidden to compete, and told that gentlemanly behavior toward women consists in always having a condom on hand. They’ve been medicated, hushed, and informed that traditional gender roles, chivalry, and the nuclear family are misogynistic. They’ve been taught not to lead, not to let personal passions distract them from required learning, and not to think for themselves. They’ve been taught not to be male.
As Margaret Wente writes in the Canadian Globe and Mail, “In the modern world, boys are often treated as a problem. The dominant narrative around difficult boys—at least in the public school system—is that they’re unteachable, unreachable, disruptive and threatening. Many commentators—men as well as women—blame male culture itself for the problems with boys. In their view, what we need to do is destroy the death star of masculinity and all the evil that goes with it. What we need to do is put boys in touch with their emotions and teach them to behave more like girls.”
But that’s not how boys work. And the consequences of forcing them into this mold have been catastrophic: Boys are falling behind girls in almost every measurable way, getting lower grades, dropping out of school in higher numbers, earning fewer degrees and getting in more trouble.
Evidence continues to mount that our culture is becoming increasingly hostile to boys. But what do they require that girls don’t?
“Boys . . . need to imagine themselves in heroic situations,” explains Jim Power, principal of an historic all-boys school in Toronto, in the Globe and Mail article linked above. “When girls are asked about Vimy Ridge [a pivotal battle during WWI], they say, ‘Whew, it must have been horrific.’ When boys are asked, they imagine what they would have done if they’d been there. Our most powerful assembly is on Remembrance Day. Every boy is thinking to himself: How would I have measured up?”
Young men need to feel heroic, and heroes happen most often in big stories. Yet many boys can’t find such a story in today’s culture. And that’s usually when they turn on the consoles.
We’re not dead yet
I have witnessed several friends and acquaintances graduate high school or college and transform into what Fiona Roberts at the Mail Online terms “lost boys,” unmarried young men who live with their parents and play video games. Oddly, they remind me of the popular stereotype of broken-hearted women sitting alone in dark rooms watching soap operas. Like these women, boys yearn for something out there, but despairing of finding it, they drown their sorrows in cheap substitutes.
Dr. Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University was featured in a TED talk last year after co-authoring a book with psychologist Nikita Duncan declaring “The Demise of Guys.” In it, they set out to show how video games (among other things) are fundamentally rewiring the male brain to seek instant gratification in fantasy worlds rather than deferred satisfaction in the real world.
They’re right to a degree. There is certainly a give-and-take between boys’ desires and popular entertainment. But in my experience, there’s a lot more give than take. Video games haven’t molded boys’ desires nearly as much as boys’ desires have molded video games. And the eagerness with which our culture continues to binge on tales of superheroes and world-saving, both inside and outside the gaming market, only reinforces this point.
The way I see it, blaming this state of affairs on video games themselves makes about as much sense as blaming soap operas for breakups.
But if we can’t play the blame-the-games-game, where do we turn? What do we offer young men that’s better than digital heroism? How do we find the lost boys?
Mary Gauthier, a teacher at Upper Canada College, offers a fascinating insight based on her experience teaching young men: “If you tell ten boys you need volunteers to go downtown and work all night on a big, dirty, tough job, and you still expect them to show up at school the next day, they’ll all jump up and volunteer.”
Come again? Boys—work?
Something about a challenge—the gold mine of heroism and purpose to be had in a dare to achieve great things—pulls that rusty lever inside every boy that video games can barely budge. That same desperation for purpose and significance, which drives them to stand outside of game retailers at midnight just to step into a hero’s shoes again, can change the world if mentors and young men themselves learn how to harness it.
That’s why, though it may seem counterintuitive, I think the Church needs to acknowledge and honor what guys are looking for and experiencing in video games. And though we may be tempted to wrath when we find our boy or boy-at-heart vegging too often in front of the console, we should remember how fiercely he wants to be a hero—and not hesitate to issue the challenge. Who knows? Those plasma rifle skills may come in handy.
Image courtesy of Vintage Computing and Gaming.
G. Shane Morris is Web manager for BreakPoint and the Colson Center.