Work and video games

I was reading “Escape to Another World” (highly recommended) and this part made me realize something:

How could society ever value time spent at games as it does time spent on “real” pursuits, on holidays with families or working in the back garden, to say nothing of time on the job? Yet it is possible that just as past generations did not simply normalise the ideal of time off but imbued it with virtue – barbecuing in the garden on weekends or piling the family into the car for a holiday – future generations might make hours spent each day on games something of an institution.

I think part of the challenge is that, historically, many of us pursue hobbies and other activities that are also related to craftsmanship. The world of full of people who, in their spare time, rebuild bikes or cars, or sew quilts, or bind books, or write open-source software, or pursue other kinds of hobbies that have virtues beyond the pleasure of the hobby itself (I am thinking of a book like Shop Class as Soul Craft, though if I recall correctly the idea of craftsmanship as a virtue of its own goes back to Plato). A friend of mine, for example, started up pottery classes; while she enjoys the process, she also gets bowls and mugs out of it. Video games seem have few or none of those secondary effects.

To be sure, a lot of playing video games has likely replaced watching TV, and watching TV has none of those salutary effects either. Still, one has to wonder if video games are also usurping more active forms of activity that also build other kinds of skills (as well as useful objects).

I say this as someone who wasted a fantastic amount of time on video games from ages 12 – 15 or so. Those are years I should’ve been building real skills and abilities (or even having real fun), and instead I spent a lot of them slaying imaginary monsters as a way of avoiding the real world. I can’t imagine being an adult and spending all that time on video games. We can never get back the time we waste, and wasted time compounds—as does invested time.

In my own life, the hobby time I’ve spent reading feeds directly into my professional life. The hobby time I spent working on newspapers in high school and college does too. Many people won’t have so direct a connection—but many do, and will.

To be sure, lots of people play recreational video games that don’t interfere with the rest of their lives. Playing video games as a way of consciously wasting time is fine, but when wasting time becomes a primary activity instead of a secondary or tertiary one it becomes a problem over time. It’s possible to waste a single day mucking around or playing a game or whatever—I have and chances are very high that so have you—but the pervasiveness of them seems new, as Avent writes.

It’s probably better to be the person writing the games than playing the games (and writing them can at times take on some game-like qualities). When you’re otherwise stuck, build skills. No one wants skills in video game playing, but lots of people want other skills that aren’t being built by battling digital orcs. The realest worry may be that many people who start the video game spiral won’t be able to get out.

6 responses

  1. This article made me realize that software really is eating the world.

    We simply do not need that many people to work. And lots of current jobs are “pretend” jobs that are not necessary (like teaching). In other words, a computer can do the work, but policy and culture keep it going. Also, Jake, I wonder if grant writing falls in this category (grant writer here as well). As you all have written at Seliger, do we really need an insanely complex system of “grants” to distribute federal funds?

    At the back of the treadmill, people are being pushed off by technology. It’s not entirely clear that people are just being lazy and playing video games (though some clearly are). Combine this with how awesome video games are (former gamer here as well), and it’s not surprising that many people are saying, “Forget this, I’ll go to Azeroth.”


  2. I had a similar experience, but not with video-gaming. When I was 20, just as a few of my hometown friends were immersing themselves in some of the first widespread LARPing, a friend and I hitchhiked around Europe for a month. We trudged through thunderstorms for 15 miles into strange towns and had to find lodging even though we didn’t always speak the local language, have money to spare, or smell remotely human. We made friends with strangers who sometimes took us in; we slept on the floors of bus stations and ferry terminals; we got robbed, we had a minor run-in with law enforcement, and we charmed our way out of a couple of other sketchy situations. We jumped Metro turnstiles in Paris, celebrated midsummer on a farm in Denmark, drank beer with a dude from the Swiss army, tried to sneak into a cathedral library in England, and scrambled up to a hilltop cemetery in Scotland to watch the sunset on the summer solstice.

    I don’t have anything against LARPing. It’s fun, it’s creative, it’s social. But when I got home that summer, it occurred to me that despite my lack of swordplay and magic in the face of mostly minor perils, I’d actually just lived something closer to what LARPing strives to imitate than LARPing itself can ever be. To a certain extent, play is good and necessary–but from that point on I was more aware of the distinction between real experiences and virtual worlds, and how limiting and unproductive the latter can be if you mistake them for the former.


  3. I also really liked this article, but I’m not sure I entirely agree with your premise. Playing video games can be a great skill-building experience for some people, or the gateway into skills-building. Game-based communities are good social circles and if you take any interest in game writing, designing, or coding, your playing experience becomes handy. If they pay attention, gamers can also learn a lot about human psychology, marketing, storytelling, etc. And many gamers have made a job (or at least a paying hobby) by streaming, recording YouTube videos, etc.

    Now, that’s not everyone. And people who have a true addiction to gaming are probably not leveraging that experience or skill well. But gaming as a hobby isn’t necessarily “wasted” time.


  4. You can make the same argument for reading books for anyone who’s not involved in a creative or academic industry. That isn’t building practical skills either. A thing done purely for it’s own sake, whatever it is, is only a waste of time if the perpetrator deems it to be so. It’s true that computer games probably have less transferable skills than other past times, but that feels like a product of excessive leisure time than anything else. Having less of it necessitates that it’s more “productive”, in a sense.


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