Virtual, Mushy Brains

The glassed-over, bloodshot eyes; the hunched shoulders; the twitching fingers; the mounting tension; the whoop of victory or the groan of defeat – just a few of the markers of a video gamer at play. The Ataris of yesterday have evolved into the multi-billion dollar industry of today, offering everything from the seemingly-innocuous Tetris to the more sinister Grand Theft Auto series to the eager children, teens, and even adults who line up to buy them. But what effects do these games have on those who play them? As professing Christians in an increasingly secular world, we need to examine how these games affect us (and our children) physically, mentally, and spiritually, and what we’re doing to ourselves and our families when we become excessively engaged in a virtual world.

Numerous studies have been done on the effects of video games on children. In America, some of these effects are immediately visible. Obesity is becoming a big problem (pun intended). According to Medical News Today, “Approximately 119 million Americans, or 64.5 percent, of adult Americans are either overweight or obese. Estimates of the number of obese American adults rose from 23.7 percent in 2003 to 24.5 percent in 2004” (http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/29645.php). While increasingly unhealthy food, genetics, and lifestyles all play a part in this trend, certainly the sedentary nature of video games and the countless hours children are allowed to play them play a role in this unhealthy development.
In addition to the lack of physical exercise that most video games promote, the physical effects they produce are not unlike the effects of other addictive substances and objects, such as drugs, alcohol, and pornography. According to Mary Schlimme, “Because increased levels of dopamine [a hormone which affects brain processes that control movement, emotional response, and ability to experience pleasure and pain] have been found in people who are playing video games and because these effects are similar to the increased levels of dopamine in drug addicts, some researchers have hypothesized that higher levels of dopamine can produce a dangerous cycle leading to addiction of video games” (from the article, “Video Game Addiction: Do we need a Video Gamers Anonymous?” http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node /1719). I have personally known people who have stayed awake for 2-3 days without sleep in order to play Halo II after its much-anticipated release. The effects of video game addiction on children are even more obvious and equally disturbing. When not allowed to play the game, they become preoccupied and have trouble focusing on anything else other than their next “fix,” when they get to play again. Surely this addiction is just as real as any other.
While the physical effects of video games are disturbing, the mental effects should give us equal cause for alarm. The first factor in this is the sheer time required to play and master any one game, which is compounded by the myriad of game options available in today’s market. Children, teens, and adults are investing hundreds of thousands of hours honing their skills in their particular console of choice. This is time being taken away from other activities in which people used to engage, certainly having a detrimental effect on their academics, personal relationships, and more creative, useful, and productive life skills.
Because of the time spent with these flashy, high-paced action games, children become used to this style of entertainment, and thus have trouble focusing on less visually stimulating tasks, such as reading, conversation, homework, or projects that require patience and attention to detail. Studies show possible linkage between ADD and ADHD (disorders unheard of 100 years ago) with excessive “screen” (television, movies, computers, video games, etc.) time. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a warning about the effects of television on children under 2: “Pediatricians should urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of 2 years. Although certain television programs may be promoted to this age group, research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant care givers (eg, child care providers) for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional, and cognitive skills. Therefore, exposing such young children to television programs should be discouraged” (PEDIATRICS Vol. 104 No. 2 August 1999, pp. 341-343). Surely if “screen time” has a detrimental effect on the developing brains of children under age 2, it can only be harmful to older children’s mental and physical development as well.
This addictive need for constant virtual action and flashy entertainment also inhibits the growth of maturity. Children whose primary goal in life is getting Mario to the highest level or whatever remain preoccupied with virtual, imaginary worlds and lose interest in real relationships, real activities, and real accomplishments. They would rather invest their time in reaching the next level than in activities that will stretch them mentally, physically, and spiritually. Thus, they remain in an imaginary world of perpetual immaturity. Teens and young adults who become addicted also stunt their personal growth by indulging themselves in a virtual fantasy world, completely disengaged from reality. They neglect their development of social skills and have trouble engaging in non-game-related discussions and activities. They withdraw from family time and friendships.
The games themselves deserve close scrutiny. While some games, like Tetris and Super Mario Brothers, seem harmless enough, others contain extreme violence and gore, nudity and sexual encounters, criminal activity, strong language, crude humor, and drug and alcohol use, which only continue to worsen as graphics become more sophisticated. A list of the content of some of these games can be viewed at http://www.parentstv.org/ptc/videogames/reviews/maturegames.asp. While most parents would probably ban such games from their children’s play if they knew the content, many are unaware of the extreme inappropriateness of what their children are playing, and sadly, do not monitor their access to games online, at friends’ houses, and even in their own homes, risking their children’s exposure to offensive content and online predatory creeps. In addition, the very nature of the medium draws children in, just like drugs, and makes them hungry for more – better graphics, more violence, more gore, more everything. Such is the seductive nature of sin, and these games are no exception. Several studies have been done linking playing such games to increased aggression and violence in children. While the blame of our fallen, sinful nature certainly mustn’t be overlooked in explaining such behavior, surely training ourselves to murder, run over policemen, solicit prostitutes, drink, gamble, steal, and curse in a virtual world can only have detrimental effects on our behavior in the real one. As Christians, we need to filter all of our activities through the guidelines of Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (KJV – emphasis added). Note the fact that we are to dwell on what is true. Virtual worlds have no part in this, in my opinion.
The spiritual effects of these games go even deeper. In many cases, they become a modern-day version of a false god or idol. They become a consuming pastime for children and teens, who pour their energy, love, and capacity for relationship into engaging with the game rather than with God or others. Susanna Wesley, mother of John Wesley, the great preacher and founder of the Methodist Church, once gave him this advice: “Take this rule: whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish of spiritual things; in short, whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself” (Letter, June 8, 1725). This advice can be applied to even the seemingly “harmless” games out there if they begin to consume a person’s time and emotions. This is an example of the old adage that “the good is the enemy of the best.” Even though some particular games may seem harmless enough in themselves, they detract from worthier activities which parents could be fostering in their children, such as service to God and others, productive hobbies, reading, developing musical or artistic talents, craftsmanship, scientific exploration and discovery of nature, education, and building real relationships with real people.

Several books and articles have been written recently about the nature of men – their need for wildness and adventure, for battles, jumping off of things, etc. (e.g. Wild at Heart by John Eldredge, The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn & Hal Iggulden, etc.). While females certainly have the capacity for addiction to video games as well as males, males seem particularly enticed by them. No doubt it is because they feed this God-given desire for action and adventure. However, I propose that video games are a poor substitute for the real battles that desperately need fighting in our world today by mature, godly men. History gives us many examples of men accomplishing great things at very young ages. For instance, at the age of 21, the Englishman William Wilberforce became a Member of Parliament and shortly thereafter began the fight that eventually outlawed slavery in the British Empire. He also fought for numerous other social reforms, including helping establish the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, improving factory conditions, and encouraging foreign missions. I wonder how much of this he or any other great figure from history would have accomplished if they had owned PlayStations.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of” ('Poor Richard's Almanack,' June 1746). We each only have so much time given to us by God, and we should use it wisely. While there is certainly room for wholesome entertainment and play, much of what we do in terms of entertainment deserves more careful scrutiny through the light of Scripture. Our time should be spent primarily in serving God and others, and in being the salt and light of an ever-darkening world. How can we be the light when we become just like those who do not know the truth? How can we fight the real battles that need fighting when we’re constantly plugged into virtual, electronic worlds? We all know what Jesus said un-salty salt was good for…maybe it’s time to pull the plug.

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