Should Classical Students Play Video Games?

Apr 12, 2019

Student: What do you think of video games?

Gibbs: Oh, playing a round or two of Tetris every few months is probably not going to kill anyone.

Student: That’s not really what I meant.

Gibbs: I know.

Student: I wanted to know what you thought about video games as a hobby.

Gibbs: You mean the kind of thing which a fellow spends a few hours on every day? The kind of thing which he talks about and thinks about at length?

Student: Yes.

Gibbs: You really don’t need to ask my opinion about video games, do you? I teach old books. You know what I think about video games.

Student: I want to hear you say it, though. I don’t think video games are that bad.

Gibbs: Why not?

Student: Did you play video games when you were young?

Gibbs: Off and on. I had a Nintendo for a year or two when I was a little kid, but my parents became convinced that using it gave me a short temper. I played computer games off and on when I was in middle school. When I was in high school, I spent a year putting quarters into a Mortal Kombat III arcade game at the mall. So, yes, I played video games when I was young, but not really the way a lot of kids play video games today.

Student: What was Mortal Kombat like when you were in high school?

Gibbs: Same as today. Ripping people’s heads off, mutilating their corpses, that sort of thing.

Student: Not all games are like that, though.

Gibbs: What’s your point?

Student: Today, most video games have really nuanced and detailed stories. These games can be violent, but there’s a lot more to it than violence. The characters are really amazing. They have complex backstories and motivations and desires. Some games are almost like novels.

Gibbs: Do gamers tend to read a lot of novels, as well?

Student: Not really.

Gibbs: If gamers like nuanced and detailed stories so much, why not?

Student: I mean, a video game is like a novel, but it’s just easier and more fun.

Gibbs: The fact that video games are easier and more fun than novels means the two are really nothing alike. That’s why gamers don’t read many novels.

Student: But stories are good. In theology class, we hear about the importance of story all the time. 

Gibbs: What is “the importance of story”?

Student: Just the importance of hearing stories and how stories can show you how to be a good person.

Gibbs: What stories? Any stories or only certain stories?

Student: Good stories.

Gibbs: Good stories are good for you. Sure. That’s not rocket science.

Student: People need stories, though.

Gibbs: A very popular claim over the last ten years or so. Stories have always been with us and always will be, though, so I don’t understand why Christians have lately come to think the claim so profound.

Student: Video games might be different from novels, but they can both tell good stories. When you were a kid, the only video games involved saving a princess. Now, there are games where a guy’s wife dies and he has to figure out how to cope with it. That’s the whole game.

Gibbs: How much time have you spent playing this game?

Student: I tried it once. Games like that are common.

Gibbs: Why’d you only try it once?

Student: It was kind of boring.

Gibbs: But the story was good?

Student: Yes. And it was pretty deep, actually. Some people like it quite a bit.  

Gibbs: If the story was deep, why didn’t you keep playing the game?

Student: It just wasn’t my thing.

Gibbs: Deep stories aren’t your thing?

Student: Not all deep stories.

Gibbs: That is why I don’t think highly of video games. Gamers often defend video games on the grounds they have deep stories, but given that gamers don’t read much, I don’t buy that defense. If gamers were graduating into higher and better stories, and if video games were a common gateway into Russian literature, that would be another matter. The fact is that gamers don’t really like stories unless those stories are attached to games.

Student: Why is that so bad?

Gibbs: A game is fundamentally different than a book or a film.

Student: How so?

Gibbs: A game exists for the amusement of the players. What is the chief reason why people quit playing a game?

Student: It’s no fun.

Gibbs: Agreed. If a game isn’t fun, we quit playing. The goal of a game is to have fun by trying to win. The better the game, the more fun it is to try to win. I simply don’t think having fun is very important. People will continue to read a novel which isn’t any fun, though, because they know the novel is good. Sometimes a novel is fun, but novels are often hard work. Novels are arduous. But a man keeps reading a challenging novel because he wants something more than mere fun. 

Student: But there are some video games that are really hard which people play anyway.

Gibbs: Why?

Student: Because even though the games are hard, they’re fun.

Gibbs: It always comes back to fun.

Student: What’s wrong with fun?

Gibbs: There’s nothing wrong with fun. It’s just that having fun is not very important. If a fellow only plays a few rounds of Tetris every couple months, he has not blown fun out of proportion. Fun occupies an appropriate place in his life. However, to spend hours every day in the pursuit of fun is simply very shallow.             

Student: But video games are not just about having fun. They’re also about problem solving.

Gibbs: Were human beings not very good at solving problems before video games?

Student: I don’t know. But recent studies have shown that playing video games actually makes you smarter.

Gibbs: What studies?

Student: Studies that scientists conducted which involve brain imaging. I read about it on Lifehacker.  

Gibbs: I’ll hazard the guess that you didn’t read the actual studies which were published.

Student: So?

Gibbs: I will also hazard the guess that you wouldn’t understand the studies if you tried to read them. 

Student: So?

Gibbs: So, studies which you didn’t read— and which you could not understand, even if you tried— told you that doing something fun is making you smarter?

Student: Yes.

Gibbs: I’ll have you note that you were the first person in this argument to say, “Recent studies show…” I generally quit listening to anyone whose argument depends on “Recent studies show…” because it means their position is not really supported by philosophy or theology. Nonetheless, I have to ask: have you heard about recent studies which suggest the effects of video games on the brain are similar to the effects of pornography?

Student: No.

Gibbs: I haven’t read these studies, either, though the conclusions they draw come as no surprise to someone who has been studying and lecturing on the subjects of sensuality, temptation, and virtue for over a decade.

Student: How come?

Gibbs: From time to time, I hear students argue that video games help with problem solving or critical thinking, which sounds vaguely scientific. When I was a kid, we told adults that video games “improved hand-eye coordination.” We didn’t have any idea what it meant, but it also sounded scientific. Americans are never ones to pass-up some vaguely scientific sounding claim which supports their desire to do something they already like to do. There will always be some huckster out there telling you that “such and such is actually good for you.” At the end of the day, though, video games are the opposite of delayed gratification. Video games are fun right now, which is why people become addicted to them. People usually don’t get addicted to things which will be profitable later. Rather, people pry themselves away from things that are fun now to do a few things which will be profitable later, then run back to amusing themselves as quickly as possible.

Student: But some people get paid to play video games professionally.

Gibbs: Your point?

Student: Playing video games can be beneficial. You can’t really argue that something is a complete waste of time when some people are getting paid to do it.

Gibbs: Would you say that prostitution is a waste of time?

Student: Prostitution is wrong.

Gibbs: Agreed. But is it a waste of time?

Student: You see my point, though, don’t you? Basketball players get paid to play a game, but you claimed games are merely for fun. Video games are just a new kind of sport, though. Video games will be thought of just like basketball or baseball or football in fifty years.

Gibbs: Perhaps. The average NBA career is less than 5 years long, though. The average NFL career lasts less than 4 years. Most pro-athletes quit playing sports before they’re 30. How long is the average pro-gamer career?

Student: I don’t know.

Gibbs: As a classical educator, I’m typically unimpressed when dollar figures are attached to various kinds of work. A line of work ought to be dignified in itself, not justifiable purely on monetary grounds. That said, I find the dollar figures attached to professional gaming particularly unimpressive. The “salaries” which pro-gamers earn are little more than advertisements for the games they play. Assuming a career in pro-gaming lasts twice as long as an NBA career, what would you say a gamer is prepared to do by the time he is forced to quit gaming at the age of 27 or 28?

Student: What do NBA players do after they retire?

Gibbs: Become truck drivers. Open restaurants. Work for UPS.

Student: A gamer could do that.

Gibbs: Would someone who played video games for ten years be willing to drive a truck for a living?

Student: Sure.

Gibbs: Why?

Student: Why would a gamer be any less willing to drive a truck or open a restaurant than a basketball player?

Gibbs: As a teacher, I find gamers pretty easy to spot.

Student: How so?

Gibbs: Before I answer that question, what do you think I’m going to say? What are the qualities of a gamer which make a gamer identifiable to a teacher?

Student: Well, I bet they’re probably good at problem solving.

Gibbs: What kind of problems?

Student: I don’t know. Like puzzles.

Gibbs: Can you give me an example of a literature puzzle?

Student: Maybe not literature, but other classes have puzzles.  

Gibbs: Theology puzzles?

Student: Maybe it’s more of a math thing.

Gibbs: Are there math puzzles?

Student: There are math problems.

Gibbs: So, gamers are good at math?

Student: Yes.

Gibbs: Even though games have rich stories, like novels, gamers are especially good at math?

Student: Yes.

Gibbs: Why?

Student: Because games involve solving puzzles.

Gibbs: Do novels involve solving puzzles, as well?

Student: Not really.

Gibbs: What about Jane Eyre? It seems like there are a lot of puzzles in that novel.

Student: I haven’t read it.

Gibbs: What novels have you read?

Student: I’m not that into novels.

Gibbs: Why not?

Student: They’re kind of boring.

Gibbs: What kind of puzzles do video games make players good at?

Student: A lot of games involve finding things which are hidden. Some games involve figuring out ways around walls, over walls, and other obstacles.

Gibbs: So, in a video game, when you come to a wall and can’t get over it, what do you do?

Student: You could look for a bomb that would blow up the wall, or you could look for a magic potion that would create a door through the wall.

Gibbs: And you’re claiming this is an instance of… what exactly?

Student: Problem solving.

Gibbs: So, if you personally came to a wall which you couldn’t get over, you would begin looking for a magic potion?

Student: No.

Gibbs: What would you do?

Student: I don’t know. Look for a ladder.

Gibbs: And what do you imagine someone who had never played video games would do in the same circumstance?

Student: I don’t know.

Gibbs: Might they look for a ladder?

Student: Maybe.

Gibbs: What if there was no ladder?

Student: I don’t know.

Gibbs: Does using a ladder to get over a wall not seem like an obvious solution to you?

Student: I guess so.

Gibbs: It doesn’t seem to me like problem-solving is a unique talent of those who play video games. Could you suggest another way in which gamers could be easily identified by their teachers?

Student: I don’t know. I just think they’re probably good problem solvers.

Gibbs: Could you give an example of a real-world problem which video gamers are uniquely suited to solving?

Student: It’s really more of a way of thinking than a knack for anything in particular.

Gibbs: A way of thinking about what?

Student: Puzzles and games.

Gibbs: Could you give me an example of a puzzle from a video game which seems analogous to a real-world problem?

Student: Like I said, it’s more of a way that gamers think, not something in particular which they think about.

Gibbs: How about I give you an example of a real-world problem and you use a video game to tell me how to solve it?

Student: Okay.

Gibbs: Your wife is possessed by a demon.

Student: Mr. Gibbs, come on. That’s not a real-world problem.

Gibbs: Fine. You’re right. Your wife thinks she is possessed by a demon.

Student: Nobody thinks they’re possessed by a demon anymore.

Gibbs: Are there not video games where characters become possessed by demons?

Student: There are.

Gibbs: Do those games not teach problem-solving lessons about dealing with actual demonic possession?

Student: No.

Gibbs: Here’s a real-world problem: you eat too much and so you are fat, but you only wish you cared enough to do something about it. Any video game which can help with that?

Student: Those are complicated problems.  

Gibbs: These are exactly the kind of problems which novels deal with, though. Novels deal with temptation, vanity, depression, sadness, melancholy, fear, pride, lust, earthly-mindedness, forgiveness, real joy and fake joy, fake contentment and real satisfaction. Novels treat on complex subjects like, say,  people who become addicted to sensual pleasures (like video games) and how sensuality wrecks the soul. Novels deal with interpersonal problems which arise between people who simultaneously love one another and hate one another. Novels treat the human ego as a labyrinth which can be escaped. Novels deal with hidden hatreds and the mystical means by which self-renunciation can convert bitterness into hope. I’m sorry, but your claim that video games help people solve puzzles by teaching them to look for magic potions simply seems laughable. When teachers need to identify gamers, they don’t look for problem solvers. They look for tired students who are easily bored, say little, and talk about video games a lot outside of class.

Student: What do people who read a lot of novels talk about outside of class?

Gibbs: The world and everything and everyone in the world and why the world is the way it is.  

Student: Doesn’t that seem a bit generous?

Gibbs: What kind of video games do you play? Do you play games where you pretend to murder other people?

Student: …

Gibbs: Any reason I should think you don’t have a warped sense of what generosity is?

Student: …

Gibbs: This is a classical school. I’m a classical teacher. You’re a classical student. If you want to play video games, just do it and feel guilty about it. Don’t try to justify it, though. You’re far better off playing games and wishing you didn’t than you are playing games and inventing plausible sounding reasons why it’s okay. If you admit to yourself and to God that you feel guilty about it— because it’s a complete waste of time— then you can repent of it and eventually God can go to work on you. Otherwise, you’re just going to be stuck in this vicious cycle where you waste your time playing games and then waste your time inventing reasons why it’s okay to play games.  

Student: That’s really harsh.

Gibbs: People who commit too much time to having fun usually complain that the world is a harsh place. We’re going to get over this, though. I’m going to help you. Here, borrow my copy of Jane Eyre and we can talk next week about the kind of problems you’re going to spend the rest of your life solving.  

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs. 

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or it's leadership.

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