Video games might well make your son ignorant and corrupt, but they won’t make him stupid — although I trust this might require further explanation. I have recently received some requests from parents about how to govern or regulate their sons’ taste for video games, and so here goes. But before rushing to the question of how to govern or regulate, we should begin with the question of how to think about them.
Concerns about the influence of video games usually reduces to two categories — morals and education. If someone asks if all this gaming is “good for” my little Johnny, these are usually the two categories they would have in mind.
The question about morals can’t really be answered unless we are talking about specific games. It is like asking whether your son will be negatively affected by “books” or by “movies.” What books? What movies? Grand Theft Auto is a cesspool of corruption, and the video game of Pilgrim’s Progress isn’t.
Note that I am not here talking about whether clean games are lame, but am simply noting that clean games are clean. Nothing too controversial there, I trust.
So it should go without saying that wise and godly parents will not let their kids play games where they are picking up hookers and blowing fellow drug dealers away. “My son, if sinners entice thee, Consent thou not” (Prov. 1:10). Entertainment is in fact capable of corrupting a young heart and is not, as so many imagine, an all-purpose moral disinfectant. The fact that it is cool doesn’t mean that it is not putrid.
But what about the life of the mind? What about education? Do video games rot the brain? The answer is no, but we need to make a distinction first.
There is a difference between ignorance and stupidity. One of the characteristic failures of the modern education system has been its inability to keep standardized test scores from sliding ever downward. Periodically the tests are re-normed to hide the decline, and the whole thing is a tragic mess. People have rightly noted that this is an educational failure, but they have too quickly assumed stupidity when what they are looking at is ignorance. When you see an interview with a young person on the street expressing bafflement over who George Washington was, this is a problem of ignorance, not stupidity. That same kid is the one his grandma — who knows who George Washington is — has to ask to help her change the channel.
In other words, what we have seen is a radical alteration in the content of our cultural curriculum, and tests which presuppose the old curriculum really are bringers of bad tidings. Now I have dedicated a good part of my life to the proposition that the old liberal arts curriculum is worth preserving and saving, and hence our efforts in restoring classical Christian education. But I am doing this, not because the kids today are stupid, but rather because they are being robbed. They are very smart, but they are being educated as though they were idiot savants. While test scores that measure our educational system have been going consistently down, IQ tests, which are measuring something else, have been going consistently up. It is called the Flynn effect, indicating something else entirely, and I am convinced that video games are part of it.
While many modern kids are ignorant of that body of knowledge that their great-grandparents would have considered the sine qua non of being educated, they are quite capable of navigating many parts of the modern world that their ancestors would have found utterly bewildering. If you want to read two books that will pull you helpfully in two opposite directions, resulting in what I think would be a place of admirable balance, I would suggest these — Amusing Ourselves to Death and Everything Bad Is Good for You. Make sure you read both of them in the same month.
One time, in the very early years of personal computers, I was messing around with some Texas Instrument contraption. I am not even sure what it was. It was the kind of thing where I would labor at the programming in order to get colored bars to march across the screen. Rachel, who was just a toddler, wanted me to be done one time, and so she came up by my chair and said, “Papa, push function quit.”
At the same time, what video games are capable of doing (destructively) is creating a huge opportunity cost. A son who is holed up in his bedroom playing video games every available hour is not becoming stupid — quite the reverse. But his intellectual RPM is not being applied to certain things that would prove to be a much greater blessing to him in the long run.
Though he is not becoming stupid, there are a number of ways in which he is becoming ignorant — because the time being used on video games is not being used in other productive ways. These productive pursuits have been identified as such over many generations, and they should not be lightly set aside for the sake of extra flashes on a screen. We should not forbid those “extra flashes,” but we should take special care over what they might displace. This is not because video games are malum in se — they are not evil in themselves. But it is indisputable that video games take up time, and that time cannot be spent on one thing here and also on another thing there.
So let me highlight four areas where you should not want video games to take up all the available oxygen. A young teen-aged man should be a diligent student in his formal studies, he should make sure he is current with his extracurricular piano and lacrosse practices, he should have time for the family to read aloud together, and he should have time to visit with his sister. And all this assumes that he gets to bed at a reasonable hour.
That said, that accomplished, I don’t see a problem with video games at all. So if all that is happening, and if the video game/s in question is not some vile bit of nastiness, then I really wouldn’t worry about it. One of the things that parents might do to help keep a regulator on the whole thing is allow an eager adolescent devotee of video games to earn time on the games through time on the piano. An hour of piano practice gets him a hour blasting the space pods. And if his GPA drops below a certain level, he finds that video games at home are just like the basketball squad at school. No think, no play. No games until the next report card, and we will see then. The problem is not what he has been doing, but rather what he has been doing instead of other things that his family values.
But he doesn’t earn any video game time by talking with his sister. That would be mercenary — but he still needs to talk with her.