Our era is largely defined by fascination with games. All kinds of games. Sports enjoy high status as entertainment. The vast majority have multiple games on handheld devices, and boys crave time on gaming platforms or laptops which can deliver fast, colorful, explosive entertainment. It’s the last category which we worry about most, because teens and young men seem to be more adamant about spending time playing games than other groups. The current generation of young men are defined by this obsession, and it is likely to affect who they become as spouses, parents, workers, etc.
What is more spurious is popular conception of what this relationship is all about. And so long as we remain fixated on theories about addiction and looping brain circuits – the scientific explanation for addiction – we remain removed from the meaning of these addictions. Namely, that they comprise an alternative reality which many young men find compelling. It’s not that there aren’t valid neuropsychiatric observations of addicted brains. But such anomalies are better understood as the effect of addiction, rather than the cause. By extension, virtually every depressed person is likely to show changes in brain chemistry, but should we ascribe depression to being the result of those anomalies? Perhaps sometime, but more often than not, a life event or thinking pattern initially caused a person to feel unwell. Some attention must be payed to those critical events.
Even when we can see the issue of gaming addiction clearly, the question most want to ask is “how do we convince young men this is wrong?” Answer: can’t be done. The only viable, powerful response is to provide a more interesting alternative. This means an opportunity to be involved in work of consequence. Specifically, there must be a sense of urgency and necessity – because these emotional factors are lynch-pins in the world of disaffected young men. They want to be embroiled in serious struggle. They want their actions and choices to matter. They want to have an opportunity for honor. And at least some want options other than military service.
Gaming can become an addiction, but it is not primarily a problem for neuroscience. It is a more existential problem about how to live, and what to live for. It needs serious, sustained conversation. It needs organized encounters for young men where they speak with one another. It needs opportunity to matter in the world before one graduates from college, and is given a half-serious, first job.