Saintly Thoughts

On Video Games and Education

There have been many tired screeds attacking the rising use of video games.  The reasons given for these critiques are diverse: from video games' glorification and encouragement of violence, to the massive waste of time and money games so encourage, to these game's compounding social atomization and de-socialization.  I do not, per se, take issue with any of these reasons for censure, however all of these critiques (I think) apply only to some video games some of the time.  For not all video games are violent (though many are), not all of them are time wasters (though most of them are), and many of them encourage socialization (at least of the on-line variety).  I wish to suggest, however, that there is another, far more hidden, far more insidious element contained in virtually all video games that sucks away at the very marrow of a condition of soul absolutely vital to the continuation of civilized society: that is, video games contain elements of unrealistic expectations and encourage a decidedly modern and unreflective view of reality.

Please allow me to explain what I mean.  As any who have gone out into the world and attempted to accomplish anything well know, there are no safe and secure paths to success.  Every decision, no matter how well calculated and considered, bears an uncertain outcome.  While it was common to believe a mere twenty years ago that the path to security and riches led through the hallways of upper level academic achievement, buttressed by massive investments in student debt, virtually no one believes this any longer (or at least shouldn't).   Further, even if one calculates in accordance with true wisdom and prudence, one might do all the "right" things and still be brought to ruin before any true goals are accomplished.  And even more heartbreaking, one might attain to the heights of wealth and power either through assiduous hard work or the unrelenting wheel of fortune, only to be dashed again into the mire of despair and poverty.  The cause might be external to you--a natural disaster, a market downturn, or an invasion--or might spring from a far closer internal source--an unexpected illness, the instability of a loved one, or the madness of crushing nihilism.  Obviously some of us are better buffeted by wealth or circumstances than others (and ultimately equality of opportunity likely means less the general dissemination of such buffers than it does the near universal spread of this dreaded nakedness in the face of misfortune), yet there is none so great and mighty that the universe might not invert their good fortune in an instant.  To paraphrase Pascal, humanity is as a weak and brittle reed against the onslaught of an unrelenting and vast universe which cares nothing for her.  No wonder the eternal silence of such infinite spaces filled him with dread!

And this, I would wager, explains the appeal of video games more than any other psychological factor.  Far from being a vast dark universe, a video game--no matter how expansive or even expanding--is an enclosed secondary creation, and is thereby far smaller and simpler than the world that we inhabit.  Nothing exists in such a world that was not made for the pleasure of the player, whether it be the exaltation of a reward or the fright experienced at the battle with an unanticipated enemy.  One of the most pleasing aspects of these video games, I would wager, is the ability to keep score and accrue experience in a systematic way, tracking via points, health, armor, gold, specific attribute upgrades, etc.  This quantification of what is (with the exception of gold/money) un-quantifiable in the world of experience feeds deep into modern man's obsession with reducing creation to discreetly identifiable and traceable units.  In fact, this very obsession re-enforced via the onslaught of simulated experience bleeds more and more into our everyday world.  For what are the endless apps which track our weight, exercise, consumption, budgets, learned experience, and vitals but a means of allowing us to graft some small part of this control we relish in the other worlds of video games into the chaotic rhythm of our lived existence?  And the less said about the allure of the ability to "save" ones game progress as applied to the world of experience the better. 

We seem to celebrate such grafting without noticing much.  I suppose the thought is that by systematizing our approach to such mundane features of existence we might free our minds to pursue deeper questions or art and philosophy, friendships, and love.  But I wonder, does our growing dependency upon the structured relief provided in these game worlds twinned with the attempt to bring such analytics to bear on the "real world" create a false tautology further sundering the modern mind from itself and from any real sense of reality?  For perhaps, the more we play such games, the more our pleasure centers become accustomed to the reward of a numerically tracked and quantifiable data.  The more we become dependent on such quantifiable data, the more we shall crave such data as it applies to the world outside of the game.  Might we not reach a point where we become so accustomed to this system of quantifiable reward that our vision shrinks so small that we cannot imagine seeking knowledge and experience not already quantifiable by some system?  Thus the worlds of justice, and love, and faith, and imagination collapse into a ready-made prison which needs no jailers to patrol its bounds.  

If this vision sounds terrifying to you, allow me to add even further reason for your discomfort.  For this process of quantification into distinct numerical and tracked units did not begin with the world of video games or even with the world of games.  No, the modern mind was prepped for such rat mazes by an earlier and more insidious system.  For our modern form of education is little (I hesitate even now to say nothing) more than an elaborate chase after abstract and quantifiable scores, certificates, and grades which attempt to draw the ineffable down to earth.  If the whole of pre-modern history is correct, and education is rather a reconditioning of the soul to that maddeningly elusive concept known as the "truth", then what a poor substitute the modern mind has come to accept!  For we have become as those trained for nothing more than the stimuli of predetermined avenues of thought and endeavor, dependent ever more upon the machines that feed us our bread and wine and circuses.  How long before the modern person is truly the slave and the machine her master?