There are plenty of extreme examples that illustrate how video games have become frighteningly addictive, replicating the effect of intoxicants such as drugs or alcohol when indulged in too often or for too long. In 2012, a young Taiwanese man collapsed and died after playing the popular game Diablo III for 40 hours straight. And in South Korea, a particularly tragic case in 2010 involved a couple so immersed in raising a virtual baby that they ignored their infant daughter’s crying until she starved to death.
Research on the correlation between violent video games and the “priming” effect—the theory that the more violent a game is, the more the player will feel inclined to act out feelings of aggression—has turned in mixed results and is a topic hotly debated in academia, the media, and wider society. In the wake of the recent tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 young people dead, Donald Trump quickly placed the blame on video games containing violent content rather than the actual weapons that, in human hands, inflict real death and destruction. We, however, don’t need to wait for this scientific debate on violence in videogames to conclude to ask an even more basic question: are video games akin to intoxicants like alcohol and drugs? If so, does that mean that the principle of the Fifth Precept remains the same with regard to video games?
We believe that one should approach video games with a similar mindset to how one would approach other intoxicants. A wholesale government ban in any society is impracticable and opens up complex ethical questions. Rather, we must be mindful of what video games are, at their most basic: entertaining time killers at best, capable of doing much worse if left unchecked.
Some adults addicted to video games feel that it dominates their lives in a way similar to addiction to drugs, alcohol, or pornography. And some medical experts believe compulsive gaming should be classified as a distinct mental disorder, while other psychologists view gaming addiction as symptomatic of underlying issues such as depression or anxiety, which are increasingly common in our fragmented yet digital media-dominated world.
One addict interviewed by the Chicago Tribune, managed to kick his habit by rendering his gaming account “unusable by resetting his username and password to strings of randomly generated numbers and letters. He then burned the paper on which he had written them, ensuring they were lost forever.” He admitted that video games were his refuge from more underlying issues such as depression, social anxiety, and loneliness. “When he finally dealt with those problems, he said, he didn’t need the games anymore.” (Chicago Tribune)
On balance, serious cases of video game addiction might say more about underlying issues than the games themselves. It seems that video games have the unique power to trigger underlying neuroses in us. This can be seen in how people access games in their free time or after stressful periods, and even in the genres of games they choose. They aren’t always violent games like first-person shooters, but could be “massively multiplayer online role-playing games” in which people can escape the real world by creating a fictional self in digital universes like World of Warcraft, losing themselves in virtual concerns such as assembling a team to slay the arch-vampire rather than resolving problems at home or work.
We should acknowledge that people of all ages and genders (there is a growing female gaming community) are involved in gaming as a hobby or even a career, while maintaining more or less healthy social lives. Conversely, we should also admit that the very act of playing video games is becoming an increasingly complicated activity that requires a brave and honest response from Buddhist parents, institutions, and society.
We need a brave response because today’s distractions are far more numerous and entertaining than ever. The world abounds with increasingly complex and addictive games. And the dominance of mobile technology means that games are more accessible than ever. The exercise of parental authority, such as banning game consoles or smartphones until the child reaches an age at which they can make autonomous choices, remains a perfectly legitimate means to limit their exposure to games. And when the day does come for kids to get their first PlayStation or iPhone, balancing face-to-face interaction, conversation, and play with certain educational benefits of mobile gaming remains a central concern in contemporary parenting.
As we move into the teen and adult years, the Buddhist rule of thumb applies: overindulgence in anything is harmful. In a comprehensive feature about how even monks in Thailand are playing games on their smartphones, one monk suggests: “You think: if I can go to the target, I can be happy. I can be a winner. But you lose your health, your study, your family, and one day when you come back [you will] wonder: what am I doing?” (Waypoint) There are echoes here of the classic Buddhist ambivalence to other modes of entertainment for its own sake, such as fictional novels, TV, films, and comic books.
Granted, it is undeniable that illusions like fictional novels, films, and other media have also enriched human culture and deepened our minds or broadened our horizons. But religion is always preoccupied with what Paul Tillich called the “ultimate concern” (the numinous, sacred, and holy) and on that scale, the priority we place on video games, undeniably, must rank at the very bottom, below even other mundane worries. Video games simply pile on the illusions in this grand illusion we call life, samsara. Do we really need any more?
Gamer dies after Diablo III marathon (Gamespot)
Girl starved to death while parents raised virtual child in online game (The Guardian)
Trump Blames Violent Video Games For School Shootings — Here’s Why He’s Wrong (Forbes)
Are video games addictive like drugs, gambling? Some who’ve struggled say yes (Chicago Tribune)
In Thailand, Buddhist Monks Grapple with the Meaning of Video Games (Waypoint)