“Mom, can we please get a Nintendo?” It was the late 80’s or early 90’s and everyone had an NES. Everyone but us. A shiny world of endless 8-bit adventure awaited me. The local Walmart had them on sale: “Please could we get one?” My parents finally relented. They must have been relieved when the Walmart was sold out. We took a rain check but never cashed it in. I had to be content playing at friends’ houses.
My friends were often tired of playing their Nintendo. I think they were happy having other kids to play with instead. But I wanted to play. It was like some magical portal would open up. All the kids would gather around the TV and stare. If you weren’t playing, you were watching someone else play and begging for a turn. Finally some parent would walk in and and make us, “Turn it off and go outside!” That’s when we had the best time: building forts, fighting imaginary enemies, drawing our own worlds, inventing time machines. Even then I remember noting that video games were something like junk food: they were easy to start and gave you a quick fix, but didn’t seem very satisfying.
One day my Dad announced a major purchase: a personal computer for the family. It was a Gateway with funny cow spots on the boxes and it ran Windows 3.11. We started flying Microsoft Flight Simulator around digital cities. Then we got into side-scroller shareware games like Commander Keen and the original Duke Nukem. You could pay for more levels but we just played the free version endlessly. College brought my first always-on network connection and multiplayer games like Quake II and Blizzard’s first Starcraft.
At some point I picked up Diablo II. For weeks between classes and homework my Paladin-class avatar would descend the levels of hell like a miner going to work. I slayed demons, looted their corpses for weapons, and leveled up my spells. Finally I came face to face with Diablo himself — and I defeated him!
The game reset on the “Normal” difficulty. I discovered there were three levels of difficult and I had been playing Easy mode. I had just unlocked Normal. I had two options: I could replay the whole game again at the higher difficulty, or I could start from scratch with a different character class. I sat there staring at the screen and pondering my victory. The game could reward me with nothing more than shiny digital weapons and more gameplay. It seemed like a poor return on my investment.
Life went on and these old games were forgotten as I migrated to newer computers and new seminaries. Then I got my first smartphone. And promptly downloaded Angry Birds. I relaxed each evening by popping egg-stealing piggies. Until one day the game rewarded me with a new achievement: “Congratulations! 20 hours of play!” I hadn’t realized a little time here and there had added up to almost a day of my life. I tried some other things including games that promised to make me smarter. But eventually I stopped playing games on my phone altogether. They were just too handy; It was too easy to pull them out and play.
At this point I was down to just one game. I played on my tablet on evenings and weekends. A couple of my brothers played too, so we could play against each other or play cooperatively. One of my brothers did Exodus 90 and was off games for three months. I had been trying to be more focused, present to the person in front of me and using my time for God’s Kingdom. But it was just one game. I was worried about what I would do in the evenings, and how the brothers would get on without me. But it was only 1 game, so how much would it really change?
It had a bigger positive impact than I was expecting. I found myself doing more fulfilling things with my free time: reading, exercising, watching the sunset, preparing for the next day. Like most modern free-to-play games, it was set up like a shiny trap. There were always more levels and new challenges. And they kept rolling out more characters to keep it feeling fresh. I stepped off the treadmill and discovered none of that really mattered.
Scrolling through the App Store I’m always tempted to download some popular new game. But I think of the investment and return and I pass on it. I was almost tempted again when Blizzard promised a remastered original Starcraft. But again, what do I really have to gain?
The real world looks rather boring and like a lot of work. But invest some time and energy in people and life, and you’ll find them surprisingly satisfying. The digital world looks amazing and shiny but turns out to be rather empty and unsatisfying. I’m not saying that video games are bad. They are just taking time and energy away from something better. Pay attention to yourself: How are you investing your time? Are you getting a return on your investment?