Somewhere deep in the recesses of the Smith family picture albums is a photograph of a young boy in an oversized Michael Jordan t-shirt standing next to a small Zenith television set. The boy has a broad smile and an air of accomplishment beaming from his round face.
The boy was me and on the TV screen, partially hidden by glare from the camera flash, is the pixelated final screen of Super Mario Brothers 2 declaring triumphantly, “The End.”
I grew up as part of the Nintendo generation. Tecmo Bowl, Contra, Excitebike, all of these provided countless hours of entertainment, camaraderie with friends, and a way to keep me from joining roving street gangs.
I also knew how and when to turn the game system off (although my mother might argue against this point). There was a world, and video games were a part of it, but video games were not my world. They were not meant to be, nor did they try to be.
Today’s game systems offer a much more immersive experience. One can spend hours playing a game alongside others from across the world. This is a monumental technological achievement. Virtual reality, advanced graphics, and much more layered gameplay offer an experience the chubby little boy beside the old Zenith could only dream of.
Many of today’s video games are designed to be a part of a lifestyle or even identity for the player. One’s accomplishments in the virtual world often garner more excitement or self-congratulations than achievements in the real world.
Therein lies much of the issue for friends, parents and others who see the rising importance of video games in the lives of their loved ones. I have personally seen people become so immersed in a video game or online experience that they began to damage themselves and others physically, emotionally and relationally.
I have also seen many people who enjoy playing video games like others enjoy watching sports. They invest a few hours a week, learn about the games and strategies, and generally enjoy the games as a healthy outlet.
Like anything, video games can foster addictive behavior, and the results can be disorienting. Like Gollum hovering over the ring, these individuals grasp their controllers and sleek off into a darkened corner of their physical and relational worlds. But just because someone plays video games does not mean they are destined for this fate.
If you are concerned about a loved one’s approach to video games or are wanting to navigate this digital world well as a parent, I offer three warning indicators that a person’s video game involvement has gone too far.
1. COMPROMISING PHYSICAL HEALTH
I am not a doctor (nor do I play one on TV), but I don’t have to be a doctor to tell you about basic necessities for healthy living. People need sleep. They need to eat well. They need to exercise and live in a healthy environment.
While getting immersed in a video game, it is easy to let the clock drift, settle for pizza and Pepsi every night, let the dishes pile up, and waste daylight hours that could be used for helpful outside activity.
An occasional video game binge isn’t the end of the world, but if your loved one shows a consistent lack of sleep, begins to have physical irregularities, or only has muscles in their thumbs, it may be time to pull the plug. If their environment is marked by neglected responsibilities and misplaced priorities, they have likely gone too far. No virtual game is worth damaging one’s physical health.
2. COMPROMISING RELATIONAL HEALTH
For some people, the relational aspects of video games are a draw. Team conquest and mutual dependence can be good side-effects of multi-player gaming. But the majority of online friendships are superficial. A person needs to know how to look others in the eye, engage in proactive listening and spend time with real people in a real world.
The line between the online world and the real world can easily be blurred for gamers, and at times, they need a helpful nudge back into reality. If your loved one begins to sever or damage relationships for the sake of time with a video game, this is a bad sign. If your loved one shows underdeveloped relational or interpersonal skills, this can cause grave issues down the line. If someone’s online friendships begin to become their primary relationships, it is better to intervene sooner rather than later.
3. SINFUL ATTITUDE SHIFTS
Protecting our time is a valuable skill. However, when our protection turns into aggression or disrespect, we have crossed a line. This idea is true in all walks of life. If your loved one begins to protect their game time with aggressive or volatile attitudes, they have gone too far. If shifts in attitude become apparent that are mirrored from a specific game, that game should be dismissed. If Jesus said we should cut out our eye or sever our hand if it causes us to sin, how much more should we be willing to unplug our (or a loved one’s) game system?
Ultimately, you as a parent, spouse or loved one have the right to monitor and communicate about video game habits. If you see a pattern or instance of concern, express it. If your loved one won’t let you see or hear what they are doing online, intervene. That is true across the board.
Video games can be a fun way to interact and spend time. They can also become an idol. Having strong accountability and being willing to listen to others is vital for any person actively involved in gaming. Be prepared to discuss how much is too much with your loved one, set parameters and stick to them.
Remember, whether we eat or drink (or play video games) let us do all for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).