Amusing Ourselves to Death?

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Marx was wrong. As it turns out, the opium of the people is actually video games.

Last week, China banned its youth from playing video games during the school week, save an hour between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Fridays, weekends, and public holidays, the Wall Street Journal reported. The law is aimed at curbing what the Chinese government has perceived as a growing addiction to video games among Chinese youth, which state authorities say distracts them from school and family responsibilities.

From WSJ:

The new regulation, unveiled by the National Press and Publication Administration, will ban minors, defined as those under 18 years of age, from playing online videogames entirely between Monday and Thursday. On the other three days of the week, and on public holidays, they will be only permitted to play between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.

The government announcement said all online videogames will be required to connect to an “anti-addiction” system operated by the National Press and Publication Administration. The regulation, which takes effect on Wednesday, will require all users to register using their real names and government-issued identification documents.

The rule also prevents youth from spending more than 400 yuan (approximately $60) on video games each month, kneecapping one of China’s largest markets. Curbing this gaming addiction, the government has apparently decided, is more important than generating maximum revenue.

Far be it from me to praise anything the authoritarian regime in Beijing does. Yet it touches a nerve for Americans, who have seen no shortage of the detrimental effects of video games on teens. We’d be hard-pressed to argue sensibly against limiting addictive products, and an increasing volume of evidence shows video games have just such an effect. Indeed, to our own embarrassment, the law suggests China has recognized a problem most Americans would prefer to ignore, that video games are doing harm to our youth, and laissez faire is only making things worse. (Rationally, the market encourages such behavior, because more gamers equals more profit.)

Gaming addictions are real and damaging, even beyond the well-documented: shorter attention spans, academic struggles, and a handful of basement-dwelling Call of Duty players who went off the rails. If those weren’t enough, gamers are also highly prone to depression, and increasingly, studies show strong correlations between gaming and suicide rates.

The demographic most hurt is young men. Statistically, gamers are teen boys, in the phase of life when they seek excitement most and are tempered by maturity least. Video games, which promise endless excitement, can be incredibly addictive to boys of this age. One 2020 poll, done by Michigan Medicine, shows teen boys are far more likely than girls to spend three or more hours gaming in a given day, and boys are twice as susceptible to gaming addictions in general than are girls. To say boys are the only ones to blame would be inaccurate, but certainly the problem affects them more than their female counterparts.

You are what you love, as James K.A. Smith wrote in his 2016 book on the power of habit in shaping the Christian life. His thesis, that what we worship in our culture has implications for our souls, is as important in understanding the American ethos as it is in protecting the purity of the Church. As a nation, our character can be viewed in a nutshell in the things we value most. The market, in this sense, can act as an indicator of our public morality, in that our dollars reveal our deepest desires. But it goes further: What do we praise and what do we condemn (or fail to condemn)? That video games have such a powerful hold on so many in our nation is telling: Do we love something about what they offer—profits, cheap distractions, or preserving the status quo—more than the health of the next generation?

A whopping 86 percent of parents believe their children spend too much time in these digital amusements. In the same study, parents found their sons’ gaming habits frequently inhibited family interactions (46 percent agreed), sleep (44 percent), homework (34 percent), friendship with non-gaming peers (33 percent) and extracurricular activities (31 percent). That same study found parents whose child games daily, unsurprisingly, said gaming has a negative effect on their child’s mood more than those whose child plays less frequently.

We don’t need a study to tell us these things, of course; we have seen it, in cousins, and neighbors, and friends’ children, if not our own. Moreover, we likely know parents who are worried about their teenaged son who spends hours a day in front of a console and are unable to do much to control it, while games are within reach from any phone, screen, or friend’s house.

If we have avoided confronting the problem, it is likely either because we think we’re overreacting, or because we don’t want to think about the alternative to our current libertarian approach. Yet as future leaders, warriors, and geniuses are failing school, strung out on digital empires and Mountain Dew, our hierarchy of loves seems to be disordered at best.

I can already hear the libertarians crying: But bans would mean government intervention in the private sector. Yes. The job of politics is not to espouse an ideology, after all, but to use prudence—practical judgement—to defend the common good in each particular circumstance. The ideologues on either side who say “China bad, therefore video games good,” and, “control always good everywhere,” are both wrong.

The particulars of prudence, and its conclusions, differ from case to case. Should we mandate vaccines that have shown limited effectiveness for a disease that is already a non-threat for most? Probably not. Should we curtail the type or quantity of video games permitted to be sold to minors, or perhaps put an age limit on who can purchase them, as we do with alcohol and other potentially addictive substances? Perhaps.

The answer to the question requires many practical considerations, like what form such restriction would take, and how it would be enforced, but the question of how to reel in gaming’s damaging effects is one we should be asking. China’s already asked it. And while there are certainly better ways to mitigate the problem than through facial-recognition technology and the social credit system, there’s something to be said for their regime’s vigilance in trying to fix a problem we’d rather not admit exists.

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