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Are Video Games a Waste of Time?

Many people claim that video games are a waste of time. Are they really?

Prostock Studio/iStock
Source: Prostock Studio/iStock

Podcaster Joe Rogan of the Joe Rogan Experience, who also happens to be a UFC ringside commentator, recently went on a tirade about video games and warned that people who play video games are "gonna waste your time."

He's not the only one to cast aspersions upon video games. Many parents, educators, researchers, politicians, and scholars have leveled similar accusations against video games since they first gained widespread popularity in the 1980s. As Joe Rogan reminds us, this attitude is still around 40 years later.

Are We Having Fun Yet?

My response to Joe Rogan, and to others who claim video games are a "waste of time," is: not if you have fun playing them. According to a recent study by the NPD group, 73% of Americans over the age of 2 play video games of some kind. They are popular for a reason. They are a lot of fun, and fun is not a waste of time.

For a moment, let's set aside the very small percentage of people who become "obsessed" or "addicted" to video games. We shouldn't use outliers as a reason why a near-universal activity should be vilified. If we were to go down that road, then we'd have to blacklist cars, alcohol, sports, French fries, cats (cat-hoarding is a problem for some people), as well as a painfully long list of other interests and activities. The vast majority of people who play video games lead healthy, productive lives. Given that we are suffering enough through this COVID-19 pandemic, thank goodness we can have fun and connect with others safely through video games!

On his podcast, Joe Rogan uses the comparison of wasting time playing video games to dedicating oneself to practicing the martial art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). Rogan states that if someone dedicates themselves to the practice of BJJ, in several years, they might start winning tournaments and then ultimately open their own BJJ school and end up driving a Mercedes and having a nice family. Really? Is this the litmus test? While this might be true for a very tiny subset of BJJ practitioners, most do not go on to making a career out of their martial arts training. Does this mean that all of these other folks are wasting their time?

People engage in an extensive variety of activities, including martial arts, because they find such activities enjoyable. Consider these broad categories of leisure activities:

  • Sports
  • Art
  • Dancing
  • Board and card games
  • Music
  • Gardening
  • Travel
  • Reading

They even have a name for this bizarre idea in which people regularly engage in activity for fun or enjoyment. They are called hobbies.

If we are going to throw video games under the bus as a waste of time, think of all the other types of entertainment that would need to go under the bus with them. This list would include every type of entertainment to which we watch or listen. This includes movies, streaming content, plays, musicals, concerts, sporting events, stand-up comedy (Joe Rogan, has done stand-up comedy), game shows (Joe Rogan hosted the game show Fear Factor for several years), viewing works of art at a museum, and so on.

Consider some of the acclaimed, much-beloved arts and entertainment that we have enjoyed over the years such as Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Stranger Things, Breaking Bad, Seinfeld, The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, college football, The World Series, Harry Potter books, The Catcher in the Rye, The Odyssey, Hamilton, Wicked, Mozart, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Elvis Presley, U2, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé ... just to name a few. Are these a waste of time? We watch and listen because we enjoy the experiences they provide. Arguably, such experiences make life worth living.

A Matter of Values

The case that Joe Rogan and many others often make about video games is that they are too much fun. Thus, people end up spending inordinate amounts of time playing them at the exclusion of other, more "productive," or perhaps edifying, activities. The (sort of) straw man argument here is to take people who are spending 12 hours per day playing games such as Fortnite, failing classes, not sleeping enough, not leaving the house, not interacting in person with others, etc. to illustrate how video games are a waste of time. Well, one might make the argument that engaging in any hobby or activity for 12 hours per day is problematic. A case could be made that it is acceptable for aspiring professionals or Olympians to spend this much time devoted to an activity, but even then many hobbies don't lend themselves to becoming lucrative professions (e.g., archery, chess, gardening, leisure reading, blogging).

However, most people are able to keep their video game playing to reasonable levels, even if it gets intense at times. Also, for a subset of people who do seem to be "addicted" or obsessed with video games, it is often the case that the excessive gaming is a symptom of some underlying issue (e.g., depression, social anxiety, autism spectrum disorder).

When people judge video games to be a waste of time, what most people probably mean is that there are better, more useful ways to spend one's time. However, this is a value judgment. To me, knitting would be a waste of time. If I really want a quilt, I can always buy one on Amazon. But for all the people who love to knit, more power to you!

I still enjoy playing video games. I have three boys who love video games too—perhaps a little more than I'd like sometimes! I do think there is value in having a range of activities and interests, but that's different than saying video games are a waste of time (or harmful). We have to be careful not to compare the time spent playing video games to some mythical ideal in which we, and our kids, always get the perfect amount of sleep, eat a balanced diet, meditate 30 minutes per day, get at least 10,000 steps per day, always wear sunscreen, learn a musical instrument and foreign language, read at least one book per week, and so on.

Yes, there are benefits to living a life in which we are meeting our needs through a range of activities. But we are a very resilient, adaptive species. We don't need ideal to thrive—we just need "good enough." The idea that we can lead a perfectly balanced life is a delusion. Even with this big caveat, a balanced life includes engaging in fun activities. For millions upon millions of people, playing video games represents an enjoyable hobby that has earned its rightful place as part of this balanced life.

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