On Reflection: Distraction and Video Gaming
If gaming is a distraction, from what?
In our Age of Empires IV episode, I referenced the podcast I produced for BBC World Service's ‘The Inquiry’ series, titled (not by me), "Are Video Games A Waste Of Time?" I was reminded of this discussion and the debate surrounding it again when I read Johann Hari's new book, Stolen Focus, recently.
The book is a polemic, but the ideas therein are perhaps less divisive than the author himself. For those unfamiliar with him, the TL;DR is that Hari was a hugely successful, award winning and well respected young journalist, before it was found he had plagiarised other people's work as well as aggressively smearing his detractors on Wikipedia. Thereafter, he had a spectacular, resounding fall from grace, was effectively exiled to the USA, and started to rebuild his career. Rebuild it he has, albeit first with  several  apologies . His three most recent books have each been best sellers, enthusiastically received by readers, if not so wildly by his critics. The first was Chasing the Scream, about the war on drugs; the second (and by far the best in my view) was Lost Connections, about depression; and this one, Stolen Focus, is about distraction and its multitude of contributing factors, namely: big tech and modern society.
Stolen Focus is by no means a great book. It's actually very irritating at times, but equally irritating, is that the points Hari makes in it, however condescendingly framed, seem perfectly valid. In fact, while social media is awash with naysayers disparaging him, in particular former Guardian writer, Dean Burnett, and psychologist, Stuart Richie, of Unherd - incidentally, these two have been critical of Johann for years and he specifically addressed them both on the corrections page of his website for Lost Connections - I am struck that very few of his critics challenge the actual claims and ideas he presents. For the curious, this is a tactic discussed by Conor Friedersdorf in his The Atlantic piece, The Idioms of Non-Argument. Case in point:
To be clear, Hari is not also without powerful and influential support. He counts the likes of Oprah and Elton John as friends, even Hillary Clinton has praised his work.
Alastair Campbell described Lost Connections as Hari's "latest excellent contribution to public debate", and indeed, in the US, Hari's Ted talks (which have racked up nearly 20 million views between them) and his public appearances are met with something akin to adulation. Here he is in an hour and a half two-parter episode with Oprah on her podcast Oprah’s Super Soul, where she recommends everyone buy the book, saying: “I promise you it’ll be worth your time”.
Unsurprisingly, given this article, I fall into the latter camp. I’m not interested in Johann’s previous crimes, I’m interested in his work today. (Forgiveness and rehabilitation are definitely beyond the purview of this piece!) Suffice to say that his work may be imperfect, but it’s always thought provoking. In any case, Stolen Focus inspired me to further consider the role video gaming plays in our lives: is it a distraction from something more meaningful or is it meaningful in its own right, like all contributions to culture; art, novels, poetry, music, sport, TV and film?
As with those things, the answer isn't clear cut. Can video gaming be a distraction? Absolutely. Indeed, it's such an effective distraction it's recommended as pain relief following research by medical professionals. When I suffered Covid, and beforehand, when my partner did, I sank myself into video games deliberately to consume my mental energies and prohibit fear and anxiety from taking hold. It worked a charm. (Thanks Desperados 3!)
I’ve spoken on this podcast of finding myself unable to resist spending hours or even days playing even games that I hate (say, Death Stranding); Tao has gently mocked me for what he called my ‘addiction’ to Halo; and only recently I wrote of finding myself trapped in that same ‘Dark Playground’ while playing Horizon Forbidden West:
But when we talk about distraction, we tend to have another concept in mind at the same time: whatever it is we are being distracted from. Distraction doesn't exist in a vacuum. There is always the implication that we could and should be doing something ‘better’. If someone is distracted, they are distracted from doing something more important, more worthy, more esteemed. We may not have any control over the esteem - how gaming is viewed by our peers - but what if we challenge that assumption, and we contend that the playing of a video game is (or at least can be) important and worthy, quite aside from being really fucking fun? Indeed, is there any reason to suppose that reading a book, or enjoying an art gallery, or watching a film is any more so?
The hierarchy of culture.
Suddenly we find ourselves in the hierarchy of culture, a subjective mess of opinions where everybody's personal interests and biases collide and contradict one another: a fan of reading says it's expanding the mind, growing the vocabulary, or as Hari himself writes, growing 'empathy'. A fan of film argues it's the distillation of an era, a political expression, an educational insight into the lives of others. A fan of sport makes the case that it’s socially unifying, demographically levelling, bonding, fostering a healthy (read productive?) spirit of competition and achievement. The list goes on.
Each proponent of a different art form has a myriad of arguments to espouse their own preferred medium. What we begin to surmise, is that the reason video gaming is often lambasted as a waste of time and energy is not because it is either of those things, but because it is losing the battle of perception in this hierarchy of culture.
While impossible to quantify, I'd argue a video game such as The Last of Us, or Spec Ops: The Line, or BioShock Infinite, is every bit as profound and affecting as acclaimed titles from more respected mediums (classical literature, I'm looking at you).
Yet societally, gaming doesn't carry the same cachet, and gamers elicit much less respect than readers, for example. Gaming, then, is only as much of an 'unproductive' distraction as reading, but prolific readers, no matter what they're neglecting in favour of reading, are (mostly) met with admiration by peers. Distraction as a consideration doesn't come into it. Whatever they're reading at the expense of doing doesn't seem relevant. And that brings us back to the key question in all of this: distraction from what? What is it that sceptics are so convinced we ought to be doing in place of playing games?
(As an aside, the language here is critical, I believe. Both 'playing' and 'games' imply triviality and childishness. This is unfair, given that entire books have been written about the role of play in brain development, like Play and Free Play, as well as more mainstream books like Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind which among other things points “to the decline of free play as a contributor to later depression and fragility”. Hari writes at length about play in Stolen Focus.
Not to mention the volumes of other books and research about the importance of fulfilment and happiness in composing ‘a life well-lived’. But it's an inescapable quirk of English: we ‘play’ games. Interestingly, this same inbuilt function of language to belittle art is also seen with music: one ‘plays’ music in English, but in Spanish, for example, you 'touch' the guitar and in Italian you 'sound' it. Lo and behold, music appears to fall only marginally higher on the hierarchy of culture than gaming in the UK, while in countries with more respectful language it’s arguably much more integral.)
The answer to this question - what is gaming a distraction from? - in my view, was best expressed by George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London (emphasis mine):
"In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable. In all the modem talk about energy, efficiency, social service and the rest of it, what meaning is there except 'Get money, get it legally, and get a lot of it'? Money has become the grand test of virtue."
Orwell writes that, "By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised. If one could earn even ten pounds a week at begging, it would become a respectable profession immediately." I can't help but wonder if the same is true of gaming. This (now somewhat dated) 2014 study by Erik Hurst makes it more or less explicit:
The researchers find that young men increased the number of hours dedicated to leisure by about the same number of labor hours they lost… They used three-quarters of these hours for gaming and other computer leisure activities.
And there we have it: Games are a distraction from work! It is by this test that gaming is rarely seen as a pastime worth attending to. It is consumption. It doesn't earn. It is a distraction from all the things that do.
Little wonder then, that with the emergence of Esports, its huge prize pools (as much as $40m for multiplayer online battle arena, Dota 2), and the massive production industry kicking into gear to support it, people are starting to sit up and take notice of gaming, even going so far as to offer scholarships to universities and gaming specific degrees. In the UK, Roehampton in London became the UKs first university to offer an esports scholarship last year, but in the USA, there are enough to populate 'top 25 eSports scholarship' lists. Even BBC Online (two years after my Inquiry podcast 😜) has made the case that video gaming could get you a better job.
I imagine this trend will continue, and five or ten years from now, gaming will be viewed very differently by society. Who knows, maybe one day, someone will walk in on their friend playing Xbox or Playstation (or more likely PC when cloud gaming wins the race 💥) and ask, 'what are you working on?' I wonder if gaming will still be considered a distraction then.
What’s your take? Let me know in the comments!