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Video Gamers Anonymous: Unplugged from the Matrix

One gamer has the courage to tell the story of addiction, and how he's broken free.

I’ll never forget my first Nintendo. It was Christmas, 1988, and I’d been begging my parents and God for Nintendo since playing at my best friend’s house. There was no suitably shaped box under the tree, and every present I opened seemed a confirmation that Mom and Dad had decided I would rather have clothes than anything else. Once all the presents were opened, I was holding back tears and trying to smile when my parents pointed out a card on the back of the tree that had directions to look inside the entertainment center — Dad had hooked it up the night before. There was no kid more excited within 50 miles of our house.

Mario quickly became one of my heroes, and to this day his name is synonymous in my mind with the word “adventure.” Over the years we rescued Princess Toadstool countless times from the menace of Bowser. We swam through oceans, climbed mountains, explored caverns and flew through the skies with more grace than any airliner.

Real life was ok, I guess. Our family moved a lot over the years, so I went to different schools in addition to being home schooled. Wherever we went, though, Mario came too. Nintendo was a great way to connect with others and make friends – something to talk about that never got old. Playing outside seemed boring. Baseball? Soccer? What a waste of time. Doing those things meant being picked on, too — a regular experience when I was on the playground or outside with other kids. But on the weekends I was the adoration of millions whose worlds I saved by defeating the Space Pirates of Zebes.

People called our family a “model family” (it’s true my parents were wonderful and caring). I went to church, did well at school, played and eventually taught piano, and more. Video games were just my favorite thing to do besides spend time with friends. Not surprisingly, most of my friends liked video games too – we would play Red Alert over our modems for hours, sending our troops and tanks against each other’s bases, each sure that we would be victorious.

This pattern continued through Jr. High, through high school, through college and even through much of my first year of law school. God was first, video games, school and people were second, everything else third. Then something happened last fall — some family friends asked if I would be interested in meeting to discuss the topic of video game addiction; they were writing a book on the subject. My initial internal reaction was something like, “Sure. But why on earth are they asking me?” Then it hit — how many hours had I played StarCraft the day before? Five. Was that uncommon? Not really. Gaming had subconsciously become my default behavior. From then on, the internal dialogue became less and less comfortable. Although that dialogue is still going on, three thoughts have put things in a new light:

First, video games were vying for the spot as my primary identity and purpose. Nintendo recently highlighted the concept of identity with their $100 Million Who Are You? marketing campaign — as Nintendo President George Harrison stated, “This campaign celebrates … the fact that we offer the widest range of personalities through which you can unleash your other self … your game self.” Video games allow people unsatisfied with this world to do things just short of fantastic in the role of their game self. It’s very much like playing the part of a character in a good book.

But finding identity in video games carries a cost I didn’t understand until just a few months ago. First it detracts from the identity I am commanded to have in Christ. We are to look to Him — the author and finisher of our faith — for our sense of self-worth and purpose. Supplementing with something else is a mistake, especially because extra sources of identity demand time and resources. Apart from Christ, identity is not a gift — it is a return on investment. Put another way, our identity in Christ is derived from what He did on the cross, what He does in our lives and the future He has promised us. My identity in the Legend of Zelda was derived from the staggering amount of hours I spent figuring out how to get to and defeat dungeon monsters.

The fact that I spent all that time wandering around electronic dungeons raises another issue as well — a concept in God’s word commonly referred to as stewardship. Christ’s parables are filled with illustrations of individuals being held accountable for their choices and actions. Similarly, Paul tells us that not only are we to present ourselves as living sacrifices to God, but also that we ourselves are not our own. In the book of Romans, He commands us to live as slaves to righteousness. If we are to be good stewards of the time our Creator has entrusted us with, we must consistently ask this question: “Is [*any particular activity*] a better use of time than anything else I could be doing right now? Is this activity the best way I can be loving God and loving others right now?”

Applying this principle to videogames (as well as many other staples of college life) has been very difficult for me — because it seems that the answer is quite consistently no. Sure, there are hypothetical situations where it might be the best use of my time. But since I have started asking that question there has not been a single instance when nothing has appeared more profitable than to save imaginary worlds. James wrote that true religion is visiting the widows and orphans in their affliction — for years I wrote this off as something that would happen “later, when I had more time.” But when will more time ever be available? Certainly not after marriage and the arrival of children. Who has more discretionary time than students, the segment of society that plays video games most?

Video games are complex forms of entertainment. And while entertainment certainly has its place, our own self-centered hobbies and amusements are a poor substitute for other opportunities. I am so grateful for Christ’s forgiving love — pleading His righteousness will be the only good response to God’s question on judgment day: “So, Thomas, why did you spend thousands of the hours I gave you playing video games?”

The third thought that helped break my addiction was the revelation that although the real world is significantly less glamorous than those found in video games, the real world is where our actions hold lasting impact. Defeating any number of imaginary hostile aliens contains less lasting positive impact than lovingly doing one real helpful deed to brighten someone’s day. Upgrading armor in World of Warcraft is a very poor substitute for upgrading our spiritual armor by spending extra time in God’s Word — a habit that benefits others as well as us. I was at one point consumed with rescuing electronic princesses, forgetting that the King of the Universe had placed hundreds of His very real daughters in my life for me to minister to and enjoy spending time with!

The real-life princess I am most ashamed of disregarding is my sister, Katie — she and I both knew that Nintendo came before she did in my life. The memories of rudely ordering her to turn off her favorite cartoons so I could play, of sharp replies when she interrupted my gaming marathons with servant-hearted questions like, “what would you like to drink with dinner?” and of having her memorize worthless details about Nintendo characters will haunt me for the rest of my life. Although both Christ and Katie have been very forgiving, there is nothing I can give or do to make those days come back for a second chance at being a better big brother.

This is a pretty dismal story. But these words are not meant to be discouraging — this is a picture of what was. It was sad, especially in retrospect. But God is so good. He is a healer — and as uncomfortable as it is to write about what has been such a problem, it is my joy to announce that life embraced in the real world has been an adventure more indescribably challenging, rewarding and all-around wonderful than any video game.

God has said that our works will be tested with fire — we make the choice of what those works are, and therefore also make the choice of the amount of our actions that will last and be rewarded. Those of us who struggle with spending our time playing video games can rest in faith that our shortcomings will be forgiven by God (and perhaps others) if we ask — we must press on toward the very real prize. For those who are not in this category, please pray for those caught in the gaming mindset; an addiction is not an easy thing to recognize and break, even with the enabling power of God. May all of us learn to act more through the love of God to those around us every day. Oh — and if any of you happen to find the Pendant of Valor in the real world, please let me know.

Copyright 2005 Thomas Griffin. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Thomas Griffin, IV

Thomas Griffin, IV is a student at the Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, Calif. Currently pursuing J.D. and Master of Dispute Resolution degrees, he enjoys serving as a volunteer mediator for the Los Angeles County Court System, spending time with other human beings, watching silent films and taking long walks on the beach.

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