Video Games, Intelligence, and…Happiness?

I was going through my usual blogroll, which includes the ever useful and interesting site Lifehacker, when I came across this post. A defense of video games? Being a gamer myself, I couldn’t help but click through, to see what sorts of arguments were going to be put forward.

I did not expect the arguments to primarily focus on intelligence. In fact, that hasn’t been an argument I’ve ever thought to make; I don’t consider my gaming tendencies as a way to improve my intellect, even if I think that games can be a good way to exercise my mental faculties. I don’t go to a video game to learn, but I may find myself thinking about the importance of a good narrative while playing a game like Bastion. Moral choices may give me reason to think through the sorts of things that influence my moral decisions in the real world as I play through Fallout 3. The games do not tell me how to think or even teach me anything about how to be ‘smarter,’ but they can (and do) offer gamers complex shared worlds in which these discussions can take place. Much like a philosopher may refer to a film or use a famous novel or story to illustrate and discuss a point (the ethics of parenting and psychological torture in Ender’s Game or the questions of leadership, courage, or kingship in Henry V), so can a game offer a situation in which problems may be worked out and discussed with real parameters. In fact, this is the main advantage over a hypothetical offered by the thinker; games offer a certain level of restriction on the world, forcing thinkers to interact with them in certain ways.

But how video games may be useful to thinkers is not the first place I go for discussing the benefits of being a gamer, even if it is something that I find myself contemplating quite a bit. I may make mention of critical thinking skills involved in many genres, but I usually prefer to discuss the social benefits of gaming (as odd as that may sound to those of you who picture gamers as people who play World of Warcraft in the dark, covered in Cheetos and guzzling Mountain Dew). Playing a game, video or otherwise, is a good stress reliever in addition to providing a means of entertainment. After all, if you begin to push against playing a video game, I wonder if you should push against forms of entertainment like film or reading fiction. All are related, though admittedly the narratives of video games have only recently become well-produced (by and large; there were exceptions in older video games, of course, but recently there has been a push for ‘story-driven’ games).

What I found more fascinating than the article itself, however, were the many comments. Some immediately jumped to the defense of video games, but there existed a common theme among many of them: video games make me happy, and that is all that matters. In fact, this is often our justification for a variety of actions, whether it be a relationship we are in or a film we watch or a game we enjoy. If it makes us happy–or, rather, if we like it–then it cannot possibly be a bad thing. The problem with this view begins with the ego-centrism obviously contained therein but ends with a much larger issue: the idea that ‘happiness’ is the only good worth measuring. If we measure any and all actions only by how ‘happy’ they apparently make us, we’ve lost sight of greater goods.

Let me be clear here: I do not want to remove happiness from a list of goods. But I also don’t want it to sit on top of all other goods. There are tricky distinctions to be made even when discussing ‘happiness’ itself–is ‘happiness’ simply defined by good feelings, or is happiness something else?–but that sort of discussion is far larger than the scope of this post. For now, I’ll simply leave it at this: if ‘happiness’ is simply defined by whatever sets off the most endorphins in your brain, there are goods in this universe that are more beneficial for you than simply ‘being happy.’

I reject the conclusion that video games are good when and only when they are enjoyed by someone, but I do stand wholeheartedly in defense of video games as a good way to spend time, at least in moderation. Don’t justify hours of video games (or anything, for that matter) just because they make you happy; recognize that there are other goods and live in light of that fact.


Image from Flickr.

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J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).