The other day my self discipline failed, and after weeks of craving I bought a video game. Addictions are never broken; they are only tamed. Eventually they will escape the leash and savage a passing pedestrian. For weeks I’ve been browsing the game shops, debating the for and against of giving in to temptation. This time the for side won, but for a very simple reason: giving in to the addiction was also the best way of kicking it.
I avoid video games for many reasons, but primarily because I am a writer. If you want to write professionally, video games are the kiss of death. Writing requires the investment of time, and video games are the world’s greatest time waster. Worse, video games aren’t good for the upper brain functions that provide advanced language skills. I’m not saying that video games make you stupid, but they certainly don’t make you eloquent.
Functional reading—the Web kind—vs. the advanced variety
As a writer, I also follow closely the continuing debate about the demise of reading. Not functional reading, which is fine and dandy, what with the Internet bringing people in the billions to text-based Web pages, forums, chat and so forth. But advanced reading, of the kind that will empower a person to access the incredible knowledge and joy of reading a novel or work of creative non-fiction, is rumored to be in sharp decline.
Those are rumors I’ve seen corroborated first-hand, having spent the last five years working to develop literacy with young people. Teenagers simply do not read for pleasure in the numbers they did even twenty years ago. And the cause of this titanic shift away from reading can be squarely placed at the foot of the digital revolution, of which video games are a leading part.
No matter how beautiful the graphics…
My video game addiction started as a teenager. I was part of the first generation to grow up with video games. When I look back at the Sinclair Spectrum games that got me hooked, followed by the early 16-bit consoles, I’m amazed by how excited I was by games like Manic Miner or Target:Renegade, and how basic they were compared to the spectacular graphical feats of modern gaming. But I also always found gaming frustrating, as though I were aware even then that something was missing from those games, something that is still missing, and something that graphics no matter how beautifully rendered can never provide.
The truth is that as with millions of teenagers before and after me, my addiction is not to video games, but to imagination. I’ve always been a sucker for anything that took my imagination on a journey—TV, film, video games, theater, books. But as I grow older I’ve come to realize that the real work of imagination isn’t made by those things, or even the people who make them, often at the cost of hundreds of millions of pounds. The real imaginative work happens inside my head, inside that mushy old brain all of us have access to that is still a trillion times more sophisticated than a PlayStation 3.
The software of the mind
It’s easy to forget that books are a technology, precisely because they are so old. Books are, for want of a better metaphor, the software of the mind. As such they are running on hardware vastly more powerful than any computer. Our minds have very different capabilities from a Playstation. They can’t compute the trajectories of bullets in real time to facilitate online wargames. But they can comprehend the emotions of violence and conflict, and facilitate empathy with the real humans fighting real wars.
Every few years I need to remind myself how limited and empty even the most graphically advanced video games are compared to the richness of a book. I deleted the game after a few hours, and fingers crossed I won’t be tempted to play one again any time soon.
About Damien Walter: Damien is "a writer of weird and speculative fiction" and has written for Electric Velocipede, Serendipity, Transmission, Pulp.net and Scifantastic magazines as well as BBC Radio. Bloom: Young Writers and the Route Compendium have anthologized his stories. Shortlisted in 2005 for the Douglas Coupland short fiction prize, he has received a grant by Arts Council England to work on his first novel. His reviews have appeared in The Fix. This summer Damien will be at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ workshop at UC San Diego. Check out his blog.
Coincidence Department: Damien recently gave Arthur C. Clarke a nice good-bye, and the Guardian published the item with a photo of Clarke at the keyboard of a Kaypro II. While researching the Future Chapter of my book The Silicon Jungle (Ballantine), I helped Clarke and 2010 director Peter Hyams catch up with Kaypros to use in a trans-Pacific connection during the writing of the film. – D.R.