My recent visit with our grandchildren reminded me of why I don't like video/computer games. I don't mean I don't like to play them; I know all too well how addicted I can get if I allow myself to get started.

It began, of course, with television.  When the technological wonder entered my home when I was seven, I was already familiar with its delights, thanks to the generosity of our neighbors.  We matured together, television and I, and with such a sibling it's no wonder we bonded strongly as the years passed.  It was not a healthy bond, and I'm thankful that I went to college before televisions were ubiquitous in the dormitories, because those four years of abstention were the beginning of my liberation.  It would be many years and much struggle before I could declare myself free, but never again would the glowing opium box control my life.

Well, not that glowing opium box, anyway.

It was Marie Winn's The Plug-In Drug—confirmed by my own experience—that showed me the greatest problem with television, as a medium, and it's not the content.  Certainly, content is important:  it's better to eat nutritious food than junk food, and better to eat either than poison.  But as many of us can attest, even good food, in quantity, becomes poison to our bodies. Television, at its best, is an unparalleled tool for learning and cultural enrichment.  But it has a terrible tendency to become addictive, fostering increasing demand and decreasing quality.  There is a version of Gresham's Law for television viewing, apparently.

Eschewing broadcast and cable television for carefully selected DVDs, while certainly a good thing, often misses the main point.  The question ought always be asked, "Is this a better use of my (or my children's) time than the alternatives, e.g. reading, making Lego creations, or playing outside?"  One of television's very unfortunate effects is to make itself more attractive than other, more valuable activities, just as lesser shows are almost inevitably more attractive than the better ones.  Why this is true is a mystery.  Some have posited physical changes made to the brain by the medium itself, which would also explain the similar addictive properties of video/computer games and computers in general.

As a mother and homeschooler I learned that children have a marvellous capacity to entertain and educate themselves, and can be trusted to make good use of every waking moment—and to accept sleep when that is the best use of their time.  The more I observe, however, the more I realize that what has been true for millennia is no longer.  Children who have been crippled by television and other video screen experiences have lost this capacity.  Even in our grandson I saw the terrible tendrils of whatever it is that sucks the life from us:  although his family owns no television, and only occasionally watches DVDs; although the computer games he sometimes plays with his dad are of the older, less flashy variety; although he has a wonderful, vivid imagination and can entertain himself (and his siblings) for hours; nonetheless, when I was in charge for a day, pretty much the only thing he wanted to do was play video games—at least until Grandma hardened her heart and proved she wasn't quite the soft touch he had hoped.

Who has not known college buddies who will spend every free moment (and many that are not, technically, free) with online, multi-player games?  Whose Second Life is more important than their first?  Teenagers retreating to their iPods/iPhones and choosing games over real-life interaction?  Young children in cars with the wonders of the countryside flowing past them but their eyes unmoving from their flickering portable DVD players?  Middle-aged wanna-be writers and amateur genealogists who spend so much time at the computer that OSHA would crack down if it were a workplace scenario?

Computers, video games, and television are wonderful, useful additions to our collection of tools for living and learning.  Even for loving; if e-mail, Skype, and blogging will never replace physical interaction, anyone who has family in faraway places knows how valuable they are for nurturing human relations.  The price exacted may be terribly high, however, if we cannot be the masters of our tools rather than their slaves.

Abstention, if difficult, is always easier than control, as any Alcoholics Anonymous member knows, but when the thing is good, control is the better path.  Sometimes, as with eating, it's a necessary path.  These days, computer use is nearly in the category of necessity, and therein lies my problem.  Nearly everything I do involves sitting down at the computer.  Writing, reading, researching, communicating, paying bills, organizing photos, staying informed, shopping, creating educational materials, keeping track of finances, organizing addresses and other information—all these and much more are now done, and often done better, with the use of a computer.  No doubt this tool saves us time, but as with most so-called time-saving devices, it may give us minutes with one hand only to take away hours with the other.

As I once asked when contemplating allowing our children to watch Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood on a daily basis, "What is not being done during the time dedicated to this activity?"  There is an opportunity cost in time as well as in money, a far more serious cost, because if time can be saved, it cannot be banked, and moments wasted are lost forever.  The time we spend in front of the television, playing video games, and working on the computer was, not that long ago, available for other projects.  What have we gained?  What have we lost?
Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 9:15 am | Edit
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So true about the opportunity cost of computer time. It seems I am always turning to the computer when I am home. Most of the time it is not urgent, it is just a curiousity. In Maine, where I don't have access (or electricity), I read, read read - until about 9 p.m. when it gets dark and then I go to bed!

Posted by dstb on Thursday, October 29, 2009 at 8:16 am

Ah, that explains, at least in part, the long, wonderful list on your blog of books read in 2009!

Posted by SursumCorda on Thursday, October 29, 2009 at 8:58 am
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