As one of the most popular podcast hosts in the world, Joe Rogan has at any moment the power to ignite a debate with a single statement. Whether it’s his affinity for Sen. Bernie Sanders, his preference for voting for President Donald Trump over former Vice President Joe Biden, or his intention to buck California for the freer confines of the Lonestar State, he makes headlines without even trying.
Along with his Texas proclamation, another segment from that episode recently spawned a social media storm when Rogan spoke out against video games. Soon after, the internet erupted into fiery exchanges over Rogan’s comments. As with most things worth discussing, however, the truth is more complicated.
Video Games Won’t Fill the Void
“Video games are a real problem,” Rogan exclaimed to his guest Joe De Sena. “They’re a real problem. You know why? Because they’re f—ing fun … I have a real problem with them. You do them, and they’re real exciting, but you don’t get anywhere.”
With that, many planted themselves on both extreme ends of the debate — either that video games are always harmless and uniformly good, or they’re one of the chief sources of society’s ills. Lost in the noise, however, was the broader context that led to the topic of video games in the first place.
Rogan’s critique of video games came as part of a discussion on the importance of having strong, successful role models for children and young people [warning: adult language]. If the usual household mentors are uniformly apathetic and low-achieving coasters, then, Rogan proposed, it’s hard for younger family members to break the cycle and avoid becoming a nihilistic couch potato as well.
To fill the void left by a lack of purpose, many wallpaper over the holes of their empty existence with easy, quick, and temporary fixes. As Rogan correctly points out, this often leads to tragic substance abuse in the form of alcohol or drug addiction. Yes, many can also become obsessed with video games, passing countless hours enslaved to the light-emitting diodes onscreen, entranced by rhythmic button mashing and the dopamine hits that accompany simulated “kills.”
We Need to Heed Old Lessons
In truth, anything that takes priority in place of faith, family, and friendships will lead down a potentially disastrous road. It can be the love of working out at the gym or other fitness pursuits. It can be social media or cycling through the same dozen websites on your smartphone in bed when you should be trying to get to sleep or catching up with loved ones. It can even be an unhealthy drive to read, review, and study school materials in hopes of maintaining that vaunted 4.0 GPA.
Normally good activities, when taken to excess, can become vices. This is, of course, ancient wisdom. Aristotle writes in his Nicomachean Ethics that even contemplation — for Aristotle, the greatest human endeavor — can be a vice if you become so consumed by it that it makes you forget to bathe, eat, or seek life-saving shelter. What’s “excessive” can also differ dramatically from person to person. What may not be enough food for Milo the wrestler may be far too much for Julia the ballerina. There’s a reason the “golden mean” is indeed golden.
The most misguided part of Rogan’s statements is the swipe he takes at those who play video games because gamers “don’t get anywhere.” The same criticism, however, can be leveled at folks who watch a sporting event, take in a play, or go to a movie theater (remember those?).
In terms of time spent and value derived, there is no essential difference between spending three hours watching baseball on TV or playing three hours of “MLB: The Show.” Both can be done alone or with friends; both are enjoyed for their entertainment value; both can be detrimental to one’s mental health and personal relationships if taken to extremes. But, as Aristotle writes, rest is a part of life, and “part of rest involves passing the time with playful amusement.”
Video Games Have Been Art for a While
Very few anti-gamers would criticize reading a book for hours on a lazy Sunday afternoon. But while there’s nothing inherently wrong with breezing through a novel by Nicholas Sparks or Danielle Steele, let’s not pretend that all reading is similarly enlightening or intellectually stimulating. Comparable caveats apply to video games.
Games like “Fortnite” and “Call of Duty” provide easily digestible, mass-appealing fun to millions. But there’s an entire world of higher-form games out there that punch far above the weight class of what most of the general public thinks of a “typical video game.” No subgenre routinely demonstrates the redeeming side of gaming better than computer role-playing games.
Games like Bioware’s original “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic,” War Horse’s “Kingdom Come: Deliverance,” CD Projekt Red’s “The Witcher 3,” and the Obsidian-helmed “Fallout: New Vegas” are enjoyable and entertaining, to be sure, but they also radiate with more artistic quality than the vast majority of entertainment produced in either the film or television industry. Such games are anything but “mindless.” When combined with appropriate time-management by players and proper execution by game developers, a great role-playing video game can be a transformative learning experience.
Players will learn more about Christianity, medieval Europe, the feudal system, and theology from a dozen immersive hours playing “Kingdom Come: Deliverance” than from many documentaries on those same subjects. Many young adults won’t willingly read a dense nonfiction book about life 600 years ago in Christian Europe, but will gladly spend time traipsing around 15th-century Bohemia as the player character Henry, learning an incredible amount of material through virtual osmosis.
Finding Goodness and Truth in Games
Another exemplary game, “Fallout: New Vegas” boasts a devoted online following with a vibrant “modding” community that continually tweaks and updates the game with new content despite being out for nearly a decade. It isn’t the mediocre gunplay that keeps fans coming back, it’s the writing and the storytelling. Through its unfolding narrative, “New Vegas” addresses ancient history, colonialism, foreign policy, imperialism, political philosophy, and transhumanism with a deft and even-keeled hand that ropes the player in and doesn’t let go.
Its character writing is superb. Leading the pack is the heartbreaking story of Randall Clark, whose “survivalist log” terminal entries are found throughout the game’s post-apocalyptic rendering of Utah’s Zion National Park. Gamers still talk at length about the effects of the writing they read over the course of rediscovering Clark’s digital diary. Clark’s unfolding story is not only one of the most rewarding and cathartic experiences in the game but holds up well against the best modern writing across all mediums that employ the written word.
Another “Fallout: New Vegas” character, the mysterious Joshua Graham, is one of the most beloved and oft-quoted religious non-player characters in video game history. Based in part on T.E. Lawrence, the Apostle Paul, and the New Testament’s Parable of the Lost Son, Graham offers a complex and nuanced portrayal of a man seeking redemption while still battling his inner demons.
Graham’s memorable statements have since spread on social media despite many not knowing their source is a fictional video game character. Without a doubt, well-written characters like Graham have led to thousands of thought-provoking discussions and individual inquiry and soul-searching among gamers.
Hack-and-slash action RPGs like “Path of Exile” or, even better, “Grim Dawn” can easily be played while listening to an enriching audiobook or an informative podcast. Other games like the Sid Meier’s “Civilization” series — now on its sixth iteration — or “grand strategy” games like “Hearts of Iron” or “Europa Universalis” teach economics, history, and politics while they entertain. It’s safe to say quite a few high-schoolers over the years have used what they’ve learned via such games to help them out on a history test or two, which is more than you can say for Rogan’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
With their incredible artwork, stirring musical scores, deep philosophy, and compelling choices, video games represent some of the highest art produced today. Like anything, they can be problematic if allowed to dominate your life. But like all good things, when used with discernment while focusing on the things that truly matter, video games don’t just provide a needed respite from a long day at school or the office, they can enrich and enlighten our lives in ways of which other mediums can only dream.