The hero myth in human culture spans across the ages and across countries and recurs in a similar form everywhere. The man who goes out and slays the dragon and brings back the gold is awarded respect, admiration and hero status from his tribe.
Every man has a desire to be a hero. From young teenagers to out-of-shape nerds, the desire to perform heroic acts in order to win respect from our male peers and admiration from females is irrepressible and common across all cultures.
It’s been a long time since there were any dragons to slay. But the hero drive is still a powerful and positive force in men, and in the absence of dragons it is channelled into a rich and wildly diverse array of outlets including business, sports, the military and a thousand others. This drive is what causes men to make their greatest contributions to their close tribal networks and humanity as a whole.
The need to express ourselves as a hero is almost irresistible, and this is what gives video games their insidious charm.
When you step into the virtual world of the game, you instantly become a hero. In the Legend of Zelda series for example, you literally become Link, a young man on a quest to save the world from the evil demon king Ganon and win the affections of the fair princess Zelda. Many of the most addictive and popular games follow a similar story arc.
All you have to do is pick up a controller and instantly you are a hero on a quest. Anybody can do it regardless of who they are or how successful they are in the real world. This holds a particularly strong allure for teenage boys who may not have had a lot of success in anything else (yet).
The most powerful hero games are those that place you within the context of a larger band or tribe. Team combat games like World of Warcraft, Team Fortress 2 or DOTA2 take it to the next level by introducing real people to the mix. You are no longer a lone warrior, you are now part of a combat tribe, a useful and valued member with a job to do and a responsibility to your team mates.
These multiplayer hero games speak directly to a man’s deep and primal male urge to be a useful member of a battle group. This can lead down a dangerous path.
In one case I vividly remember, a university friend of mine had previously been a valued member of his school’s rowing team, a position that came with some prestige. Now at university, he stopped rowing and became more and more obsessively involved with one particular MMORPG.
He started skipping classes, then eventually stopped attending them altogether. Over the course of many months he retreated further into the game, to the point where he would be spending almost all of his waking hours playing it. Slumped in his chair, headset on and face illuminated by the ghostly light of the screen, he would snarl angrily at anybody who dared to intrude on his dark cave. His diet consisted of cheap pizza and ready meals and his once taut and muscular body gradually decayed into a pale, flabby and overweight lump.
As his friends we were worried about his developing addiction but every time we brought it up we were met with anger and hostility. At the time I didn’t understand why, but now the explanation is obvious.
My friend had a desperate need to be recognised as a hero. In his school he channelled this into rowing, becoming a valuable member of the team. As a member of the rowing team he was someone with a purpose. He enjoyed team camaraderie and the respect of his peers. He could be proud of his contribution to the team. After that outlet disappeared, he was searching for meaning. He was looking for another battle group to define himself in, and he found it satisfied in this particular MMO.
In the context of the game, this man was a hero. He had an important role to fulfil amongst his team mates. He felt valued and respected. He delegated attack sorties. He had a clear mission. He was high level and high competence.
Ironically the better he got in the game, the worse he got in real life. In real life he was an out of shape loser with no girlfriend and little respect from his male peers. This led to a destructive cycle of being unwilling to face real life because it was so unpleasant, and instead seeking more and more meaning and fulfilment from the game.
He did eventually quit cold turkey and make a full recovery, but not before he had pissed away thousands of hours of his life in a fantasy world while his real life crumbled around him. The road to recovery was difficult and many men never make it out of that hole.
Make no mistake, video games can be as addictive as any drug, if not more so. They are dangerous because they take a man’s natural desire to be a hero and subvert it for the benefit of the company selling the game.
I used to spend a lot of hours playing video games in my youth. After I saw what happened to my housemate, I realised their destructive power, so I decided to stop playing and never looked back. I’ll never know what I could have achieved had I sunk my teenage energies into guitar or the martial arts instead of into video games. Those past hours are time I’ll never get back, but I can certainly choose how I spend my time in the future and that will be on reality, not a fantasy world.
I could never start playing video games again because I’ve experienced too much of the real world. Now they seem flat and boring – I see them for what they are, a delightful illusion but nothing more. There’s no real substance to it.
The siren song of the video game world is only likely to become worse as consoles and graphics improve, and especially with the advent of VR making games ever more realistic.
The solution I believe is to force young men to get out of their minds and into their bodies. The martial arts offer an exceptional outlet that fosters discipline, work ethic and also meets the male need to be part of a close knit male group.
Once you have been exposed to the excitement of fighting for real, video games pale and lose their lustre.
Personally, I can no longer take any enjoyment from video games. For a game to be exciting, it must contain an element of real risk. There is risk involved in video games (your character can die) but it is fake risk. You get to start over.
In addition, you never feel the joy of getting out of your mind into your body. There’s no physicality involved at all since you are simply sitting like a potato on the sofa.
I believe that men need some risk to feel truly alive. Without it you will stagnate and feel a growing sense of malaise and dissatisfaction with life in general.
Real excitement comes from activities and games that contain a real risk of serious bodily harm. If you already have a physically dangerous job you might not want to introduce even more risk and danger in your hobbies, so for men who work on an oil rig video games are probably quite relaxing and satisfying.
Many men however (and I am in this camp) have relatively safe office jobs.
Speaking for myself, I’ve been exposed to enough excitement over the course of my life that if I don’t meet this need for risk in my hobbies outside of work, it will build up like water in a dam and eventually overflow into my professional life, which will most likely lead to me taking rash decisions and becoming generally reckless in order to create more chaos, which can be harmful.
To avoid this outcome, I choose instead to get my risk quota from pastimes such as motorcycle riding and the martial arts. I can channel my need for risk and physical danger into these activities, which gives me the freedom and desire to calmly focus on moving towards my professional goals over the long haul.