Choose Life?

the problem with video games is that reality sucks

This rant is going to meander a bit. Either go with it, or go read something else. I won’t mind either way.

But I suggest putting on some Black Sabbath to set the tone.

Well, people look and people stare
Well, I don’t think that I even care
You work your life away and what do they give?
You’re only killing yourself to live

thumbnail for "Killing Yourself to Live" by Black Sabbath on YouTube
YouTube: "Killing Yourself to Live" by Black Sabbath

Sometimes, when I’m the crapper and truly bored, I sometimes read articles by professional scolds lamenting the appeal of video games to young men. When I was in my teens and twenties, it was a moral panic. Apparently video games would turn me into a mass murderer or a terrorist. I’m still not convinced this is the case, but I find it telling that when I see some gamer spouting authoritarian or reactionary bullshit they tend to be fans of militaristic shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield.

But after Jack Thompson got disbarred in 2008 and Joe Lieberman stepped down after four terms in the US Senate in 2011, the moral panic over violence in video games died down a little.

Instead, a couple of new trends have taken their place.

  1. Feminist criticism of games (and gamers) as hostile to women.
  2. Economists suggesting that young men are choosing games over work.

I’m not interested in the former; it merely bears mentioning. I might address it in another post.

What interests me is economists and the like suggesting that young men are choosing video games over work. One example that I found recently was a 2017 article in The Economist’s 1843 Magazine: “Escape to Another World”.

Since their earliest days video games have had their critics. Like countless others, I was told to turn off that brain-rotting device and get outside before I ruined my eyes and wits. At various times games have been blamed for contributing to obesity, to violence (including mass shootings), and to misogynistic behaviour – with young men often thought the most at-risk demographic.

Since those days when I would try to sneak in an extra half-hour of forbidden thrill, games have got immeasurably better. They are often beautiful, narratively interesting, enriching and social. Indeed, it is possible that they are too good. Today’s games seem to be displacing careers, friendships and families, and thus stopping young people (particularly men) from starting real, adult lives.

Over the last 15 years there has been a steady and disconcerting leak of young people away from the labour force in America. Between 2000 and 2015, the employment rate for men in their 20s without a college education dropped ten percentage points, from 82% to 72%. In 2015, remarkably, 22% of men in this group – a cohort of people in the most consequential years of their working lives – reported to surveyors that they had not worked at all in the prior 12 months. That was in 2015: when the unemployment rate nationwide fell to 5%, and the American economy added 2.7m new jobs. Back in 2000, less than 10% of such men were in similar circumstances.

First, it reminds me of that monologue from Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. If you’ve seen the 1996 movie staring Ewan McGregor then you probably know which one I mean.

thumbnail for Trainspotting: "Choose Life" on YouTube
YouTube: Trainspotting: "Choose Life"

Hell, you might be able to quote it from memory. If not, here it is:

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?

Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh

Substutite “video games” for “heroin” and you have the situation of a shitload of men in their twenties and thirties, men who have yet to start “real lives” in the “real world” of totalitarian capitalism, decades of student debt, precarious employment, bullshit jobs, environmental collapse, and a fucking plague.

Sure, there used to be jobs available for those who wanted them, at least before COVID-19 and incompetent political leaders conspired to precipitate an economic implosion that probably would have happened anyway once the baby boomers started retiring (and dying) en masse. The problem was: who wanted these jobs? They were mostly part-time service-sector jobs that paid a buck or two over minimum wage if you were lucky, and don’t even ask about health insurance.

In other words, they were what Generation X kids like me would have called McJobs. What we didn’t know at the time (but many of us were smart enough to suspect it), was that McJobs were the future.

As an aside, I once saw a thirtysomething woman with whom I had done time in high school working at a McDonalds at JFK Airport. My wife and I had stopped there after getting our UFIAs from the TSA to get something to eat before departing for Paris.

The woman I saw had intended to go to SUNY, study English, and become a novelist. Every time I heard her issue the ungrammatical cry of, “I can help who’s next”, I could see the hatred in her eyes burn a little brighter.

Hatred for herself.
Hatred for the customers before her.
Hatred for the workers beside her.
Hatred for the management above her.
Hatred for the world so strong it might outlive her and take on its own tenebrous life.

That is the sort of job young men are supposed to accept, working two or three if that’s what it takes to “make something of themselves”. At least, that’s what young men in my generation were told: we should accept any job we can get, no matter how shitty, and bust our asses for a shot at something better. Not the promise of something better, or a guarantee, but just a mere fleeting chance.

For most workers, that chance will never, ever come. The United States will become an Islamic republic before the average American worker ever becomes a millionaire or gets to be one of the exploiters instead of the exploited.

Most young men know it. To them, the choices before them are as follows.

  1. Do what you’re told, spend your adult life busting your hump for 40+ hours a week to make rich assholes richer, and have next to nothing in terms of either material wealth or memorable experiences to show for it.

  2. Do what you please, spend your adult life playing video games, doing art, traveling, and sponging off friends and family when part-time work isn’t available, and have a life rich in experiences if not in cash and property.

The latter choice makes more sense the more you know about how irredeemably fucked late-state capitalism actually is. Get this: both Ayn Rand and Karl Marx are right. The looters are in charge, and the people who actually do necessary work and make necessary things are getting shafted on the daily.

If you’re not redpilled about capitalism and work yet, then you probably haven’t heard of “bullshit jobs”.

Here’s the thing: most mainstream economics people, especially the people who write for publications like The Economist, are of the view that underemployment is bad, unemployment is even worse, and that young men (and women who didn’t have the sense to be born rich or marry rich) should take any job they can get, be grateful for it, and kiss ass until their lips are chapped so they can pay off their student loans, buy a house, get married, have 2.2 kids, et cetera and ad nauseum.

This isn’t a life. It’s a life sentence.

Men have been told they should want this, that they aren’t real men if they want something better, and that the measure of a man is his paycheck and the regularity with which it gets directly deposited into his bank account. However, if the laments of professional scolds worked up about young men playing video games instead of working are any indication then this is not the sort of life a lot of young men want.

Why should they even want such a life? Just because they were told to want it? If the purpose of your life is to slave away so some rich asshole can get even richer, why choose life? Why not choose something else?

Karl Marx once wrote that religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. I can’t help but suspect that he might have said the same about video games if he were alive today.

One could argue that video games are preventing an epidemic of suicides among young men, or an even greater epidemic of violence. If you think the frequency of atrocities by right-wing nutjobs and incels was bad before COVID-19, just imagine how much worse it could get — especially when the alt-reich continues to recruit alienated young men into an army of internet brownshirts.

This is something that a 2017 article in the Koch Foundation-funded right-wing publication Reason points out. However, it also points out a much more troubling trend.

Video games, like work, are basically a series of quests comprised of mundane and repetitive tasks: Receive an assignment, travel to a location, overcome some obstacles, perform some sort of search, pick up an item, and then deliver it in exchange for a reward—and, usually, another quest, which starts the cycle all over again. You are not playing the game so much as following its orders. The game is your boss; to succeed, you have to do what it says.

If you look at them the wrong way (or perhaps the right way?) video games are nothing but power fantasies training their players for the future of work. You pay for the privilege of being set a series of repetitive, pointless tasks that you might not otherwise choose to do because performing these tasks allows you access to an illusion of purpose.

Why be you when you can temporarily become one of hundreds of other archetypical protagonists, each an aspect of Michael Moorcock’s eternal champion tasked with setting right a world out of balance?

After all, the world you live in is already severely imbalanced, tipping inexorably toward the tyranny of corrupt and deranged Law, and there’s fuck-all you can do about it on your own. Setting the right the wrongs of the real world requires working with others, facing your own shadows, and doing what you can to heal the wounds your ancestors inflicted as they themselves were wounded.

Why work to heal a broken world when you can try to escape it instead? That’s the decision lots of young men are making. They’ve decided that the world they live in isn’t worth the effort. The society of which they’re part has nothing to offer them but meaningless struggle with no guarantee of reward.

So they’re opting out. The alternative, banding together to tear down the whole rotten edifice of late-stage capitalism, is too much like work and the one thing they hate most is being reminded of the world they’re trying to ignore. Why do you think so many gamers bristle at the slightest hint of politics interfering with their power fantasies?

They don’t want to be reminded of this world. In the absence of secular monasteries, they’ve found another way out.

Yeah, I’ve left the world behind
I am safe here in my mind
I’m free to speak with my own kind
This is my life, this is my life, I’ll decide not you
Keep the world with all its sin
It’s not fit for living in

thumbnail for "Beyond the Realms of Death" (live) by Judas Priest on YouTube
YouTube: "Beyond the Realms of Death" (live) by Judas Priest

And until we make the world fit for living in, young men are going to look for ways out. Video games aren’t the problem. They’re a symptom.

about the author

photo of a pale, blue-eyed man in a black coat with long brown hair outdoors in the winter

writes science fantasy inspired by heavy metal and has a day job as a software developer. He is currently writing a new novel called Spiral Architect. He'll use your pronouns, but doesn't care which ones you use with him. You can reach him at