The Needles

Step Away From The Controller


President Barack Obama has been enjoying an extended honeymoon with voters. With no major gaffes in his first six months in office and the world, crumbled economy notwithstanding, maintaining a stable if somewhat tense holding pattern, there’s been little reason for voters to begin questioning their pick for the nation’s top banana. For gamers, however, the bloom may be coming off the rose.

The problem is that despite being anointed the “first nerd president” by John Hodgman (and if you haven’t seen his address at the 2009 Radio and TV Correspondents’ Dinner, I urge you to do so at the earliest opportunity), Obama has alienated himself from the gamer crowd by repeatedly suggesting that too much button-mashing is making the kids these days fat, lazy and stupid.

He has urged children to put down the controllers. He has asked parents to switch off the Xboxes. “Turn off the television set, and put the videogames away,” he said, “and instill a sense of excellence in our children.” The rhetoric isn’t new; Obama has been equating videogaming with a culture of underachievement since well before he was elected President. But his comments understandably attract a little more attention now that he’s the big dog and some gamers aren’t overly happy about it.

All very predictable. But lost amid that reflexive anger over the President’s decidedly un-nerd-like stance is this: He’s completely right.

Oh, now, don’t give me that look. I’m one of you, after all, a gamer to the core. I defend the medium wherever and whenever necessary. I believe that games aren’t just entertainment, they’re a uniquely immersive form of creative expression. I think that Planescape: Torment should be taught in schools, and I could probably still manually set a sound card IRQ and DMA if I had to. None of which changes the fact that I wholeheartedly agree with Obama: It really wouldn’t kill people to get off their asses once in awhile and do something else.

I think a lot of the upset stems from a perception that the man is on an anti-gaming crusade. But at no point has he said that we should gather up our consoles and PCs and take them to the town square to be piled up and burned. He’s not saying that games turn children into thick-headed maroons, or that they’re the tool of the Devil. He’s not claiming that gaming and a happy, successful, productive life are incompatible. He’s just saying that we could stand to ease off a bit. What’s so offensive about that?

It’s very important to recognize that this isn’t really a gaming issue at all, but rather an entertainment issue. When I was a kid, my parents fretted over the hours I spent watching television; a few years later and videogames are the bugaboo of choice but it’s really just the evolution of a long-standing concern over our penchant for self-hypnosis. We’re not fighting gaming, we’re fighting an obsession with non-stop, on-demand entertainment: Hundreds of television channels, thousands of songs in your pocket, DVD players in cars and, yes, a near-limitless variety of videogames that becomes more easily accessible with each passing month. Our insatiable demand for easy entertainment is nothing new and the game console is just the latest and most visible manifestation of a habit that’s been growing for decades.


The Entertainment Consumers Association is making noise about Obama’s remarks; the consumers group wants its members to take part in an email campaign to tell the President about “some of the ways that video games can empower and educate, as well as build teamwork and make people healthier.” It sounds perfectly reasonable. It’s also a completely wrong approach. Sure, there are games like Wii Fit and Dance Dance Revolution that encourage or require some kind of physical activity, but they’re by far the exception, not the rule. Countering the argument that gaming turns people into mush-brained fatties by claiming that it’s actually an inherently healthy activity does nothing but make it look like we’ve got something to hide. It’s deceptive.

We’re not going to untangle a deeply-rooted cultural malaise with a revival of “just say no,” but the industry would be well advised to change its current course and embrace the President’s message. Instead of fighting for our reputations as twitchy, pasty-faced obsessives with iron thumbs and stunted social skills, we should take the opportunity to encourage responsible gaming among parents and children alike. Not because the President told us to, but out of enlightened self-interest; it’s great PR, provides a solid talking point about how the game industry is yet again ahead of other entertainment media and further encourages the acceptance and growth of the gamer demographic, which ultimately translates into more people putting more money into the industry’s pockets.

Videogames are fantastic but, like most things in life, moderation is key. So take a break now and then, and do something else. Read a book, or pick up an instrument, or take a cooking course, or learn how to talk to girls. If you have kids, instill in them a healthy love of gaming but also a healthy love of good books, beautiful sunsets and the elegance of high-level mathematics. Teach them to swim or send them to a movie. Make sure they do their homework. Help them with it, unless you’re just going to make things worse. If nothing else, tell them to put the damn controller down and go outside to play.

Fresh air and sunshine. It’s really not as bad as it sounds.

Andy Chalk spent last weekend sleeping in a tent on the shores of Lake Erie, and it was awesome.

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