Video Gamers at the End of History

by Jared Gardner Jared Gardner is Associate Professor of English and Film at Ohio State University, where he also directs the Popular Culture Studies program. Like all Brooklynites growing up in the 1970s, it seems, he is obsessed with comics, requiring him to contribute regularly to The Comics Journal. He also serves as geek-in-chief of guttergeek: the discontinuous review of graphic narrative ( 30.08.2009

Every year or so, the video game industry releases its latest demographics on its audience. And every year the big news is that the video game player is growing older (this year's result: 35). This is good news for the video game industry, which conveniently sponsors the study, eager for an older and richer consumer. However, the industry will be much less happy with the results of a recent study from the Center for Disease Control. It turns out that video gamers are not only growing older, but they are also, as MSNBC glossed the findings, "fat and bummed." U. S. News and World Report put it a bit more diplomatically: video game players "are 35-year-old adults, many of whom are overweight, socially introverted and possibly depressed." The findings, to be published in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine but trumpeted widely to the media this month, were greeted with dismay by overweight, bummed-out video gamers across the country. As if these folks need any more reasons to lock themselves away with a family-size bag of Fritos and Ghost Busters: The Video Game.

There are of course good reasons to question the study's findings. For one thing, the sample was exclusively drawn from western Washington state, where "fat" and "bummed" figure as key terms in many personal ads and promotional brochures. And, of course, the difference between the percentage of depressives and plus-sizers among the video game population in the study's pool doesn't exactly blow out of the water the numbers found in the general population.

Still, unlike most of my fellow video gamers, I am inclined to accept the study's findings. Taking my own highly scientific survey of my immediate cluster of video gaming family members, I come up with an average age of 34.8, about 60% of whom are at least moderately overweight and 80% of whom are pretty well off their rockers (although scoring higher in the study's "neuroticism" and "psychoticism" demographics than we do with "depression"--but with .2 years still to go, there is still a chance we will make it). But I, for one, take a certain degree of pride in these findings. After all, there is a long tradition in this country of chubby, mentally-ill pioneers in narrative media extending back over two centuries, and I am delighted to learn that I am a part of that history.

New narrative media have long posed an attraction for a certain type, it seems. A little more than two centuries ago, the new kid on the narrative media block was the novel, which had the disastrous capability of transporting its readers to far-off lands and inflaming imaginations with passionate thoughts. Almost immediately, the phenomenon sparked widespread concerns and studies of the "effects of novel reading" and especially for the growing number of addicts. These readers were prone to become disconnected from reality, isolated, and ultimately lonely old maids or tobacco-stained bachelors.

A century later, when film was new and novels had gone legit, anxious scholars examined "the physiological and psychological effect of habitual attendance at the movies." Here's one from 1921:

American movie fans are constantly stimulated artificially. Their tear ducts and adrenal glands are overtaxed. They are emotionally sapped night after night before unreal circumstances. This means that their capacity for reacting emotionally in real life is reduced. The tendency is toward emotional insanity, a complete inability to feel any emotion which is not artificially stimulated.

And so, we fast-forward a century and discover that once again our addiction to the new narrative media of video games is making us physiologically and psychologically damaged goods, old toothless crones whose best hope is that when we die alone, as surely we must, the neighbors will find our body before the dogs.

But once we are all gone--all the novel readers, film junkies, and compulsive gamers--once our gene pool has been scourged from the earth, who will be left? Given that we are clearly heading toward extinction, maybe it is time the CDC and others began studying the mental and physical health of those who have never been tempted to immerse themselves in "artificial" worlds, whose "tear ducts and adrenal glands" have remained blissfully dormant. Fit, trim, rational folks--presumably the kind of people who can see the world in a way the rest of us are too fat and bummed to see.

Looking back in history for examples, we could point to Thomas Jefferson, whose dislike of novels helped him maintain the mental clarity necessary to enslave the mother of his children (and, of course, the children themselves) and to defend the French Revolution even after the Reign of Terror. Or in our own day, we could look to Senator Joseph Lieberman, who has made a career out of bemoaning the effects of video games on our society, even as he has demonstrated his "independent thinking" by being one of the Senate's most stalwart defenders of the invasion of Iraq as a meaningful and logical response to the attacks of 9/11.

Like the authors of the CDC study I want to offer a caveat: I am not saying that the failure to play video games, read novels, or go to the movies will turn you into a self-justifying hypocrite, war monger or slave owner. Further research is obviously called for. However, to quote from the CDC study, "the data reveal important patterns ... for future research." In the meantime, I am off to fire up my X-Box. The thought of the world I will be leaving behind has left me bummed. And hungry.

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