Of Virtue And Adversity: A Stoic Perspective On Video Gaming
A reflection on video games as a means for developing excellence and managing negative emotions.
According to a recent study the average American “now spends more time playing games than volunteering, going to social events or going to church.”
Yet despite its ubiquity gaming is one of the more divisive topics of our times. On the one hand there’s a quiet consensus that it’s a waste of time, a “guilty pleasure” at best, on the other hand the games industry has reached an all time peak, with a revenue of nearly $140 billion dollars.¹
We’ve come a long way from the age of Frogger and Space Invaders, when gaming was something that took place in half-lit arcades or in front of flickering TV sets. Back when it was easy to shrug off as just a teenage fad.
Today people from all walks of life are playing everywhere: on their phones, computers, tablets, in airplane lounges and subways. Modern gaming is always-on, always connected, linking players from different timezones in a never-ending stream of matches and challenges.
Meanwhile eSports events are filling stadiums where professional gamers compete in high stake competitions. A few years ago the United States even started recognizing eSport gamers as professional athletes.²
In short, gaming has become much too big to ignore. But in comparison to the amount of time we spend gaming, the discussion around it is still surprisingly dull and predictable.
Casual phone games, MMORPGs, first-person shooters, gambling and even board games are all lumped together in a discourse whose dominant voices all too often have very little actual experience in what they’re talking about.
In the following article I’d like to share some ways how we might open up these stale talks by cognitively reframing the meaning of video games through the looking glass of ancient philosophy.
The Default Setting: Death & Dismay
Whenever there’s a shooting perpetrated by young Westerners, the talking heads and self-appointed guardians of morality are swift to point to video games as both explanation and scapegoat. It has become a frustrating cliché. Video games turn people into killer machines. We get it. And yet, we don’t.
In some ways this is a purely generational issue. I was born in the 80s, and my generation has grown up with video games. It’s not something frivolous or outlandish to us. It’s an activity as normal as chess or Tennis.
Now we have grown up. We’ve become teachers, engineers, parents and publishers. And we still game. It’s just part of our DNA. So how is it possible that a whole generation of gamers could become functioning members of society if this activity is at its heart supposed to be detrimental to our character and moral development?
Is there perhaps more to video gaming than these endless fruitless talks which are framed only in terms of violence and addiction?
Who would be better to consult in these manners than Lucius Annaeus Seneca (~1BC–65AD), the Roman Stoic and author of many treatises on excellence of character and so called “moral letters”.
Now Playing: Pleasure vs. Virtue
The Colosseum of Rome was a veritable Palace of Death, holding at least 50,000 spectators that would revel in (often fatal) chariot races, “wild beast hunts”, gory gladiator battles and public executions.
Although the Colosseum itself was only opened about 15 years after Seneca’s death, these types of extremely brutal “games” (Ludi in Latin) were commonplace all throughout Roman history, and Seneca writes³:
“[N]othing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games; for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure.”
In order to understand this remark, which does sound pretty damning, we have to unpack the philosophy on whose background he speaks.
For the Stoics virtue was the only good. Unlike other schools of philosophy who also considered virtue a high or even the highest good the Stoics claimed, often to the critique of their contemporaries, that it’s the only one.
But what is virtue? The word sounds so self-important. Originally the Greek word arete meant excellence. In that sense we could talk about what makes a horse excellent, or a house, or a car — and there are various answers, depending on each subject. But what makes a human being excellent?
The ancient Greeks (not just the Stoics) were generally (with some exceptions and alterations) speaking about four different virtues: wisdom, moderation, justice and courage.
So why does Seneca reject “lounging at the games”? Because pleasure is not a virtue. In other words, it’s not even the sheer violence that makes participating in the games so damning but rather their hedonistic nature!
In a broader sense the quote above isn’t even about games per se but discourages any activity that is solely done for pleasure. Needless to say that Seneca would not approve of many things we call “entertainment” these days.
As much as this may seem rigid to us, this distinction of pleasure vs. virtue provides us with a new way to approach the world of video games.
Now we could ask: are you gaming only for pleasure or with the intent of attaining human excellence? Is the latter even possible? And if yes, how?
And just to be fair, Seneca wasn’t a complete killjoy either, and since moderation was after all a virtue, he admits in On Anger, Book II, XX:
“Games also will be useful: for moderate pleasure relieves the mind and brings it to a proper balance”
The Game Of Life Is Hard To Play, …
Epictetus (55–135 AD), another Roman Stoic and former slave, also talks about games, though from a slightly different perspective, in Encheiridion 51:
“And if you meet anything that is laborious, or sweet, or held in high repute, or in no repute, remember that now is the contest, and here before you are the Olympic games, and that it is impossible to delay any longer, and that it depends on a single day and a single action, whether progress is lost or saved.”
He uses the Olympic games here as a metaphor for the struggle of attaining virtue in the face of adversity. No matter what happens we should always look at life like a high stake contest, an epic game in which we either get to triumph over our own weaknesses or fall prey to our baser instincts.
Put differently, he takes a sportsmanlike attitude to character development which is echoed in other parts of his teachings, when he compares the student engaging in practical philosophy to an athlete that has to submit himself to rigorous training and special diets. The adept should carefully consider all these requirements before trying to dabble in this great Olympic Game of Life:
You must conform to rules, submit to a diet, refrain from dainties; exercise your body, whether you choose it or not, at a stated hour, in heat and cold; you must drink no cold water, nor sometimes even wine. In a word, you must give yourself up to your master, as to a physician. Then, in the combat, you may be thrown into a ditch, dislocate your arm, turn your ankle, swallow dust, be whipped, and, after all, lose the victory. When you have evaluated all this, if your inclination still holds, then go to war — Echeiridion 29
Can video games perhaps be understood similarly, even if you’re not a professional eSports athlete? As a means of rigorous training, a way to practice skills and remaining calm and make the right decisions under pressure?
Embracing Virtual Adversity
Many of us, at least in the West, live relatively wealthy lives. We aren’t exposed to war, death and destruction on a daily basis, except perhaps in jobs in law enforcement, the military or medicine.
The rest of us live rather comfortable lives, at least when compared to many other places on the planet. We generally don’t have to struggle to get our basic needs met, or clinging on to mere survival.
But strangely enough this doesn’t mean that we’re happy, either. Millennials are already considered one of the most anxious generations. Between 2007 and 2012 anxiety disorders in children and teens in the US went up by a whopping 20%.⁴
The pressure of social media and an uncertain future are often cited as reasons for this rise in mental health issues. Compulsive habits of Instagram-obsessions, binge-streaming or -gaming as a coping strategy to avoid the underlying issues are exacerbating anxieties and unhealthy emotions.
But can moderate use of video games be helpful as a tool for coping with life and managing difficult emotions?
Following the Stoic line of thinking from above: since virtue is the only good, everything else (wealth, health, family, etc.) is considered “indifferent”, not in the sense of being unimportant (!) but in having no direct causal relation to our contentment. For example the Stoics believed that a person can live a fulfilled, i.e. excellent life even if she doesn’t have wealth, health, family, etc. Vice versa, you could have all of these and still be miserable.
In that sense video games aren’t intrinsically good or bad either. If we game in moderation to exercise quick thinking under pressure, training courage in situations of simulated adversity, learning how to work together as a team to overcome obstacles and generally conduct ourselves in a respectable way with other players, we may even greatly benefit from these activities.
Developing Skills And Managing Emotions
In his talk “How to Be a Stoic When You Don’t Know How” Chuck Chakrapani distills the four Stoic virtues (“four special skills”) as questions which all could be easily applied and trained in a context of gaming:
- “What to do and what not to do?” (wisdom)
- “Whose is this, whose is this not?” (justice)
- “What to select and what not to select?” (moderation)
- “What to be afraid of not what not to be afraid of?” (courage)
Adam Lobel in his thesis “The Relation Between Gaming and the Development of Emotion Regulation Skills” which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the dynamics of emotions and gaming, states in his closing remarks:
[V]ideo games may offer a social context for emotion regulation. Gaming may bring peers together and allow them to work through negative emotions such as loss and jealousy. Another such avenue is more internal: video games may offer a psycho-physiological context for emotion regulation. Gaming may bring people better in touch with the physiological processes underlying emotion and emotion regulation.”
While we still have too few of these types of studies, psychology has begun to understand the overall importance of play for our cognitive and emotional development and recognizes a wide array of benefits, from better memory to cognitive boost and even longer life.⁵
“ In the simulated explosions and aggressions of play, we get to explore and experiment with feelings. It is one of the few times we are in charge of circumstances. We have much more autonomy than usual, and exchange habit and boredom for novelty and the exercise of our own competencies.” — The Power of Play, Psychology Today
Whether it’s children engaging in “playing house”, patients in couple therapy enacting theif partner’s position through roleplaying, questions such as “What would Keanu do?” when faced with a difficult decision, all of these help us gain perspective by slipping out of our own and into someone else’s shoes.
So who do you need to be today? Whose perspective would benefit you most? A hardened soldier that saves the world with wit and quick reflexes, a professional league baller, a wizard master of arcane arts, a wise general plotting complex maneuvers, a freight truck driver, miner, architect, city-planner, spaceship pilot, race car driver, or even a simple farmer?
Video games can make us slip easily into all of these (and more) different roles and — if we pay attention and not just play for idle pleasure — help us deal with difficult emotions and gain new insight, even when the screen shuts off and we’re our regular old self again.
 Moral letters to Lucilius/Letter 7
 “The Power of Play”. Psychology Today.