"Everything has an impact."
After chewing my nails over the question of whether or not videogames are a positive force in my life for so long, I was taken aback by the simple answer offered by my Buddhism teacher. Not just because the most pressing question I had in that moment was handled easily in those four words, but that she offered them with a verbal flip of the hand, like I'd just asked if picking flowers was OK. Venerable Robina didn't mince words, and she didn't seem too impressed with my personal quandary.
I look back on that moment in time with a bit of embarrassment. Six days of intensive meditation and learning about Buddhism in McLeod Gange (the current residence of the Dalai Lama) had lead me to my teacher's temporary residence. Venerable Robina is an Australian woman who directs a program that brings Buddhism to prison inmates across North America. She teaches all over the world. Hunkered down in her cozy study trying to fix her ailing Apple laptop, I was fumbling after spending so much time away from technology. I don't even really know anything about Macs, but that's not why I had raised my hand when the open call for a computer nerd was made. Using the excuse of fixing her laptop to ask some private questions, I immediately jumped to videogames. The big questions like "Do I have to be a Buddhist?" and "Is it ok to kill an ant?" were asked often in the classes, so something specific to my experience seemed like a good way to go.
"I guess I worry that exposing my mind to all this violence in games might be holding me back in ways I don't realize," I said, hoping I could draw her out. She wasn't biting. "Everything has an impact, it's up to you to decide if something is worthwhile."
There was nowhere to go from that point, because she was completely right. It doesn't matter what your experience is, everything you take in will have some effect on your state of mind. Your state of mind informs your actions, which are very much subject to Karma from a Buddhist point of view. To put it another way, we could say that drinking too much booze is bad, but what we mean is that it hurts the body and leaves you vulnerable to making destructive choices.
I don't like to think too much about the violent games I enjoy because I worry that they engender a state of mind unsuited for peace. I'd be lying if I said playing Assassin's Creed didn't leave me walking around town and imagining creative ways to shank people in crowds. Or lying in bed at night and imagining what I'd do if I found someone had broken into my house. In my daydream, I tend to have a gun in my hand and depending on what games I've been playing, I'm either sweeping through the house like a Navy Seal or sideways diving off my staircase. In reality, I'd likely be hiding under the bed, clutching a baseball bat and whimpering.
The question of how our hobbies play into our overall experience of life is a big one, but it's also deeply personal. I have to step back occasionally and decide if the things I spend my time and energy on are beneficial to my life. It seems easy to conclude that gaming is a big waste of time, and I'll admit that sitting in this small room with a Buddhist teacher on the other side of the world, I was leaning in that direction. But what was interesting about Venerable Robina's answer is not so much what she said, but that she reacted as if it wasn't even worth discussing.
As I mulled this thought over, I noticed a stack of magazines on her table: US, People and Entertainment Weekly. These same magazines that I hold in absolute disdain. In class, Venerable Robina would occasionally dredge up a movie-star anecdotes to make a point -- to give as many people in the room as possible a point of reference. She enjoyed describing J-Lo's quest for love and how Marc Anthony waited for her as she jumped from man to man. She didn't look to these magazines for reasons to feel bad about her lifestyle or body image, she read them as a study of the human condition. A tool.
If magazines that have absolutely no value in my life can have a positive impact on a Buddhist nun, maybe there's hope for games after all. Venerable Robina reads the same thing everyone else does, but she's coming out the other side with a completely different experience. The same must hold for gaming. The blood, the shooting and the screams don't speak well of the activity, but that's not the problem. The sounds and visuals striking my brain aren't the problem either. The truth is, there is no problem.
- Shawn Andrich