I got my first video game console when I was seven as a reward for some pretty exemplary school performance that culminated in my parents proudly displaying a cardboard box close to overflowing with cables, controllers, game cartridges and Nintendo’s iconic gray and black box. They’d somehow managed to snag all of it for $75 and while I imagined my dad, a Navy man stationed on Camp Pendleton, browbeating and verbally assaulting the former owners into offering such a marvelous price, odds are they simply didn’t know what it was worth.
Granted, these were the days before the internet and GameStop but a fully functioning NES in its heyday with two controllers, The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros., Metroid, and Gyromite including R.O.B., could and should have gone for a lot more, although I’m glad that it didn’t.
Before long, I was obsessed. I memorized maps, I remembered enemy patterns, I bombed every square inch of Hyrule and Zebes, stomped on every goomba in the Mushroom Kingdom, scoured every corner, and hunted down every last hidden room and secret item. However, the reality of my situation was that I was stuck with the games currently in my possession without a way nor means to fuel my obsession. Borrowing and renting games were options but not very consistent or convenient ones and trading games was a thing of the distant future.
As a result, my obsession cooled into something more akin to passion which was far healthier and much more manageable. As time passed and I learned about the wonders of washing cars and mowing lawns for money, I was able to fund myself with a SNES and, four years later various fast food jobs provided an N64.
This pattern has continued to the present day where my Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 can attest that I’m as much of a gamer as I’ve ever been. Over the years, video games have been a constant in my life: nursing me through the flu, comforting me after a break up, or just providing an escape from reality for a few enjoyable hours.
And then I recently discovered that my beautiful wife doesn’t really like video games. Not really at all, actually. Something like hate is probably closer to the mark.
I mean, sure, every once in a while we’d fight about video games but not very frequently or furiously. She would joke about throwing my stuff away while I was at work, I would mock-threaten divorce and we’d go about our lives. Typical, you say. End of story, right? Well, maybe not.
So what’s a game-loving guy to do? The easy answer is that I sell the games on Craigslist and I stop worrying about saving digital princesses, focusing all of my energy on my relationship with my wife instead. But that’s not really a very good answer. It sounds great on paper but everybody needs hobbies and alone time. I don’t know a single couple that spends every minute of every hour together and those that do tend to be the kind of people that get divorced over one of them stubbing their toe.
My defensive and argumentative side kicked in long enough for me to wonder why I had to do anything at all. I didn’t and don’t begrudge her the things that she likes that I don’t. I’m not asking her to give up Project Runway or Twilight. Granted, she doesn’t actually watch anything alone all that often and Twilight stuff takes up about ten hours and $10 annually, but still. It’s the principle of the thing, isn’t it? This is about the point where I realized how asinine this line of thinking was and abandoned it.
But while this could become a real and uncomfortable problem, there had to be some kind of middle-of-the-road solution. Love me or hate me for it, I’m an American and if any group of people collectively believe that you truly can have it all, it’s Americans. So, I repeat, what’s a game-loving guy to do?
Well, I decided to ask the experts. After all, I couldn’t possibly have the only relationship in the world struggling with this issue. So I did a little research, made some calls and very easily found a few people that were eager, almost excited, to help. Each of them approached the problem differently and, while a lot of their advice is common sense, some of it may surprise you.
Ready to dive into your psyche? I know I am. So with no further ado and, as with everything in else in life, ladies first!
Why she hates it:
According to Dr. Mark Burton, many wives and girlfriends find games threatening because they take time away from the relationship.
“Typically it is the wife who finds the gaming behavior damaging to the relationship. I think this is so because in our culture we raise women to be more focused on relationships and men to be more focused on tasks. In extreme cases the video game becomes the ‘mistress’, with the husband spending time, money, and staying up late to interact with the game.”
Approaching the problem from a different angle, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and relationship expert Julie Hanks says that fights about games are commonly based around the fear that games matter more to you than your significant other.
“Playing video games frequently annoys a spouse or partner for reasons that might surprise you! It’s not because they want to control you and tell you how to spend your time, but because they feel disconnected from you, and they want more time with you. Although it’s usually expressed as a complaint or a criticism like, ‘Are you still playing that stupid game?’ the complaint is actually a veiled plea for closeness and for reassurance that she still matters to you. Even though the fights might be about the topic of ‘games,’ that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that your partner is scared that you’re not there for her or that she may not matter to you.”
On a separate note, Dr. Steven Jones counsels that intense game playing can lead the gamer’s partner to question their worth as a participant in the relationship.
“Video games have a way of fully involving the participant and when they are so engrossed they seem as if they could not care about anything else in the world. The feeling that World of Warcraft (or any popular game) is more important than a wife can cause any woman to feel inadequate and unappreciated.”
Like any other issue, the road to resolution is dependent upon understanding the other side. Except for the total jerks among our ranks (trust me, there’s a few) I doubt any of us are intentionally trying to hurt our partners’ feelings or make them feel unappreciated, undervalued, inadequate or isolated. But intentionally or not, sometimes that’s what happens. So how do you fix it? Well, first you have to understand why you do it in the first place.
Why you do it:
“MRI studies done on both men and women during gaming sessions have revealed that the pleasure centers in the brains of men are more activated than women while playing. In other words, men may have more pleasure while playing and because of this joyful process they also may be predisposed to addiction more than their female counterparts. It’s about the rush, boys.”
Ms. Hanks concedes that there are many reasons you get your game on, including male bonding and just straight up stubbornness.
“Guys continue to game, even when it bothers their partner, for many reasons. Men generally hate being told what they can and can’t do with their time. For many, games are a stress reliever and a way to unwind and “zone out”. Gaming can also provide an adrenaline rush, a way to procrastinate or avoid uncomfortable tasks, and a way for men to connect with other men.”
Dr. Burton, on the other hand, breaks down the reasons that men continue to game into three categories and, if you’re sensitive about your gaming habits consider this a warning, he’s pretty tough.
“I think the gaming behavior can continue for three reasons -1) the person gets great entertainment value from the time they spend gaming, 2) the person is bored with life and uses the game as "filler," and 3) the person uses the game as an exit to intimacy and focus on what they know (how to complete tasks) rather than try to learn a new skill (intimacy through relationship.) Intimacy and relationships are generally more difficult for men than for women and many men don't even know where to start to fulfill their wife's needs for intimacy.”
Ouch! Too harsh? Maybe. Or is it just that the truth is a bitter pill to swallow? Are you a pleasure junkie or do you just hate having a bit in your mouth? Do you crave that boy’s club companionship or do you just need to zone out and relax? Regardless, only you really know the justification for your gaming habits (if you even feel you need any) and your capacity for intimacy. Whatever the case may be, there’s are ways to make gaming a non-issue and to ensure that your hobby and your relationship can peacefully coexist.
How to make it a non-issue:
Okay, now that our grievances have been more or less aired it should be abundantly clear that there is no magical cure-all solution. Sometimes your gaming habits are going to interfere with your relationship and probably in ways that you haven’t even really thought about before now. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s not a “one or the other” type of problem. You can keep your girlfriend and your PS3. It might take some work but, hey, compromising to solve a problem shouldn’t be anything new to you at this point in your life. Below are six simple rules to keep both the girl and your gamerscore.
1. Set gaming time limits together and stick to them.
“Take time to connect with your spouse every day for at least 30 minutes before ever taking any time to play video games,” Dr. Burton said. “The goal is to let your spouse know that she, not the video game, is your number one priority”
“Setting realistic limits and following through shows your partner that you hear her concerns, that she can trust your word, and that she matters to you,” Ms. Hanks said. “It will create more emotional security in the relationship. Be honest with yourself about whether time gaming is excessive and harming your relationship.”
2. Listen to your partner’s complaints.
“Sometimes simply being heard may be reassuring enough to your partner that they feel that you matter,” Ms. Hanks said. “When your partner feels connected to you she will likely feel less jealous of the time you spend gaming. Listen beyond the complaints to the deeper emotional message of ‘I miss you’, ‘I want to spend more time with you’, or ‘I’m afraid I don’t matter to you.’”
“Most women do not care if you have interest outside of the relationship and usually they prefer someone who is passionate about something,” Dr. Jones said. “But if you become so unresponsive that you no longer greet them they will resent whatever activities you may be involved in. So if you want to enjoy your games than be responsive to her. Be prepared to turn off the game and talk about the day and be genuinely interested. Tell her about your life and even the games.”
“The most important thing is for the couple to be able to have a good dialogue,” Dr. Burton said. “Each should listen to the other with empathy and validation. Try to see the issue from the other person's point of view. Once the couple has done that, they are generally able to find a solution that works for both.”
3. Share with your partner what you love about gaming.
“Games can be purely entertaining, but I challenge you to dig deeper than the obvious answers you’ve previously given her,” Ms. Hanks said. “Years ago, I worked with a couple, Jim and Nancy, where gaming was a huge source of conflict. Growing up in a chaotic and abusive home Jim never experienced carefree years of childhood. Once Nancy understood that gaming was his way of creating carefree feelings he’d missed out on as a kid she became less threatened and reactive and the intense emotion around the subject diminished.”
4. Spend more face-to-face time together.
“There are a few things that never go out of style because they are so practical,” Dr. Jones said. “Family rituals are very helpful and if one wants their partner to know that they care they might [adopt] a few of these rituals such as eating meals together, talking every night before bed, and going out on dates. Be imaginative about the dates. Couple that do different things together have more fun and remember, ‘girls just want to have fun!’”
“Make sure that you are enjoying other kinds leisure activities with your spouse,” Ms. Hanks said. “Take a walk together, have regular date nights, enjoy social activities that don’t include technology in order to reassure your spouse that she is treasured by you and keep the relationship close and connected.”
5. Find games that you can play together.
“Invite your spouse into your world by finding games that you can occasionally play together,” Ms. Hanks said. “In return, be willing to participate in activities that aren't your favorite but that she really enjoys.”
6. Remember, you’re an adult now.
“Realize that single men behave differently than married men,” Dr. Burton said. “You have chosen to be in a committed relationship and with that comes responsibilities and the necessity of changing behaviors. This means we often do things for our spouse because those things are important to her. There will need to be some compromise with the game playing behavior, but then compromise is a necessary component of successful marriages.”
“Master the game but do not let it master you,” Dr. Jones said. “Addiction is a real thing. If you are out of control and unable to get other important thing done such as school work, work, getting a job, or even things around the home, your partner may blame the video games and this can cause resentment. So be smart and like the beer commercials say, use this product ‘responsibly.’”
While the prevailing perception is that gamers are either foul-mouthed 14 year-old delinquents or antisocial 30-something basement dwellers, the truth is that most up-and-coming husbands and fathers in this day and age know about and occasionally like to play video games. Unfortunately, rightly or wrongly, gaming is a different beast than most hobbies. It’s expensive, time-consuming and largely exclusionary. But it doesn’t have to be alienating.
As an added bonus, the beauty of these rules is that they can be applied to almost any relationship in your life. You can use them with your wife or girlfriend just as easily as you can with your parents or children. Follow these six simple steps and your relationship is bound to improve, even - maybe especially - if you didn’t think there were any problems to begin with.