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Chelsea Beck for Fatherly

Video Games Were My Everything. Becoming a Father Fixed That.

When I play video games, I’m stealing time from myself. I’m willing to take that loss up to a point, but I won’t be after the birth of my daughter. The cost will be too high. 

When you’re on the verge of new parenthood, a specific subset of parents who have been there tell you that your life is about to change entirely. Nothing will be the same, they say. Your spare time will vanish. You will be too  busy attending to your child’s needs to attend to your own and too concerned with servicing your child’s garbled pronouncements to nurture private hopes. You will tire, weaken, and disappoint. Ultimately, the child will take the tuition money and go. It will be the best thing that ever happened to you.

More pragmatic parents talk about the need for better time management. These are the parents I admire and hope to emulate when baby Cleo, my first, arrives next month. But these are also the parents whose pronouncements trouble me because I know they’re right and I know that my time is about to become more valuable, and I’ll have to treat it that way. Which means that I’ll miss the singular joy of being profligate with my athleisure-wearing hours, of pursuing a semi-passion with no eye toward marginal value or betterment of any kind.  

For me and my wife, non-drinking homebodies in our late thirties, the transition won’t be jarring save for the loss of my one lingering adolescent hobby, a vestigial if vivid part of my calendar, which will go by the wayside: video games (imagine that, for dramatic effect, sung-spoken in Lana del Rey’s affected monotone).

Taxed by work and other responsibilities, I jettisoned many of my range hobbies as I entered my thirties. I focused on things that I was relatively good at, namely powerlifting and sports journalism, and abandoned everything else. I got strong from lifting and money from writing, but nothing from keeping up on indie music. Where I’d once dug deep into the discography of groups like The Mekons and The Fall, I went post-post-punk. I’d heard what I needed to hear; I’d keep up with the rest by osmosis. I felt the same way about reading fiction. I don’t write fiction and I don’t review fiction, so who cares? New movies, ditto. There were enough obscure combat sports and bloodbath anime series online. 

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In terms of pure self-indulgence, that left video games, which I played, usually but not always alone, in marathon blocks measurable in days. I wasn’t good at these games, because being genuinely good required investing more time than I had on hand. Still, I played a decent amount, emerging from 72 straight hours a little better, perhaps even worse, at Europa Universalis IV, Starcraft 2, and Overwatch. Whether the genre was “grand strategy,” real-time strategy, or first-person shooter, I never really grew or changed or improved; I was just there, tired and occasionally even angry at the folks I was playing with.

But I loved video games for precisely that reason. I was a scrub and absolutely fine with it. In video games, I found a forum in which to indulge my mediocrity without triggering self-loathing or insecurity. I loved talking trash to my friends for hours at a time, or leveling mindlessly in some hard-grinding Japanese RPG like Dragon Quest XI, desperately trying and failing to complete the game’s pointless objectives. Existing in a stakeless space was a relief from the daily grind. Video games were not about betterment. I didn’t have to earn a promotion, achieve a personal-best in some power lift, or craft a crowd-pleasing book proposal. They were about — to borrow a phrase from the wellness industrial complex — living in the “now.” The thing was the thing, and its simplicity soothed me. I plugged in my controller, popped a chill pill, and started chilling like a villain.  

The rest of my life, from exercising to writing to working, is measured in discrete increments and belongs not so much to me but to everyone: staying healthy is for my family, selling writing is for my family, working at my corporate day job is for my family. Video games are for me. They represent an utterly selfish use of time. As such, the assumption is that they will be put away as we take out the childish things for Baby Cleo. Yet I really loved this one particular childish thing, even if I wasn’t nearly as good at it as my more competitive friends. I loved it because it brought me closer to them, at least during those marathon sessions, or closer to myself, when I was all alone. That seemingly squandered time wasn’t truly lost, because it helped shape who I am, but now I will be losing it for good.    

So I willingly, albeit reluctantly, renounce Europa Universalis and its grand strategy progeny, acknowledging that I don’t have free three-day weekends to conquer the world with my friends. But, being a decent Super Smash Bros. player, I’ll probably still make time for a quick game or two of that colorful brawler. For both my sake and the sake of my child, I don’t want to go the full self-abnegation route.  This type of change hardly makes me a martyr, a path which would lead to full-on resentment. I don’t want my child to be haunted by the Boos and King Boos of my discontent. Repeatedly telling your kid “oh, the amazing life and wonderful video game adventures I gave up for you!” might lead them to write their own childhood-trashing versions of Portnoy’s Complaint or A Fan’s Notes, but it’s not exactly top-tier parenting.  

Like hard partying, serious sports fandom, and sensory deprivation tanks, video games offer the freedom to do nothing and be nothing. Within fast-rendering virtual worlds, I could do as I pleased even if I wasn’t ever good enough to do as I wanted. But, here’s the thing: I no longer want to do as I please, because there isn’t any pleasure left in it. Unlike my other hobbies, which feel productive and energizing, video games increasingly make me feel bad about my choices. When I play, I’m  stealing time from myself. I’m willing to take that loss up to a point, but I won’t be after the birth of my daughter. The cost will be too high. 

But that’s concerning too. I do not wish to become some beaten-down chore horse, my self-worth equal to the sum total of my responsibilities. 

I’m sure every parent grapples with these thoughts — even the sad sacks who advise me to turn the page on happiness. As we age and evolve, certain things fall by the wayside: friendships, passions, even defining characteristics. There’s a profundity to this shedding. We go into parenthood streamlined. But we also lose touch with our pleasures. Or — at the very least — exchange them.  If this heretofore-wasted time gives way to time with my daughter, I suppose I’ll remain as happy to have had the placeholder as I am grateful for what will replace it. I suppose I’ll feel better about how I spend my time.

That said, I loved video games, for what it was worth, even if it was never worth very much at all.