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  • Instead of a harmless pastime, video games can become an escape from the duties and drudgeries of reality. #ps4 Tweet This
  • For many working-class men, video games represent a tension between fraternity and family. Tweet This

As a woman who has played video games only a handful of times in my life, I’ve never understood their appeal to many of the men I know.

That is, until I watched a recent PS4 commercial. It features two best friends, duking it out as knights, blowing each other up on the race track as they ram their cars into each other, marching side by side as they conquer a city to the soundtrack of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” “You just keep me hanging on,” they sing with camaraderie, in a fashion that reminds me of a drinking song, as buildings explode around them.

The commercial is part of the “Greatness Awaits” campaign, in preparation for Friday’s release of the new Playstation 4, and has generated quite a buzz online. All you have to do is go to the campaign website, www.GreatnessAwaits.com, to read tweets from men praising the ad, or scan the overwhelmingly positive YouTube comments. A few samples: “Sony just sent me on a feels trip with the latest ad for #ps4#4ThePlayers.” “This commercial is just epic.” “I could get high on this commercial.” “You don’t see friendship like this often nowadays. brought tears to my eyes :,)”. “I don’t care if people say it’s stupid or nerdy… I made many of my friends while playing online and I cherish every loss, win, tie, everything. Every game is an adventure, a new fight, a clean slate… I’m loving these commercials.”

And I have to admit, with the combination of the music and culminating battle scene, even I felt my heart rising in the way it does when I watch a stirring war movie that depicts a climactic fight between good and evil. The “Greatness Awaits” slogan for a moment seemed fitting, inspiring even, despite the fact that when you stop to think about it, it’s laughable. “Greatness”—achieved through a game system?

Instead of a harmless pastime, video games can become an ‘escape’ from the duties and drudgeries of reality.

For working-class young men who have dismal job prospects and little by way of a life plan, video games often take the place of more constructive expressions of manliness. Instead of a harmless pastime, they become an “escape”—as one 23-year-old unmarried father put it—from the duties and drudgeries of reality. It’s not that video games in and of themselves are a problem. But they can exacerbate problems, particularly in romantic and family relationships.

This became clear in my interviews with young working-class women (ages 19 to 35). Although I asked no direct questions about video games, complaints about partners’ playing them were common in response to the question, “What have been some of the biggest challenges in your relationship?”

One woman said that video games contributed to her breakup with her daughter’s father. He was unemployed, yet still not helping out much around the house or with childcare. “All he’s doing is playing video games. I was working, going to school,” she fumed.

Another woman recounted what led up to her divorce: “He never worked, never, and on top of that, he wouldn’t clean the house. I ended up havin’ two jobs and comin’ in to clean the house all the time because all he would do is sit around and watch video games and that was it. And I got to where I hated him so much… He was just content with sittin’ around playing video games… at least take care of our house.”

A third woman worried that video games drive couples apart and make men act like children: “My daughter’s dad, that’s all he ever wanted to do is play video games. And it’s like they take your partner away from you or, you know, it’s an argument. You ask him to do something, and like a kid, they’re like, ‘Hold on,’ like ‘One more game or one more round’ or, you know, like a child.”

‘I ended up havin’ two jobs. He was just content with sittin’ around playing video games.’

Another woman says of her ex-boyfriend, “Well, one day I came home, the house was a mess. There was no food in the fridge and he was just sitting there playing video games, and I was like, ‘I need you to do something. I work two jobs and I’m going to school.’” She asked him to get a part-time job to pay for groceries. He retorted that they should just get food stamps. She called his mom and sent him home. “Stop being a child,” she told him.

For many working-class men, video games represent a tension between fraternity and family, not so different from the kind you might read about in Mirra Komarovsky’s 1964 book Blue Collar Marriage, when the complaint was that men roamed the streets and went to bars while their wives stayed home with the children.

Part of the solution is to find ways for men to form friendships and enjoy male camaraderie that support their roles as husbands and fathers, rather than distracting them. One such institution is the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal benefits organization that can be found at many Catholic parishes. My husband is a Knight, and comes home from their meetings with beer on his breath and a rejuvenated spirit. The Knights enjoy monthly socials, but they also channel their energy into doing good for others—hosting fundraisers for charities or the parish school, delivering Thanksgiving turkeys to the poor, flipping burgers at the parish picnic, building homes for families in need. Our parish also has a Fathers’ Team that meets weekly, which provides men with fraternal fellowship and equips them to become better fathers, better husbands.

There could also be secular efforts to encourage working-class men to resist the lure of finding “escape” through video games. Institutions of all kinds can take part in shaping new scripts for masculinity—scripts that remind men that it is more admirable to change a diaper, attack a sink of dishes, or persevere in the workforce than it is to blow up a car in Grand Theft Auto V. Sure, play your games for fun, but there should be no illusions about where true greatness lies.