New York Magazine


MANY AMERICANS have replaced work hours with game play—and ENDED UP HAPPIER. Which wouldn’t surprise most gamers.

On the evening of November 9, having barely been awake to see the day, I took the subway to Sunset Park. My objective was to meet a friend at the arcade Next Level.

In size, Next Level resembles a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant. It does indeed serve food—free fried chicken and shrimp were provided that night, and candy, soda, and energy drinks were available at a reasonable markup—but the sustenance it provides is mostly of a different nature. Much of Next Level’s space was devoted to brilliant banks of monitors hooked up to video-game consoles, and much of the remaining space was occupied by men in their 20s avidly facing them. It cost us $10 each to enter.

I had bonded with Leon, a graphic designer, musician, and Twitter magnate, over our shared viewership of online broadcasts of the Street Fighter tournaments held every Wednesday night at Next Level. It was his first time attending the venue in person and his first time entering the tournament. I wasn’t playing, but I wanted to see how he’d do, in part because I had taken to wondering more about video games lately—the nature of their appeal, their central logic, perhaps what they might illuminate about what had happened the night before. Like so many others, I played video games, often to excess, and had done so eagerly since childhood, to the point where the games we played became, necessarily, reflections of our being.

To the uninitiated, the figures are nothing if not staggering: 155 million Americans play video games, more than the number who voted in November’s presidential election. And they play them a lot: According to a variety of recent studies, more than 40 percent of Americans play at least three hours a week, 34 million play on average 22 hours each week, 5 million hit 40 hours, and the average young American will now spend as many hours (roughly 10,000) playing by the time he or she turns 21 as that person spent in middle- and high-school classrooms combined. Which means that a niche activity confined a few decades ago to preadolescents and adolescents has become, increasingly, a cultural juggernaut for all races, genders, and ages. How had video games, over that time, ascended within American and world culture to a scale rivaling sports, film, and television? Like those other entertainments, video games offered an escape, of course. But what kind?

Images from Javier Laspiur’s “Controllers” series, in which he photographed himself with each video-game system he played over the years, beginning with Teletenis in 1983 and ending with Playstation Vita in 2013. The composite image that opens this story was built by Laspiur from these images.

In 1993, the psychologist Peter D. Kramer published Listening to Prozac, asking what we could learn from the sudden mania for antidepressants in America. A few months before the election, an acquaintance had put the same question to me about video games: What do they give gamers that the real world doesn’t?

The first of the expert witnesses at Next Level I had come to speak with was the co-owner of the establishment. I didn’t know him personally, but I knew his name and face from online research, and I waited for an opportune moment to approach him. Eventually, it came. I haltingly asked if he’d be willing, sometime later that night, to talk about video games: what they were, what they meant, what their future might be—what they said, perhaps, about the larger world.

“Yes,” he replied. “But nothing about politics.”

IN JUNE, Erik Hurst, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, delivered a graduation address

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