Angry Birds and Slot Machines

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

So, this past summer I got an iPhone. Not a big deal, you say, but in fact it was a big deal, a huge deal for me. As you know I’ve been and continue to be very wary of all the new technology.

I think it’s out of control. I had a cell phone prior to the new one but it was a six-year-old flip phone that had seldom been used. It lived in my car for six years and I heard it ring three times perhaps. So, the acquisition of a new iPhone was a big deal. If I might paraphrase: “One small step for mankind; one giant leap for Bishop Tobin.”

Now, for the uninitiated let me explain that with the iPhone you can do lots of things. It’s a marvelous little toy. With the iPhone you can access the Internet, send e-mail and text messages, take pictures, keep your schedule, get travel directions, check the weather, follow the stock market and, oh yeah, make phone calls. You can also play games.

One of the featured games of the iPhone is called “Angry Birds.” It’s this silly little video game in which you use a slingshot to shoot birds at pigs which are encamped in a variety of settings. The idea is to kill the pigs and destroy their homes. The game is accompanied by cute graphics and catchy music. When I got the phone someone warned me: “Careful – playing Angry Birds can be addictive.” “Fiddlesticks,” I responded.

Well, as of this writing I’m pleased to report that I’ve surpassed all eighteen levels of the game except two. I will insist, however, that I’m not addicted to Angry Birds. Maybe some other people are but I’m not. Really. It’s just a good way to relax and pass some time. But, there’s always that temptation to “fire away” just one more time. Just one more time and I’LL KILL THOSE STUPID PIGS, DESTROY THEIR FORTIFIED HIDEOUTS AND SURPASS MY FORMER POINT TOTAL. BUT I AM NOT ADDICTED!

Sorry, I got carried away.

Playing Angry Birds reminds me of playing slot machines at a casino. Those of you who follow this column know that I occasionally like to visit a casino. I don’t go very often; I don’t stay very long; and I don’t spend very much. I’m too disciplined and cheap for that. And I’m mindful of the pitfalls. It’s true that sitting at the machine, stabbing the button and staring at the spinning wheel can be hypnotic, mind-numbing. (“Fire away!”) And there’s that irresistible temptation to push the button just one more time, spend a few more quarters, and, perhaps, walk away a winner. Seldom happens.

At this point it’s good to remember that the Catholic Church does not consider all gambling to be objectively sinful. It’s morally neutral. Gambling can be a source of relaxation and entertainment; or it can be addictive and harmful. Its moral status depends on the circumstances.

Nonetheless, we all need to be very wary of addictions. They’re not a laughing matter. No one’s completely immune.

According to my dictionary, to be “addicted” is to be “physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance; enthusiastically devoted to a particular thing or activity.”

Some people suffer from debilitating, destructive addictions – to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or pornography, for example. These pathological addictions ruin lives and harm families. We should pray for the people who struggle with these uncontrollable urges and who, despite their courageous efforts, fall again and again. Overcoming these addictions requires professional assistance and spiritual support.

Sometimes, however, we use the word “addiction” more broadly to address those situations with less serious consequences. People can be addicted to, or at least firmly attached to, lots of things I suppose: to shopping, to shoes, to chocolate, to exercise, to television, to texting, to other people, even to religious trappings. Addictions, even to things that are usually normal and healthy, are never good.

The problem with addictions is that they rob us of our human freedom. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church” speaks of the freedom God has bestowed upon mankind: “God willed that man should be left in the hand of his own counsel . . . Freedom is the power to act or not to act, and so to perform deliberate acts of one’s own . . . Freedom characterizes properly human acts.” (Cf. 1743 – 1748)

In simple terms, any habitual attachment that imperils your human freedom to think or speak or act in a positive moral way is a kind of addiction. And that’s wrong, for nothing should compromise the God-given gift, the “glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Rom 8: 21)

The only thing, or better, the only person to whom we should be uncompromisingly attached is Jesus Christ. St. Paul put it this way: “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” (Phil 3:8-9) Now there’s a guy who has his priorities straight.

Perhaps you could use this reflection for a personal reality check. Ask yourself: In your own lifestyle do you have any habits, attractions, addictions, that limit your freedom, compromise your responsibilities, or hinder your relationship with God or other people? Take a moment; think about it; and get whatever help you need.