Editorial Video Games

The Christian Video Game Debate

The church that I attend has a podcast. A few weeks ago they posted an episode titled “Worship & Wonder: Video Game Debate.” In this episode, one of the leaders of our church moderated a debate between two other leaders, the central question being as follows:

Do video games contribute to shalom?

This is an interesting question and an increasingly relevant one as the medium of video games becomes more and more ubiquitous. While the word “shalom” is often used as a greeting, it is also a word that caries deep philosophical and theological implications. In short, shalom is the way that things should be: at peace, in a state of flourishing, and spiritually whole.

The moderator of the discussion then rephrased the question to something like:

Would the world be better or worse if video games disappeared?

This new version of the question is still grounds for interesting discussion, but it is a drastically different question. The first version of the question asks for insight as to how to engage with this medium that is so closely intertwined with mainstream culture. The second version of the question moves the conversation toward a discussion of a hypothetical reality where video games simply don’t exist. In my opinion, the debate is fractured by the failure to clearly articulate the question. It makes room for two very different conversations to be had at the same time… rather than a single, more focused debate. Perhaps more unfortunately, it misses an opportunity to offer any guidance (practical or philosophical) for the curious practitioner of the faith.

Then again, I may be missing the point. Maybe it’s not supposed to be that serious. For me, video games are both a source of enjoyment and a medium that warrants reflection and discussion. I don’t think I’m the only member of this church—or the only member of the faith, for that matter—that views this as a topic worth treating with some gravitas.

So what follows below is a brief summary of the argument presented by both sides and my response. I hope to enrich the conversation as much as I can, but please feel free to engage with me in the comments.

The opening argument of Jake’s games-are-good position centered on 3 primary claims about the spiritual, social, and physical good that video games offer:

  1. Video games are the most potent form of storytelling that exists, and stories contribute to shalom.
  2. Video games can allows for powerful shared experience that helps people connect to one another.
  3. Video games can engage the brain in cognitive development while offering the body a chance to rest.

As someone who enjoys video games enough to write about them, I’m already inclined to take the games-are-good position. From the beginning, I’m on the opposite side of Ryan on this debate. I want to engage his argument in good faith, so I spent extra time engaging with his games-are-bad position. His opening argument basically centered on 3 main ideas:

  1. Video games are a likely trigger of addictive behavior, particularly among men.
  2. Video games don’t serve a practical purpose. What little skill might be cultivated in playing video games doesn’t translate back to one’s real life.
  3. Video games are currently the predominant media form, but they are different than the media forms of the past: television, movies, radio, and books. Video games allow the player to become immersed much more quickly than with traditional forms. This makes it dangerously easy for the participant to form addictive patterns of behavior or even disassociate from reality.

The entirety of their 50-minute debate is about the power of story and the role that it plays in the life of the believer. I think that in a roundabout way, this does get back to the question of shalom. It just might take several paragraphs to get there. Buckle up.

Throughout their debate they mentioned “God’s good story” a number of times. They were probably referring to the biblical metanarrative. The term metanarrative basically means “the story of stores.” It’s an overarching pattern that connects all narratives together. The biblical metanarrative is the overarching structure in all of the stories in the Bible. It has 4 phases which I would define as follows:

  1. Creation: inherent goodness, the above-mentioned shalom
  2. Fall: a story or part of a story where the inherent goodness is broken or marred
  3. Redemption: a singular act that shifts the momentum of a story toward goodness
  4. Restoration: the ongoing process of undoing the effects of a fall or returning to a new state of goodness

For the purpose of this blog post, we could summarize the biblical metanarrative as the pursuit of shalom in spite of the the human condition. At a glance, this is a simple theological concept. Though it is not one that I’ve heard often—if ever—in other church communities.

If the story of the Bible serves as an orienting narrative for a person, then one might see echoes of this metanarrative in all other stories. In that way the biblical metanarrative can make for a useful method for engaging with all forms of storytelling. I like to think that everything is a story (ask me about it sometime), so I would go so far as to apply the biblical metanarrative as a useful method for engaging with the entire world.

Anyway… since Jake and Ryan seem to agree that video games are the most potent storytelling form, I think it is useful to view video games through the lens of the metanarrative.

Ryan loves storytelling. He and I would agree that stories are good. However, Ryan makes the argument that the effectiveness of story is lessened when the story is being delivered by a screen, or if the story has no effect on your real life beyond concept or ideology. I would argue that every video game can—and perhaps should—be played with some degree of critical scrutiny as to its major thematic concepts and ideological perspectives.

I think that even the most casual attempt to engage with concepts and ideology is a productive pursuit. One of the most foundational concepts in the in the Christian faith is that of the great commandment (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-37), where Jesus encapsulates the entirety of the law in 2 principles: love God and love your neighbor. I would contend that it is difficult to love your neighbor without a willingness to both (1) enter into your neighbor’s story and (2) engage with your neighbor’s ideology. I would further contend that video games can prime the player to do both, cultivating our ability to love our neighbor.

Earlier in the debate, Ryan cited Final Fantasy X as one his favorite video games. I think this is an excellent example of this concept at work. In FFX, you play as the lovable fool Tidus. The game controller allows you to move Tidus about as you engage the fictional world of Spira within the game. And without player input, the narrative does not progress. Remember that Ryan’s games-are-bad position dictates that immersion is bad because it pulls the player away from reality and into fiction. This is significant because to “play as” a character in a video game is to embody that character within the context of that video game. This means that when Jake play FFX, he is not only Jake. He is also Tidus. In that moment he is both (1) entering into Tidus’s story and (2) engaging with Tidus’s ideology. Even without discussing any of the thematic concepts of the game (of which there are many), the player is already doing something that helps them to cultivate the capacity to love their neighbor.

One of Ryan’s counterpoints to this seems to be that some video games don’t tell a good story. That is to say that they are effective in telling a story, but the story that is conveyed is a bad one. Of course, no one would argue for the erasure of an artistic medium because of the potential for bad stories to be told. Beyond that, I would argue that even a bad story can be fertile ground for a conversation about our humanity. A story may be an echo of the fall phase of the biblical metanarrative, and in that way they may tell something true about our need for restoration.

Ryan elaborates upon his previous point, saying that it becomes harder to see the redemptive characteristics of the story because of the structure of a video game. The narrative of most films has a discernable beginning, middle, and end. The narrative of a video game may be completely obscured by the fact that a game has no end; or if it does, the player may never see that ending because of the protracted nature of many video games. The narrative may be further obscured by the fact that players may experience very different versions of a game’s story. At least part of what he is arguing against here is player agency. Because the medium of video games is more interactive, the player is in charge of directing the flow of the story. The agency of the player doesn’t undermine the effectiveness of the narrative. If anything, it facilitates the immersion that makes video games such a potent storytelling medium. The fact that every player’s experience with a game is unique (even in seemingly trivial ways) makes the narrative a more true reflection of the uniqueness of the individual’s experience of our shared world.

The shared cultural experience of video games then brings into focus the ways that our personal experience is distinct. And the degree to which we recognize the uniqueness of our embodiment of characters who aren’t us is the degree to which video games help cultivate an ability to both (1) enter into our neighbor’s story and (2) engage with our neighbor’s ideology.

To be fair, even more traditional forms of storytelling that Ryan appreciates cannot completely eliminate the agency of the audience as they filter the events of a story through their unique worldview. If the written word is a playground for the moral imagination, then video games are more so.

Everyone at the table appeared to agree that because video games are more immersive that previous forms of media because they require active participation in a story, rather than passive observation. The moderation made the comment that the increasingly immersive nature of video games could be problematic, saying “it’s such a simulation of life that it actually starts to [remove you from] life.” He goes on to say that God intended for real work to be good and fulfilling. Ideally, we get to participate the creation of something good, and we are rewarded for our participation with a sense of accomplishment.

I would agree that the trend in game design is to offer the player a steady flow of rewards because it keeps the player engaged, which can make the player vulnerable to exploitation. However, I think even this tells us a story about the relationship between people and their work. The generation that has grown up playing video games is accustomed to engaging with progression mechanics. In most modern video games, there is a clear relationship between a player’s actions and the outcomes. For example, the player knows that if they spend enough time “grinding” enemies in an RPG, they will get enough experience points to level up and enough gold to buy a better sword. The more time the player spends existing in the game world, the more thoroughly they grasp the mechanics, and the more prepared they are to take on the next challenge.

This may be a sharp contrast to real life where progression mechanics are not carefully crafted. The relationship between a person’s actions and outcomes are not so easily predictable. A world that echoes the fall is one that offers no guarantee of fairness, like a game that hasn’t been properly balanced. That can make it increasingly challenging to see our work to be a source of good for ourselves and our communities. By removing many of the complexities of real life, video games tell a better story. They might just hint at what a shalom might look like in regards to the human relationship with work. This is grounds for an entirely different conversation about our society that is beyond the scope of either the podcast episode or this blog post.

Ryan’s final point seemed to be that there isn’t anything good that video games offer to humanity that isn’t also present in other modern media forms. In fact, he claimed that the world be better off without video games in as they are today. His offered the suggestion that Christians should put strict limitations on their interaction with video games.

I am not a pastor, but I do have some suggestions about how someone who is trying to follow Christ should regard video games. As with all forms of entertainment (be it video games, movies, comic books, or classic novels), I would recommend being thoughtful in how you engagement. Ask questions about your video games.

  • What am I trying get out of playing a particular video game at a particular time? Some games might be a conduit for social interaction. Some might center around a narrative. Some might be more focused on mechanics. Some might be pure escapism. Recognizing this helps you to understand what kinds of games you like and why you like them. Being aware of yourself as you interact with an artistic medium can help you maximize your enjoyment, while helping you to avoid unhealthy patterns of play.
  • In what ways is the video game similar and different than the world that I experience? All video games communicate something to the player about the world, regardless of how simplistic the design of the game may be. Try to put into words what the game could be saying about the world and the human experience. You don’t have to say it out loud or write it down, but being able to articulate the worldview of a video game in relation to your own worldview can help you develop your capacity to make sense of the real world. And at the very least, it will enrich your enjoyment of video game worlds.
  • Which part (or parts) of the biblical metanarrative does this game echo? What big ideas does the game speak to (beauty, goodness, truth, justice, equality, freedom)? Sometimes games reflect truth in their depiction of good things, but sometimes games ask us to confront thinks that are bad. As an adult, you don’t have to completely reject games lack philosophical value, but you should be aware of what your video games are offering.

Even the stories we passively engage with are a part of our formation as individuals. The way we make sense of who we are when we exists in digital narratives will spill over into who we are in the narratives we craft out of real lives.

I know this blog post was all over the place, but such is the discussion in this podcast kind of took on a life of its own. Again, please feel free to drop into the comments and offer your own commentary on this topic.

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