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Should Christians Play Video Games?

December 29, 2013

This is the first in a new series called “Should Christians…” Like most of my other series, this one will go on until I lose interest in it and start chasing another ignis fatuus across the swamp of my mind. The purpose of this series is to look at a few leisure activities from a Christian perspective. My question I am asking is not “are Christians allowed to do these things?” I believe that the Bible condemns and forbids sin; we should not be legalists and increase the scope of sin to include anything we don’t like. At the same time, however, Christians should use wisdom in their entertainment choices. “All things are lawful,” says the Apostle, “but not all things are helpful.” Previous generations have erred on the side of legalism; my generation tends to go to the other extreme. On the other hand, many critiques of different leisure activities are written by (older) people who are  unfamiliar or unsympathetic with the activities being presented, and whose criticisms are therefore off-base. I hope that in this series I can be a “friendly critic” of the activities that I am looking at.

Don't Mess With Nick

I used to be a gamer. For a while I even collected video games. That all began to stop in eighth grade, when Mr. Deaton assigned me so much math homework that I had no more time to play video games anymore. My gaming habit slowed down until it got to the point where I couldn’t remember the last time I picked up a controller. Then, during this Christmas break, I decided to do a little gaming. I downloaded the SNES classic Chrono Trigger (I don’t have any money for new games), and I’ve been playing through it for the last five days or so.

First, I’d like to break down a myth. Every pop culture medium has its group of fans who insist that “The old stuff is better”–“The Andy Griffith Show is better than all that new trash on television,” “I wish they made music like they did in the 70s, before all this rap that sounds like noise.” I assume that there are video game fans that think that video games have gotten worse since the “good old days,” that “the classics” are the best, that the industry lost its soul in 1999 and never recovered. They are all wrong. They only believe this because they played the old games when they were kids. The art of the video game has improved since Chrono Trigger. Graphics have gone from looking like a bunch of dots painted on a screen to near photorealism. Controllers have evolved from joysticks to Wiimotes. Chrono Trigger pioneered the idea of giving the player multiple choices that affect the story (it’s basically a glorified choose-your-own-adventure book). Now, you have to look hard to find a game that doesn’t have a linear storyline. The level of customization and detail in any given game that came out in the last year makes Chrono Trigger look like a product of the dark ages. The advances made in video games in the last 30-40 years are the equivalent of going from flip-books to Avatar. All-around, video games are more detailed, more engrossing, and flat-out cooler than they used to be.

They are also less cool than they used to be–at least, I find them that way. The ideal age to begin gaming is between eight and twelve (if you’re a boy). At that point, you have plenty of time on your hands, you haven’t discovered girls yet, and the phrase “Daxtron whirled his flaming sword and destroyed Borthrogon the ice-demon” sounds incredible (If this phrase still sounds incredible to you, seek therapy immediately). Video games are kind of like fantasy novels, except that instead of reading about Bilbo Baggins or Rand al’Thor doing cool things, you get to go and do them yourself. The age of wide-eyed innocence is the best age for playing video games.

If you no longer think this picture is cool in an un-ironic way, then you are too old for video games.

After this age, it ceases to be cool. One thing I started noticing as I got older is that video games began to become more and more repetitive. I realized that no matter what game I played, I was still pressing the same buttons. After the allure of magical realms and huge guns began to wear off, I got tired of mindless button-mashing and long sidequests. I’ve been using my Chrono Trigger sessions as an excuse to listen to podcasts. Another thing I noticed was the massive amount of time that playing video games takes. If you’re not careful, you can lose hours playing a game and not even notice. I can hear the voices now: “But you can do the same thing with a book.” Yes, but when I finish a marathon reading session, I feel good about myself, like I’ve actually accomplished something. Whenever I finish gaming for five hours, I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time.

One tangible reason that I feel better about reading is that I get more out of it. Sure, there’s all the great classics that I could be reading: Plato’s Republic, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Tim Allen’s Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man. But man cannot live on hifalutin’ literature alone, and if he could, he’d be an insufferable snob. I’m not against “mindless” entertainment; it’s just that I think books are better for you even if they aren’t quite Shakespeare and Faulkner. Professor and jovial old man James V. Schall writes,

I remember [Rudolf Allers] saying in class one day that we should always be reading novels, even bad novels; for in their particularity, we will always find something, some incident, some character, some chance insight, that will teach us something we could have learned nowhere else. (A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning 47).

The “mindless” novels that I read (Wheel of Time, The Dresden Files, Dune) still have an individuality about them that I don’t find with video games. I find it hard to think about living life without having known Matrim Cauthon or Harry Dresden; they are almost like real people, friends whom you want to introduce to your other friends. Video games, by their very nature, tend to put character development on the backburner and focus on killing monsters or blowing up giant robots. Fifty million Mario games later, we still have no idea what the guy is like.

For all we know, he could be a communist spy. After all, he does wear red and support the working man.

Character development is half of a good story, and most video games don’t have good stories. Don’t take my word for it; Damien Walter says,

“there doesn’t seem to be a single decent writer working in video games. Whenever I say this, people shout things like Mass Effect and Bioshock at me and I play them and they are about as well-written as an episode of Star Trek. Which isn’t awful, but neither is it great. It’s just functional.”

That’s a pretty generous assessment. Most video game storylines are somewhere in between a cheesy anime and Star Wars Episode I. In fact, while I was playing Chrono Trigger, I though that I would enjoy it a lot more if it actually was an anime. There are some cool plot ideas (time-travel, sword-wielding talking frogs), but the character development is nonexistent and the dialogue, well….

Zombor

     So much for the aesthetic aspect of gaming. Looking at video games qua games presents another set of problems.  The lack of a human element in gaming is problematic, because it takes the elements of pain and surprise out of the game. The possibility of failure is what makes something an adventure. G.K. Chesterton said, “When Thomas Aquinas asserted the spiritual liberty of man, he created all the bad novels in the circulating libraries” (Heretics 100). If a team loses the big game, they feel a sense of pain. If I’m wrassling with my brother and he throws me to the ground, I feel a sense of pain. In video games, failure has no teeth. Sure, you may have to go back to the end of a level if you lose, but you don’t have to see your friend Bob do his ridiculous victory dance like he does whenever he beats you at ping-pong.

     Along with failure, video games lack the element of surprise. To put it simply, you can’t cheat. Because you’re limited by the code that the games are written in, there’s no possibility of rule-breaking, no arguing over the rules, no individual style of playing. There are no Babe Ruth’s or Mohammed Ali’s in the world of gaming. In a game of cards or kickball, there’s always the possibility that a player will do something expected or even illegal, and this gives everyone a sense of adventure. In a video game,  the worst you can do is screenhack.

     Finally, gaming culture is just plain weird and creepy. There’s something a little off about grown men who are obsessed with playing games. I don’t think there is anything wrong with playing occasionally, but there are legions of pasty, overweight men (and they are mostly men) who have frittered their lives away gaining “powers” instead of doing something constructive. Video games have grown so popular as to be inescapable, but I would still shy away from the hardcore gaming crowd. As Bruce Springsteen sings “It’s a town full of losers / Then we’re pulling out of here to win.” Additionally, video games tend to cater to male fantasies in an unhealthy way. Although the violence in video games is often mentioned and exaggerated, it may be the least problematic aspect of gaming. The way that video games portray heroism is juvenile–while the hero in a movie or fantasy novel is likely to be a plucky underdog (Peter Parker, Harry Potter, Harry Dresden), the hero of a game is more likely to be an invincible space marine with bulging muscles and a name like “Marcus Fenix.” And if any women show up in a game, they’re either bikini-clad triple D-sized sex bombs (American games) or personality-challenged plaid-skirt wearing schoolgirls (Japanese games) or some disturbing combination of the two. While other entertainment industries give their token nod to feminism, the gaming industry is apparently still stuck in the hormone-crazed age of Conan the Barbarian.

Sometimes there are aliens, too.

     In conclusion, I find that video games are lacking on both aesthetic and entertainment grounds. Yes, there’s some fun to be had in playing games, but on the whole, I find that they are lacking. They fail as art, they aren’t as fun as other activities, and the culture surrounding them is kind of creepy. Should Christians play video games? There are better ways to spend time.

     In the next installment, I ask “Should Christians listen to…HEAVY METAL!?”

Current Listening: Album of the Year by The Good Life

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