A Christian Defence of Video Games, and How to Tell a Lousy One

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. – Philippians 4:8 (ESV)

Christians who argue that video games are a waste of time, that they’re too violent, have too much sex, make people dumber, and degrade us morally, tend to quote this verse frequently.  This verse, they say, proves that video games are not for Christians.  In many, many cases, they’re right.

There are new games released every day, hundreds every year, many of them terrible – on many levels.  There are often games that are pretty good, however, and every now and then there’s one that’s absolutely incredible, also on many levels.  I think that this verse is a good way to evaluate games, but it can be used in more than one way; this is what I’d like to examine.  Can we use this verse to defend video games as well as dismiss them as evil?

Let’s look at arguments against video games first.

Violence

Inevitably, argument #1 is that video games are violent, and therefore not good for Christians to play; violence, they say, is evil, and therefore it is not honourable or just or pure or lovely, etc.  Video games are even worse than violent movies or television shows, they say, because we’re actually performing the violence, directing our virtual avatars to kill – this much is true.  Some go so far as to say that people who engage in virtual violence in video games are more likely to engage in real violence as well; I think the jury’s still out on that one, and I’ll withhold judgment until I see some more data.  Many elements of this argument are quite strong, but there are a few flaws.

A) a video game without any sort of violence or conflict would come very close to standing alone in the history of storytelling.  Name me a single literary classic without any violence, and I’ll name you a dozen classics (including children’s stories) full of it – not least, the Bible.

B) a game without violence would have a hard time depicting our world, or any other believable world.  We could go around and around asking if art imitates life or life imitates art, but inevitably, violence (and sex) are seemingly unavoidable parts of life and art.  Hiding from them won’t make them go away.

Now, that’s not to say that it’s good to engage in violence, whether real or virtual.  We need to actually use our heads here: some gaming violence is absolutely abhorrent, mainly because of the way in which it is portrayed.  There are games that trivialize violence that would otherwise be horrific (I’m thinking of the GTA series here; beating hookers to death with golf clubs is only entertaining because it’s shocking, and when it’s no longer shocking, that means that something decent within you has died).  There are games that dwell on sadistic horror and brutal murder, even games based on snuff films; for someone who’s never played good video games, it’s easy to think that they’re evil when all you hear about is garbage like Manhunt.  Scripture is full of some disgusting violence, and it doesn’t always even condemn it, but it portrays it realistically and trusts that you don’t need a rating on it to realize that its violence is not something fun to fantasize about.

So, in response to objection #1 to video games, although violence itself is an evil that should not be repeated in reality, portrayal of violence is not in itself evil.  Portrayal of violence can be a facts-of-life representation, a portrayal of real or symbolic struggle, or even a call to action.  Violence, on its own, does not disqualify something from Paul’s standard in Phil. 4:8 above.

Sex

Objection #2 is usually that video games are too sexy.  In some cases, I strongly agree – but again, it’s not because sex finds a way into video games, but because of the way that it is portrayed.  This has much to do with demographics: video games are marketed to adolescent males (usually 14-30).  Often, very little in video games is realistic: it functions as a fantasy.  The lead character (usually a male) is a bad-ass with rippling muscles, and even though I as the player am somewhat timid and borderline portly, I get to call that virtual Bruce-Willis type “me.”  Women are also portrayed unrealistically, but again, to cater to the young male audience: their clothes are tighter than skin, their breasts are big enough to unbalance a real person, and they specialize in high kicks – or as one feminist documentary put it, they’re “ass-kicking f#ck toys.”  This kind of portrayal of women is everywhere, but it is especially prevalent in video games – DOA, anyone?  And any woman in a video game who isn’t a super-spy/ninja in a skin-tight unitard tends to either be the seductress or the young lover who gets killed in the first scene.  This portrayal of women reinforces every terrible stereotype of women that we have, and it should stop.  The problem in this case is therefore not sex, but sexism.

So, in answer to objection #2 (that games have too much sex), I’d like to point out that most games have little or no actual sex in them – and a tasteful cut scene (note: tasteful) might not even be inappropriate for some of them.  The problem is an unrealistic – and tasteless – portrayal of men and women that idealizes (and idolizes) the body for the sake of excitement.  Unrealism in itself might not be wrong (games about ordinary people aren’t very much fun – I’m looking at you, Sims), but the stereotypes it reinforces is the real problem.

Side note: ever wonder why so many women play Sims, and so few play DOA?

A Waste of Time

Objection #3 (or for most of our dads, #1) is that video games are a waste of time.  They don’t produce anything, and they deaden our minds.  This last criticism is probably because, when we’re engrossed in a game, we don’t pay much attention to anything else.  Funny that nobody complains about this when we’re engrossed in a novel (unless it’s a fantasy novel, right?).  Being engrossed in something should actually be a sign that whatever it is, it’s engaging us very closely.

Different video games develop different skills in us.  A few years back, my brother and cousins and I went in together to buy my Grandma a Nintendo DS; she plays Sudoku every day, and occasionally Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box.  Puzzle games like this are often recommended by doctors to help our grandparents keep their wits sharp as age begins to dull them.  We need to think in different ways, to engage different abilities of our brains, just to keep our brains healthy.  Shooters work on reflexes and hand-eye coordination; the first time I played Counterstrike, I died six times without even seeing another player.  A few years later I was pwning n00bs with the best of them.  Driving games work on our reflexes, depth perception, and even a little math: your brain has to calculate how much to slow down without hitting the wall, and at what point in a curve to start your turn, where to accelerate to power through a corner, etc.

Many games these days even have a moral or ethical element.  I remember when Star Wars: KOTOR came out, the light side/dark side points blew me away as a game concept; Fable took it further, with physical changes to your character depending on your fame or notoriety, and KOTOR 2 had your own choices affecting others around you, with supposedly equal but opposite benefits on either side of the spectrum.  Now it’s fairly standard in games to have this element.  In Bioshock, you get the same benefits either way – so your moral choices in the game are not based on your desire for a certain powerup that only a good or evil person could get; they are simply moral choices.

My answer to #3 then is, yes, video games do not (usually) produce anything outside of ourselves – but neither does any other form of sport or leisure.  Sports condition our body and draw us together as a team; games condition our mind, and draw us together as a guild/clan/team/etc.

My answer to the usual critiques in general, then, is: yes, video games can be harmful, but they sure can’t be singled out among other aspects of our society and lumped together with blanket statements of evilness.  The appeal to Philippians 4:8 to condemn video games is really an appeal to goodness that condemns the evil in all of us – in this case, an appeal that refuses to see that video games often contain the very good things that Philippians 4:8 is talking about.

On a Positive Note

I’ve spent too long on the defence here: it’s time to talk about how video games are described by Philippians 4:8.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. – Philippians 4:8 (ESV)

1. True: Video games, like all art, can be incredible portrayals of what is true – not just on a literal level, but on deeper levels as well.  Video games often utilize symbols and metaphors, portraying strange or fantastic worlds and impossible feats – often to show us something true about reality.  And the argument against video games, that being more involved in the violence they portray heightens the negative affect of that violence on us, goes both ways: being more involved in the positive aspects of video games heightens their positive effect on us.

2. Honourable and just: honour and justice play a large role in most video games, even some of the most violent.  That doesn’t excuse many of them, but it’s interesting to note that, as they say, there is “honour among thieves.”  We all have an innate sense of justice and honour.  Games exist that justify violence and revenge by the concepts of justice and honour – a common notion in our society, actually, especially in places that still execute criminals.  But there are many games that give an even stronger sense of justice, and allow players to forgive their enemies, or rescue those who would hurt them (I’m thinking Bioshock here).

3. Pure: as I mentioned above, there are many games out there that allow the player to make moral choices, often without seeing any direct benefit.  They place a player in a very evil situation, and then give a view of goodness, of purity, in a way that makes us crave it.  I hate to take all of my examples from Bioshock, but in the darkness of Rapture, saving Little Sisters seems to be the only light, and turning them back into innocent children is a shining beam of purity in a filthy world.

4. Lovely: More and more, games are absolutely breathtaking in their artwork.  Take a moment to think about that: beauty is a moral, ethical, and aesthetic good.

5. Commendable, Excellent, Praiseworthy: There are some awful games out there – awful morally, but much more often, awful in every sense.  But some games are absolutely masterful!  Excellence in art, story, music, voice acting, gameplay, replayability – such excellence exists, and seems to be coming more often.  We would praise any one of those things being excellent on their own, but games combine all of these things into a feast for all senses (except smell and taste, but don’t think they’re not working on it!).  Games are a new dimension of art, combining many art forms into one for an immersive experience different from all others.  Surely pulling such a feat off is worthy of praise!

This is an example of why so many “Christian” games are so awful: in spite of their “Christian” message, they’re absolutely terrible games.  There’s nothing to admire in so many of them, that I seriously question the “Christian” prefix entirely.

It’s also an example of why EA is a sort of video game antichrist, offering wonderful morsels of gaming goodness in terribly buggy games without any real support – but that’s for another post.

This post is for Game Church: I hardly know you, but I love that you exist, that you’re out there, that you love Jesus and games.  Keep playing games, my sisters and brothers, because they’re not all bad; just choose games that make you better, that give you a chance to be Jesus to someone.  “Be excellent to one another,” and people might find that there’s something praiseworthy in games after all.