I have a confession to make: I am a gamer. I've been a gamer ever since I got my first Nintendo Entertainment System, pushed the "A" button, and was amazed to see Mario jump across the TV screen. Since then I've progressed across various systems including the original Nintendo, Atari, Super Nintendo, Gameboy, Nintendo 64, Playstation, Playstation 2, Wii, and my two current favorites: the PC and the Playstation 3.
So now it's out in the open: I am a gamer. But I am also a Christian, and as a Christian, I need to evaluate whether it is okay for me to play video games, and if so, what types of video games are acceptable. Let's start with the question of whether or not it is okay to play video games.
What is the justification for playing video games? The easy answer: "It's fun." Fun is a good reason to do a thing, but not good enough. Christianity teaches that joy is a great good, so fun is a good sign that there is something worthwhile about a thing. But many things mix worthwhile parts with enough worthless harms to ruin them. Some good does not justify even more bad. I loathe the attitude of some that being fun is a good reason to worry about the goodness of a thing, but I equally worry that in our consumerist culture, we might justify too much in the name of fun. So what further justification is there beyond fun? I can think of four:
(1) Video games can promote high-order thinking skills. These skills include components such as reading, strategic thinking, creative problem solving, dependency-based logic, interpretive analysis, plan formulation and execution, and adaptation to rapid change. Nearly every video game teaches one or more of these skills.
(2) Video games can promote creativity and art. Many games invite players to design their own levels, customize characters, create their own add-on content, and even modify the game in drastic ways.
(3) Video games can promote community and interpersonal skills. This community promotion includes both online community and local community. Community can be created by sharing online experiences with people from around the world (especially with the advent of Bluetooth headsets and video chats becoming available in games). Video games can also be a venue for personal fellowship locally. It's a ton of fun to sit next to a friend challenging them at your favorite game. I've personally known people who established relationships with others over a video game, and then invited that person to church and seen a dramatic transformation occur. Because video games can promote community, they necessarily can teach interpersonal skills, especially teamwork.
(4) Video games can teach moral lessons. This is a somewhat controversial point because video games can teach either positive or negative moral lessons, depending on the game. However, I would submit that there are many positive lessons to be had from video games.
Of course, these positive factors need to be tempered by the fact that all video games can be harmful in excess. The same is true with nearly everything God created to be enjoyed by us. Sex is a good thing (within marriage), but if someone becomes preoccupied with sex, this desire can become destructive. In the same way, we must be careful that we do not become preoccupied with video games so that they consume our souls and our time. We are given a limited amount of time on this earth, and we need to make sure we use this time wisely. We must pray with the Psalmist, "Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom" (Ps. 90:12). Often our time can be better spent than playing video games. But it would be wrong to say that all time spent on video games (or personal entertainment in general) is wrong. God knows we need times of rest and relaxation, and these are not sinful. So is it okay for Christians to play video games? I conclude that it is okay for Christians to play video games in moderation. This brings us to our second question.
What types of games are acceptable for Christians to play? It doesn't cut it just to say "a game that is well made" since such a statement is as irrelevant to the morality of the game as the efficiency of a murder plan is to its moral status.
The essential question players ought to ask is whether playing a game hurts us... and by hurting us hurts those who love us. Does playing a game make us less loving, more apt to spew hateful crudities, decrease intimacy, make us more likely to objectify men and women, more prone to detach our emotions from our experiences? Does playing this game harm my soul? This is the central question we must be ask. There are a number of ways that games can do this. I will briefly discuss six such ways:
(1) The depiction of evil. Many games depict unspeakable evils. However, this does not necessarily make them wrong. Not all presentations of evil are evil themselves. We can all agree that showing the raw side of life does not make a thing bad. The Bible itself quite often depicts the raw side of life. It seems that the relevant question is how that evil is presented. A film that presented genocide in a favorable manner would not be good for the culture. A film that showed the ugliness of genocide would be very, very hard to watch, but might be good for me. The book of Judges in the Bible has horrific things in it, but they are presented as the hard truth about evil. Some games present evil things as evil. For example, the Call of Duty series presents the atrocities of the Nazis in World War II as evil acts that warranted a war. However, other games present evil as the norm or even cool. In Grand Theft Auto, the goal of the game is to work your way up in an organized crime network by stealing cars, visiting prostitutes, going to strip clubs, avoiding the police, and robbing people. This game depicts evil as cool, and thus cannot be considered morally right. Therefore in evaluating whether we ought to play a game or not, we must consider how evil is presented in the game. Is it evil depicted as evil, or is it depicted as exciting, normal, cool, or good?
(2) Participation in virtual violence. Psychologists have said that participation in virtual violence can have harmful effects on one's disposition (see this article). Gamers like to respond that the Old Testament contains violent themes and images. This is a valid point that ought to be considered. Not all violence is evil or harmful to one's soul. Some violence is heroic and good for one's soul. For example, consider watching the violence that occurs in the film The Passion of the Christ. Although the violence in this film is perhaps the most horrific violence ever depicted in film, it is nonetheless arguably good for one's soul. Therefore we must ask ourselves in what sort of virtual violence are we participating? Is the violence heroic or senseless? Pretending for hours at a time to be an allied fighter pilot in World War II (as in Blazing Angels) is not morally the same as pretending to be a street thug who beats up an elderly woman for fun (as in Grand Theft Auto). Killing in combat seems morally different from killing in a robbery. Thus in assessing whether we ought to play a game, we should assess the type of virtual violence within the game.
(3) Encouragement of false beliefs about reality. Many games encourage false and anti-biblical beliefs about reality. This occurs mainly through stereotypes and the depiction of false worldviews. In playing a video game, we must be aware of the stereotypes and worldviews found within, and be able to separate these from reality. If we cannot do so, then a game may be harmful to our souls. However, if we are able to distinguish the truth from the lie, then this can become an exercise in critical thinking and help one to develop a more holistic Christian worldview. Of course, a game that encourages false beliefs would still be harmful to the general culture even if Christians were able to rightly discern the truth.
(4) Exposure to pornography and crudity. The pornography and crudity in a video game is real and not virtual. As someone who wants (however difficult it is) to have a great love and share intimacy with just one person, I cannot expose myself to a video game that includes pornography. (And for those of you who are unaware, there are plenty of games that feature pornographic material of some sort). By crudity I mean the foul language and ugliness involved in many video games. Does this impact me? Of course, it does. If innocence and gentleness of spirit are good, then we ought to consider that games with crudity make such attitudes hard. To avoid becoming jaded, we ought to avoid games with pornography and crudity. As Paul said, "I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil" (Rom 16:19).
(5) Detachment from reality. One of the greatest dangers of video games is that they encourage distancing oneself from one's own experience. Gamers frequently say that highly realistic games do not make them killers or thieves. This is true. It does, however, encourage (like the consumption of all media) distancing oneself from what one sees and hears. Do we really want to make ourselves distant from our experiences? Do we want to become detached from our own emotions? What if we cannot "turn off" this distancing mechanism? If we cannot do so, then we may end up treating people as "means to an end" rather than "ends" themselves. It may even become difficult for us to experience appropriate emotional responses to people and events in our everyday lives. We must be careful that we do not become detached from reality by playing video games. It's for this reason that I recommend that people who do play video games fast from the games they play every once in a while to keep themselves in check.
(6) Addiction to adrenaline. It's easy to get in the habit of constantly seeking another thrill--seeking the next adrenaline rush. Often video games are like action scenes in a movie that never let up. This constant excitement can become addictive. In a world of elevator music where we almost never have time to hear ourselves think, it's important to be able to quiet and compose our souls before the Lord so that we are able to hear from Him and walk with Him (see Ps. 131). Sometimes playing video games can foster an adrenaline addiction that makes this almost impossible. Video games are not the only thing that do this. The sensate, consumerist, media-driven nature of our culture makes this a real danger for anyone who experiences the normal media that someone sees in a day. It's for this reason that we must be careful to play video games in moderation and to make silence and solitude regular spiritual disciplines.
So while all video games are not bad, some video games certainly are. In evaluating whether a video game is acceptable for a Christian to play, the above six criteria are helpful in evaluating a game. To conclude this post, my hope is that this has served as a model of how to thoughtfully integrate the Christian worldview with a normal, everyday issue. As Christians, we ought to be in the habit of thinking about how our behavior effects our souls. In order to have a holistic Christian worldview, this should extend to every area of life, including the video games we play. If anyone has a PS3 and wants to play with me online, my PSN ID is "eRaCer001" (without the quotation marks). Happy gaming!
Note: My thoughts on this subject are based partially and in some cases verbatim on a couple of blog posts by John Mark Reynolds, which can be found here and here.