Charisma Magazine has just run their first ever web article dealing with video games! It’s entitled “Why Are Video Games Depicting Religion As Violent?”
They’ve featured the research of one Greg Perreault, whose studies of several AAA titles has led him to conclude, ”Not only was the violent side of religion emphasized, but in each of these games religion created a of problem that the main character must overcome, whether it is a direct confrontation with religious zealots or being haunted by religious guilt.”
He is also quick to add that he believes these games are less interested in making a statement about the nature of religion as much as they are interested in trying to create drama and excitement within their already-violent worlds. Whatever the case, it’s at least an interesting sign that a large Christian publication has started covering the more thoughtful side of games-research.
A good sign for us here at Follow and Engage, and all our friends around the web.
One of the first issues that was ever tackled here in any depth was that of violence in games. This week we have a few new additions to the conversation. Before we begin, let me restate that here at Follow and Engage we are presently less interested in telling you what to think about the intersection of faith and video games, and more interested in bringing attention to the Christians who are using their own voices to engage the issue.
First up we have Richard Clark, writing for Gamechurch, continuing his series on “Disturbing” games (which we recently introduced.) He takes a look at the type of violence that is depicted in Far Cry 2, a game that puts you in the shoes of a violent mercenary working in war-torn Africa. In fact, Richard says, “If you are playing Far Cry 2 with intentions of clear heroism, of saving lives and making the world a better place, you’re playing the wrong game… Throughout the game, there are subtle nods to your inability to accomplish good as well as the dangerous nature of your bloodthirsty tendencies. ” You’ll have to read the article itself to understand his conclusion in it’s entirety, but essentially he argues that the game is masterful in it’s depiction of violence simply for the reason that it successfully communicates the depravity of attempting to use violence to achieve any real good. However, we must keep in mind that this is still both a game and an opinion for “Mature” audiences.
All too often the discussion of video game violence becomes centered around it’s desensitizing effects in children, not on it’s effects in “grown-ups.” Something that I’ve been wanting to share for a while is this article on the merits of violence as a tool to be used by Christian artists (not specific to games). It was written by Alex Wilgus for RelevantMagazine.com.
A highlight of the article is his examination of the way two Christian authors, Flannery O’Conner and Walker Percy used violence to communicate truth. In that section he notes that “Violence acts as a sharpener to help an important message stand out from the common run of things. This sort of extreme content is actually beneficial in preaching the message of the Gospel to those lulled to sleep by the siren song of modernity, which tells us to eat, spend, consume, fornicate and get on with our fellows without offending anybody, and everything will be all right. When asked why she went to such extremes in her stories, O’Connor responded that when an audience does not hold the same beliefs as you do, “then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing, you shout and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.””
Ultimately he concludes that violence may no longer be effective in getting people’s attention. “Whatever should be done, it is clear the Christian artist faces a peculiar enemy today: the expanding boredom of the modern age, which has the power to wash out even the severest expressions, and violence is its latest casualty. It is the constant duty of the Christian artist to outwit this amoebic tendency to consume and excrete, to make retail of riches. She must forge new paths of expression and restore old ones. When the world builds for itself a Tower of Babel, then she must paint a pile of rubble, and then when it is knocked down and the peoples wander in the refuse, she must paint a glittering city with jasper walls and foundations of precious stone.” But the 67 debate-filled comments that ensued show that the issue is far from settled. Many people were quick to point out that even today violence and distasteful content are still being used to grab people’s attention, and what’s needed more now is discernment than a one-size fits all approach. It’s an interesting thought.
What makes the discussion about violence in games so poignant is peculiarly interactive nature of the medium, and the increasingly immersive experiences it creates. In other mediums, violence can be meditated on from a distance, in most games it’s up close and personal. Writing for Popmatters, Jorge Albor wondered if humanity could be capable of returning to the barbarity of the Roman Coliseum games, and if the desensitization caused by violent games might have something to do with it.
“I know this issue of violence in games is an ongoing and controversial subject, so much so that many of us just ignore questions of violence and morality all together. Regardless, when engaging in extreme digital violence, we brush up against our own moral boundaries. I have no qualms about playing The Darkness 2, and I would never suggest that those who love gore are morally bankrupt. However, I know that I have a personal moral line and that this line is not set in stone. My boundaries and opinions shift constantly and subtly. Given the pace of technology and the ongoing role of violent media in our culture, I fear that this line will be pushed ever closer towards Roman-era spectacle without my notice. If any form of violence in media raises moral questions, then we should confront these moral questions now and never let this subject rest easy.”
So could very negative content ever be a positive thing for Christians? It’s easy for us to accept it when it’s found in scripture. In scripture we can see both the depravity of man and the grace and holiness of God fully on display. But it seems to be another thing when that same depravity is depicted in modern content, where the grace of God is something that we are tasked with extending. It will be interesting to keep up with Rich’s series on disturbing content, and it will be interesting to hear what you all think of the subject.
Joshua Wise, Editor-in-Chief of The Cross and The Controller (You can read out feature on the site here) is passionate about exploring the deeper meaning of video games. He is also a downright genius. Here, in his own words, he shares a few thoughts about himself, video games, and systematic, incarnational theology.
Talk about yourself Josh. Where are you from? What do you do? And how long have you been into gaming?
Well, I’m from South Jersey (the more rural, non-fist pumping half of the state). I’ve lived in the strange world that this is for all of my life, except for college: 15 minutes from a city, 15 minutes from the only forested desert on the planet, and 15 minutes from horse, dairy, and llama farms.
My day job, for the last nine years, and for the next five or six months, is a software developer. I started off writing macros for Excel and have moved on, in the last seven years to being a .net developer. At this point in my career I mostly oversee project development, and the coding that I do is mainly for myself, usually focused on our website or some side project.
At night though I’m a dedicated Seminarian, working on my MA in Systematic Theology, and preparing to (hopefully) start a PhD this fall in the same subject. And all of the time, I’m a husband, married two years now to my beautiful wife Sara.
Being 33, I, like so many gamers of my generation, started in the hobby when I was 4 or 5 when my parents bought us an Atari 2600 for Christmas when it was cheap (“Under 50 bucks!”). I remember very specifically thinking I was extremely stupid that I couldn’t figure out how to beat E.T. on that system, and feeling vindicated years later when I really got involved in the community and learned how bad that game really was.
How long have you been seriously interested in the intersection of faith and gaming?
Only a few years. I would like to say that it was a theological move, but it was mostly from a deep desire to produce something. However, my theology has caught up with my praxis, which is pretty typical for an Episcopalian with our whole “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi” thing. I see that intersection now as an outworking of incarnation centered theology.
There are two views, I think, of Christ’s work on earth, and both are rooted in Scripture. There is the view that Christ has come to sanctify some things, and to condemn other things. The other is that Christ has come to call all things to Himself, and to sanctify them in Himself. I take the second view, especially as I tend to have a rather medieval (or rather Athanasian) view of evil, in that I don’t think it is a thing that exists. I see it as a lack, and that that lack is what is condemned by Christ. Thus, human beings are called to Christ, and He destroys the lack in their lives, in their beings. In other words, He fills them in. So what we would call evil is “destroyed” but only in the same way that a hole is destroyed when it is filled in.
As well, I think that intersection falls under the command of God to the first human beings to have dominion over the earth. Video games are a creation of humanity, and thus they fall under the rule of God. However, that rule seems to be mitigated through humanity, just as God’s rule of the earth is mitigated in many ways through humanity. That dominion plays itself out, in some ways, in learning to master our creation. Christ shows us a glimpse of what this looks like in its fullness with some of his miracles (water to wine, walking on water, calming the storm), so the idea of manipulating our creation to such a degree as to make whole new (albeit very small) worlds, seems like an area that falls under the theological gaze.
So as to this particular question, these ideas have been forming themselves in my theology in one way or the other over the past decade and a half, ever since I read my first few books by C.S. Lewis. They have really only come to fruition, however, in my recent studies of Orthodox Theology and some of the great teachers of the Orthodox tradition. So you could say that the intersection of gaming and faith started when C.S. Lewis showed me that nothing was outside of the realm of Christ, but didn’t bubble up in my mind until the last few years.
How did TCaTC get started? What was your vision in starting it?
Well, as I said, it was a bit mercenary. I wanted to write, and I wanted to start to contribute to the conversation about theology. I’m a rather conflicted person when it comes to this conversation. I don’t think I’m quite good enough to be doing theology with the “big boys and girls” yet, and I’m rather disgusted with some of the internet discussion of theology as it has existed over the past couple of decades. So I have found myself not feeling ready for the first, and actively avoiding the second.
And then I thought, “hey, I know some stuff about video games” and “I know some stuff about theology” and I thought I could do something there. The site started mainly as a way for me to present what I thought was a unique perspective on gaming. The site has become more than that and less than that in some ways. I am not, at present, quite doing what I set out to do with the site, though I’m hoping to change that very soon. However, there are now, and have been, so many wonderful voices on the site that have been and are doing interesting and new things that I can’t do, that I’m really encouraged.
But my vision really is to bring the kind of incarnational theology to an understanding of gaming. That can be quite difficult on a game by game, day by day basis.
As well, the site was also envisioned as something of a counterpoint to sites that claim that they know what is best for Christians to do or think when it comes to gaming. As American Christians, especially in certain traditions, I think we have a very narrow view of what the word “Christian” means, and very often a wildly uninformed and uneducated one. The moralistic overtones of some other sites, and churches in general with regard gaming, deeply bothers me. I wanted to do something that opposed that perspective, and I think we have succeeded at that.
Do you see any trends developing in the world of video games? Specifically any trends that you think more Christians should be aware of?
Well, any gamer can see what trends are out there, but I think the one that most bothers me is a basic problem when art and capitalism meet. This isn’t specifically a problem in gaming, but in any consumable artistic medium, whether it is writing novels, creating television, or music. The idea of art is that it is something that we interact with, something that elicits a human response from us. It is the expression of one or more people presented to other people in the attempt to communicate some element of the human condition. Video games are just this kind of thing, even if they are often, to compare them to books, of the dimestore novel variety.
However, with the rise of the mega-publishers, we find that the experimentation and expression of some developers is co-opted. What was an end in itself, the communication of human experience, has become a means of bringing in money. Now, and this is my own theological take on this as I’m not an economist, I believe that Capitalism does this to everything. I think it does it, ultimately to people as well, so clearly video games are not the paramount issue here. However, in gaming, we see the repetition of franchises every single year, like the Rockband and Guitar Hero games, as well as things like the Tony Hawk and now Assassin’s Creed series.
There’s a fine balance that needs to exist between creating a product that gives joy to both the creators of the medium, and those who engage it. That joy is worth something to both sides, and so developers will work long hours on something they love, albeit as well for a paycheck. Players will pay money to engage it, and thus provide that paycheck. This is a symbiotic relationship that is glorious for both sides. However, what some (not all) publishers have started to do, is to exploit that relationship so that it is no longer a joy for either side, and thus we see that developers are no longer willing to dedicate themselves to making the same game year after year, and players aren’t willing to buy them.
This is an example of very bad stewardship, and I think it is something that could deeply hurt the gaming community in years to come. It hurt us very badly in the middle 80′s, and I think it could deeply hurt us again.
But as far as story or play trends, I don’t know that there is anything that Christians should be aware of. Christians are given the Christ-Life and the Holy Spirit, the community of believers and the Eucharist to help them discern how they should engage the world that they (along with everyone else) are the lords and ladies of. They don’t need me to tell them what to be on the lookout for in those areas.
You can see Josh’s ongoing work at The Cross and The Controller. To see the first part of our feature on the site, click here. Check back soon for a first look at a brand new venture they’re launching soon.