It’s been awhile since we’ve had any links on here featuring articles by Christians (besides myself) commenting on the ever shifting and changing world of videogames. Today I want to get you all caught up, because there have truly been some GEMS published in the past couple weeks. I don’t expect you to make it through this all in a day, so perhaps you might just keep this page open for a few days, coming back to it at your leisure. Perhaps you might also take a moment to click the Facebook “Like” button on the right of this post. That would be splendid.
Anyways; no time to waste.
First, you may have already seen this article, as it’s been making the rounds on the net, being featured on Critical Distance as well as Rock Paper Shotgun, but Drew Dixon wrote an article for Gamechurch on “The Idealist World of Videogame Pacifists.” In it he looks at a trend that has been getting some attention recently, virtual pacifism. Said Dixon, “Certainly the way in which games tend to portray violence is conveniently consequence free and far too productive in terms of solving problems. In the real world violence lends itself to lasting consequences, it rarely solves problems and more often compounds them. So perhaps the noble course is to traverse the frozen tundra of Skyrim in peace.” But as he goes on he notes:
“I saw the selfishness inherent to Mullin’s pacifism. Playing the game this way would require running from dragons while they ravaged Skyrim’s villages literally killing hundreds of people. It would involve regularly turning a blind eye to injustice and allowing bandits and ruffians to continue to terrorize the innocent when I could do something about it were it not for my “convictions” against violence.”
Rich Clark also just wrote a tremendous article about Journey for Gamechurch. He draws comparisons between the videogame and the spiritual journey that all Christians go through.
“It’s not a story about a man on a Journey. It’s our story. It’s your story.
And so, most of the time we press forward. We walk to the nearest landmark, just to find some purpose. And we think: maybe we’ve found it. A kind of altar exists, and our avatar bows and prays. In return, it provides guidance – but not nearly enough to satisfy our curiosity. We begin to realize that these landmarks provide us with a kind of foreshadowing that prepares us for our part in the story. Through a glass darkly, we see what awaits us, but only barely. It’s not enough to convince us, but it’s enough to keep us going.
It’s my story.”
We’re definitely going to miss The Cross and The Controller, but one of the last articles that Joshua Wise wrote before announcing the site’s close was a piece called “Kara, The Garden, and Gaming“. In it, he talks about a tech demo that was shown off at the recent Game Developers Conference, the parallels which that demo shares with the Garden of Eden story, and the consequences that advanced game technology are going to hold for our playing experiences. This was something that really resonated with me, and definitely provided some great food for thought.
“Gamers have been accused of being desensitized to violence because of video games, but I think the opposite is true. We have not yet, because of the abstraction of game characters from real life people, been faced deeply with these issues on a broad scale. Certainly there are characters who die in games that leave us hurting as much as any character in a novel or movie. But when the people who are manufactured just for our titillation seem like real people, will we be able to maintain the same bravado that we have so far? Can the guy who can’t talk to girls in real life manage to talk to the girl who seems just as real, just as beautiful, and just as unattainable, in a video game? Or will we have to restrain the characters (by way of our writing and acting and coding) to the same two dimensional existence that the product tester does in Kara?”
Also worth noting, by Steven Sukkau, is “Why Side Quests Matter“, written for Gamechurch (Have I mentioned that I’m a fan of Gamechurch?) He points out that even though “side quests” can seem pointless in games, they’re a great illustration of life, especially for believer. “It’s moments like these, not saving humanity as a whole (leave that to Jesus) but loving another human being, that make us heroes. It’s the small self-sacrificial acts like doing the dishes without complaining or sweeping the floor before my wife asks that makes a difference.Though they may seem less potent, actions like Listening to a neighbour in an attempt to understand their heart and speaking a prayer into their life–those are true words of power.”
Finally let me share one little blurb that I really happen to agree with, from Bryan Hall at his blog, in a post about the pitfalls of having influence:
“I do not want to be a stumbling block to anyone. I do not want to destroy the work of God over something as petty as what I consume media-wise. With this in mind, anytime I write about a certain game or a game review on this site, I am writing about it just to share my experience. I am not writing about it to brag or to cause someone to stumble (“Hey look, Bryan is doing it, we can too!”). Just because I can guilt-free, without conviction, play a first person shooter doesn’t mean that you necessarily can. God may convict you over things that I am not convicted over. That is cool.
I now know that being in a leadership position, a position or platform in the open, automatically holds me to a higher standard. As a blogger, that is something that is constantly running through the back of my mind. I have a responsibility for what I write and say. Words can bring either life or death.”
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! I still have more links I want to share, so look for another post like this over the weekend!
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.
Let’s be honest here. It can be really intimidating to look at a blog post filled with links to articles and commentary on the articles. It’s definitely intimidating to write, and I can only imagine how it feels to read. In fact, just looking at the stats here, while quite a few people have been visiting the site, very few people actually click on any of the links. So, welcome to something new. Welcome to Engage.
Think of Engage as bite-sized portions of what Follow and Engage is all about. That is, rather than compiling large posts every week or so, I’ll be sharing individual articles and commentary on those articles as they pop up on the internet and catch my attention. They’re easier to digest and just as importantly, easier to share. Additionally, it will allow me to share faster and more frequently, so you’ll always be getting the latest opinions and insights from Christians and others on video games.
We’re going to get started this week with an article that Richard Clark wrote for Gamechurch. Much of what he does in writing about games is to remind Christians that they shouldn’t reject “objectionable” content completely when it’s seen in games. He points out that violent and discomfiting content is a reflection of the world we live in, and something that Christians should seek to engage and understand, not simply vilify. In this article he makes his point masterfully. Here particularly, he talks about how most games that allow us to be the hero do little more for us than reinforce a dogmatic sense of self-righteousness.
“These hero fantasies and early attempts at moral choice in games were good for our sense of self-righteousness. Dialogue wheels and ethical choices provided a certain lip-service to moral realism and ethical complexity. But a certain amount of perspective makes it obvious that even the most complex moral systems with the greyest of grey areas only reinforce a certain falsehood about human nature: that we are capable of making decisions in a logical, binary manner, and that it is within our capability to live a life of quiet perfection in the face of corrupting influences.
“When I play these games, I am a pure, innocent character in a world gone wrong. I feel good about myself, because I am making right the many injustices around me. My hands are hard at work making everything great again. When all is finished, I see villains vanquished and survivors celebrating. I lean back and marvel at what I have accomplished: because of me, Eden is restored, for now.”
Personally, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt personally vindicated by choosing to do “the right thing” in a video game. I remember reading an interview with Peter Molyneux, creator of the Fable series where he talked about the fact that the series’ morality system actually “tempted” players to be evil. In his game there were no penalties for being bad except for the stigma that came with it. Your character looked more evil and people feared you. But ultimately, you could become richer, faster, and you had more freedom within the game to play however you wanted, not constrained by the boundaries of societal acceptability. So, in our world, full of sinful, depraved humans, wouldn’t everyone have chosen that option?
No actually, despite Molyneux’s best efforts to tempt people into being evil, there were still more players who chose the “good” path, desiring to be virtual paragons of justice, despite receiving no real in-game reward. People still saw themselves as the white knights. I was one of these. I remember playing the game, thinking, “what would Jesus do?” Apparently that question wasn’t even necessary, at least not for the thousands of other gamers who chose to be good.
I don’t regret my choice at all. I would repeat it if given the chance. I’m not saying that Christians should try and be bad people in games, I’m just agreeing with Richard and saying we need to stop looking to our media to justify our self-image. In fact, isn’t the core of the gospel that we need to stop looking at our actions entirely to find our identity? Are we not saved entirely by grace through faith, not because of the righteous things we’ve done? And now, are we trying to continue by human effort what was begun by God? If I believe that being good in games does not make me good, why should I believe that being forced to be bad in games can make me bad?
Certainly there are reasons for discerning Christians to think twice about wading into every single title, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that mere distaste for the subject matter cannot be one of them. Not if we want to engage our culture, and certainly not if we want to be able to bring the kingdom of heaven where it’s most needed.
When it comes to the intersection of faith and gaming, there is one main issue for the majority of Christians: violence. Is it possible for Christians to follow the Prince of Peace and yet be implicit in virtual acts of violence? Here on Follow and Engage we put together a three week series on the subject. This is a resource to aid Christians
In PART ONE we put together a collection of links to articles opening up the issue.
In PART TWO we continued with more great links of Christians reflecting on specific facets of game violence.
PART THREE concluded with my personal reflection on what violence in games means to me as a Christian.
If you read pt. 3, you would have seen the paragraph where I listed all the things that I “wanted to talk about,” the practical, theological considerations that must be made when relating to games as a Christian. Here I want to elaborate on those points to create a basic guide for Christians wrestling with issue of violence in games.
IT HAS TO DO WITH INTENTION
Understanding game violence has to do with intention. What are you thinking about when you’re killing virtual bad guys? Because there definitely is a right way and a wrong way to approach games. If you come to a gaming experience with built up aggression and want to work that aggression out through virtual violence, that’s wrong. If we have a root of anger in our lives, we can’t just carry that around with us, we need to bring it to God. Similarly if you come to gaming seeking escapism and fantasy, that’s can also be a wrong motivation. God allows us to go through trials do remind us of our need for him, not to drive us deeper into our created realms. So then, what attitudes can we have to create a healthy gaming experience?
1. A desire for community.
I love playing games with friends. My intentions have nothing to do with wanting to be violent in real life, they have everything to do with a desire for healthy competition, the same as playing a game of Uno, or chess.
2. A desire to rejoice in human creativity.
God made humans in his image and gave everyone the ability to create. I play games to experience the fantastic experiences, stories, and worlds that humans have dreamt up. Human creativity inspires me to worship the original creator.
IT HAS TO DO WITH DISCERNMENT
Understanding game violence also has to do with discernment, a fruit of maturity. For the record, the entire series was not about the effects of game violence in children, it’s about the effects of game violence in me and others like me. The average gamer is 37 years old. Not in middle school, high school or college. They’ve also been playing for an average of 12 years, plenty of time (theoretically) to learn how games affect them and how to respond accordingly. Also for the record, in this series I’m generally referring to games where you play a hero character where there is at least some sense of in-game justification for your actions.
That being said, applying discernment to games is a completely personal process. It’s based on convictions. God is more interested in the position of our hearts than he is in our fulfilling a specific, listed standard. (That was called the law, it was nailed to the cross with Christ.) I know some Christians whose convictions do not allow them to play any violent games whatsoever. I have nothing but grace for these people, Romans 14:13 reminds me that I cannot force my freedoms on them. I also know other Christians who actually delight in the catharsis of virtual violence. My own thoughts make me feel that this attitude may indicate a heart problem, (not a game problem), and yet I still am not given the right to judge them, only to love them.
The point is, approaching a game with discernment is key. I mentioned at the end of pt. 1 that the Bible does give us a standard that we can judge things by, Phillipians 4:8, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” I could make a point about policing our intake and carefully monitoring what we expose ourselves too, but the truth is that I’ve found it to be a far more natural process than that. As I seek God through spending quality time in his presence, what I find is that his desires become my desires. As His love transforms my heart, the process of discernment is easy. I don’t want to do things that dishonor him, and at the same time I’m learning how to experience the good and recognize the bad.
A THEOLOGY OF JOY
Speaking of experiencing the good, let me mention here that I believe in a theology of Joy. If there is one thing that games consistently bring me, it’s joy. I love doing epic things and I love the excitement that games can create. I used to think that if I wanted to make my life count, I needed to make every moment of it count as well. I regularly exhausted myself trying to do more and serve more. Then I had a revelation. Because Jesus made one moment count, I was free from having to make every moment count. The reason he suffered on the cross was so that I could have joy, not just one day in heaven, but here and now. As I find joy in games I remember that the joy I’m experiencing is a fruit of what Christ did for me at Calvary.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there is a time for everything and there is a season for every activity under heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3:1). We move through different seasons in life where our schedules change, our focuses change, our priorities change. Personally, after finishing high school, I went through nearly two full years of almost complete abstinence from video games. This season was fueled by my own convictions that I spent far too much time playing games and far too little time seeking God. I certainly could have just reduced the time I spent playing, but even in retrospect I felt that the extremity of my choice helped me to truly understand for the first time in my life that I really did not need games to help me find fulfillment. We all go through different seasons, and as believers, the key is to learn from that discernment we mentioned earlier and understand what sort of season the Holy Spirit has us in, and why.
CHOOSE FOR YOURSELVES
Finally, I suppose you could say that I’m asking you to wrestle with God. Jacob did, and from that encounter, not only was he forever changed, but he emerged with a new identity, Israel. The only way the church is going to be able to move forward in engaging the cultural arena of video games is if we treat it as the mature medium that it is growing up into- not by writing it off and rejecting it wholesale, and certainly not by excusing it’s flaws and accepting it unquestionably. The church needs to wrestle, to wade into a new discussion, learn what the issues really are, and build there, trusting God to shine through our efforts as a beacon of light and hope and truth. Specifically in dealing with video game violence, every believer needs to be sure of where they stand. Let me be clear once more. I did not put this together to wholeheartedly excuse game violence. There are numerous researchers who are convinced that exposure to violent content can be directly linked to violent tendencies. Certainly, as I mentioned in pt. 3, video game violence is not the main issue. Sin is the main issue. Yet it would be foolish of me to pretend that exposure to extreme violence is not one of the factors that can lead a person to respond violently in certain situations. I believe that is. So ultimately, I pray that this list of considerations, as well as these many linked articles, would help you to come to a better understanding of how to interpret mature content in a mature way, and how to enjoy games and still love Jesus.