The Gospel of Video Games

For a home-schooled boy growing up in the church, there is nothing more thrilling than to enter the 6th grade. Not only are you once and for all leaving the trappings of childhood behind, you are, in fact, gaining access to that most mysterious and alluring social circle, the church youth group. For the first time, you find yourself spending time with the coolest of the cool: high-schoolers. If they say something is cool, you’d better believe it’s pretty darn cool.

I remember once overhearing two high-school students conversing in hushed tones.

“I heard you can sleep with a prostitute.”

“I heard you can sleep with her and then kill her and take her money. You can kill her with anything ... Even, like, a squeegee or something.”

I was terrified. I had no idea what a squeegee was, and I certainly didn’t want to find out. It was the fall of 2001, and the discussion was inspired by the recent release of Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto 3. In my incredibly limited network of acquaintances, I started hearing more about it.  If the authority figures in my life were to be believed, it was probably the worst game ever conceived by a depraved human mind. I had no idea that it had received widespread critical praise, and I certainly had no idea that it would pave the way for Grand Theft Auto 4; Metacritic’s highest rated game of all time, and a game that was heralded for its mature depiction of the psychological consequences of violence, as well as its satirical parody of the excesses of the American Dream. No, as far as I knew, it and games like it were corrupting an entire generation, rewarding young children for doing terrible things to innocent people. As far as I knew, video games were, at worst, destroying society, and at best, idolatry and a waste of time. Yet I wanted to play them anyway, they were just so fun.

This was the paradox I found myself growing up into. I longed to play video games with everyone else, but I was unable to understand how my Christian faith could co-exist healthily with the games I wanted to play.

For a moment, I want you to forget about whatever you’ve heard about the conflict of faith and games, and simply look at some of the stats surrounding games. Statistics from 2010 show that 68% of US households play video games. More than ⅓ of parents say they play games, and of these, 93% have children who play with them. These gamers play an average of 8 hours a week, and their purchases generated an estimated 10.5 billion dollars of revenue in 2010. This year, blockbuster release Modern Warfare 3 accrued a billion dollars in a mere 16 days, setting the record for best selling anything, ever.

Video games should matter to Christians, because they matter to our culture. The medium is like a screaming infant, begging for attention, and already affecting life as we know it. It’s causing people to reevaluate our understanding of art, sociality, recreation, and even education.

So what are Christians doing to engage this arena of culture? I asked myself that for years, because I would always hear inspiring stories about Christians who dreamt of bringing Kingdom beauty and truth into mediums like music, literature and film, but when it comes to games, it seems like all we’ve had has been Bible Adventures and, um, Left Behind: Eternal Forces. Games which, someone, somewhere may have enjoyed, but simultaneously were games that fell far short of most people’s standards in terms of almost everything (quality, stability, originality, etc.) except their spotless morals (and not even Left Behind quite measures up in that regard). What has the Church done to engage the massive industry that is video games? Not much, it seems.

It would be easy to become cynical and dismissive. That’s what many Christians have done. Even many of the ones that love games in general have written off the idea of Christians making games. But thank God that there are dreamers and artists, even in the gaming industry. Indeed, not only are there many believers bringing the Kingdom to earth through jobs at major game developers, but there are also people like Chris Skaggs and his team at Soma Games, a group of Christians who are making games for a larger market that just the Christian sub-culture; games filled with themes of truth and grace. They aren’t trying to use games to preach at people, just point them in the right direction.

I recently spoke with Chris (a man who has been described as “The Tolstoy of gaming,” though he would probably prefer a comparison to CS Lewis) about the state of Christianity and games. He sounded like a visionary as he told me clearly of his desire to make quality games that would also bring an invitation to the mystery of the truth to everyone who played them. I asked what other believers could do, beyond making their own games. He said that we can put our money where our faith is, not just in the sense of boycotting Secular Game X, but in the sense of intentionally supporting people like him and others like him. (Did I mention, Soma Games’ second release, Wind Up Robots, was just released for IOS?)

Call me crazy, but I believe that the Kingdom of God can be established in the gaming industry. My prayer is that as more believers become conscientious of the incredible amount of influence that games have in our society, that we would hear less of a protest against what games are doing, and instead begin to hear more hope-filled, joy-filled conversation about what games can do. You can be a part of this. Make a commitment to buy games that mean something, and pray that God’s kingdom would come and his will would be done in the video game industry.

Jordan Ekeroth is Editor of Follow and Engage, an ongoing project to bring attention to the ways that Christians are interacting with video game culture.

27 Comments

Cryptopur

6

Cryptopur commented…

There is a very well written article on Q Ideas called "Fiction for the Common Good"
http://www.qideas.org/blog/fic...

It's about authors but is essentially the same question and discussion we have here and how Christian authors have or have not engaged with that medium.

I think the lead paragraph sums up the same kind of decision we have to make regarding games or any other cultural medium.

"Ask your neighbors for an off-the-cuff reaction to the words Christian literature and youre likely to hear them stumble through a list of belittling adjectives. Despite the swelling ranks of able Christian writers, the reaction demonstrates that weheirs to the tradition of Chaucer, Milton, and Donne; successors to Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekov; the literary descendants of G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers, and of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and of Flannery OConnor and Walker Percyare now viewed as an inconsequential presence in the world of literature. We have, volitionally, banished ourselves to the inspiration section at the back of Barnes & Noble. And by doing so, we may have abandoned our neighbors and left literature in the hands of writers whod leave them hopeless."

84,932

Anonymous commented…

Hi Scott,

I've wondered whether I should throw my hat in the ring here on this, seeing as I have my own little corner of the internet to play in, but I thought your thoughts here were worth commenting on.

I think that your statement "Replace the words "video games" in that sentence with any secular fad or subculture that you chose..." is very interesting. You're right in saying that a particular sector of American Christianity is interested in engaging every fad, every trend, and every subculture.

But I think this comes from a radically incarnational theology.There is a sense, a conviction, that Christ can redeem any expression of humanity that exists. Video games are one of these expressions, like music, books, or movies (though not exactly like). Christ's ability to redeem each and every piece of creation is part of how I (at least) understand Christian hope. The whole creation is groaning to be made new, and that includes video games and even the GTA series.

Of course, that means actually becoming new in Christ, and that's why I think Jordan's premise is right on (though I would, in my own way, phrase it slightly differently).

Essentially I think there are two views in Christian thought about this kind of thing, and both have their roots deep in our faith. The first is that much of what humanity does is crap, and it will be burned away from us when we are made new in the resurrection. The second, the view I take, is that much of what humanity does has a core of the eternal in it, a core of goodness, and this will be breathed into life by Christ when the last day comes and all that is dead (even our poor attempts at fun and humor) will be raisd into a glorious image of God.

Because our theology is Eschetological, and we believe that the Kingdom Is Coming (already here, but not yet here fully) we can live in that redeemed mindset now, and seek to bring some of that Christ-life into everything.

My apologies for this longwinded intrusion.

84,932

email to fax commented…

There are some games that are not that violent but are pretty boring. I just wish that there would be games that are exciting but not violent.

84,932

Anonymous commented…

This is worth mentioning, if anyone ever stumbles across this article. Scott took particular exception to my GTA reference. I just wrote on that game with a bit more depth over here:
http://gamechurch.com/understa...

Matt

2

Matt commented…

Great article. I think that it is important for Christians to engage with video gaming culture. However, I am not sure that the answer is to make "Christian" video games. Following you reference to Tolstoy, I think that what we need is to make great video games that also speak truth about the human condition, etc. (much like Tolstoy's great works, which were not "Christian," yet still affirmed much about Christianity).

And for those of us who are not game designers, I think the call is to engage thoughtfully with the games we play and with the gaming communities in which we find ourselves. My own blog (TheBibleSalesman.wordpress.com) is dedicated to this end--trying to encourage Christians to think about the spiritual and theological contexts of the games we play. I have often argued that video games are like literature... clearly not all books are profitable to read; however, there is a great deal of literature (much of it not technically "Christian") that can be profitably read and discussed. All games make statements and assumptions about the nature of life and goodness. There needs to be Christians who are willing to participate in these discussions.

I understand comments like those made by Andrew. Games can be a mindless waste of time; however, if we actively engage in their narratives, and question how they measure up to a biblical worldview, and what they say about the world in general, these can be positive experiences. I have recently engaged with many unbelievers about topics of faith thanks to my own blog posts on the spiritual significance of the Final Fantasy series. Anyways, thanks for bringing up this topic!

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