Editor’s Note: The question of the exact relationship between violence in the real world and violence in video games has been debated for some time now, but a new report released yesterday has stirred up the debate once again. Officials have found new evidence to suggest that Sandy Hook gunman Adam Lanza was likely acting out a video game fantasy when he shot and killed 20 children and 6 adults on December 14, 2012. We enjoy video games as much as anyone, but this disturbing connection raises many questions, to which there are no easy answers. So today, we wanted to go a little deeper and explore this issue with Kevin Schut, author of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games.
A few years ago, I came across a news article about churches using Halo 3 gaming sessions as a way to get kids to participate in youth ministries. This isn’t the most disturbing game out there, but it is primarily about shooting.
Christians have had a great diversity of opinions about violence, ranging from nearly glorifying it to arguing that God will never condone or accept violence of any sort.
There are many questions involved. What is the difference between flying a plane into a building in a game and in the physical world? How, exactly, do the arguments about physical violence translate to representations and virtual enactments of violence? They are obviously not the same thing, but the nature of the difference is important.
I have argued that Christians can practice violence in times of unusual need, but the apparent evil of violence has a great deal to do with the damage it causes: physical pain, ruptured relationships, the spawning of hatred. In a video game, however, decapitating an orc hurts no physical living being, even if it looks convincing. So, what’s the relationship between representation and the physical world?
Of course, ending a digital life is not the same as ending a physical one, and apparent pain is not the same as experienced pain. It may be reasonable to argue that splattering innards across a digital landscape is in poor taste or even morally revolting. But it is not reasonable to equate pressing the “X” button with pulling a real trigger attached to a real gun that maims and kills physical, living human beings.
The only reasonable fear linking physical and digital violence is that digital actions could encourage antisocial physical actions. But that concern attributes too much power to the video game. Players need to make sense of the game, and they need to process those meanings or the game does nothing. When gamers go violent in the physical world, there’s almost certainly something else going on there. Millions of gamers play violent games, and most do not engage in seriously violent actions. Destructive games are certainly arousing, but to be honest, even chess can have that effect. Competition of any kind can get our blood boiling.
In fact, it may be surprising to non-gamers, but the most visceral, graphic images can start to become a little irrelevant to gamers. The first time a player encounters a game, the graphics and sound can really grab the player’s attention. After a while, however, as the player repeats actions, the narrative fades and the mind shifts its focus to the gameplay—the ghoul ceases to be a rotting, raving, undead monster and becomes simply a roadblock or a point-scoring opportunity. We might call this desensitization, but for some gamers, at least, it is not a lust for destruction: eventually, some gamers start treating the representation of violence as the fiction that it is.
The main point is that game violence is not real violence. That doesn’t make violent video games right, but it does mean we can’t apply the ethical and moral standards relating to physical violence in any simple way.
I also believe that most art—whether it be visual art, storytelling, games or whatever—needs conflict. In the broken world that we presently occupy, struggle is part of existence. A story or game without conflict isn’t much of a story, because it has limited connection with our own experience. It’s not an accident that the story of God’s people—the sacred narrative at the heart of the Christian faith—is full of conflict (some of it quite brutal). We need to work through that conflict in our stories and in our games.
Video games are particularly good at allowing us to play with conflict— to test it and tease it and see it from multiple points of view. I don’t think that being able to play through evil is an invariably positive experience, but at the same time, I agree that having a trial space for imagination gives us an opportunity to grow.
Here’s another way to see it. I think few Christians would critique C.S. Lewis for writing the deeply insightful Screwtape Letters, but to do so, the author had to imaginatively think like a demon.
Even so, many video games deploy violence for all the wrong reasons: to provide cheap emotional thrills, to provide shock appeal, to get publicity, to satisfy bloodlust. Christians should be very cautious in approaching these games. When video-game violence is simply titillating and nothing else, it is sure to have an uneasy relationship with a faith centered on redemption, peace and shalom.
These might seem to be half-answers: Some violence is empty and wrong, while some graphic violence sets the stage for powerfully redemptive messages. Isn’t this just waffling or ducking the issue?
Ultimately, I don’t think so. Many people who debate the rightness or wrongness of violence in video games seem to be looking for a simple standard: All video-game violence is wrong, or all of it is just fine. But I believe the meaning of video-game violence and its rightness or wrongness should be judged in context. This means there is no single prescription for all games and all players.
A whole series of factors should play into any judgment of violent video games. Who is the player, and what is his or her mind-set, maturity, beliefs and perceptiveness? Does the game in question have some apparent effects on this particular individual or community of players?
What I believe is that for the Christian, all things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial. What this means in practice is constant self-monitoring, conversation and engagement. Do bloodthirsty games encourage me to be bloodthirsty? Am I less sympathetic to the oppressed after playing video games? Am I buying into attitudes and ideologies that I should not, attitudes that glorify destructive acts, inflicting pain and causing death?
The answer may not always be yes, and so the violent video games may be simply OK or even possibly beneficial. But we should always be prepared to think through our game-playing. Unexamined ideas, actions, beliefs and mind-sets can impact us; conscious engagement makes a difference. War, pain, danger, suffering and excitement will always be part of the human condition while we still live. Many video games reflect that reality. Will we use those games to grapple with or to glorify violence?
Kevin Schut, Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games, Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, ©2013. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.
Kevin Schut (PhD, University of Iowa) is associate professor and chair of the department of media and communication at Trinity Western University. He is the author of Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games (Brazos Press, 2013).