Thoughtfully Gaming

I’ve written about the usefulness of gaming at least once before, and I was primarily arguing that happiness should not be our final determiner for our actions, particularly in choosing which games we play. I mentioned that games can provide us with a unique world to discuss a variety of issues, especially questions of morality. This holds true, but it presumes that gamers are gaming thoughtfully. This isn’t always the case, unfortunately, but it is something Christians should hold themselves to, if they decide to game.

The Gospel Coalition had an article about the dangers and benefits of gaming recently, which is worth checking out. In fact, take some time and read the articles linked there, because they are all fascinating. I think there’s definitely cause for concern when it comes to youth and gaming. Studies have shown that gaming can be addictive, though that should hardly be surprising. I’m a little more wary of suggestions that gaming leads to violence, mostly because people barely bat an eye at other sorts of violent media. But I’m no sociologist or psychologist, so I’ll leave that one up for speculation and further research. The Gospel Coalition’s article’s conclusion is spot on:

Yes, video games are contributing to our crisis of a pervasive entertainment culture. Much of what we watch, listen to, and play encourages escapism. But the problem isn’t so much with the medium as with the naïve and thoughtless ways we indulge ourselves. Neither blindly chasing “cool” video games nor stubbornly rejecting every new form of entertainment can protect us from our sinful disposition. What we choose to play, we must learn to responsibly engage.

When it comes down to it, Christians should be thoughtfully engaging in anything we face; this includes television, books, movies, video games, blogs, social media, and a host of other things I’ve likely forgotten. If we don’t step up and make it a point to consider carefully what we are participating in, we’re likely to be influenced negatively by these forms of media, particularly when they become far more interactive. As a gamer myself, this topic is important to me; I want to learn to analyze the ethical issues surrounding decisions in Mass Effect and Fallout 3 as much as I want to flex my creativity muscles in Minecraft. Sometimes the game itself won’t provide much food for thought, beyond the enjoyment of strategy and problem solving, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize and think through the experience of a multiplayer match of Halo. Sometimes spending time side-by-side with a friend against a common foe will teach me about cooperation and sacrifice, rather than seeking the glory all for myself.

Of course we should not spend all of our time gaming, but this is true for any entertainment. Much like we should consider both the content and the themes of the films we choose to watch, so should we seek to understand both the explicit narrative moves and the actions we vicariously take in these games. If my gaming always comes down to “killing the bad guys,” but I never think about what justifies my conclusion that the bad guys are bad or why that makes it my responsibility to end their lives, I’ve probably missed at least one useful aspect of participating in a war game.

This applies to movies just as easily. For instance, when I watched the movie Taken, I immediately felt what a lot of viewers felt: if it were my daughter who was kidnapped, my gut instinct is to fly to Europe, kill the people responsible for taking her, and save her life.  Upon reflection, I began to question what I would do in that situation, realistically, in light of not only my own lack of skill in regards to hunting and killing terrorists (I’m sorely lacking), but also considering the ethics behind killing what are obviously bad men; it would definitely be my place to defend my family from evil, but at what point do my actions become evil themselves? The question isn’t as easy as “killing is always wrong” or “kill anyone who hurts your family at all,” of course, but the point here isn’t to answer the question. The point is to say that the entertainment industry can help us ask important questions.

Let’s remember to ask questions when we view films, play video games, or read books.

Published by

J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).

  • Jthompson

    Very good post. Maybe you should a second follow up post that gets a little deeper into the topic.
    Personally, I have to guard myself against escaping into video games to avoid heart issues and sins and other things that bother me. More and more i’m realizing that I do this without thinking.
    Now i’m at the point where I recognize I need to spend some time with the Lord primarily before running to video games to “let out aggression” or something like that.

  • Michael Kares


    You make a good point about Christians thoughtfully consuming all kinds of media. A benefit of thoughtfully consuming media is (though this may be less true for videogames than other media) is thoughtful participation in, and consideration of, the message of a particular piece of art allows Jesus to use the media to promote spiritual formation–which does shock me when it happens. I’ve received lessons on the necessity/power of living life and positive self image from the Sword of Truth saga, enduring friendship from Harry Potter.

    However, thoughtlessly consuming media has often had the opposite effect–I pick up erronous conceptual frameworks that impede spiritual formation. For example, to make sure you get the girl, one must always rescue them from a tragic/dangerous situation, to do that, I need superhuman powers, or Spiritual Warfare actually/always works like the flashy battle scene at the end of any fantasy book/movie/game.

    Figured I’d throw in some more real life examples into the discussion

  • jamesfarnold

    This is spot on, Josh. We can’t let gaming take over our lives, nor can we use it as a way to solve our problems.

    Let gaming be a tool, just like anything else. Sometimes we fellowship through entertainment, and games can function that way. Sometimes we learn from stories, and games can function that way. Etc.

    Good thoughts. Thanks for being a consistent reader, and a commenting one at that.

  • jamesfarnold

    I’m curious to see why you think this is more true in film and written stories than it is in a video game narrative.

    Aside from that, of course gaming can teach us poorly; anything can. Even the Bible, if read incorrectly. You rightly see this.

    I mean, you can get lots of wrong messages from good media. The question is this, now: how do we think about gaming as a medium for transmitting both truth and goodness?

  • Mackman

    Didn’t Jesus use superhuman powers to rescue the girl from a tragic/dangerous situation? Didn’t Jesus brave all things for the sake of his bride?

    I’d say that video games (as well as many fantasy books/movies) merely bring to the surface the deep drama of the “great conflict” between good and evil (as Lewis calls it in the Screwtape Letters). We DO need superhuman powers, given by God (Spiritual gifts: healing, prophecy, heck, even the ability to speak directly to God Himself and be heard): Of course, most Christians don’t think about it this way. You imply that video games overly dramatize life: I’d say we’re far more likely to UNDER-dramatize life.

    I also just want to note that in most of the Legend of Zelda games, (most notably, Ocarina of Time), Link does NOT, in fact, get the girl. His reward is merely to be a sentinel throughout all of time, constantly being reborn to begin to forge a new life, only to have to give it all up and face a life of hardship and battle again and again, rarely reaping the rewards of his heroism.

  • jamesfarnold

    Thanks, Mack. I can always count on you for a wrench. :P

    Love the thought on Zelda. It is a good one.

    I’m not sure what to do with the language of over-or-under dramatizing real life via video games. It’s an interesting thought, either way, though my suspicion is that we dramatize it the right amount parallel to reality; battles are fought with swords instead of pens, and emotions are through text rather than hearts. Just a guess, though.

  • Michael Kares

    Good points Mack. However, the key idea from what I wrote is “must/always”. I agree we need super natural powers given by God. The problem I run into often are preconceived notions about what supernatural powers must look like and the belief that if I don’t see these powers manifest is a certain way, then I must lack them. Thus I fail to see God at work outside of my preconceived notions about his work.

    Link may not always get the girl, but lets face it–that makes Link the exception to most hero-goes-to-save-girl-tales. (No wonder he’s always in green; he’s jealous of the other guy!)

  • Mackman

    I’ll give you both points. Another questions rises, though: To what extent is it our responsibility to understand it properly, and to what extent is it the medium’s responsibility to properly convey it?

    Many games could be seen as metaphors: heck, even parables. Of course, many games fall far short of this, of course, but in a metaphor/parable, both the teller and the hearer share the burden of proper understanding.

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