Four Questions to Ask When Considering GTA V

For those not in the know, the next big controversial video game has been released. Years ago we heard all of the complaints about Grand Theft Auto III, then IV, and now we’ve got Rockstar’s biggest game yet: GTA V. Christians have fallen on all sides of this issue, ranging from liberty in all things, even killing digital prostitutes, all the way to suggesting we ought to avoid all video games at all times, even something as apparently harmless as Pac-Man or Mario.

Here are four questions you should ask yourself if you’re considering purchasing and playing Grand Theft Auto V.


1. Is play endorsement?

I’ve talked a little about my answer to this question, but the question is one we should all consider. Many Christians (parents especially) draw arbitrary lines in video games: it’s okay to kill in a game like Call of Duty (war simulator) and Splinter Cell (think Jason Bourne if he were mostly stealthy), but when it comes to something like GTA V, it’s time to stop. Maybe that’s because of the setting: Call of Duty at least happens mostly in the context of war; Splinter Cell you’re playing as the “good guy” taking out the “bad guys.” But in GTA V, you’re clearly just playing the bad guy. You’re fighting against cops, often, and killing innocent people on the street at will.

But violence itself, even violence enacted in clearly questionable ways, might be the right starting point for a number of discussions and personal revelations. You can learn a lot about yourself from the way you play your games. Some games deal with that by choices, as in the Mass Effect series, while others do so in a sandbox environment, like GTA V.


2. What do you get from playing?

If you play GTA V because you find murder, theft, assault, and other crime intrinsically fascinating, you should probably consider skipping this one. We shouldn’t just fascinate ourselves with evil. There may be a time when an experience is worthwhile for what it can teach us, or even how it can entertain us, but if you are filling the felony-shaped hole in your chest with GTA V, maybe you should spend less time in front of a television and more time in front of people who care about you.


3. Who else in your life is playing?

There are two routes you can take with this question. The first is fellowship. Maybe you’re a young guy, and every single kid in your youth group is playing GTA V. This might not answer the question, but it could definitely influence you if you’re on the fence. The multiplayer can be an excellent shared experience (I say this having played other video games cooperatively). In addition, teens especially seem to be sucked into certain video games so deeply that they won’t want to talk about anything else. Perhaps you should steer the conversation elsewhere, but having some common ground might make it worthwhile.

Additionally, if you’re a parent (or a youth pastor, or anyone who interacts with teens) and your teen wants to play this game, it might be worth a rental beforehand. Judge the content for yourself. Talk with your teens about what makes you uncomfortable about the game, what makes it worth playing, or what makes you forbid it outright. Teens may be rather rebellious (and they may play this game elsewhere, even if you ban it), but explaining your reason for a decision goes a long way.


4. Do you know when to quit?

Let’s assume you’ve decided to purchase this game. If a scene in the game becomes too much, will you know that you should stop? What if you look at the time and realize that you’ve been playing for 18 hours straight? What about 6 hours? Did you skip dinner with your best friend? Take time off from work?

Before deciding to invest in video games as a hobby, it is important to make sure you can manage your time well. People are more important than digital entertainment, period. I don’t think it is wrong to play video games (which is probably quite clear), but if you prioritize them consistently over people, you’ve made a pretty big error.

GTA V will likely have more hours clocked on it during this month than any other video game. That means it is worth thinking about, if only so we know how to engage it.

Of Games and God: An Interview with Kevin Schut

What follows is an interview with Kevin Schut. He’s a delightful fellow, and he happens to have written a book about video games. It’s called Of Games and God, and you should probably read it. There’s a lot to digest in the book, and the interview below is no different. Enjoy. Much thanks to Kevin and Baker Publishing Group for their participation.

Wow. A book on Christians playing video games. When I first heard about the title, I assumed you’d be firmly in the “pro-gaming” camp. And while you’re definitely a self-described gamer, you’ve got a lot of cautions about the industry, and Christian engagement with games. Have you been met with many who simply won’t read the book, because they believe you’re just an apologist for silly entertainment?

Hmm.  No, I can’t think of any reactions where people outright and vocally refuse to read the book.  I’m sure there are people like that, and they simply won’t make a fuss and just not read it.  I’ve had at least a couple of online commenters that I can remember basically arguing that I’m not hard enough on video games, but they’re not complaining about the “silly entertainment” thing—they’re upset about their perception of filth and/or degradation in the medium.  This is the thing: everyone knows how big video games are today, so even people who don’t play much are unlikely to dismiss games as nothing worth thinking about.  I guess more to your question, though, I’ve been happily surprised that most people reading the book seem to go in with an open mind.  I’ve not had many angry comments about how pro-game I am, and none about me being anti-game—even though if I’m truly balanced, I should be upsetting a few gamers too.

When it comes down to it, this is the kind of guy I am: I am inclined to believe there’s at least some truth to most points of view.  I know a lot of gamers who want to basically say that any time a non-gamer attacks video games that the those critics are just talking out of ignorance.  Sometimes that’s true (and I hope I make that clear in my book), but I think often outsiders get unique views of things that insiders miss.  So I take the critiques seriously, even as I continue to play video games myself.  And to be honest, there’s lots to be upset about.  I’m hardly alone in saying many games are sexist, overly bloody, and poorly constructed by an exploitative industry.  But there’s also lots to be excited about, which is why I continue to love gaming.


You talk a little about religion in video games, often citing Dragon Age (which, I’m beginning to gather, is among your favorite games). What about games that explicitly have some religious message, like Assassin’s Creed 2, where the final ‘boss’ of the game is a boxing match with the Pope, or The Binding of Isaac, which centers around a character thrown into a basement by his ‘Christian’ mother, because God told her to?

I’ve not played through the AC series (more on this below)—I’ve watched a good chunk of it and skimmed a few synopses, so I’m speaking out of partial knowledge, which is a dangerous thing.  I have played The Binding of Isaac and watched cinematics of the endings (I’m not skilled enough to get there myself, unfortunately!), but I played it too late for it to end up in the book, sadly.  My perception of the AC series is that it takes the religion-is-social-power-masked-as-heavenly-power line that I describe in the book.  It seems to me that many of the antagonists and powers in both the first and second game wear the trappings of religion, but simply use their supposed beliefs as justifications to engage in highly cynical power plays.  I’d be interested to hear how my perceptions are wrong about that, although learning that the player engages in fisticuffs with His Holiness (I didn’t know that!) certainly suggests I’m not far off.  Such games are not so unusual.  I’d argue it’s part of the bias of games—it’s easier to deal with conflict and manifestations of physical power than it is to deal with mystery, grace, holiness and peace.  But in so doing, such video games really only tackle part of what religions really are.

Isaac is a different sort of beast, in my mind.  Because its narrative and fictional world are so spare and suggestive rather than smooth and coherent (a la the Uncharted-style narrative games) it’s hard to summarize what it’s all about and what it’s saying.  It has a large degree of interpretive flexibility—you can easily understand it in a lot of different ways.  It is definitely all about shocking sensibilities.  It gets into the realm of the grotesque and it really questions certain aspects of religious experience.  Dung, and fetid animals and rot and twisted signs of childhood innocence are everywhere.  And they’re framed with a story of insane devotion to tele-evangelism and an apparent voice from heaven.  But what, exactly, does that all mean?  The ultimate conclusion of the story suggests that the game isn’t exactly critiquing religion but is instead critiquing what people do with religion (just as Monty Python’s The Life of Brian isn’t a critique of Jesus—it’s a critique of Christians).  I don’t know what to make of it, honestly.  But what I can say is that that game has suggested to me the possibility of different ways of grappling with religion than games traditionally have done, and that, at least, is a positive thing.


That’s a good take on Isaac. I hadn’t considered it (and, honestly, put the game down after 30 or 45 minutes) that way. Maybe I’ll go back and give it another go. Have you played any games that deal with real-world religions (as opposed to one invented for the game) that deserve a shout-out?

Not really, no.  The most common appearance of religions in the games I play are in strategy games like Civilization and Europa Universalis.  And for reasons I outline in the book, I’m not entirely comfortable giving them praise in that regard.  I think they are noble tries, but a strategic simulation of culture at a very high level can only really simulate what I see as the least important aspects of religion.  There are stories like AC that have real religions in them.  But I can’t think of any that I really like.  There are probably a bunch I should be playing.  If anyone has a favorite, I’d love to hear from them, so I can add it to my repertoire.

I should note that there are lots of games that do very interesting stuff with ethical and moral choices.  Many of the big narrative RPGs let players make decisions that are very interesting and challenging in terms of deciding what is right and wrong.  I find it interesting that something like that is well done, but religion—which so often informs decisions about right and wrong—is pretty weak in most video games.


As I read your text, I found there were few games I hadn’t played (mostly the oldest among the games you referenced). Occasionally I found myself wishing you’d bring up other games (Minecraft for a discussion of play, though you do bring it up eventually; Heavy Rain for your discussion of the relationship between film and gaming; Bulletstorm for your chapter on gratuitous violence; Mass Effect for a discussion of narratives in games). A book of this scope is necessarily limited, so I wanted to ask this: what games do you really wish you could have talked about? Are there any favorite games of yours that either didn’t find a space, or the space they found was smaller than you’d have liked?

Ha!   I love how you try to provide me an easy out here: there are all these great games you don’t mention, but you probably didn’t have space for them, right?  Well, the shameful truth comes out here: I haven’t played any of those games.  (Well, that’s not strictly true.  I played Minecraft version 0.32 for a while when I first heard of the game, and I’ve been planning to play it for real this summer.)  The reason is this: the world of video games is huge.  And it’s substantially unlike researching, say, movies or TV in terms of the amount of time involved.  It’s true I could play a substantially fair amount of, say, 5 or 6 puzzle games in the time that it takes me to watch Argo.  But a lot of the games I’m talking about really require the equivalent of dozens of movies to really appreciate them.  On top of that, my natural inclination is to be a completionist—I have a hard time leaving a game before I’ve played all the way through the main campaign.  And (another confession) I’m a pretty slow game player.  I know people who can finish a game of Civilization successfully in 30-40 hours, but it sometimes takes me about twice that.  It took me north of 120 hours to finish Fallout 3.  I got about 35 hours into Skyrim and had to move on, and I’m guessing I’ve only seen about 15-20% of the world.  And because I have courses to grade, lectures to prep, administration to do, church to attend, a family to live with, and so on, I usually do this all after everyone goes to bed, which means that if I want to get more than 5 hours of sleep, I get about 7-10 hours a week of play time.  Phew!  I’m glad to get that off my chest.

The real reason I tell you and your readers about all that is to make it clear that I can’t keep up with everything important, and that’s why I tried to write my book so that it wasn’t about specific games, and more about general principles and issues that could apply to lots of games and hopefully will still be worth reading a few years from now.  A better place for discussions of the here-and-now is the Internet, because it can stay current.  I love that sort of stuff—I love it that within weeks of Bioshock Infinite of coming out we get Jordan Ekeroth’s article on Kotaku: “In Defense Of Religion In BioShock Infinite” (this is going to sound weird, but I haven’t read it yet because I don’t want to get spoilers—as soon as I’m done the game, however, that article’s on the top of my reading list).  But I can’t keep up-to-date like that in the book—as I’ve already mentioned, I don’t have time to play enough games, and the writing and publication process takes too long.  My hope is that readers look at my use of Dragon Age: Origins (all over the book, because I played it right before writing) or really ancient games like the original Sid Meier’s Pirates and say, “Hey! You could make the same point with game X.”  If so, I’ve succeeded.  I recognize that you can’t generalize everything, and that adding new games would add new nuances, so on that level, I’m sorry I didn’t get in more.  I’ve heard Heavy Rain and Alan Wake are both fantastic narrative games, and I really want to play them because I’m sure they’d give me new insights, but I haven’t yet.

Of course, I’m not expecting every gamer to like and/or understand this limitation.  One of the things I’ve found is that gamers tend to be very tribe-ish.  If you’re a Madden fanatic, video games means what others would call “sports video games.”  I can’t tell you how many gamers I’ve met who are absolutely shocked that I’ve never played any version of a Zelda game, because that’s really 40% of their childhood.  And while I’m into indie and art games, I’m quite certain I’ve not played nearly enough to please the true avant-garde gamers (I don’t even know which titles I’ve missed that I should be playing!).  None of those people are wrong about my limitations as a gamer: I’ve got some real gaps.  But we all have our favorites, and we’re all going to have gaps, and we’re going to most notice the gaps of others in the games and genres we like to play.  Honestly, as much as I sometimes feel guilty about not covering enough different stuff, in the end, I really like that localized, tribal passion.  It makes for vibrant communities and great discussions.  I think all together, our conversations cover a lot more ground than any one book can do.

You are right, by the way, that I didn’t fit in everything I like, although most titles I like a lot make at least a cameo.  Where I wanted to put more in but didn’t was all the games I played growing up.  I know you note the book covers titles that are old, but you wouldn’t believe how many ancient games I didn’t mention!  I don’t know if I even mentioned the old Sierra Quest for Glory series that I poured months or years into in the late 80s and early 90s. Masters of Orion (currently updated by games like Galactic Civilizations) was big for me and I don’t believe I touched on it.  I poured quite a few hours into text-based adventure games (the one I remember is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and a lot of time into cracked (illegal—but I didn’t get that at the time) Commodore 64 Epyx titles Winter Games and Summer Games.  But the odd thing about games is because they build on previous titles so much, that just about anything worth saying about those titles is also true of newer games.  So I only threw in a few to indicate that there’s a historical trajectory to just about every game we see today.


I assume a fair number of people who read this book will be concerned parents or youth pastors. People who don’t necessarily game, but who are interested in making decisions about the medium. Do you think it is necessary for these people to play at least a game or two, rather than just watching others play? Additionally, do you have any recommendations for games that are accessible, that “show off” the benefits of the medium, or else would be good for someone interested in exploring video games as an outsider?

That’s a great question.  My personal belief is that it’s hard to have a really deep understanding or engagement of something that I haven’t experienced myself.  That’s not to say that I’d have nothing valuable to say about, say, paragliding, after only observing it (rather than doing it).  I just wouldn’t have the authority to say anything about the experience for certain.  I also think it’s much easier for people to actually listen to an outsider who has at least tried the in-group’s activity before talking about it.  Many gamers tend to ignore the pronouncements of non-gamers, whether that’s fair or not (and I think this kind of behavior extends to all kinds other groups; I think many Christians don’t really care what a Muslim has to say about the Christian faith).  So yeah, I think it’s  a good idea to play just a little bit, so you know what all the fuss is about.  You gain empathy, insight, and a small measure of credibility.

That having been said, nobody should expect a non-gamer to become a high-end gamer.  Occasionally this happens, but it’s pretty rare.  It’s like reading, writing and all kinds of other acquired skills: it takes time to become a very good player of video games, and the later in life you start, the harder it is.  And it’s not really necessary.  We can’t be all things for all people, so all non-gamers need is a bit of familiarity and an open enough mind to trust experienced gamers who are willing to explain gaming experience.

I think if you want to get started on games that are fun to play with other people, you still can’t beat some of the simple Wii games, like Wii Sports.  They require zero skill, Wiis are just about everywhere (although they’re starting to get boxed up now), and they’re light fun.  If you’re just a tiny bit more coordinated, MarioKart Wii is even better for that sort of thing.  If you want to see what nonviolent beauty looks like in a simple video game, you can’t go wrong with Flower or Journey (except that, for the time being, you need a PS3 to play them).  There are billions of good puzzle games and most supposed non-gamers have, in fact, played some casual puzzle games.  For range of experience, I might introduce them to Circadia or something like Amazing Alex.  I also think Tiny Wings is a great choice to convince people that video games don’t have to be violent or disturbing.  Those are the easy ones.  There are categories of games, however, that are harder to find good recommendations for people who don’t play a lot of games.   If you want to experience a shooter, I’m kind of at a loss, as I’m terrible at those sorts of things.  I liked Battlefield 1942, but I really haven’t played much since then.  Actually, I think I’d tell most noobs to avoid shooters, because you don’t get much mercy in them—at least online.  I’d love to hear others’ suggestions.  RPGs are also a bit of a tough category, because they typically ask for a lot of investment, and it’s hard to find good non-violent ones.  Again, suggestions would be nice.  Strategy and simulation games are also often a bit daunting for outsiders, although I think the SimCity series is pretty friendly to non-gamers—assuming EA has, in fact, worked out all the kinks!  If people want to experience online multiplayer, have some tolerance for violence and racy portraits, and are willing to learn, League of Legends is about as easy to get into as it gets—but it’s still hard, so I’d only recommend that to certain kinds of people.

I’m not sure that list does it justice, though.  It’s a very practical question and one worth thinking about, so I’d encourage other gamers to make suggestions in the comments.


Because we’re talking about gaming, I’ve got to ask: what are you playing now? What are you most looking forward to, on the gaming horizon?

I just finished end-of-the-semester grading, which is always the most stressful time of year for me.  When I’m really wigged out, I retreat to comfortingly familiar games to keep me awake during those marking sessions that go to 3 or 4 am.  This almost always means Civilization; I just finished a campaign as the Carthaginians, and won via the diplomacy victory.  Now I’m trying to rapid-fire cover a whole bunch of titles that have piled up on my computer.  I played Atom Zombie Smasher for a couple of nights, then finally tried World of Goo (something I’ve been meaning to do for years), I’ve been playing Word Realms (my first Kickstarter title that has actually come to maturation), and just last night got in my first session of League of Legends in a couple of months (and only the second session I’ve done since hanging it up in January 2012).  I’ve got a busy summer lined up.  I just bought the re-imagined Tomb Raider, and plan to play AntichamberMinecraftDear EstherMonacoSpec Ops: The Line, and I might get to a few other small titles I’ve got kicking around like Stacking and Might & Magic: Heroes VI (if Ubisoft ever gets around to making it playable again).  But first up—and I’m quite excited about this—is Bioshock Infinite, which I now have budget and time for.  You’ll notice, by the way, that I frequently don’t play games right as they come out.  Often, it’s hard to schedule the newest and shiniest stuff.  But as a scholar, I also operate on a different time scale than reviewers and bloggers and online writers—I can still sometimes turn a two or three year old game into a publication, although I like to be more current than that if I can be.

By the way, I’d like to give a shout-out to some of my favorites from the last few months.  10,000,000 (I played on iOS) is one of the best puzzler/RPG games I’ve ever played, and it had the very weird effect of causing a very temporary (and very strong) obsession that was absolutely finished when I completed the game after about 6-10 hours of play.  Best type of game, in that sense.  I love Orcs Must Die 2 (loved the first too), and very much enjoyed The Unfinished Swan, which I reviewed back in January.


My final question is this: any parting thoughts? Anything you really wish people would ask you, but we always manage to avoid?

I’m not sure how much I want to add—I’ve already been plenty verbose by internet standards.  :)  I do want to say thanks for the opportunity to talk about the book from a different angle.  I really value the opportunity to have a conversation, since I really mean for the book to be about that.  It’s not that I don’t have opinions, but my real passion is for the Christian community to learn how engage video games in a healthy way, and that’s not going to happen without many voices speaking about games.  So I love the opportunity to move beyond the book.  Video games are such an important medium, and they have expressive potential that’s different from books and movies and radio and television and comic books.  Christians need to do more than just learn to live with video games—I think we have a calling to make them well, play them well and think about them well, because that’s part of what God made us for.

Narratives in Video Games: Why The Stanley Parable Stands Out

Next week, I’ll be reviewing Of Games and God by Kevin Schut. It’s a good book, at least so far, and I’ll also be posting an interview with Mr. Schut himself. On that note, I’ve got video games on the brain. His work has got me thinking about a number of topics, most of which will surface in the review, I’m sure. Today, however, I wanted to address one of the more interesting games I’ve played.

The Stanley Parable is unique, as far as I know, in the way the narrator interacts with the player. The game opens with a narrator describing your character’s life. As you move about the game, the voice-over (which sounds remarkably like the narrator for Pushing Daisies, a television show cancelled far too early) tells you what you are doing. A minute or so in, there’s a distinct shift: it is now telling you what you are about to do. This isn’t presented as a command, or even as an objective to accomplish. Rather, the narrator describes your future actions as if they were pre-determined. In fact, that’s the aim of the self-labeled parable; the entire narrative arc is designed to encourage you to think about what games tell you every time you turn them on.

The story can get bizarre. If you follow certain paths, you can end up with any number of endings: in one you escape the game altogether, in another you escape the narrator and nearly die; one ending even leads to a constant forced circle, leading to your eventual madness and death. But this strangeness, this odd world and its odd story, feels familiar to most gamers. In fact, the strange part isn’t any of that, necessarily; what is bizarre is the fact that I can choose any of these endings, and the narrator seems to actually care which I choose.

I’ve argued before that video games have a place in education, which usually means a place to explore spatial reasoning skills, but The Stanley Parable explicitly attempts to interact with the way we tell and receive stories. The Portal series is well known for its witty writing, Mass Effect and its sequels are renowned for their grandiose science fiction stories (much more than their actual game-play mechanics, usually, though you do have to avoid talking about the ending itself), and Half-Life 2, the engine that The Stanley Parable is modded to run on, is known for its silent protagonist, which has its own place in the world of narratives.

What Choose Your Own Adventure did for me as a child, The Stanley Parable did for me as a gamer. That is, when I first read a Choose Your Own Adventure book, I ended up reading the story 15 or 20 times, attempting to find my favorite ending. The stories themselves were rather bland, as far as writing goes, but the desire to discover something new each time kept me coming back. While I think The Stanley Parable has better writing than most of those books did, the primary comparison is just that I kept wanting to play. I wanted to explore, but in a different way than I explored Skyrim or Fallout 3. Those games encouraged me to explore a landscape or a world; Stanley pushes me to explore a story, a relationship, and possibly myself. It is rare that games push us to do that, at least explicitly.

But this sort of narrative exploration is helpful in understanding not only the possibilities for writing, but also the inherent limitations of both text and video game material. Pre-programmed responses are all we’ve got, no matter how much they appear to react to what I’m doing. At one point, you ‘escape’ from the presented game, and enter a large, open world. The walls are covered with untextured substance, clearly unpainted. In one sense, of course, the narrative tells you this is entirely unplanned. But someone still designed this room, and someone wrote the script describing this room, and the actor who played the narrator still recorded the script.

At times, it reminds me of Sophie’s World, when the main character and her mentor break out of the novel, which the novel then proceeds to detail. There’s something of the Matrix in there, too, stepping outside of what was originally described as a real setting, entering into “the real world,” as it were.

At the end of all of this, however, is one simple truth: sometimes video games can teach us about the world around us, about the limits of our own creative abilities (with the technology currently available, be that print media or top-end gaming engines), and even about ourselves.

Why We Riot: A New Game Seeks to Explore this Question

Leonard Menchiari has been experiencing this form of protest in person, and the game ‘Riot’  was born as a way to express it and to tell the stories of these fights. What is it that triggers such a strife? What does a cop feel during the conflict? In “Riot”, the player will experience both sides of a fight in which there is no such thing as ‘victory‘ or ‘defeat‘.

In what has become the purpose of all of our writing and film-making (that is, story telling, usually without taking a side, and often declaring that there really are no sides to take), a small game development studio from Italy has stepped forward to make a game about riots. The purpose, as far as I can tell from their ‘fund us’ page, is to provide us with a way to sympathize with both sides of riots. Regardless of your political persuasion, the game seems to scream, you will learn what it feels like to be a protester and a member of the police force.

I’ve argued before that we can learn a lot from video games, and that they provide broad canvasses with which to paint unique moral brushstrokes (ones that we can learn from), and Riot seems to take a stand somewhere in the same area, at least. It seeks, explicitly, to tell us a story that is worth knowing. The Verge described the game as a ‘playable documentary,’ which should peak the ears of many gamers. The subject itself–that is, riots–have interested psychologists, sociologists, and others for quite some time. But the importance of a game like this doesn’t stop there.

You see, this is a game that explicitly attempts to explore moral ground: it begs you to get to know each side of a riot, hoping you’ll stand in their shoes a little more strongly than you did before you played. While games have done this before, to some extent, I’m happy to see a game decide to bring this to the forefront of its purposes. Much like film can force us into a sympathetic position, so do documentaries seek explicitly to do so. Games following suit strikes me as a good move for the industry, as a whole.

As Christians, we should be offering grace wherever we can, broadly and with little (if any) reservations. It’s easy to stand in a place where you look at others and judge them for their actions, and a riot is a potent example of a situation about which we quickly make assumptions. Some may tend towards favoring the police (“Why would anybody rise up in such a violent manner?”), while others may be tempted to jump into the mob (“Stand against injustice!”), but the point is that we rarely take the time to understand the other side. What makes the offender unjust, and what makes the rioter violent? If people are made in the image of God, seeking to understand them may help us understand God.

That’s not to say that there isn’t ever a ‘right’ side in a riot. Perhaps there are right and wrong sides in some given instance of a riot. Sometimes the rioters may be justified in their stance, though perhaps violence is never the right answer. And sometimes the police are right to stop a riot. Discerning the difference is rather difficult, and the temptation might be to say we can never come to a conclusion. While I think that takes it too far, a game like Riot may provide us with the reminder we need: simply by playing as both sides, we can feel the stress of conflict from different perspectives.

And any time we are encouraged to understand another position, even if we end up disagreeing with some of the conclusions or end results, we take a step towards honoring the image of God not only in our theological convictions, but with our daily lives.

Is Play Endorsement? Gaming and Personal Responsibility (Part 2)

Part one of this series can be found here.

Most of us naturally think of our characters as an of extension of our selves, at least to some degree. This is more true in the age of first-person perspective games. Even if we don’t think of our characters as ‘us,’ we do become attached to them, much the way I’m told writers become attached to their fictional characters. There are some characters that I definitely associated with myself, particularly in role-playing games, and some that I simply see as an entirely external character (Master Chief of the Halo franchise comes to mind).

And so it gets more difficult to nail down whether or not our play functions as endorsement. In a comment on my article about linearity and choice, fellow writer Mackenzie had this to say:

I feel as though there is a distinct difference between violent video games of the type you describe (wherein you have a distinct choice, and the violence is, I believe, directed against fellow combatants), and a game like Grand Theft Auto, where you are not only allowed but (at times, I believe) encouraged and sometimes even required to kill the innocent in an excessively violent fashion.

We spoke about this comment later, and he argued that some games, like the Grand Theft Auto series, are simply evil to play. The games encourage the player to do all sorts of unscrupulous things (and have always been a source of controversy).

If we were to adapt Brett’s claim about film to this, then all we would need to do to make GTA a series worth making and playing is to prove that the creators of the game intended to depict the world in some truthful way. We’d have to believe that the truth in GTA was worth receiving via interaction, rather than by some other method.

But there’s something different, here, and I think most would agree. While I’ve argued that thoughtfully gaming is absolutely important for the gamer, I don’t think I’d ever suggest that completely passive intake is the same as the active participation found in video games. There’s something different happening, of course, but even more so when a choice is presented.

In a sense, I am the one pulling the trigger in a virtual game. I’m functioning as a participant, a creator or at least actor, as opposed to simply an audience member. In linear games, ones where the creators have clearly scripted everything, I tend to play the role of an actor: I embody a character, run through a scene, and may or may not provide exactly what the director hoped for. In open games, however, I tend to act as a director: I choose what happens, more or less, and sometimes even how it happens. Maybe my character is wholly evil and kills everyone he or she comes across, or maybe my character is a pacifist, avoiding violence and death even if it means never advancing the plot.

The key difference, however, between a director of a film and a player-as-director of a video game is the audience: only the former tells a story for an external audience. Even when I function as ‘director’ of a video game, I only craft a story for myself. Within the confines of whatever game I’m playing, I can only tell the story to myself, sans someone watching me play, or perhaps online games. If my character is evil, I’ve experienced evil in a way that no one else sees. My art is personal, all of a sudden. Perhaps my evil character can teach me about what the creators of the game consider evil, or what they consider good. Perhaps I can even explore my own moral intuitions in the confines of this evil character I have created, but I’ve still only created them for me.

If a filmmaker creates art for the purpose of pointing to a true world, then there must be someone being pointed towards that world. Perhaps art can point the self–and it probably should–but is that enough? Is it enough to tell ourselves these stories, if we do not share them? If we do not share them with others?

This difficulty is one we already feel when we discuss games with each other. I remember talking about the main character of Mass Effect, named Shepard, as “my Shepard,” because his actions were entirely different from the Shepard my roommate had played. Mine had stayed on the straight-and-narrow, at least what the game believed was the ‘good’ path, while my roommate had taken a piecemeal approach to his decisions: sometimes he was the good guy, and sometimes he was the bad guy. Other people played Shepard as a female–commonly known as femShep–which also led to different options and choices.

We all had our own, unique audiences, and so we created our characters for ourselves. My Shepard acted as the hero, without a trace of rebellion. I found him far more interesting than the lone wolf we currently seem to love in film (Bourne is a prime example), since we so rarely see characters who depend deeply on those around him. But my friends saw rebellious Shepards, independent Shepards (to some extent), or some other Shepard I never even heard about. That’s the point, though: my Shepard was mine, and no one really saw him act, outside of myself.

So is play endorsement? Did I endorse the actions of my character, simply because I was the only audience member for his journey?

I think we need to apply the same careful consideration Brett employed for film: if we are seeking to tell a true story, even if it is a depiction of evil, I don’t think play is necessarily endorsement. Perhaps there are some games that should never be played, and perhaps there are some films that should never be seen, but the qualification should perhaps be ‘depiction of something truthful,’ rather than ‘depiction of violence.’ We should know our own limitations–do not partake in something that will cause temptation or sin, if you can help it–but we should also strive to play games that we can learn from, much like we should watch films we can learn from.

A quick caveat, here: I don’t think we can only play games when we seek to learn. You can read a book for enjoyment, and not for the grand ideas placed within it, much like you can watch a film without learning much. Sometimes movies are an exhilarating ride, and that’s enough. Enjoyment isn’t a sin, in itself, though excess is easily classified as a waste of time. So it is with video games. I may learn a lot from playing Mass Effect or Fallout 3, but there’s not much to learn from Plants vs. Zombies, without making some rather uncomfortable (or humorous) stretches. That doesn’t stop me from enjoying it, though, perhaps for the sheer mechanics of the game. We like to master things, and so the skill involved in mastering a game might be enough.

Video Games, Intelligence, and…Happiness?

I was going through my usual blogroll, which includes the ever useful and interesting site Lifehacker, when I came across this post. A defense of video games? Being a gamer myself, I couldn’t help but click through, to see what sorts of arguments were going to be put forward. Continue reading Video Games, Intelligence, and…Happiness?

Virtual as Reality

My friend, Dave, and I have been debating whether video games will soon become the “common text” of our culture. I initially rejected the idea because I felt that games are just that, games. They aren’t meant to be taken seriously like books. Dave pushed back and after some good conversation, I am reconsidering my position. I’m 24, most of my friends are gamers to one degree or another. Already we’ve noticed that we will reference something from a video game to help us illustrate a point just like people once referenced the story of David and Goliath to illustrate somebody’s beating an opponent against incredible odds. So all this has me thinking, what are the implications of “virtual reality” guiding our understanding of real life? Should Christian creatives start telling stories through video games?
Then I saw this video and was horrified. While I am puzzling over video games as an education tool and as a culture’s common text, some of our society’s brightest people are applauding the idea that virtual reality is virtually reality.

So what is reality? What counts as “experience”? Am I the only one who thinks these people are crazy? If you agree with them, tell me why. ‘