A Christian Defense of Video Games
Friends, family, fellow writers, and dear readers: I have a secret that I fear I can no longer hold in. Though we have long peacefully sipped our tea here in this ecumenical garden of theology and philosophy and literature, quoting our Chesterton and Tolkien as we read our Milton and laugh gaily together about the foibles of our denominations and, yea, even of the world, an unspoken darkness lingered just below the surface of this otherwise innocent and endearing young man from the Midwest.
I pray that you are seated, my brothers and sisters in Christ, for the unveiling of this secret may render your knees weak. Your legs may wither away altogether. I do not confess this without shame; indeed I am both very afraid and deeply abashed. The psalmist declares “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). I bring my confession to you with a humble, heart-filled sorrow.
You see, I play video games. Please forgive me.
Wow! I can hear the weeping and gnashing of teeth from here. Whoever is crying “But you were such a good Christian boy!” is exceptionally shrill. However, there is a typical baritone element missing from the outcry that I’m hearing. Ah, wait, there it is: the chorus of grey-haired salesman of wisdom divorced from cultural shifts crying out, “Real men don’t waste their time with video games!” I should have expected the delay; I’m told one tends to slow down as one gets on in years.
I recognize that, for some, being an adult male who plays video games is a sin whose magnitude lags only slightly behind blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Now, I understand the gravity of the transgression; I truly do. However, if it is not too unpardonable, I would like to take the remaining space to offer a justification for my actions, as scant and tepid as it may be.
The first thing I want to address is really a small tangent about Christian manhood and manliness, a topic which I am genuinely afraid will someday, in a very literal sense, bore me to death. It is a struggle to keep my eyes open when someone speaks on this topic, and I fear the consequences of someone chattering on about Christian manhood and manliness while I drive down the interstate will be nothing less than catastrophic. This is why I only listen to NPR or the rock station while in the car, by the way.
I have two issues with the Christian manhood and manliness (henceforth “CMM”) approach, as ventured by say, Eric Metaxas, the author of Seven Men: And the Secret of their Greatness (see this interview with The National Review Online). One: this conception of manliness is an anachronism; it’s a view of masculinity ripped from an idealized, myopic version of the mid-20th century, when America was on top and capitalism fought the good fight against communism. Gosh darnit, back then men were men, and it was great, even though African Americans couldn’t use the front the door. It’s an arbitrary historical fiction with Bible verses stapled to the manuscript. Honestly, it is no surprise to me that an ideology rusted to an imagined bygone era is incapable of a judicious approach to a technologically advanced medium like video games.
Second, singling out video games for some sort of transgression against manliness does not quite jibe with reality. Allow me to share a small example. My experience in the United States Marine Corps may be comparatively limited—I was only on active duty for five years—but in my experience, most Marines played video games. Our Master Gunnery Sergeant, a man whose musculature I am convinced was made entirely of steel or some other ferrous metal, was a notorious fan of World of Warcraft. The author of the comic Terminal Lance, a former infantry Marine, often writes about playing video games in the Corps.
As I said earlier, the CMM conversation bores me terribly, so I will abstain from further discussion on the matter. However, if Eric Metaxas or anyone else would like to discuss the manliness of playing video games, I cordially invite them to take up the issue with the United States Marine Corps.
Let’s move on to the interesting part of this conversation, which is to ask, “Why shouldn’t good Christians scorn you and every other indulger of video games and cast you all out of our congregations like the Satan worshippers you are?” That is an excellent question, and I’m glad I asked it. The answers, of course, are legion.
Perhaps that was a poor choice of words.
Video games are a medium, not a message. As today we largely have the good sense not to automatically cry anathema when we discuss the merits of film, photography, or the novel, we must understand that video games are an art form, and that the form itself is neutral. It cannot be dismissed wholesale. As a vehicle of meaning, video games aren’t inherently good, bad, wasteful, or emasculating. The meaning, or at least the symbolism, is supplied by the creator through the form. There are admittedly many distasteful, reprobate examples of video games; I have personally enjoyed many of them.
However, we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We don’t abandon the novel because Harlequin Romance churns out stinkers at a supernatural rate. We don’t give up on film because of Ed Wood. We do not wash our hands of sculpture just because teenage boys given a lump of clay will inevitably make the same oblong shape. The poor craftsmanship or immature subject matter of one or more artists is not a strike against the medium.
Fantastic work is being done in the field of video games, and there are a great many games worthy of critical analysis for their interpretation and implementation of themes. Gone Home, for example, is an exploration of identity and acceptance. Braid ingeniously weaves the themes of regret, alcoholism, and broken relationships into a game where the player literally tries to turn back the clock. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a meditation on loss, loneliness, and reconciliation at the end of all things. Today’s games are rich and artful, and they have the ability to hammer the player with great emotional force. There is simply no excuse to dismiss them so off-handedly.
Last year, I heard a lecture on the history of television in the context of American Christianity. (I don’t recall the name of the lecturer and I don’t have my notes, so you’ll have to bear with my imprecision.) The lecturer painted a picture of Christians scorning television and resisting it, preferring instead to stick to the radio waves. Fast forward to the dawn of the 21st century, authentic Christianity has almost zero presence in mainstream television, despite it being the predominant faith of the country. If Christians can’t get over the mental hurdle of appreciating video games, we risk losing our presence and influence in another medium destined for ubiquity.
Finally, if you are a believer who is unimpressed with my justification and still repulsed by video games, I resort to this: have a heart. Don’t be dismissive, and don’t rush to judgment. Be quick to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19). You might not like them, but I bet you love somebody who does. Condescend to their level and engage with them there. This should be a familiar model to Christians.
Art is beautiful. It connects us to one another and it connects us to God. Art is also something we can offer up to God in praise and service. I believe that video games are an art medium, and it’s my hope that Christians are able to understand them as such, even if they don’t play them themselves. Maybe the medium hasn’t matured enough to make its worth self-evident. Maybe the generation of cranky old gatekeepers of art and culture must retire first. Maybe both are true, or neither are. Whatever the case, I think it’s high time more Christians took video games seriously.