Another pleasant night of house church is winding down. A card game kicks up among the kids in the far corner. A young mom pulls out a crocheting kit, discussing how she just got into the habit. The repetitive, back-and-forth production of a pink scarf catches my eye. I turn to a good friend sitting next to me:
“That’s like video games. The repeated activity, the intense focus, the progressive goal.”
My friend thinks. “Yes, but in the case of crocheting, there’s a product at the end. Video games don’t give a beneficial product.”
“No, no, the product of video games are like books: you don’t take something tangible away from a good story, you take away altered ideas.”
“I’m not sure I play video games like that. I usually just boot it up to wind down at the end of a day.”
We stop. The conversation feels slightly stunted; can you talk about video games at church? My mind drifts to a more “meta” question to our conversation:
“Do you know any Christians who think critically about video games?”
“No. I honestly don’t.”
Before I go on, let me be clear: I am discussing “video games criticism” from the first-person angle of an amateur. I do not share the above story because it brings new or profound insight (it does not). I am not writing because I find myself some “subject matter expert” on games design, games criticism, art criticism, et cetera. I am not under delusions of grandeur—I’m writing from (in spite of?) my position of inexperience for a couple reasons.
First, I share personally because, over this past year, I’ve felt an oversight in the U.S. evangelical church—regarding video games, we have largely dismissed (as harmful) or ignored (as meaningless) one of the largest cultural phenomena of the past 40 years.1 My friend and I stumbled through an exploration of what video games mean because our tradition has little common language or opinions regarding this hobby. The pulpit, the blogosphere, and informal discussion seems to provide regular thought regarding other pervasive media types, such as movies, or fiction books, or sports, or social media. But sadly, I see a disproportionate amount of careful, nuanced thought on an industry so extensive that:
- 63% of U.S. households are home to at least one person who plays video games regularly (3 hours or more per week)
- 48% of U.S. households own a dedicated game console
- In 2015, consumers spent a total of $23.5 billion on video games’ accessories, software, and hardware combined2
Second, as a gamer, I’ve noticed this dearth of Christian critical thought is occurring alongside an unprecedented growth of meaningful video games. In the past few years, likely thanks to the cutting-edge influence and growing popularity of the “indie” game studio scene, more and more games are being designed with explicit truths and presuppositions embedded into the narrative and gameplay. One of the most mainstream examples of this occurred earlier this year, when Blizzard, one of the largest game developers in the industry, released Overwatch. The developers made clear that they were creating more than just a team shooter game. Overwatch celebrates heroism and diversity and lets the players experience these facets through a multi-cultural (and multi-species) cast of a couple dozen heroes. The story is more than just a cover, however: all these characters play the same game in significantly diverse ways while working toward one, unified goal. Both the overt message and subconscious feel of the game communicate the strengths of unity in diversity. This is only one example of many, many games, with artists, developers, designers, and more who are all passionate to bring fresh perspectives into the world through their work.3
Realizing both of these trajectories early in 2016, I spent a chunk of time reading about video games, criticism, and the combination of the two, as well as playing games more thoughtfully (and playing more thoughtful games). Let me re-iterate: I am certainly an amateur. But my self-justification for writing is also the point I want to make: Christian gamers need to start thinking deeply about video games now, because the need and opportunity have never been so great.
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