Thinking Theologically About Video Games
A little over a decade ago, Mark Driscoll remarked that “video games aren’t sinful, they’re just stupid.” These words have reverberated in the ears of evangelical Christian gamers ever since. As I survey other pastors or theologians on the issue of video games (blogs on Crossway, The Gospel Coalition, and Desiring God), and compare that to conversations I’ve had with friends in ministry who embrace them, I see two entrenched camps. On the one hand, there is the anti-gaming camp, a sizeable majority of whom do not have direct experience with gaming but look in from the outside. On the other hand is a pro-gaming faction of Christians (groups like GameChurch or Theology Gaming) who insist on fostering healthy outlets and treat gaming culture almost as a mission field – perhaps to the point of being naïve, or at least occasionally forgetful when it comes to the clearly neurotic and destructive behavior that keeps many gamers up late at night and neglecting other responsibilities.
Most of us live somewhere within this polarizing tension. We contemplate whether video games are appropriate for our kids, our teenagers, or for adults. We weigh the pros and cons. The motto for the anti-gaming camp is that there are many better things to do with one’s time. The pro-gaming camp answers that there are many worse things to do with one’s time. The anti-gaming camp points to negative physiological and neurological effects; the pro-gaming camp points to the social benefits of games more generally. The anti-gaming group expresses concern about online vs. lived body presence and interactive violence; the pro-gaming camp disputes any connection between physical and virtual violence, and feels oddly singled out given the pervasive binging of 24-hr news, streaming services, professional sports and social media—all of which also have violent, addictive, and time-consuming elements.
This tension can be found in personal experience as well, including my own unremarkable but representative story. I haven’t sat down at a PC or console to play in about seven years. I used to play copious amounts of video games as often as possible. I do not really miss them. There are years of my life that I will not get back (this side of eternity) because of addiction to 15-second event loops.
Another part of me sees value in video games I once played. Some required cooperation and competition, others had quite involving storylines (Brothers in Arms was a classic). There are people I never would have met, conversations I never would have had, history I never would have learned, if I never picked up a controller or fired up the PC. There were lessons embedded too: how to lose gracefully, make quicker decisions, set and achieve incrementally ambitious goals, anticipate three moves ahead, or spend resources wisely. I have life-long friends with varying vocations, obligations and incomes who still regularly play despite demanding schedules and thriving careers, but who seem to have incorporated one or two games into their life and family in a way that appears far healthier than my past indulgences.
My four-year-old son will grow up knowing a world without video games. We don’t have a console in our house, and have no plans to add one. Will he remain shielded, become addicted, or find a way of healthier engagement? The more I prayerfully turn this question over in my mind the more I believe it cries out for theological engagement.
The need for pastoral wisdom regarding video games increases at what feels like an exponential rate every year. In the near future, today’s terminology will be dated. Video games involve billions of dollars and people and a technical-industrial complex. None of us can predict how games will affect us, especially when paired with some of the more immersive technologies on the horizon. Our world requires more of us than backwards-engineering our gut feelings into the pages of Scripture to either justify or condemn a novelty.
There are many complicated questions to which I lack airtight and clean answers. What is the proper use of a video game? Can this be safely separated from pervasive and diverse abuses? What does playing video games indicate about a person? What constitutes a “waste of time” in light of the Lordship of Christ and the purpose of life to glorify God and enjoy him forever? What virtues or vices are becoming habituated in the practice? Can God remain the sole object of worship in the life of an avid gamer, or is something else inevitably going to threaten to take His place?
In what follows I offer reflections on these questions focused on content, time, and habits—examining content through the lens of Christian freedom, examining time through the lens of Christian stewardship, and examining habit through the lens of Christian worship.
Freedom Restrained By Content
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.Rom. 14:1-3
What does playing video games indicate about a person? Some abstain and look down on those who devote more time to them. Others are deeply inculcated into the gaming community and have long since decided the critics are old curmudgeons.
How does Romans 14 speak to this situation? To determine who represents the “weak” and the “strong” with video games takes a bit of disentangling. In Romans a clear line separates vegetarians and meat eaters, each motivated by a stance toward Jewish dietary laws, but the question of playing video games is more than a binary.
A previous generation’s example might help illustrate what I’m about to suggest. I remember my grandparents playing card games like Uno and Skip-Bo, but avoiding a standard fifty-two card deck. Apparently at some point in the past, all four-suited card games were linked with unwholesome character, even though the games had markedly different mechanics and content. Because of stereotypes involving saloons, casinos, and the military, all trick-taking and wage-setting games were lumped in with destructive practices like gambling and an appearance of evil. Nowadays, putting those games into the same category is a stretch; high-stakes Poker and Blackjack are featured on ESPN, while Spades, Euchre and Hearts are played without any financial liability. Solitaire and Free-Cell form another category.
The video game industry, like the fifty-two card deck, should be recognized for its versatility. Some video games are a relatively clear reflection of a deeply felt need for creativity, hope and redemption in a fallen world (as game theorist Jane McGonigal puts it, “reality is broken.”) One can see themes of grace, destiny, choice, betrayal, pain and heroism play out in the storylines of many high-profile games. But other games (especially those available on phones and tablets) require no intentionality or creativity whatsoever, and are little more than interactive advertisements.
This means the “strong” and the “weak” categories will have subjectivity, because I question the implied premise that video games can be dealt with fairly as a single entity. Attempts to decry or defend a gaming subculture rather than explore a practice have contributed more heat than light to the discussion. In fact, I am not even sure the “gamer” moniker makes much Christian sense as it is currently employed. I have never met anyone who seriously claimed that listening to music is wrong, but I have met many who have serious reservations about certain types of music (usually when paired with lyrics). I have never met anyone who claimed film as a medium is inherently evil, but I have met many who shield themselves from movies with a certain rating, theme, or explicit content (sexuality, violence, language). Why then do we seem compelled to generalize with vague terms like “video games,” “screen time” or even “electronic devices” as if all activities involving a backlight were the same by default?
When considering content, it is more accurate and useful to ask: which game and which individual? Is it collaborative, competitive or creative? Online or for one or two people? What is its theme and message? Has the player clearly abused video games in the past by becoming consumed? A graphic first-person shooter, cooperative role-playing game, competitive fighting game, and open world-builder each comes with its own set of risks and potential benefits. One may be fairly innocuous in terms of theme (Tetris, anyone?), but another may contain outright sinful content (yes, Grand Theft Auto).
Games vary. There are many games that objectify women, glorify crime and violence, provide little more than a dopamine hit. But there are also games that encourage building, creating, strategizing, communicating, collaborating, competing. As with music or movies, it is possible to distinguish the content. Whether we consider ourselves to be the “stronger” or “weaker” brother or sister in this equation, we ought to keep an open mind when evaluating the motivations of the other side.
All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor… whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.1 Cor. 10:23-24
What does it mean to waste time? Do video games help and build up or are they only technically permissible?
It is common to assert that video games waste time. The image of a man-child living in his parents’ basement who could be out doing something with his life (working, dating, exercising, learning) is a well-worn meme. It is much rarer to see someone fill in what they suppose people should be doing with that free time. To his credit, James KA Smith takes a stab at it by warning his students:
“If I ever see you on a plane playing a video game, I will accost you, and I will be disappointed, and I will forthrightly remind you: you weren’t educated for this. The world needs your (continuing) education, and your soul is starving for it… Let’s not squander our inheritance.”
Smith mentions Angry Birds, but he is getting at how precious few games genuinely challenge their players in terms of character and priorities. Like him, I am skeptical that any person at any age playing any game will be challenged in all the ways they need to be to face life.
Even so, I can’t help but notice the undertones behind Smith’s indicting words, which go beyond the suggestion that education is good or that humans need to be challenged. Stripped of its eloquence this reads more like an insistence that everyone must share Smith’s hobby and vocation. Are our souls are starving for education in and of itself, strictly speaking? Do they not instead need Jesus? Is Smith really meaning to imply that that is the inheritance of those living in a prosperous twenty-first century democracy? We are not all designed to be renaissance men and women, and it is a dangerous mold to press others into, whether college students or children.
In order to see how this is not an exaggeration, it is again helpful to remember that not all games are the same. Games like Angry Birds are specifically designed to consume time. But another subset of video games, as a form of art (as art critic Hans Rookmaker would often say), may need no justification in terms of measurable output in the world of flesh and blood. They may be beneficial as expressions and experiences.
Imagine how horribly barren life would be if we demanded everyone justify the tens of thousands of hours spent perfecting skills like rock climbing, acting, car detailing, flower gardening, composing, woodworking, home decorating, painting, golf, creative writing, poetry, tennis, violin and so on, in the same terms currently demanded of video games. This would be like suggesting the work of Tolkien, who spent most of his free time inventing private languages and building a pretend world, was only justifiable because it eventually produced books the rest of us can enjoy. Many of his peers at Oxford thought he was squandering an inheritance too.
It is by no means ruled out that the gaming equivalent of Lord of the Rings lies somewhere in humanity’s future (though it will probably feel more like Narnia if it comes about). Nor is it ruled out that consciousness will continue to be treated like something that can be downloaded, manipulated, and domesticated rather than revered as part of the gift of life God gave humanity.
Any speculation must be tempered with Paul’s warning that most things, with enough ingenuity, can be justified: All things are lawful. A more productive set of questions in relation to any particular game might be: for how long and in lieu of what other activity? Is this game consuming our lives by causing us to neglect biblical responsibilities having to do with employment, marriage, childcare or diet and exercise? Do the games we play result in meaningful leisure and rest or do they become yet another source of stress and busy-ness? In the absence of gaming, what other recreational activity might take its place?
God gave us a set number of days to steward. Moments, breaths, conversations, key life events and mundane everyday realities come and go. Video games are not morally neutral in these considerations; they can lead to missed opportunities, but it is not clear that they always do. In the meantime, there is also cause to be wary of a materialism, humanism, or workaholism creeping in as we turn to more ostensibly “respectable” hobbies.
Habit is Worship
For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.1 Tim. 4:4-5
What virtues or vices are habituated in the playing of video games? This is perhaps the most difficult of the open-ended questions I’ve posed so far. Even unbelieving gamers struggle here in terms of devoting one’s life to something. Games might hold out the promise of leisure or rest but leave our brains more exhausted than when we began. They may involve virtual, digital, or imaginary realities, but these realities have a bearing on the minds and hearts of flesh and blood individuals. Video games affect daily routines and form new habits in their users, for better or for worse.
Once again it is useful to take video games out of the abstract. Is the habit of playing a certain game for a certain amount of time weekly affecting grades, relationships, or work? Is it becoming an exercise in laziness, gluttony, and narcissism? Are there any observable negative emotional and physiological responses to prolonged activity with this specific game? Is this habit affecting sleep? In many cases the answers to these questions are repeatedly “yes,” and gamers are kidding themselves if they do not take such warning signs utterly seriously.
As satisfying as it may be for the anti-gaming camp to rehearse these questions as potential indictments, there is a burden to show these are not just abuses, which do not invalidate all proper use. If we are indeed the idol factories Calvin once suggested we are, at some point the appeal to drunk driving cannot be used to ban all alcohol. At some point the onus is on the player, not the game. This is true of more respectable hobbies and vocations, too: marriages strained through pursuit of a PhD or lack of boundaries in ministry. A similar indictment could be offered against just about any pastime. I have yet to meet anyone in the Church prepared to summarily condemn them all.
Can God remain the sole object of worship for a video game connoisseur? The key phrase in Paul’s admonition in 1 Timothy 4 is the conditional: if it is received with thanksgiving. There are many aspects to the ever-present common grace at work in the human experience, but nothing can be worthwhile in an ultimate sense if it is not properly credited to the God who made it. If any Christian is convinced that they can play video games for hours on end to the glory of God, then they should to some extent be able to articulate how and why.
My sense is that the anti-gaming camp could afford to consider in a fresh way the capabilities of video games as a medium and the responsibility to relate with and reach people who spend the waking hours of their life in a game. The pro-gaming camp could afford to revisit the addictions and dangers of too much game time.
At this point, at my house, we remain largely free of video games. But that is more of a reflection of me and my sinful proclivities than any accusation against others who make a different choice. It is entirely possible that the wiser course is to invite some games in and model healthy boundaries, incorporating a strong push for rest one day a week (whether that rest is with screens or from screens is a riddle for another day).
I also harbor no delusions that in place of video games my son will now make something of himself by his many achievements and time “well spent,” whatever that means. If it all works out as I secretly hope, the time away from video games will be spent in empty-headed fun out in the woods or along the beach. To draw these thoughts together is to turn Driscoll’s original phrase on its ear: if video games are in fact not sinful, then we have no compelling reason to label them stupid. They are created by God, and so have their place, however limited that place may be in any particular context.
Caleb Miller is a US Army chaplain and has written for Themelios and From the Green Notebook.