Violence in Video Games Part 7: Thought Framework and Conclusion

[originally posted on December 7th 2013]

By Lord Yabo

Informed Discussion, Really?

There is a scene in the film Braveheart, just after the Scotts had a great victory over the English, where the nobles argue about who to declare king:

Balliol supporter: Now is the time to declare a king.

Mornay: Wait! Then you are prepared to recognize our legitimate succession.

Balliol supporter: You're the ones who won't support the rightful claim.

Mornay: Those were lies when you first wrote them.

Balliol supporter: I demand recognition of these documents.

The scene degrades into name calling and yelling as each tries to have their “superior proof” recognized by the other.

This best captures my experience with the Christian discussion of violence in video games.  Each side has some compelling ideas, but little interest is shown in a comprehensive exploration of the issue.  Parents just want their kids to stop, kids just want to play the games their friends are.

Summary for Informed Discussion

First, we looked at the science behind connecting violence in video games and real world violence.  And we see, at best, the results are inconclusive.  There is no known connection, and I further argue there never will be because the tests to prove the connection are impossible to perform.

Then we looked at the physiological response to violent imagery and situations.  Deep down we get an emotional “high” from seeing something violent.  That high may lead to revulsion, or to a state of shock, but the point is it isn’t physiologically neutral.  Him, her, you, me, we are all affected by what we see.  That is, until desensitization kicks in.  This quote from the Gamespot review of Ryse, a launch title for the Xbox One describes it well:

"Even the gruesome stabs and bloody dismemberments of hero Marius' quick-time finishing moves do little to ease the banality of it all. Blood is spilled with such ferocious regularity in Ryse that what was once shocking and impressive is soon reduced to just another repetitive sight to endure. Killing enemies is less and less satisfying every time you lop off another limb, and for a game that's all about the combat, that's a really big problem. It's not as if you can avoid the bloody finishing moves either, with bonuses such as health regeneration and experience boosts tied to the attacks."

Further to this, violence in games (like shooting a sniper rifle at a running target a mile away) are sometimes extremely challenging and rare to achieve.  Therefore there is a fiero moment of intense satisfaction in pulling off the maneuver, just like an Olympic figure skater doing a quadruple axel.  The achievement is found in doing something that is difficult, that maybe we didn’t think we could achieve.

Next we looked at violence itself in more detail.  We found that the bible is a violent bloody book that would be rated M for mature by the video game ratings board (the equivalent of a hard R film rating).  The reason for this is there are actually two classifications of violence: happy and sad.  The bible is full of sad violence, and some video games with happy violence.  So, we can neither write off the Bible nor all video games due to the existence of violence.

Then we explored how the people playing a violent video game don’t see or necessarily want the violence.  They are looking at the game from a mechanics perspective, the aesthetics are lost.  Similar to when Neo enters the Matrix, he no longer sees “woman in red dress”, but numbers and code.  So the joy of getting a “kill” in call of duty is not bloodlust in performing a violent act, it is in the difficulty of performing a precise sequence of timed button presses.  We saw that Jesus taught on the importance of intent.  Therefore intent should be considered when judging this matter.

And then we saw what a great problem solver violence is.  Not just “Might Makes Right”, but that Might is so easily quantitative and programmable, whereas diplomacy, negotiation, and relationship are not.  Today military contractors can program an AI to use a real gun to kill real people.  We have yet to figure out how to program an AI to make elderly feel cared for, or to cheer up a soldier.  It could sound like excuse making, Final Fantasy has combat against random creatures because what else could they possibly do?  Anything else is too hard to make.  It is an important point because all games must be programmed, and just because they are violent does not mean the people designing them are blood lusting savages.

Then there is the matter of wish fulfillment.  As a kid I wanted to be Danielson from the Karate Kid, not Bobby Fischer the chess champion.  Fighting, shooting, blowing stuff up type video games provide feelings of power, victory, and command.  These are not achieved with Farming Simulator 2013 (I know, I tried).  It is the feeling that sells, and is addictive, in the game, not so much the content.

And finally, we looked at the magic circle.  It seems clear there are actions in video games that don’t matter, but on the other end some that do.  Does Jesus care about us giving virtual bread to the virtually hungry?  Once again the matter of intent comes up front and center.

Judging Ourselves

Now I think we have enough context for an informed discussion.

My goal was never to take a side as critic or advocate of video games.

My purpose is:

A) Help both sides understand each through common understanding of the subject

B) Help the sincere Christ follower honestly evaluate their decisions

I was reading 1 Corinthians 11 last week and an innocuous verse leapt off the page:

But if we would examine ourselves, we would not be judged by God in this way.

Now I know this verse is within the context of taking the Lord’s Supper at church.  But what struck me is the applicability to other aspects of life.  Judge (evaluate) yourself, don’t be lazy and keep leaving it up to others and God.

The thoughtful Christian should judge themselves and not leave it up to everyone else to tell them if they are doing wrong.

If this is the case, how do we judge ourselves?

The Christian Video Game Thought Framework

Here is a thought framework for video games to help me or any Christian evaluate the suitability of a video game.  I’ll give the summary first, then explain each section.

1) How do I feel after playing the game?

2) Is this game a stumbling block for me?

3) Is this game a stumbling block for others?

4) How much of the game is sad violence, how much is happy violence?

5) Does it focus on or glorify what the disobedient do in secret?

6) What is my wish fulfillment motivating me to play the game?

7) If I were able (talent, funding, time) would I make this game?

8) What is my intent about the decisions I make in the game?

9) What seeds am I sowing that I will reap later?

1. How do I feel after playing the game?

Evaluating the end state after play can be very helpful.

First, emotionally how do you feel?

Agitated?  Evil?  Dirty?

Respectful? Awe? Generous?

Second, how are your thought patterns?

Fine? Or having played that do you crave an even more violent experience?

2. Is this game a stumbling block for me?

We each seem to have buttons that Satan knows how to push.  What I am susceptible to you may not be, and vice versa.  Knowing what I know of my sinful nature, the things I’ve done, the things I thought, is this game in my danger zone or safe zone?

3. Is this game a stumbling block for others?

Maybe you are OK, but is this a problem for people in your sphere of influence?  Children, siblings, or other believers could be led astray by your freedom.

Romans 14 paraphrased in the New Videogame Translation:

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.  Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of video games. All video games are awesome, but it is wrong for a person to play anything that causes someone else to stumble.  It is better to keep the console turned off than cause your brother or sister to fall.

So whatever you believe about games keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts but plays anyway is condemned, because their play is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

If someone in your church has an issue with what you play, God is not saying you need to live by their moral code.  But you do need to be sensitive, and maybe not talk about it or play when they are around.

Remember, you are an ambassador of Christ FIRST, and savior of the virtual universe second.

4. How much of the game is sad violence, how much is happy violence?

We saw that the bible has many sections containing sad, regrettable, unfortunate violence.  Most games contain this.  Some games contain happy vengeful exploitative violence.  It revels in it.

Augustine lived in violent times, Rome as an empire was crumbling.  Wars were occurring.  He wrote some very important thoughts on “Just War”(wikipedia article, Oregon state has a nice summary) that is still in use today by politicians and the military.

A very short summary of Augustine's thoughts it for our purposes:

Is the violence self-defense?

Does the violence prevent worse violence?

Most games (and action movies) position the story so that it meets this criteria and to therefore appear justified.  Call of Duty is kill or be killed.  Marvel Ultimate Alliance is about stopping Dr. Doom from destroying the world.

Sometimes the games context is just a thin veneer to stop it from being a “murder simulator”.  Some games are a murder simulator and make no bones about it.

5. Does it focus on or glorify what the disobedient do in secret?

This isn’t so specific to violence, but content in general.  I want the framework to be comprehensive, rather than having one framework for violent games, and another for all others.

I don’t know about you, but I living in a sinful world consuming art made by sinful people leaves me knowing a lot more about sin than I should or want to know.  Ephesians 5:9-13 tells us how it should be:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.

Some games/movies explore subject matter best left unknown.  There were things in the movie Seven I wish I could un-know.  So while this has far more to do with context, graphics, story, dialog than violence, I feel this is an important question to consider.

You can't unwatch this movie.

6. What is my wish fulfillment motivating me to play the game?  

Is it a sense of bloodlust, or finding it funny to abuse others?

Or is it a sense of power, feats of strength or dexterity, control, heroism?

People may immediately think a wish for power or control is sinful.  Not so.  God created us as “little gods”, in his image, including the desire to be in charge of things and to demonstrate our dominion (power) over nature.  Now how you do that is where it gets complicated.

7. If I were able (talent, funding, time) would I make this game?

Would you be willing to put your name as designer, producer, and director to this game?  That uncomfortably changes the conversation doesn’t it?  I think the gamer church is full of hypocrites that would never make a game like thus and so, but since someone else did, they thoroughly enjoy playing it.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying that if a 40 hour game has 1 second of content you wouldn’t put your name too, you are breaking this principle.  I actually mean it more generally than that.  I don’t like some of the weird Shintoism in Final Fantasy, but overall I don’t have a problem putting my name to that game if I had made it.

Realistically, you didn’t make the game.  There are likely to be elements you don’t approve of and wouldn’t sign off on as the creative director.  You must decide where the bulk of the evidence lies and judge for yourself.

8. What is my intent about the decisions I make in the game?

Jesus cares about intent.  You can fool your wife, your parent, and maybe even yourself, but he’s the one person you cannot fool about your intent.

Are you playing a game for the virtual strippers, or the head explosions?

When you make a decision to kill a character is it because you feel vengeful and want to see that annoying person die, or because it is the only way to move the story forward?

9. What seeds am I sowing that I will reap later?

What goes into a mind comes out in a life.  This is why we’re called to pray and read the scripture.  In a sense, it does nothing for God.  But it does a whole lot for you!

God built us to learn through imitation.  I’m in awe at what my 1 year old knows because I can’t speak to her and actually explain things.  But if I move my hand to my mouth, she knows to take the bread in her hand and put it in her mouth instead of dropping it on the ground. Amazing!

So if every game you play involves smacking people in the head, and then when you fight with your wife/girlfriend and smacking her in the head comes to mind, don’t be so surprised.

Thought Framework in Practice: Two examples

I thought it would be helpful to give two examples of recent games I have put through the thought framework to determine if they are suitable for me to play.  I am not saying whether or not they are suitable for you to play.

The first is Grand Theft Auto V.  

Now you need to know that as a professional game designer/programmer GTA5 has a lot of industry impact and there are things in there I need/want to know.  How expansive is the map?  What’s the draw distance?  How do the controls feel for this or that?  It is also the most expensive game made.  What does all that money do for a game compared to all the other ones made for 1/5th the cost?  My point in saying all this is that I REALLY want to play this game.  Basically I’m looking for any excuse to justify playing it.

1. How do I feel after playing the game?

I haven’t played V, but I did play IV for a bit and it just made me feel dirty afterwards.

2. Is this game a stumbling block for me?

The strippers part is.

3. Is this game a stumbling block for others?

Absolutely.  NO ONE would read my articles on Gospel & Gaming if they knew I played GTA5. :-)  I know some (most?) of this game is a stumbling block for me and therefore would be for others.

4. How much of the game is sad violence, how much is happy violence?

It’s probably around 99% happy violence.

5. Does it focus on or glorify what the disobedient do in secret?

Umm… 100% yes!  Calling it “Satire” doesn’t excuse it.

6. What is my wish fulfillment motivating me to play the game?

I have no desire to be a criminal, or drug lord, or a thug, or anything.  So I guess very little.

7. If I were able (talent, funding, time) would I make this game?

100% no.  It’s not that there is content I would never include in a game I would make, its that the whole premise is a premise I would never make.

8. What is my intent about the decisions I make in the game?

Probably just mechanic driven.  I have no desire to steal cars, but if I need to get from A to B, that’s about the only way to do it in a reasonable timeframe.

9. What seeds am I sowing that I will reap later?

I’m not sure what the seeds are, but I can’t think of a single seed from GTA5 I would want to reap.

State of Decay

OK, so I like the show The Walking Dead and a friend recommended State of Decay.  It is an open world zombie survival game.  I checked it out on Steam and this is what I found:

1. How do I feel after playing the game?

Nothing.  Though just like the show Walking Dead, it does make me think about what I would really do in extreme circumstances like that.

2. Is this game a stumbling block for me?

No.

3. Is this game a stumbling block for others?

Not for anyone in my circles.

4. How much of the game is sad violence, how much is happy violence?

I find the extreme gore of killing some of the zombies happy violence (the characters yell filthy approving things sometimes), but 90% of it is kill or be eaten sad violence.

5. Does it focus on or glorify what the disobedient do in secret?

Not that I’ve seen.

6. What is my wish fulfillment motivating me to play the game?  

I actually kinda care about my little group of people and I want to see them survive.

7. If I were able (talent, funding, time) would I make this game?

Yes.  I actually think I could make it better.  And less gory.

8. What is my intent about the decisions I make in the game?

Mostly mechanic driven and generally generous and helpful.

9. What seeds am I sowing that I will reap later?

None that I can think of.  Besides storing water jugs for the inevitable.

Both of these games are violent (maybe equally) and rated M for 17+, yet I came to very different conclusions.

Whether you agree or completely disagree with my conclusions, I believe someone completely opposed to my conclusion can at least grant that I did think it through.  And this is the power of the framework.  Two believers in the same church may disagree on the conclusion, but there should be a sense of love and trust that the brother did think it through.

I hope this framework creates more light and less heat for discussion in our churches.

Final Thoughts

“Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.”

C.S. Lewis

This quote best explains why I think it is important for us to spend time discussing violence in video games.

Two months ago I had a number of video game experiences on my mind.  I just finished several one-on-one conversations at a Christian gaming summit.  I also just finished reading some industry writing on violence and video games.  Yet I was frustrated the violence discussion was being discussed too narrowly.  So, filled with naive optimism, I sat down to write the definitive article to bring all (or, at least, much) the relevant ideas from my experience as a Christian, game player, and game designer to the table.  12,000 words later I feel, at best, I've only illuminated the surface.  This article series is not definitive.  I have run with the baton for my leg of the track.  Now it is time for the next runner.