Loving Our Neighbors: Controversial Symbols in Games

[Originally posted on July 19, 2015]

By Michael Mendis

A recent decision by the tech giant Apple has caused a small stir in gaming circles, and we at Gospel & Gaming feel that it gives us a great chance to look critically at games and how we love those around us through our play.  But before we dive into that, let’s put the matter into its proper context.

As you may be aware, an awful tragedy took place a few weeks ago in South Carolina, when a white gunman walked into an African-American church and murdered nine people (and injured another).  This vicious act, which appears to have been racially motivated, led to renewed calls for the governments of various southern states to remove the Confederate flags that still flew at official state buildings.  Many prominent politicians on both sides of the aisle agreed it was time to remove the flags.

Here is where Apple steps into the picture.  In the midst of this political and cultural debate, Apple decided to remove games from the App Store that featured the Confederate flag in ways that Apple deemed “offensive or mean-spirited.”  Some developers affected by this decision felt that their games were punished unfairly, namely several tactical strategy games set in the Civil War that featured the Confederate flag for the purposes of historical accuracy.  Facing this pressure, Apple has begun working with developers on reaching compromises to get banned games back in the store.

A Civil War strategy game that was temporarily banned by Apple

A Civil War strategy game that was temporarily banned by Apple

All of this leads to an important question for us as Christians: how do we deal with symbols and organizations in games that could be viewed as offensive to others around us?  This goes beyond just Confederate flags.  Many games over the years have featured Swastikas and other Nazi symbols; still others depict terrorism of many different stripes (Islamic, communistic, etc.).  More significantly, many games have actually let gamers play as members of these despicable groups in one way or another; Call of Duty, for example, puts players on teams themed after Nazis or terrorists during competitive multiplayer.  World War II-themed strategy games also allow you to play as Nazis.

For a lot of us (myself included), these kinds of games are usually not a big deal.  Many of the conflicts depicted in these games are far removed from our own experiences, either by time or geography or both.  And games rarely require the player to engage in the actions that made these hateful groups so infamous.  Our conscience does not condemn us for being put on the Nazi team in a Call of Duty match, not only because the conflict took place before many of us were born, but also because we’re just in a competitive shooting gallery with other players; we aren’t conducting horrifying experiments or enslaving people groups during our time in the game world.

A multiplayer match in the World War II game Call of Duty: World at War, showing the player fighting for the German army

A multiplayer match in the World War II game Call of Duty: World at War, showing the player fighting for the German army

But the ability to distance ourselves from these things just isn’t possible for some, even when such symbols and groups are presented in a tasteful and historically appropriate manner.  There are people alive today who saw the atrocities committed by the Nazis first-hand.  There are many more still alive who suffered during the Civil Rights movement, where the Confederate flag, already a reminder of America’s past slavery, was once again used in protests to deny African-Americans their rights.  Others have lost relatives fighting Islamic terrorism in the Middle East.  For these people, Swastikas, Confederate flags, and terrorist groups are more than just images in a textbook or on TV; they bring back painful memories of injustice, of friends imprisoned, of loved ones lost.  Playing a game in which you play as a Nazi or a Confederate soldier may understandably go against their conscience.

A Confederate flag at an anti-integration rally

A Confederate flag at an anti-integration rally

So how do we as Christians deal with this?  I think the answer lies in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth.  In I Corinthians 8, Paul discusses an issue facing the church at that time, where some Christians felt that eating meat offered to idols was a sin, while others felt fine with it, knowing that the idols were not real gods.  Paul affirms those who chose to eat the meat, but instructs them to avoid doing so if it would cause their fellow brothers in Christ to sin.

This lesson is very applicable today.  We should be mindful of those around us when playing games, because everything we do should be a witness to Christ’s love.  If you like a game that a fellow brother or sister in Christ finds offensive, respect their conscience; don’t play the game while they are around.  We gamers like to make a stand about the value of games and defend their artistic and cultural worth, and there are certainly good times and places to do so.  But as Christians we have a higher calling as well, to love God and those around us in everything we do.  It is important to build up our spiritual brethren, and sometimes that means making a sacrifice for their good.  Denying oneself the enjoyment of a game for a time is a simple and easy way to share Christ’s love with others, especially when we consider how much Christ sacrificed for all of us.