By James A. Jardin
“Video games are violent, addictive, and pointless.”
Have you ever heard this when talking about video games? As I researched this topic, one of my friends commented that because so many over age 18 play video games, “we are more stupid, out of shape, and lethargic.”
On a LinkedIn discussion thread I participated in about the positive aspects of playing video games one person commented: “It’s better to go do some physical exercise outdoors.”
“[Video games] are just stupid,” said a well-known megachurch pastor.
Men are increasingly unable to have healthy social lives because of a combination of video games and pornography, asserts a notable figure in the field of psychology.
A 24-year-old man used video games to prepare to go on a murderous rampage in a 2012 theater shooting in Colorado, (in which 12 people were killed and 59 were wounded) according to a criminal profiler on a CNN interview.
We encounter these views implicitly on TV shows and movies, and explicitly at church and in articles and in their comment feeds on anything video game related, on both Christian websites like Focus on the Family and non-Christian websites such as CNN. Meanwhile, releases for major titles continue to be huge events for retail stores, and video game production for a major game such as Halo yields millions of dollars on day one of sales. Video games are here to stay as an entertainment medium. Are they a curse on our civilization or can we be more positive about them? The opening statement is a powerful value judgment on what a major portion of the American adult population (over 124 million or about 51% of all Americans over the age of 18) uses for leisure time. There is a general negativity toward the adult usage of video games both in and outside of the church. Christians are called to be salt and light to the world. The way Christians approach this topic reflects what they believe about the character of the God they believe in and acts as a signpost to non-believers. My aim is to present a biblically informed Christian ethic on the adult use of video games for leisure.
John Frame provides a working definition of “ethics.” He wrote that ethics are “a means of determining which person’s acts and attitudes receive God’s blessing and which do not.” I, as the writer here, don’t have the authority to declare right and wrong in an ultimate sense and neither does the reader. God does. He is the creator of all things and He rules over everything He has created. Mankind was created in God’s image and made able to make value judgments; the effects of sin however mar the minds of all mankind so the value judgments we make are not reliable in an absolute sense, but mankind is capable of making value judgments nonetheless. The minds believers in Christ have begun healing and so begin to think freely without the bondage of sin. Following Frame again, he remarks: “Most people who think about ethics, Christian and non-Christian alike, are impressed by the teleological, deontological, and existential principles.” Respectively these are consequential or results based, duty based, and character based principles. With a framework in place to approach the concept of ethics, a few other factors must be addressed in order to answer the main question at hand.
What am I referring to when considering video games? Practically stated, this discussion is framed with games within the mainstream in mind, ranging from a smartphone game like Flappy Bird to an PC game like World of Warcraft (and all variations of video games in between), which are played by adults but not for profit or vocation. Video games have matured as a narrative medium and share some of the same characteristics of cinematic blockbusters complete with multimillion dollar budgets and actors who we see on the big screen providing motion capture and voice acting.
One can play a game with a relatively simple narrative and linear game such as an old Super Mario Brothers for the original Nintendo system. Here, the game is cartoonish and lighthearted with very little in the way of a substantive message to take away from it. Here the player can only kill the “bad guys.” One can also play a game such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, with an expansive virtual world with interweaving character stories, adult choices about justice and mercy, the clash between goodness and wickedness, and spiritual overtones. Or they could play Bioshock: Infinite, and be confronted with both issues of religion and race in a similar vein to a political science fiction/fantasy novel. In these latter two, the violence is graphic and in Skyrim, the player has the option to kill “bad guys” and “good guys” alike.
Video game narratives may also link in well with the Biblical framework: Creation, Rebellion, Redemption, and Restoration. Games like LittleBigPlanet, Minecraft, and SimCity encourage mimicking God’s own creative acts through building. Games such as Fallout, Borderlands, and Grand Theft Auto exist in worlds that are dystopian and deeply broken, crying out for redemption and restoration but only give you fleeting tastes of relief. Other games like Halo, Legend of Zelda, Ōkami, and to some extent Call of Duty games allow the player to take on the role of a messiah-like character (or characters) who restores the world. Every time a game comes to a satisfying conclusion where wrongs are righted and a hopeful future is established, players connect with a taste of the promise we are longing for of a world with no suffering or death, which Scripture tells us comes about at the restoration of all things. On the knowledge of religion, John Calvin said:
“Since the perfection of blessedness consists in the knowledge of God, he has been pleased, in order that none might be excluded from the means of obtaining felicity, not only to deposit in our minds that seed of religion of which we have already spoken, but so to manifest his perfections in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place himself in our view, that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to behold him.”
In the same vein, Jerram Barrs writes:
“It seems that among every people on the face of this earth there is recollection of the original good creation; there is awareness that the world we now live in is broken and fallen, and there is recall of the promise and hope of the restoration of what is good. This true knowledge exists sometimes in stronger form, sometimes in weaker, but is always present.”
Christian and many a non-Christian alike share this “awareness,” as Barrs calls it. Video games are a venue for these observations and recollections to happen.
Kevin Schut points out: “Video games absolutely do not need to be solitary activities. Rather they are social spaces.” Some games such as World of Warcraft or League of Legends have fostered community amongst friends who commit to playing with each other regularly to enjoy adventures together in these virtual worlds. In fact, 27% of all Americans play games with friends at least an hour a week. This diverse video game world is what should be remembered as this discussion progresses. Video games in general are as much of a valid form of leisure as watching Hollywood movies or reading fictional stories because they often share much common ground both in terms of narrative and content.
What makes this problem unique when considering adults? Scripture makes it plain that there is a way of living like a child, which is different from living like an adult. In 1 Corinthians 13:11, the Apostle Paul keyed in on this reality when considering our continual development in life in light of God’s unchanging truth. God created all things in history and mankind carries this sense of development over the passing of time. We must admit that there is some ambiguity in Scripture on what exactly constitutes an adult while still acknowledging that there is a clear distinction between child and adult. Generally considered, children are physically weaker, think simply, and are immediately dependent upon others for their well being. Conversely, adults are physically more capable, think more complexly, and are more capable of fending for themselves.
Experientially, we feel it when we see things that are appropriate for children versus adults. We react differently if we see a small child or an adult reading Hamlet (complex thinking) and if we see an adult or a child eating with toddler sized eating utensils (physical capability and dependency). The Oxford American Dictionary defines adult as: “a person who is fully grown or developed.” Consider the words: “fully grown or developed.” When referring to physical development, there will likely be much consensus on what constitutes a fully physically grown or developed person. However, there is growing complexity in other areas of development.
When specialists speak of developmental stages, a somewhat new stage has been identified: emerging adulthood (as opposed to full adulthood, which is culturally defined as “by the end of schooling, a stable career, financial independence, and new family formation”). Christian Smith says this age group is made up mainly of 18- to 23-year olds. He points to six major changes in the broader social scheme in America which all contributed to the rise of this distinctive group:
- Emerging adults live in a world where higher education opportunities have ballooned and some remain in school into their 30’s before beginning a career.
- This age group is in no hurry to marry, waiting to be 26 to 28 years old before marrying for the first time.
- They have grown up in a world where the economy has undermined stable and lifelong careers, and has replaced them with careers with less stability and require ongoing new training and skills.
- Parents of this age group, aware of the previous realities, are financially supporting their children into their 20’s and 30’s.
- There is less pressure to settle down after having a child. With the dawn of birth control, casual sex has become a common part of relationships and there is no pressure to become a parent while remaining sexually active.
- The diffusion of postcultural and postmodern thought has fostered a celebrated sense of “uncertainty, difference, fluidity, ambiguity, multi-vocality, self-construction, changing identities, particularity, historical finitude, localism, audience reception, perspectivalism, and more” amongst this age group.
The American experience has changed a good bit for adults between 18 and 30. Some of our elders are unaware just how much the cultural landscape has changed in the generational gap. These changes foster a greater space for play and leisure in the lives of many emerging adults than previous generations experienced at that same age of life. Emerging adults are likely to treat their experience, which includes greater space for play and leisure, as normal and therefore good or better than previous generations. This will naturally lead to conflict with their those from earlier generations who saw their alternate experience, which allowed for less space for play and leisure, as normal and therefore good or better than younger generations. Some are less understanding of the present realities that their generation contributed to and don’t understand why some young adults “won’t just act like adults” in their day. This means that in forming ethical expectations of adulthood, it is all the more important to consider data from outside our personal experience, both young and old, and seek to critically consider what adulthood is and isn’t about. C.S. Lewis gave a helpful word of caution on this issue as he wrote:
“Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
Play and Leisure
What does the Bible have to say about play or leisure? Scripture offers some guidance regarding these ideas. When using an English word search in the English Standard Version bible translation, “play” turns up 56 times. Five Hebrew verbs and three Greek verbs are used to produce the English word “play” in the ESV. When we read it in the ESV it usually refers to unfaithfulness (29 times), use of a musical instrument (22 times), entertainment or amusement (4 times), and honoring oneself as one with great wealth when actually being poor (1 time). When counting the occurrences of all the variations of both the Hebrew and Greek root verbs where the ESV translated “play,” the number rises to 135 times, with the New Testament accounting for only six instances out of the whole, exclusively referring to using musical instruments. The verbs that refer to the kind of “play” relevant to this discussion show God describing how He will treat his people as a mother bouncing a child upon her knees; they describe delight in the Law of the Lord, both positive and negative laughter, as well as celebration and mirth.
The redemptive historical arc of Scripture makes notable use of the positive elements of celebration and play. The establishment of feasts and celebrations throughout Scripture reveals God cares not only about the work we do but has an appreciation for having fun. Dr. Dan Doriani makes the following observations to this point. Jesus was committed to His father’s rest as opposed to ceaseless work, went to parties enough that he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, and His teaching even had elements of playfulness. Jürgen Moltmann reminds us: “Easter begins with celebration, for Easter is the feast where the resurrected Christ makes a thank-offering in gratitude for his resurrection and breaks bread with the disciples.” Tellingly, Scripture comes to a close with a picture of God’s people celebrating with Christ at a wedding feast in Revelation 19:6-10.
Play is a subset of exercise, leisure, competition, and games. So, in relation to play, as in the previous distinctions between childhood and adulthood, the culture has unwritten expectations on what children versus what adults ought to do for leisure. Both adults and children may enjoy water balloon fights and throwing a Frisbee but, generally, children would be more likely to enjoy making crafts out of macaroni. Is there something inherently wrong if an adult enjoys making things out of macaroni? I did a quick internet search for “macaroni art” and turned up this guy:
That is one extremely detailed sculpture of a head made of different shapes of pasta. With imagination and creativity, adults may take the seemingly most childish building blocks and make surprising creations with them. It is unnecessarily narrow to suppose that adults cannot appropriate (seemingly) simple things for the more developed sense enjoyment that adults commonly share. Now that the terms have been explained, let’s explore the three different ethical perspectives!
Pragmatism is in the air we breathe as Americans. If it works, do it. Most all things are judged by their usefulness and the outcomes they produce. This is the consequential ethic. Using a consequential approach, adults playing video games for leisure is a ‘good’ thing if the results are positive and a ‘bad’ thing if the results are negative. Because this is the primary way that one makes their case in the public forum in America, arguments on either side ought to be scrutinized for bias. Within both camps of those who are pro- and anti-video games, both are guilty of making overly generalized value statements about their data. Emotional appeals are made on both sides but serious consideration of dangers and benefits are fewer and harder to find than stories that seem to be written to appease those already convinced of a position. While there are other issues that continue to come up when video games are discussed, three will be addressed here: trends toward practicing violence, addiction, and social impairment.
Are adults who play video games for leisure more likely to engage in violence? Some research suggests that some individuals who already have an inclination toward violence can be made more violent by playing violent video games. One might consider it this way: because some people have a genetic inclination toward alcoholism does that make drinking alcoholic beverages absolutely inappropriate for everyone? The answer is no. The data is inconclusive about the link between video games and those who act out with violence. The killers in the Columbine High School massacre were fans of Doom. A Norwegian man claimed to play many hours of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 to prepare to shoot sixty-nine people in 2011 but the man who committed the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007 “apparently didn’t play video games much, if at all…” As video games proliferate, the crime rate has actually been declining in the United States and Canada since 1990. One might expect the opposite trend if violent behavior was inextricably tied to video games (unless there are greater factors reducing crime. Further research incorporating other crime reducing factors may help provide more detailed conclusions).
Individuals who already have violent tendencies should take the links between violent video games and physical violence seriously. While some adults most certainly have and do engage in violence after playing violent video games, the problem of assigning blame to a common activity without conclusive data to back it up is nothing new. T. Atilla Ceranoglu wrote in an article for the American Psychological Association on Video Games in Psychotherapy:
“Skepticism and reflexive blame on new media or new pop culture for society’s ills even when data for harm are absent are not new. Throughout history, new media forms or leisure activities went through a similar process that video games currently navigate. In 1314, the mayor of London banned playing soccer because of concerns about the emerging violence and vandalism during and after matches (Carnibella, 1996). Theater in late 19th century, dime novels and comic books in 1900s, TV programs in 1970s, and the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons in 1980s all received criticism based on the notion that they led to violent behavior despite the lack of conclusive data that showed them to cause harm…”
Statements asserting that video games absolutely lead to violent behavior are too general and therefore inaccurate.
Are video games addictive for adults who play them for leisure? Some research indicates that online games in particular can lead to process addiction (as opposed to substance addiction). Process addiction is a category for problems such as “habitual patterns of behavior related to an activity, and can include gambling, spending, shopping, eating, and sexual addictions.” Video game addicts experience problems not unlike that of those who become addicted to television: heavy playing, problem playing, craving for playing, and withdrawal. A study by Searle Huh and Nicholas David Bowman on addiction and online gaming suggests that those who suffer from video game addictions may be disposed to it on account of their personality makeup. This indicates that as a general statement, it is misleading to say: “video games are addictive” without adding “for some people.” Video game addiction is just as real as addiction to any other activity that takes over a person’s life. The alcohol comparison may be helpful again here: drinking responsibly does not equal being an alcoholic, but the risk is real for some, but not all, people.
Are adults who play video games for leisure unable to have healthy social lives? The famous 1971 “prison experiment” researcher, Philip G. Zimbardo, on a CNN article titled “The Demise of Guys,” raises this problem. Zimbardo and Duncan tie the use of pornography and video game usage to “creating a generation of risk-averse guys who are unable (and unwilling) to navigate the complexities and risks inherent to real-life relationships…” However, I believe that unhealthy use of video games may be a presenting symptom of deeper problems that drive these individuals to live as Duncan and Zimbardo describe. Previously in the description of emerging adulthood, we saw how the cultural landscape has created a sense of disequilibrium in that age bracket. This disequilibrium forces some to reach for the cheapest and most readily available anesthetics they can get: video games and pornography. In Duncan and Zimbardo’s article, we see that some are retreating from healthy relationships and running to diversions from the troubles of their life. However, video games and pornography are unthinking things and certainly shouldn’t be blamed in and of themselves for these people’s social problems.
Video games make for an easy punching bag as opposed to addressing the more complicated issues associated with the factors that influenced the formation of the emerging adults. The veracity of this value judgment of someone’s social health is likely to be tied to the previous problem: addiction. If they are addicted to video games, the individual’s ability to enter into healthy relationships will be impacted negatively. However, as stated above in section on Video Games as a category, a large percentage of adults play with friends regularly. While negative examples exist, not every adult video gamer is the overweight 33 year old, alone in their parents basement, unwashed, wearing their pajamas, and screaming profanity at children over Xbox Live. This stereotype is so strong that for some it is symbolic of everything wrong with video games and the people that play them. Doriani cautions us: “To base our attitude toward play on its abuses is like basing a book on humanity on visits to prisons.” It is easier to get people to pay attention to a disaster story than to tell of those who haven’t made a mess of themselves.
The Bible definitely has consequential arguments relevant to this discussion. For violence, Jesus warns the sword drawing disciple Peter to put away his sword, for all who draw them will die by them. The Psalms warn that those who plot violence will have it fall upon themselves. As for addiction, many passages that speak to idolatry are applicable here. Scripture warns that someone worships an idol they will become like it: dumb, blind, deaf, numb, and still. For the last question of healthy social life, at least part of the root of what some are concerned about here is laziness, and Scripture speaks to that as well. The Proverbs warn the sluggard of many a problem that waits should they not change their ways: their failure to get up and do necessary things will lead to their poverty, sense of dissatisfaction, and physical hunger.
Biblical authors, were they living today, would likely tell us that committing murder, even in the heart, is unacceptable for Christians. Further, they would likely warn against the potential hardening of our hearts and turning away from God by rehearsing realistic gratuitous violent acts against realistic representations of human beings and animals. They would likely affirm our freedom in all things as believers in Christ while warning us against idolatry through addictions. Finally, they would probably remind us to do all things for the love of God and our neighbor and that it is difficult to do that if we spend an inordinate amount of time in our leisure activities.
While non-Christian ethicists are challenged to seek for an authoritative source for a categorical imperative (such as Hegel, Hume, and Moore), Christians have the challenge of interpreting the commands that God has given them in the Bible. While there are other ways to approach the issue of video games and God’s commandments, consider the Ten Commandments in how they might impact this discussion.
First and second, the Lord commands that we have no other Gods and that we shall not worship idols. Allowing video game use to become an addiction violates both of these commandments. If they rule over us, they have become false gods to us. The act of playing video games could be “making idols” for the addict.
Thirdly, the Lord commands that we shall not take His name in vain. If we find ourselves invoking God’s name in what should be a restful activity, we have broken this commandment.
Fourthly, He commanded that we keep Sabbath holy unto Him. While leisure activities are good on the Sabbath, if they become absolutely self-serving, we lose sight of the holiness of that day. Playing video games may or may not be done from a place of gratitude to God for making good gifts for us to enjoy and may become about just getting a selfish “fix.”
Fifthly, we are commanded to honor our mother and father. This means that if we are going to use video games for leisure, we can’t use them to the detriment of our parents. The “sluggard” discussion is relevant here too: if we have squandered our time and cannot support our parents into their old age because of it, we violate the fifth commandment and must heed the warning of 1 Timothy 5:8 (“worse than an unbeliever”).
The sixth commandment tells us starkly: "no murder." Playing at “murder” in a video game is spiritually dangerous. Also, some people get so angry in playing video games that it may well approach the kind of hate within the heart that makes us guilty of murder.
The seventh commandment forbids adultery. Many video games present people erotically, intended to awaken sexual desire. Jesus’ warning is clear here: lusting in the heart is committing adultery.
The eighth commandment forbids stealing. This means that games that encourage players to practice stealing might very well be encouraging hearts to explore forbidden territory. Proceed with caution. It should go without saying that downloading illegal copies of or otherwise stealing games is a violation of this commandment as well.
The ninth commandment forbids bearing false witness. While the original context is primarily for a courtroom setting, other places in Scripture point to the underlying issue in all passages referring to truth telling: preservation of justice, community, truth, and respect. Some games overtly present ethical dilemmas with optional truth telling. Is it a sin to lie in a game? Is the game letting the player decide to uphold or nullify the values that truth telling is really getting at? Again, the heart of the player is the issue. Does the player take the game lightly and tell the (virtual) lie in good conscience or does the player feel a sense of guilt from telling a lie even in a game? Murder shouldn’t be taken lightly in a game and neither should bearing false witness. Another way one might violate the ninth commandment while playing video games is playing them for leisure during business hours instead of doing assigned tasks. If they pretend that they have been busy working the whole time when reporting to their supervisor, they bear false witness about themselves while at work.
The tenth commandment forbids coveting. Video game culture can be consumerist. How does it make us feel when someone has the latest state-of-the-art video game or console? Video game systems advance technologically by leaps and bounds along with the prices of the hardware. Many people will not be able to afford the newest system. Can we rest easy if our neighbor has one and we don’t, or does our heart feel sick until we have it too? This is coveting which could then spill over into violating the first and second commandments about no other gods and worshiping idols.
The final category of ethical approach is the existential or character-based. We behave as who we are. At our most basic level, all human beings are created in the image of God. God is God and we are not – we are finite. We must breathe, eat, and rest. Adults who use video games for leisure who are not anchored to this truth are likely to have problems. One Korean man who lost sight of his finitude died of cardiac arrest after 50 hours of playing Starcraft in 2005. Even God rested after creating the world on the seventh day.
We must remember that though we do not live for pleasure or leisure, leisure is not evil. The effects of the Rebellion / Fall are real in our lives. From birth, our minds and bodies suffer the effects of the curse and we are enslaved to sin. We are all children of Adam who need redemption by the greater Adam: Jesus Christ. We who take the effects of the Rebellion / Fall seriously will recognize our ongoing need to believe in Jesus Christ, to repent, and be transformed by the renewing of our minds. As believers in Christ, we take on not only the identity of image bearer but also Child of God. This means that adults who want to use video games for leisure must be on guard for the unique temptations that are present there (as in any leisure activity). We are to be sons and daughters of God first, and gamers somewhere else down the line of all the other roles we have in our lives. Our use of video games for leisure cannot be allowed to overtake the importance of seeking to follow after Christ in word and deed. Children imitate their parents and we ought to imitate our Father in Heaven and Jesus Christ in His gracious care and love for those around us. After all, God did not rest when we were in need but gave us His own Son over for us while we were yet still sinners.
Whether in work or in leisure, as the Westminster Divines wrote long ago, man’s chief end does not change: “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Adults who use video games for leisure use them in good conscience when they use them according to the law of love. God rested after creative work. Jesus was tired rested both on Sabbaths and in feasts. To work unendingly even in what we think is "leisure time" is not a quality of adulthood but rather a quality of sinful pride. Since it is perfectly acceptable to rest while accomplishing nothing by sitting by a lake for leisure, the same is also true of using video games for leisure. Moltmann warned against losing sight of our finitude when he wrote: “[Our tasks], if we take them seriously, loom larger than life. Yet infinite responsibility destroys a human being because he is only a man and not god.” Gary Thomas states it well: “We do not need to fear pleasure; we need to fear the alienation from God that corrupts our sense of pleasure and that makes the pleasure drive so potentially dangerous.” While playing games for leisure is permissible and even good in some cases, it is harmful and should also be discouraged in others. In playing video games for leisure, we should not play “games” in walking faithfully with the Lord. Otherwise, every good gift (which video games can be) is from the Lord and we ought to celebrate His goodness as we use them for His ultimate glory. In using video games for leisure to the glory of God, as in all things, we must avoid falling into the proverbial “ditches on either side of the road” of lawlessness and legalism. The Apostle Paul is our teacher and he wrote us words that are invaluable as we each walk with the Lord. “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).
Want Biblical or other citations? Find this paper in its academic format on Academia.edu. Leave a comment for constructive dialogue! We ought all be learners aiming toward a more holistic approach to applying faith in Jesus Christ!
- Soli Deo Gloria
James A. Jardin is a volunteer with Gospel & Gaming.