As video games develop, so must discernment
As each new form of media comes into existence it is necessary for people to discern it, to uncover what parts of the new media are healthy, and which parts are not. When a new media is born, people try out new ideas and test its boundaries. In the first stages of development we must sit back and let the new form find out what it is and what it can to. Then we can go into it, analyze it and improve it. It was difficult to know how to discern film and television when they were new, but now, decades later, it has become far easier. Part of this is due to practice and part is due to the media developing it as such.
For years, video games have been evolving. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, video games were rudimentary and mostly arcade games. They were simple and only barely reflected things from the physical world. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, they shifted away from arcade gaming and into their childhood phase — console gaming was created, with games of varying styles and genres. Many widely loved games, consoles, franchises and genres began in this period. Soon after the new millennium, however, video games began to reach the preteen stage, developing better graphics, gameplay, genres, styles, mechanics, systems, consoles and created online play, like Xbox Live and PSN.
Now, in 2013, video games are entering their adolescent phase, developing the patterns and habits that the medium may keep or throw away, finding out what leads to a good video game and trying to perfect the art. Developers are beginning to focus more with content than ever before — less with graphics and more with narrative. All the various pieces of the game need to be developed together; the controls, music, plot, character, narrative, etc. Within the decade video games will reach adulthood, becoming a fully fledged media in their own right, once the finer points of making and developing a good video game have been tuned. Developers need to know how to make video games worthy of being called art on the same level as the most respected works of film, music and traditional art. But not only developers need to prepare themselves; the gamer community needs to develop as well.
Now that video games have reached adolescence, it is imperative that we know how to critique what makes a game good. Without being able to develop that, the industry may not evolve, but instead grow stale and keep the habits it has developed, be they good or bad. Video games are poised to become a media powerhouse like television and film, and in order to make it better there must be critics. These critics need to be able to talk to more than just hard core gamers and sort the bad from the brilliant to encourage developers make better games. The criticism community for video games is fledgling at best. Most reviews are simply an overview of what the game contains and its mechanics. Game critics need to dig deeper and find out what really makes a game good, beyond the frame-rate and controls. We need a mature way to talk about video games, the gaming community and what makes a game good.
For Christians this is even more true. If Christians are to have an active part in video game development, evolution and participation, they must be also be able to wade through the yearly deluge of video games and discover what makes a game healthy to play. This has always been difficult and few have achieved reasonable success. Since the start of the industry, many Christians have tried to discern video games, but most reviews just end up trying to boil the game down and simplifying it. If it has violence, then it’s bad; if it has a lot of violence then it’s very bad. If it has offensive language, then it must be wrong for Christians to play it. This method is clunky and flawed; the shallow way to discern. It does not look into the heart of the game and discern what the game is really about. Total depravity means that everything is flawed and contains sin. But that does not mean the whole is sinful. There must also be something redeeming in everything. Christians need to find ways to look for and discover those things in video games. To simplify them down and look only at the fallen parts of a video game is not the way to discern them. Discernment is being able to navigate through culture to see what is truth and distorted truth. Paul lays out this concept in 1 Corinthians 8 when he writes that for some it may be alright to partake in meats sacrificed to idols. He says that each must decide for themselves if it is right or wrong, but also warns the Corinthians that they but be careful that their decision does not tempt others around them. The same thing happens with video games. What is okay for someone may be wrong for another and Christians will have to make sure that they are not in a situation to tempt another.
Discerning is not new to Christians, we have been doing it for literally thousands of years. We have applied this discernment to film, literature and art. If we can apply some of the skills we’ve learned in these other fields, perhaps we can give ourselves a foundation to stand on for discerning video games.
When it comes to what makes a good game, I would argue that all must be taken in context. In all media the central piece is the aesthetic. All pieces of the style, art, story and narrative combine into one thing. This remains the same for video games. The question of violence, taken in the context of the plot, is no longer “is the game violent?” but instead becomes “is this senseless violence, without purpose, or does the violence seek to tell us something; does it advance a worthy plot?” Christians need to ask if a game is portraying godly morals, is amoral, or is immoral. Many films contain violence, but they do it in a way that does not glorify the violence. If a movie has violence few Christian reviewers say that simply because of that fact no Christian should watch it. The same goes for offensive language: if it is done just for the sake of being vulgar and trying to attract a teen male audience, then it is glorifying something that should not be. That part of the film or video game is worthless and degrading.
In some ways it can all come down to what the game’s motive is. Is the game trying to say that violence is right, and that people can and should be violent, or trying to say that violence doesn’t matter? If so, then the video game is clearly in contradiction with the word of God. It is not just Christians who need to ask themselves these questions either. Many non-Christians have begun to wonder what should be in video games. These are questions that should and need to be asked for video games as a medium and an industry to mature.
To look only at the video game though, is only seeing half the picture. It is not just the video game that can be in the wrong. I would also argue that when it comes to violence in video games it depends on where your heart is. If you truly believe in your heart that you are killing another human being, and are okay with that, then what you are doing is now unhealthy and wrong; it is murder. If you internalize the violence and treat it as good, normal, or even holy, your heart is being corrupted. Christians need to look inside themselves when they play video games, because where your heart is matters very much when violence is thrown into a video game.
Video games are entering a new age of development and design. If our culture doesn’t figure out how to critique and improve video games, we will loose a very powerful medium that can tell great stories. Christians are going to be a part of these critiquing discussions, whether we like it or not. Whether we are ready or not. We need to be seriously thinking about where video games should and should not go.
I realize have barely scratched the surface of the topic, but that is because I don’t have the answers yet. However, I do know that we are called to seek them.