The Case for Taking Video Games Seriously - Christ and Pop Culture
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Mark Driscoll ended his tirade against gamers by shouting, “Video games aren’t sinful. They’re just stupid.” Though few would say it so bluntly, many of Driscoll’s Gen X compatriots probably agree with some variation of his assessment. The question, of course, is whether they’re right. In other words, is Driscoll’s take rooted in theological reflection or is it merely a reflection of generational attitudes?

I believe it’s the latter.

Gen X’s experience with games began largely outside of the home, with arcade hits like Space Invaders and Pac-Man. Yes, some had an Atari at home, but most had limited access to, and limited engagement with, games. By the time Japanese-made consoles began to saturate American markets in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, most of Gen X was already in high school or beyond. Nintendo targeted the toy market, marketing their early games primarily to children. No one can blame a generation that relished the irreverence of Beavis and Butt-Head for finding Mario puerile, but this was how the myth that “games are childish” first took root.

By 1999, much of Gen X had reached adulthood and started young families. Mass media coverage of the Columbine shooting that year awoke these young parents to the threat of school violence. Yet, what followed in Columbine’s wake wasn’t merely jeremiads against guns. The gun lobby happily worked alongside Democrats like Joe Lieberman to deflect blame. Guns weren’t the problem. Rather, video games made Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold violent.

Lieberman leveled a flurry of accusations—all now largely proven false—against violent games in Congress, arguing they made teenagers violent. Lieberman claimed the killers drew inspiration from a “murder simulator” called Doom, going so far as to dress like the game’s main character. But he was either lying or terribly uninformed because while Doom is a violent game, it’s not about killing humans; it’s about hunting demons on Mars. Furthermore, the killers hadn’t dressed like Doom’s hero, but like Neo from The Matrix. These deceptive tactics became so common that the chief crusader against video games, a Florida attorney named Jack Thompson, was eventually disbarred. Nevertheless, this was how the myth that games induce violence first took root.

While Gen X and Boomers have helped Christians consider the cost of playing video games, they rarely consider the cost of neglecting them.

Gen X’s problem with gaming was exacerbated as their children aged and began to sink countless hours into Halo, Madden, Call of Duty, and World of Warcraft. When grades and part-time jobs suffered, they justifiably feared that their children were addicted to video games. (There is evidence for this concern, so I won’t dismiss it as mere myth.)

When Driscoll called games “stupid” back in 2011, he summarized his generation’s fear: video games are addictive, childish toys that make children violent and lazy.

Why We Need to Reconsider Video Games

I’m grateful for generational wisdom. Also, any serious ethical consideration of video games should include discourse concerning violence, addiction, and productivity. But mainstream Christian discourse rarely moves past this single note. Critical engagement with games is largely absent in major Christian publications. Moreover, writing seriously about games is a credibility killer. While few look askance when a critic describes a Terrence Malick film as “cinematic wisdom literature,” a serious video game review results in awkward looks.

This is strange, given the popular appeal of video games. In 2021, the global movie production and distribution industry generated $76.7 billion in revenue. Video games, however, generated $180.3 billion that same year. While a market’s size hardly proves its worth, it certainly begs the question: Might games be more than childish violence pills inducing nationwide sloth?

While Gen X and Boomers have helped Christians consider the cost of playing video games, they rarely consider the cost of neglecting them. With rare exceptions, we’ve done two generations of Christian gamers (Millennials and Gen Z) an enormous disservice by ignoring games and failing to offer tools to think critically about entertainment. A healthy theology should drive Christians to develop a framework for critically evaluating games that takes them seriously as a vehicle for artistic expression and aesthetic resonance.

So while I’m grateful for Gen X’s ethical questions, I want Christians to dig deeper. So let me share how my own experiences as a Millennial (who’s spent a lifetime interested in games) has forced me to develop a critical Christian framework for game critique by looking at two aspects of video games: fun and storytelling.

How I Learned the Art of Fun

Like most children of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, my first experiences with video games were on Nintendo’s NES console. I never called them art. I called them fun, and no game was more fun than 1985’s Super Mario Bros.

The Mario games excel at “game feel,” a term coined by game developers to describe the interactive feedback loop between player and screen. Creating a game that feels “good” requires multiple aspects (e.g., game physics, character movement, enemy behavior patterns, visual effects, sound effects, textures, shading, user interfaces, screen shaking) all working in concert with the tactile input of pressing buttons on a controller.

Shigeru Miyamoto spent months fine-tuning Mario’s movements before he ever designed a level. He understood that unless Mario felt both highly responsive and slightly slippery, the game wouldn’t feel “good.” Once he’d perfected Mario’s feel, he designed levels that slowly added layers of difficulty to train the player on how to master the game.

In the best games, every aspect of level design and game feel is fine-tuned like a Stradivarius, then polished to sensory perfection like a Rembrandt. To 7-year-old me, the art behind the fun was invisible, but the tactile joy of mastery was plainly evident.

At this point, people might cry foul. See, video games take the energy best directed toward productive mastery and waste it. But this reaction only makes the case that all fun is wasteful because after all, mastery is at the heart of fun. Games without the possibility of mastery are random. This explains why most adults find a card game like War boring, but games that require mastery (e.g., spades, basketball, Monopoly, poker) interesting. The inverse is also true: if a game is too difficult, then it’s not fun, because it cannot be mastered.

But should Christians value fun at all? Frowning Puritans notwithstanding, our theology of Sabbath recreation gives us a resounding answer: Yes! Recreation is a form of rest not only because we cease labor, but also because we honor the fecundity of creation by using our God-given minds and bodies to draw out hitherto unimagined worlds and possibilities. Recreation invites creatures into re-creation. We play with the raw material of a good world, reconfigure it into new worlds, and find ourselves wonderfully rejuvenated—and thus prepared for more productive labor. 

Historically, artists have often been the humans who excel at fun-making. It requires tremendous creativity to design a game that invites creatures into small acts of sub-creation that offer challenge, mastery, replayability, and, yes, fun. A Christian framework for video games not only values recreation, but also seeks to understand and appreciate the unique artistic design behind any act of fun-making. 

Telling Stories in Games

If fun and game feel are the basic ingredients to any good game, then storytelling is the beurre blanc that transforms lunchroom fish sticks into Michelin Guide entrées. But historically speaking, the path to narrative-based games was long and winding.

In the early console era, memory limitations forced game developers to pick between game feel and narrative design. Graphic adventures, like Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima’s 1988 cyberpunk thriller Snatcher, excelled at storytelling. These text-based games used 8-bit cutscenes and static images to add visual texture, but the overall experience was more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book than a game.

In 1990, Nintendo released the Super Nintendo (SNES), which utilized cartridges that could hold six times the memory of the original NES cartridges. This allowed narrative design, fun, and game feel to finally Voltron into something new: story-based games that were fun to play. 

Role-playing games (RPGs) was the first genre to incorporate robust storytelling. Like many in my generation, my first experience with a narrative-driven RPG came in the late ‘90s with SquareSoft’s best-selling Final Fantasy VII. It tells the story of a disparate band of characters with competing interests who must work together and race against time to save the planet from a corporation leeching its natural resources. As the story progresses, the villains change, the characters develop, and the themes grow in richness.

Before the final battle, Final Fantasy VII’s true villain comes into focus: survivor’s guilt. The game’s story unpacks how surviving disaster creates shame, rewrites the past, crystallizes unhealthy identity, and short-circuits hope. The heroes—freed by their friend’s sacrificial love—cannot enter the final dungeon until they confront their pain, accept their grief, leave behind their anger, and embrace healing in community. The hero, who begins the game as a moody loner, ends the scene by consoling a friend wrestling with loss: “At least we don’t have to go on alone.” He’s come a long way.

After selling more than 13 million copies, there’s little doubt that this story affected gamers deeply, but how did it do this? The game is not a 36-hour TV show, spoon-feeding plot points between action sequences. Rather, Final Fantasy VII draws the player into the story through gameplay. This experience of entering a story is what game critics call “immersion.”

The best example of immersion occurs at the game’s midpoint when the hero’s unprocessed past enables the game’s villain to control his body. In a hypnotic trance, the hero begins to approach the woman he loves to kill her. The hero doesn’t want to do it, but resistance is futile. More importantly: the player doesn’t want to do it, but the game designers make the player’s resistance futile, as well. Every button you press moves the hero closer to murder. If you try to move the character away, he steps closer. If you try to open the menu, he walks forward. I remember pressing every button on my controller, trying to resist the inevitable, but nothing worked. There’s nothing the hero can do to stop himself and there’s nothing the player can do to stop the hero. The line between game and player blurred, drawing me into the hero’s emotional state.

At the final moment, the hero resists, but his love isn’t spared. The villain finishes the job himself, and the player is forced into a battle which (rather unusually) does not include the normal, high-tempo, Metallica-esque boss music. Instead, the battle is waged to the lyrical, gentle theme song of the woman just slain, but set in a forlorn minor key. I remember tearing up during the fight and wondering “Why am I crying about a video game?”

Now I know: That’s narrative design. That’s immersion. That’s art.

As with fun and mastery, some people might cry foul over immersion. Isn’t that what makes games addictive? Well, yes and no.

Yes, games that emphasize variable rewards in immersive gameplay loops can be highly addictive in the same way that slot machines immersively addict gamblers. But no, because narrative immersion is something different. C. S. Lewis understood this.

He argued that a Christian literary critic does not approach a book as an aloof observer. Instead, she humbly steps inside the book, setting aside her prejudices and personality in order to see the world as the creator does. The best art allows for this kind of immersion. Lewis writes, “The true reader reads every work seriously in the sense that he reads it whole-heartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can.”

For Lewis, this is an act of humble, self-giving love to the creator. When we do so, great novels do at least four things to us:

  1. Point us toward Christ, calibrating our imagination and ethics toward the kingdom.
  2. Unveil the dark powers animating the world.
  3. Show our cultural blindspots.
  4. Invite us into the non-Christian imagination, so we can challenge it sensibly. Christian critiques celebrate the good while challenging the ways a story malforms us.

Great games, like great literature, allow you to immerse yourself in someone else’s imagination. To misquote Lewis, “In playing great games I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.” Critical engagement resulting from quality immersion is good for self-reflection, empathic expansion, evangelism, and much more.

While a short essay like this can only surface a tiny fraction of the artistic value of video games, I hope it leaves a few skeptics a bit more curious. Gen X’s questions and concerns aren’t wrong; they’re just thin. It’s time for Christians of all generations to move past indifference toward gaming, and begin to take video games seriously as an artform.

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