A friend of mine used to have this saying that I’ve claimed for my own use like Bruce Wilkinson claiming the Prayer of Jabez, “The devil is being made real in my life”. For example, stubbing my toe, my first iPad sliding across the leather seats in my car straight onto the pavement thus cracking the screen, the innumerable amount of acorns in my front yard, and the cable going out in the middle of a big sporting event on a beautiful clear day, are examples of when the devil was being made real in my life (Okay not really but you get the point). It was a way of humorously putting things in perspective that we have little if any control over, which don’t have life altering significance, and yet could cause us to act very un-Christlike if we’re not mindful.
I recently heard a speaker declare emphatically, “Video games are a tool of the devil!” Which if it’s true then I can reasonably conclude that the devil has been a very real part of my life for nearly thirty years. If true, then the devil, or at least his tool –console, -station, -box has been a part of approximately 82% of my life. If true, then I must admit that I’ve had some very entertaining, fun, engaging, and bonding moments with others that the devil or at least his tool have been right in the middle and a cause of. This past weekend I was asked to speak to a group of parents about video games. I was the third speaker in three weeks who talked to them about technology. Prior to me they had been instructed unequivocally to get video game systems out of their house. The reasoning for this imperative is that video games are highly addictive and by having them you put your child at risk of becoming a monster.
In case you’ve heard something similar, wondering what you should do, or need convincing that video games are not inherently fraught with peril, I would like to share with you my perspective as someone who has been alive almost since the beginning of gaming. I am a recreational gamer, and spend a great amount of time with teenagers.
A Brief History [Note: if you really don’t care, don’t have time, skip to the next section]
Video games go back forty years or so when the first video game systems were, Colecovision, Intellivision, and Atari. It’s amazing to consider how these systems and the games for them still have a pop-culture appeal to them. Many of the games can be played on the most up to date systems in their original format. The iconic image of that era in gaming is the Atari game Pong; its one-dimensional plane, slim vertical rectangular bars that simply went up or down as the square depiction of a ping pong ball (that’s right they couldn’t get the graphics to depict anything close to a circle) was volleyed across the screen. The controller, a masterpiece of anti-ergonomics, was literally a box with one red button, with a joystick that resembled a church steeple protruding out of the top. Games were repetitious hand-eye coordination drills, containing simple objectives (get the frog across the street without being ran over, drowning, or eaten), and difficulty was increased by simply making everything move slightly faster than in the previous level. Two-player mode often consisted of taking turns, and trying to beat the other person’s score. Characters depicting people were a collection of boxes and rectangles lumped together to resemble the stick figures on road signs.
Fast forward to present day where the dominant gaming systems are the Nintendo Wii, Playstation 3, and Xbox-360. Hands down the iconic game is the Call of Duty Franchise (the fact that games are often referred to as franchises should indicate how much has changed over time). You are able to play in full 360-degree environments, that consist of entire worlds instead of nuanced levels. 3D gaming is an option if you have the necessary components. Characters are in the likeness, down to facial expressions, of the celebrity actors that voice them. By emailing a few profile mug shots of yourself to the game servers, you can be provided with an in game likeness of yourself for many of the sports games. Four people can play simultaneously on one system, and if you are online then it can be as many as 16 on gaming systems, and tens of thousands in PC Games like World of Warcraft. Controllers have a directional pad, two miniature joysticks that also serve as one of eight buttons, two triggers and up two four pads. If that is too confusing you can just get a sensor bar and be the controller. Once limited to a list of highest scores, game systems have enough memory to not only store an encyclopedia’s worth of data and information, but you can also fully customize or edit much of it. Online play allows you to see exactly where you rank compared to the rest of the world. The games themselves can be epic stories that involve numerous multi-faceted objectives and tasks that require nimble fingers and a sharp mind.
I could go on and on, but as it says above this is a brief summation of how much games and gaming has changed and progressed.
The Big Picture
Gaming is not just gaming anymore. It is a full-fledged community, where people have an opportunity to create, find community (make friends), be accepted, have belonging, and compete… all in the comfort of their home. And yet gaming is still what it has always been, recreational entertainment and escape. It is especially appealing to males as they relate and make friendships primarily by “doing” things. As a youth pastor gaming is one of the greatest tools for forming relationships with my boys. I can have a presence with them without physically being in their house. Equipped with headsets we can talk to one another about all kinds of things as we play games online.
One of the reasons I have a boys sleepover at the beginning of the year where we play video games all night is because I’ve seen how much they unite by simply gaming together. To put it in perspective this wouldn’t have worked a little over ten years ago. It would require eight TVs and eight game consoles for sixteen boys to play at once; eight pairs playing with or against one another. Now with only four TVs and four consoles, sixteen of us can play with and against one another in the exact same game at the simultaneously. At the end of the day I have a platform to talk to them about more significant and meaningful things because I’ve shown an interest in something they’re interested in.
Are They Addictive?
There have been some extreme case stories being shared to support the argument that video games are inherently bad and fraught with danger. A few extreme stories, while scary, do not make for an airtight case against them. That’s like concluding that you will never let your child get a driver’s license after hearing some testimonies from MAAD. Even the milder stories of kids “becoming overly competitive or aggressive because of playing video games”, is a really tough case to support. Some people, in particular boys are naturally overly competitive and aggressive. They’ll make anything into a competition, whether it’s athletics, or seeing who can tie their shoes faster. Surely we aren’t going to remove everything from their life that could bring out their competitive nature.
What’s A Parent to Do?
1. Don’t Panic—How is gaming any different than reading a book getting into a book club, and watching the movie of the book and discussing that too? The only difference is that it can be done much faster and it’s foreign to you. Unless of course you read or knit or whatever as an escape too.
2. Set Boundaries—Boundaries equal time constraints and doing first things first. I wouldn’t totally discourage gaming, but at the same time there are a few things I would keep my eyes on. Boundaries over time should be loosened in order to prepare them to self-mange when they become independent. You don’t want them going over the top when they go to college because they were never allowed to play before.
3. Know the Games Story—Discovering what is blatantly morally objectionable or offensive is simple. Games have ratings and there are plenty of resources out there that will you inform why a game received the rating it did. Grand Theft Autohas made headlines for how morally corrupt and reprehensible the objectives of the game are as you play the character of a gang-banger. Even someone with a minimally tuned moral compass knows the objectives in the game do not translate to a life of honor in the real world. No correlation has ever been demonstrated that games of that nature increase the likelihood that a child will engage in criminal behavior. However, what often isn’t as blatant and overt is the worldview of the game. Most games involve a story and every story has a worldview (most any cultural artifact for that matter). What worldview is presented in the game they are playing? What are the values that the story of the game is presenting? What is the origin story, the problem and cause of evil, and what is the solution to the problem of evil? Does its depiction of dealing with the problem of evil delve into morally grey areas like utilitarianism, and other ethical conundrums (virtue ethics vs. pragmatic ethics)? If so these are great opportunities to have discussions with your teenager about the ethics presented in relation to real life problems.
4. The Real Hook—Earlier I mentioned that the big picture change in gaming is that it is a place where, men in particular, find acceptance, belonging and community. As a youth pastor I desire that students find acceptance in Christ, belonging in Christ, and Christ-centered community to be a part of. I trust that the vast majority of Christian parents want the same. When we find all those things in Christ as we are designed to, gaming takes its proper place as a recreational activity.
5. Give Them a Story to Live—If you’ve ever read anything by John Eldridge you know one of his tenets is that every boy and young man is looking for a great story to be a part of. Ultimately they want to be the hero in that story. Even Hollywood gets that as there is a movie coming later this year about a video game villain who aspires to live a better story. He ventures out of his game to find a game where he can be more than just a villain. He can be a hero! Donald Miller in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years talks about a friend who’s daughter was involved with the wrong kind of guy and making bad choices. When this dad gave his family a better story where they got to be a part of something real, that dealt with real life, real world problems, she turned her life around on her own because quite simply her dad had given her a better story to live than her boyfriend had.
Video games, and most any cultural good, are not inherently bad. Matthew 15.18 quoting Jesus says, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person”. Could the same be said of gaming? How someone spends their free time, or does for recreation doesn’t disorder them. It’s not the value they give an activity that disorders a person. It’s the value they think the activity places on them that disorders a person.