Trash or Treasure? Video Games and the Cultural Mandate

I'm both a video game developer and a Master's student in Biblical Communication, and I'm here to defend my integrity.

September 19 th 2011

Following the atrocities in Norway, alleged shooter Anders Breivik has been slapped with all kinds of labels: "conservative," "fundamentalist," "Christian." The truth and merit of these labels is certainly up for debate. But one label is certainly not disputed: Breivik was a dedicated video gamer.

I am both a video game developer and a M.Div. student, emphasizing Biblical Communication. If it sounds to you like those two vocations might pull me apart like a quartering by four horses, you're not alone. Many Christians see video game affinities linked to real violence in Norway or Columbine and see no reason for a person of integrity to hold a game controller. I'm here not to defend madmen perpetrators, but to argue that video games can provide real value and joy, and to defend the men and women of integrity who build and play them.

Why defend video games?

First, video games should be defended because they are inherently good. Not evil, not neutral. Good. Even very good.

Scripture not only grants license but even commands us to participate in God-honouring rest, festivals, art, music, and spectacle. These are all elements of recreation. David danced before the ark. Solomon's temple employed 288 musicians. God appointed by name the artist who would decorate Moses' tabernacle. Recreation in general is God-ordained. Why?

We know that all sin is sin against God, because an attack on an image-bearer of God amounts to an attack on God. Isn't the antithesis true as well? Entertainment which delights an image-bearer of God delights God. But a problem arises when our hearts deceive us: We can be delighted by things that do not delight God. This is not a normative state—it's not the state God called "very good" in Genesis 1.

Six years ago, Dr. Al Wolters wrote of the distinction—central to reformational philosophy—between structure and direction. Wolters urged readers to

. . . see every thing in our experience as being fundamentally shaped and constituted by God's workmanship in creation (and thus very good), and at the same time as being subject to the mis-shaping and re-shaping forces of man's sin and God's grace . . .

A video game can have exquisite structure, but take a direction that does not delight God and should not delight an image-bearer of God. And Christians can react in two ways when faced with something not normative: throw it out, or participate in redeeming it.

There was a time when God himself felt the need to hit the reset button on humanity, but through Christ, God is in the business of redeeming all things. It seems then that our God-ordained task is to attempt to determine what is normative for video games. We defend video games because they, like the rest of creation, fall under the lordship of Christ and the cultural mandate.

Second, we ought to defend video games because there are Christians who are called to participate in God's redemptive work in the video game industry. These men and women need the support and encouragement of the body of Christ to thrive—or even just to survive—in an industry often intolerant of and antagonistic to their beliefs.

Video game developers are very important people. Here's why: Games teach players a body of knowledge and task them with applying that knowledge in a variety of scenarios until they master that knowledge. In the offline world, we call this ability to apply knowledge "wisdom." Games are wisdom-makers.

A battle for the soul of this generation is being fought online, and video game developers sit in a unique position to influence its outcome. This is a field where we need more thinking Christians, not fewer.

But can violent video games be defended?

The Facebook profile attributed to Anders Breivik (now offline) identifies him as interested in hunting and games such as World of Warcraft and Modern Warfare 2. Journalists were quick to remind us of the Columbine killers, with whom a connection between violent video games and violent behaviour was most infamously posited. Breivik himself stated that video games played a significant role in his actions. In his 1,500-page manifesto, Breivik writes, "[Modern Warfare 2] is probably the best military simulator out there and it's one of the hottest. I see MW2 more as part of my training-simulation than anything else."

Forums and news article comments are replete with familiar defenses. Yes, millions of gamers do not turn into deranged killers. Yes, studies show that violent crime is reaching an all-time low in the United States as video gaming popularity reaches an all-time high. And in this case, Breivik's own writing shows that he perceived MW2 as helping him to do something he'd already decided to do for reasons that had nothing to do with games. Yet, all of this is little consolation to wounded and shattered families in Norway, in the same way that a million responsible drinkers are little consolation to the family of someone killed by a drunk driver.

If violent video games played even a small part in a tragedy like the recent one in Norway, wouldn't it be better to not have violent video games at all? In response to this question, it has been suggested that violent video games are cathartic and actually lead to reduced rather than increased offline violence. Like an angry person punching a pillow rather than another person, video games become simply an expensive, high-tech pillow. But Christians don't make value judgments based solely on what is effective. Brandishing a weapon may be an effective way of getting what I want, but that doesn't mean we approve of it. Playing violent video games may make me more relaxed offline, but does that make the activity okay?

Here is the heart of the matter, and two concerns for Christians regarding violent video games: first, why do I want to play them (is there something wrong with my heart)? And, will playing violent video games condition a Pavlovian behaviour/reward connection I will take into the real world (will playing violent video games affect my mind)?

Is there something wrong with a gamer's heart?

Yes, but as a Christian you already knew that. Is a desire to play violent video games an expression of something in someone that is pleasing or displeasing to God? The answer to that question depends on both the person and the violence in question. Some people are called to a life of peace at all costs; others are called to protect those who cannot protect themselves from violent people. The latter experience a God-given joy while training in and executing controlled violence in order to appropriately subdue another human being and prevent further inappropriate violence. But even these men and women must be wary of the direction in which a video game employs violence. Does the game encourage wanton violence, or violence against those who, in reality, should be protected? Even if that game can be played in a way that doesn't offend the Holy Spirit, the Christian gamer may decide not to support such a product.

Qualifications aside, it follows that it's possible a given person may actually delight God when they exercise controlled violence in a given video game. But who is this person? And which games might qualify? Ultimately, this is a question only the gamer and the Holy Spirit can answer. I have avoided naming specific games and types of games for this reason—but I will list some guiding questions for discernment later.

Will playing violent video games affect a gamer's mind?

Yes—not in the way most of us worry about, but in a way we should all be more concerned about. The concern about video games conditioning a person toward increasingly violent offline behaviour stems from a misunderstanding of the structure of video games and a reductionist view of human behaviour. To see that we need to look carefully at what's going on when a person plays a video game—we begin with what's happening when a person is learning in general.

One classroom educational methodology uses what are called primary and secondary reinforcers to reward correct behaviours. Primary reinforcers are things a person doesn't have to be taught to want—food and drink. The teaching method begins by offering food and drink as a reward for doing something right.

Later, secondary reinforcers are paired with the primary reinforcers to teach the person to want the secondary reinforcers. Secondary reinforcers might be verbal praise, or a sticker, or a grade. The student had to be taught to want the secondary reinforcer, but eventually secondary reinforcers serve as even better motivators than primary reinforcers. Students might only want food when they are hungry, but they want good grades all the time.

Note that the reinforcers actually have nothing to do with what the teacher is actually trying to teach—what we would consider the content or the curriculum. A classroom teacher can be teaching her students to want the praise of an authority figure while teaching anything from algebra to social skills.

A video game can be teaching a player how to strategize, lead teams of other players, overcome obstacles, adapt, be patient, be thorough. But along the way, they may also be teaching much less desirable secondary reinforcers.

If we are to accurately evaluate a video game's influence on a person, it's important to recognize that teaching is happening on both levels. Some of the disagreement about the value of violent video games stems from not fully distinguishing between the content of a game and its reward mechanisms.

To go one step further, it's important to note that the scientists whose work forms the basis of our understanding of primary and secondary reinforcers started with mice and generalized to humans. If our starting point is Scripture, we must recognize that there is a spiritual component to humans that is a deep and rich source of primary reinforcers—things we don't have to be taught to want. Humans, created to share in God's communicable attributes, have a natural desire to communicate, to create, to shape our environment. We feel good when we are able to do those things because we are imitating God. Because we were created to bear God's image, these activities are as important to the spirit as food and drink is to the body.

A violent video game pairs a secondary physical reinforcer (watching another player "die") with a primary spiritual reinforcer (shaping the environment). A person watching someone play a violent video game sees the secondary reinforcer (the other player dying). But the player is driven by the primary reinforcer (shaping his or her environment). Based on our understanding of animal behaviour, we would expect a person who wasn't necessarily motivated to shoot a representation of another player to begin to want to shoot the representation of another player. We then grow concerned that this person, having been conditioned to find violent behaviour rewarding, will seek to express that behaviour offline as well.

There are two errors in this thinking. First, humans are not like other animals. We can make moral choices that go against our behavioural conditioning. We are not simply products of our environment. We are responsible agents. We are able to keep reinforcers and curriculum separated. For example, I enjoy getting a good grade, but it will never be enough to make me study a subject I don't want to learn.

Second, the science from which we derive the present concern doesn't itself support the leap we are imposing on the gamer. Secondary reinforcers work because they reward specific behaviour in a specific context. A basketball player is taught to gain a high score by making baskets. The basketball player learns to enjoy making baskets and getting a high score. If some basketball player couldn't get his head around the goals and scoring system in golf, we wouldn't blame basketball or the years spent playing it. We would say that basketball player is wrong in the head. Clicking a button so a puppet shoots a play gun at another puppet is further from pulling a trigger on a real gun aimed at a real person than are basketball and golf. If a human can keep basketball and golf easily separated, he or she can keep puppet wars and real world conflict resolution easily separated.

The concern we should be concentrating on more is the same concern Christians of integrity should surface in all arts and entertainment: How is the game shaping the player's worldview? Games encourage players to break the world down, objectify problems, and fix them. Games suggest what's wrong with the world and how to fix it—not in the secondary reinforcers we fixate upon, but in the actual curriculum of the game. Some games teach that we can fix what's broken by patiently but persistently working toward personal success. That sounds nice, but is it biblical?

We've covered a lot of ground. If you've made it this far, you deserve a clear answer: I believe even violent video games in general are defensible because the common concerns about them are unfounded, and because I believe a biblical worldview accommodates violence. A game's reinforcers should be consciously evaluated, but games should be most critically judged by their worldview. A game may actually require some level of violence in order to accurately reflect a Christ-centred worldview. Perhaps, barring the extremes, a game's worldview defines its ability to nourish whereas a game's reward mechanism is a matter of taste.

A disclaimer: I would be mortified if a reader took this article as license to ignore his or her own conscience. I don't want to declare all games clean, but to provide the knowledge and tools to assess if, how, and where a given video game succeeds and fails to delight God.

Now what? Some practical suggestions

For gamers: Work to articulate what it is you find rewarding in your game of choice. If you are uneasy with the level of violence in a game you otherwise enjoy, pray about it, and look for a game that provides the same content (strategy, rapid information processing, and so on) with a different reward mechanism (building a nation, playing the stock market, and the like). If it seems to you that you dishonour God with your recreation, stop. If, on the other hand, you find you are able to easily disassociate violent reward mechanisms from content and the reward mechanism from the reality it mimics, take care with your brothers and sisters who are not so sure (1 Corinthians 6:12, 8:13). Your love for your brother or sister may require you to replace your hobby with another even if your game of choice does not itself dishonour God.

For non-gamers: Be careful not to lay a burden on your brother or sister without lifting a finger to help (Matthew 23:4). Help gamers to see and articulate the differences between the content of a game and its reward mechanisms (this is a great activity for youth pastors, but involve parents as well). If you're having trouble seeing good in a game someone is engaged in, try to see the primary spiritual reinforcer that is being tapped and surface it. Encourage and support game developers in honouring God with their work.

For developers: Your work is important. Most developers feel powerless because they are not in a position to steer a product in any way that seems meaningful. If this is the case, focus on what you have been given to work on. Work at it as if you're working for Christ, because you are. If the project as a whole grieves you, find a way to express this in loving terms to someone who can make a difference. What kind of moral choices might your game be forcing on players? What is your game saying about who people are, where we are, what's wrong with the world, and how it can be fixed? Fight the good fight—but when the day is over, trust God by letting go and going home.

 

Bill Slease came to the video game industry after working as a Senior Research Programmer at Carnegie Mellon's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging where he built experiment control systems to help researchers study the human brain. He spent six years working on various Myst titles including Myst Online where he contributed as Lead Technical Artist, Technical Game Design and Content Director. He spent the last few years of his decade in the game industry as the AI programmer and Technical Development Director for Stargate Worlds. He also served as the Technical Director for a start-up game publisher.

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