By Richard Clark
I grew up playing Sega Genesis, agonizing over whether manhood was something I would ever attain. I thought it meant being able to beat up another man, forcibly rescuing the damsel in distress, crudely acknowledging my rampant heterosexual lusts by ogling scantily clad Street Fighter characters. I thought manhood was expressed through excess, violence, and sexual preference.
Much of these presumptions were reinforced by videogames, but they were not invented by videogames. No form of media is neutral or harmless. There are real dangers that are common within different forms of media. But those forms are also fluid and varied, particularly within the young medium of videogames. What started as a mere toy for children and families in the 80s has evolved over thirty years into an art form significantly more varied, self-aware, and mature.
So are videogame enthusiasts. Over time, those little kids have turned into college-aged guys. Then they got real jobs. They got married and started families. Believe it or not, boys have become men. I should know. I’m one of them.
After college, I took a sabbatical from videogames for several years out of general disinterest. I came back in 2008, a year viewed by many videogame enthusiasts as a landmark year for the maturation of the medium. I played Portal, a first-person-shooter that was less about force and more about intellect. I played Braid, in which I controlled an ordinary but thoughtful, introspective protagonist named Tim who slowly, over time, learned that his romantic desires were less important than sacrificing his own desires for those he loved. I played Bioshock, which actively forced me to acknowledge the thoughtless and passive ways we often approach videogames. These games, all released in 2008, were the first-fruits of an artistic revolution that would change games forever.
Videogames now provide such rich and varied experiences that it is now just as probable that playing them can genuinely make one a better, more well-rounded person, just as a powerful film or a dense and rich novel might. Recent games have allowed players to experience the world through the eyes of those unlike themselves, learning to empathize with those less fortunate or in entirely different circumstances. Other games provide us with opportunities for moral experimentation and practice, a safe space to fail and try again. (For more on games like these, check out Gamechurch’s list of 2013 games Jesus would love).
It’s understandable that people still associate games with distraction and escapism, especially if the last time they played videogames was around the heyday of Halo, when college students were upending their personal lives and their living rooms in order to shoot one another in the face. For sure, one might admit, these games were good for relationship building. But, one might clarify, these games were otherwise fruitless. For men with jobs and families, games are off limits. They are signals of stunted growth. They are time-wasters.
Men have been criticized by Christian pastors and leaders for continuing to embrace videogames well after adolescence, for investing themselves in imaginary battles and competitions when there are real battles to be fought and genuine challenges to embrace. But these criticisms are the result of misguided generalizations that assume that approaches to videogames are uniform and inevitably harmful.
As any football fan or regular participant in golf, ultimate frisbee, or Settlers of Catan will confess, embracing make-believe battles isn’t in itself a sinful or even unwise act. What matters is one’s perspective. For anyone who plays videogames, there must be a commitment to proper perspective. The game is not the ultimate reality, even while playing it. The player should see the game as an experiment, not as a genuine set of priorities and goals, but as a pretend set of priorities and goals. Videogames should be viewed as opportunities to practice and explore the values and commitments we make with ourselves and with our God. Just as men ought not genuinely despair over a lost football game, men who play videogames should learn to accept failure as an integral part of the experience.
Ultimately, one’s conviction in regards to videogames should remain just that: a conviction. Whether or not one plays videogames should come down to whether or not they enrich one’s life, whether they are able to do so to the glory of God, whether they enjoy them, whether they are able to remain present for their families and friends, and whether they are able to provide for their household. The answers to these questions are not uniform among all men. They vary wildly and are dependent on personalities, circumstances and seasons of life.
In play, forgiveness is assumed, but consequences are rigid. Through play, we learn to accept those consequences like men. We learn to bump up against the physical and moral laws of the universe, to rage against them even, and then to accept our inability to cross them.
Generalizations can be ugly, pernicious evils, particularly because they can so easily be “proven” to be true. It’s easy to provide circumstantial evidence that millennials are lazy, that baptist preachers are overweight gluttons, or that Christians are judgmental. After all, lazy millennials, overweight baptists, and judgmental Christians exist.
And yes, immature gamers who refuse to grow up exist too. Some of them play videogames in their mother’s basements. Some of them eat Doritos and drink Mountain Dew. Some of them are content with their situation and refuse to grow up. But not as many as you’d assume.
Richard Clark is the managing editor of Gamechurch, the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, a regular columnist at Unwinnable, and a staff writer for Kill Screen. He can be reached at deadyetliving at gmail dot com or followed on twitter @deadyetliving.
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