I love video games. Not because I’m good at them (I’m not), but because of the stories they tell. I find myself mulling over crazy plot twists or difficult decisions presented in video games far more often than I would care to admit. These gaming experiences stick with me much longer than the movies I’ve seen or the books I’ve read. When I got my first video game, Pokémon Crystal Version, I agonized over which starter Pokémon to choose. I know there are many cooler Pokémon out there, but Chikorita will forever hold a special place in my heart for that reason. I watched my dad play BioShock when it first came out twelve years ago and to this day I still feel nostalgic and a little creeped out when I see something with an Art Deco design. Journey took one afternoon to complete, but I remember very clearly the anonymous player I was randomly paired with and how patient they were with me as we travelled up that mountain together. There is something about having an active role in the story that changes the dynamic completely. In a video game, I am not just part of a passive audience: I am an active participant in the story that is being told. That makes video games personal for me in a way that movies and books never will be.
Alright, so I care about video games. But why should you? Because the stories expressed through video games are the stories that 2.5 billion people worldwide are making their own every time they play. If you were under the impression that only kids play video games, think again: the average gamer is now in their thirties. Gamers make up about 64% of the general US population. By 2020, the video game market is predicted to be worth more than $90 billion. Every year, new genres and gaming platforms hit the market, and the variety of themes and topics covered by video games is expanding as rapidly as the gaming industry itself. Celeste appears at first glance to be a simple game about climbing a mountain, but on a deeper level it is about facing your own inner demons and living with anxiety and depression. RiME is a puzzle game about processing life’s tragedies where each level is named after one of the stages of grief. Papers, Please lends a different perspective on immigration issues by placing the player in the role of an immigration officer who works at the border of a fictional country. But even the more traditional action-adventure games such as The Last of Us, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Red Dead Redemption 2 tackle big questions such as what it means to be a true family, how far we should go to protect our loved ones, the role violence can and cannot play in getting to the root of our problems, and the difficulty of making the right decisions in situations that aren’t black and white. We’ve come a long way from Pong and the early arcade games of the 1970s.
One major implication of all this is that the gaming industry is now bigger than both the film and music industries combined. I am not trying to belittle the power of film and music. Popular movies and music are great ways to take the pulse of our culture, to see how we perceive ourselves, to examine the needs humanity experiences, and to express our deepest pains and longings. They tell stories about who we are and where we are going, and God plants seeds of the Gospel in these media. I would just point out that video games tell these stories, too, and contain just as many seeds of the Gospel. As gaming becomes more widespread, these stories take on a greater significance that, reading the signs of the times, we cannot afford to ignore. What are the stories that video games tell? What values and worldviews do they communicate? What messages do they send? What do they have to say about God and the human person, or about our eternal destiny? These are questions that, more and more all the time, need answers.
As a Catholic who enjoys video games, I have to admit that it is not always easy to integrate my faith with the messages I find in games today. Some video games are... antagonistic toward God and religion, to put it lightly. Some are pornographic, some promote gratuitous violence that only serves to degrade the dignity of the human person. I want to make it clear that I am not condoning those games. But, in my experience, those games are the minority. Just as some people make bad movies but film as a whole is not evil, so I would argue that the existence of bad video games is an anomaly, an abuse of the medium. We cannot fall into the trap of judging the whole medium by its worst representatives. We have to be willing to look at each game for what it is.
To be quite honest, video games are usually a mix of the good and the bad, like most of today’s media. They get some things very right but can totally miss the mark in other areas. For example, the Assassin’s Creed franchise is a series of games where players take part in a centuries-long struggle between the Assassins and the Templars. Both sides desire peace, but the Templars believe peace is only possible through destroying humanity’s free will, while the Assassins fight to protect it. The game sends some very strong messages about taking action to bring justice to the world, protect the innocent, and defend human freedom. At the same time, they tend to romanticize revenge and dress up a dangerous mentality that ‘the end justify the means.’ Life is Strange is another example of a game with many layers of messages. It follows a teenager who has the limited ability to rewind time as she tries to save her town from an impending disaster. Players are faced with a number of thought-provoking moral conundrums and have the ability to explore the real consequences of different choices. But the game grapples with many heavy issues such as suicide, drugs, kidnapping, and murder, bringing these sensitive topics up without necessarily providing satisfactory answers for someone who isn’t capable of time-travel. We have to be willing to read these stories for what they are and find the seeds of truth in them. Once we find these seeds, we must cultivate them and let God speak to us through them. Even being confronted with values that are inconsistent with our own can serve the beneficial purpose of strengthening our own convictions and fostering a deeper appreciation for what we know to be true.
The stories video games tell are powerful. They are real. They are compelling. And they are not going away anytime soon. They deserve to be taken seriously, to be read through the lens of media literacy, and to be responded to in an intentional, reflective way. Video games need to be given the chance to let God speak through them, just as He deigns to speak through our movies, our music, our books, and our television. Video games are many things, but they are never ‘just’ games. As Catholics living in the 21st century, we must take up this new cultural challenge God is presenting to us and have the courage to bring the stories told by video games into dialogue with our faith. Only then will God be able to transform them into instruments of His grace.
Our guest blogger is Sr. Allison Gliot, a novice with the Daughters of St Paul. She is from Falls Church, Virginia and has a degree in Theology from Catholic University of America. She's a gamer!