As Catholics, the gaming world can be difficult to navigate. There is no genre for “Catholic Video Games,” which means we’re left to figure out on our own what games we want to support and purchase. Some aspects of video games might seem incompatible with our beliefs and practice of the Catholic faith. Take the issue of violence in video games, for example. Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, and the Church has a strong stance on cultivating peace and charity toward all, avoiding violence whenever possible. But violence in video games isn’t exactly the same thing as violence in real life, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church unfortunately makes no mention of video games. So, what might a Catholic response to violence in video games look like?
First, we must acknowledge that not every video game is violent. To name just a few, games like Firewatch, GRIS, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Gone Home, and Old Man’s Journey provide engaging gameplay and interesting storylines without making use of violent elements. But a lot of games do involve blowing things up, and those are the games that tend to make it big. Some of the best-selling games of 2019 were Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Borderlands 3, Mortal Kombat 11, and Tom Clancy’s the Division 2, all of which are shooters or fighting games. Violent? Yes. Bad? That’s another question entirely.
There are cases when violence in video games is used badly and gratuitously, to the point where it can have a derogatory impact on the overall game and even on the players themselves. But this cannot be said of video games as a whole, and it is dangerous to pigeonhole games as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based solely on whether there are blood and guts involved. Different games have different approaches to the role of violence and how it is employed. As Catholics, we need to be attuned to these approaches and proactive in coming up with intentional responses to what we encounter in video games.
To do a game justice and make an informed decision about whether you should be playing it or not, it can be helpful to look at that game on an individual basis and ask yourself these guiding questions:
Who or what is the violence directed at?
Is the player trying to destroy something inanimate such as a force field or robot? Or is it a living creature? If it is a living creature, there is still a huge contrast between attacking a plant monster and attacking an unarmed civilian. Once you’ve pinpointed the object of the violence, look at how far that violent action is taken. This can also help you assess the game’s underlying values. For example, most Pokémon games are violent in that they involve fights between Pokémon, but the worst-case scenario is these battles is that a Pokémon faints. Because of this, the values in a Pokémon game prove very different than those of a similarly structured game that include fights to the death.
How intense is the violence?
Depictions of violence in video games can range from cartoonish to eerily realistic. Both sides of the spectrum have merits and disadvantages. Unrealistic portrayals of violence help distinguish in-game actions from reality and lend a lighter, more playful atmosphere to a game. In Mario Kart racing games, causing other racers to crash is a way of getting ahead. But no matter how violent the crash, the racer bouncily rolls to a stop, completely unharmed. This makes it clear that no one is in actual danger and it is all in good fun. On the other hand, cartoon violence that has so little bearing on reality runs the risk of allowing players (especially children) to disassociate certain actions in real life from the very real consequences that may follow. In Mario Kart, the worst thing that happens when you crash is that you fall a few seconds behind the other racers. In reality, car crashes often aren’t so kind.
Conversely, more graphic and realistic depictions of violence in video games have the advantage of showing the real consequences of violent actions in all their gory detail. This can have the positive effect of making violence more difficult to romanticize or dismiss lightly. It can also serve the opposite effect of normalizing violence, desensitizing us to its impact. It is up to us to pay attention to how more intense depictions of violence may be affecting us.
How prevalent is the violence?
How much of the overall game involves violent activity and how much of that violence is the player an active participant in? Some games place players in situations where violent things happen around them or are directed at them, but the players themselves generally do not engage directly in violent activity. Return of the Obra Dinn and the Portal games are examples of this. Other genres, such as open worlds or interactive dramas, give the player more freedom to shape the game’s action and storyline, allowing for many possibilities. In games like this, you can often decide where to aim your gun and how often you want to shoot it. So, it may be helpful to consider not merely what the game allows you to do, but how you choose to play it. Just because a game gives players the option to take unnecessarily violent action doesn’t mean you have to play it that way.
What is the aim or purpose of the violence in the game? What overall message is being sent by it?
Figuring out what messages the game is sending through the violence is key to determining whether or not you want to be a part of that violence. Some video games are extremely violent, but the game itself is supposed to serve as a commentary against that very same violence. In those situations, the message being communicated could be something like: war is evil or solving problems by force is ultimately futile. Others games that rely on violence only as cheap entertainment could send messages such as it is humorous when people get hurt or life has no value.
Ask yourself: do you agree with the values presented by the game? Are these messages that you want to be taking in? Remember that many video games contain messages that are complex and multi-layered. They can be a mix of good and bad or can even be contradictory. In cases like this, focus on the primary messages or the ones that make the deepest impact on you.
Photo by Florian Olivo on Unsplash
Is the violence necessary to the game and proportional to the values it attempts to communicate? Are those messages worth it?
Certain games tell very serious, difficult stories. For games like these, accuracy and realism in depictions of violence seem fitting; the level of violence corresponds to the profound messages that are being conveyed and helps to drive those messages home. In some situations, however, it could be that a message is good, but it is being conveyed in a gratuitously graphic manner. Then we should ask ourselves if the value it communicates is really worth it.
An example that comes to mind is a controversial mission in Grand Theft Auto V where players must torture someone before they can move on with the game. Taken in context, this scene appears to be included to show the abhorrence and inefficiency of torture. People became upset not because they disagreed with that message, but because of the disturbing way in which it was communicated, forcing the player to act as a torturer. Critics argued that the psychological trauma of stepping into such an abusive, inhumane role was not worth the social commentary; the same value could have been conveyed in a more tasteful, less damaging way.
Finally, taking into account my own circumstances, what impact does the violence have on me personally? In light of that, what action should I take?
Certain people are more sensitive than others to witnessing or engaging in violence, even in a ‘play’ setting. This is especially true of children, who have not reached full maturity and may not be well-equipped to process video game violence in a healthy way. But although children are generally more susceptible than adults to being influenced by the violence in video games, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that we are totally immune either. Adults might be better at distinguishing play from real life, but many video games aim at an ultra-realism and intensity that doesn’t exactly feel like ‘just a game.’ The effects that a game have on us (whether positive or negative) can be magnified if video games are our primary form of recreation or we spend a significant amount of time playing them.
Thus, we need to know ourselves and our own limits. When does playing a game help me blow off steam and when does it just make me angrier? What is the best mindset for me to be in when I start playing a particularly intense game? How long can I spend playing before it becomes unhealthy or starts to have negative repercussions on my life? Why do I play this game?
Prayerfully answering questions like these isn’t always easy. It requires honesty, courage, and the ability to admit that what we like might not always be what is good for us. It also calls for an openness to the Holy Spirit in discerning the ways he might be inviting us to change for the better. But these are questions we cannot ignore, especially as Catholics seeking a life of holiness and union with God. What we do in our free time can bring us closer to God or blind us to his presence. Video games are no exception. If we want them to be a positive influence in our lives, we must to strive to understand our own internal dynamics and form an intentional response accordingly.
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 the Catholic University of America. She loves video games, but not as much as she loves Jesus.