I recently came across a news article about an Illinois proposal to ban the sale of violent video games because of their harmful influence to real-life behavior. The specific issue pointed out by State Representative Marcus Evans, who introduced the bill, is the rise in carjackings and their troublesome similarities to the popular video game franchise, Grand Theft Auto. This isn’t the first time that these games have come under fire for how they influence players toward questionable actions that are present in the games. Nor is it the first time video game violence has been blamed for harmful behaviors in real life. But I began to reflect: Do video games really have that much power over people’s actions? How much do they really influence us, and what does this mean for us as Christians living in the world today?
Grand Theft Auto V, Rockstar Games (2013), All Rights Reserved.
What Makes Video Games So Special, Anyway?
I’ve already written about a Catholic perspective on violence in video games, so I won’t go into that too much here. But something I find especially fascinating about video games is the aspect of agency, or the ability to take part in the game as an active participant. Agency sets video games apart from almost every other medium of entertainment or storytelling. When we sit down to watch a movie, we can’t change what happens. We are taking in what the filmmakers have already created. Likewise, when we’re reading a book, we aren’t influencing what the author says or the events of the story. We might scream at the characters as they make poor decisions, but we know that won’t change anything. We engage with the story, but on a passive level where the only thing we really have control over is our reaction and interpretation of what takes place.
Video games are different. The players are not just passive viewers, but participants in the action. They have agency to affect the world in which the game is set. Even though this agency is necessarily limited by the structure and programming of the game, it transforms the experience into a much more immersive, interactive form of entertainment than most other media.
Different games incorporate agency, or the ability of a player to act and make decisions, in different ways. Some use the butterfly effect to create stories with multiple endings and storylines based on the actions taken by the player. Games like Heavy Rain, Life is Strange, and the Walking Dead are examples of this. In Until Dawn, a horror drama game, a group of young people must survive the night on an isolated mountain. Small decisions made at the beginning of the game can indirectly cause character deaths much later on, resulting in one of 256 possible endings.
Until Dawn, Sony Computer Entertainment (2015), All Rights Reserved.
Another type of game that allow players a lot of agency are open world games, such as Minecraft and the Sims. Players create and build things within the world, making decisions that shape how the world works and the players’ experience of it. Grand Theft Auto V and Skyrim: the Elder Scrolls are other examples of this-- if you start breaking the law in Skyrim’s medieval fantasy setting, be prepared to deal with a bounty on your head that makes it difficult to enter towns openly without being arrested.
A third type of video game that grants players freedom to shape their own experience and make their own decisions are player versus player games such as Fortnite, World of Warcraft, Overwatch, and Halo. Players not only have the choice of how to personalize their avatars and hone their skillsets, but also make an array of decisions about teamwork and strategies based on the actions of other players. Agency in this genre is particularly important because it directly impacts other people in real life. Harsh words sent to a team member using the chat function are read by an actual human person. This is on a totally different level than, say, choosing the rude response option in a simulated conversation with a non-player character in a sandbox game.
So Much More Than ‘Just a Game’
So, why does the experience of agency in video games matter? For one thing, it allows players to enter into the story and action of the game on a much deeper level than simply watching it from the outside. In a movie, we might watch someone pull the trigger on a gun. Wouldn’t it feel different if we were actually inside the movie, pulling the trigger ourselves? It’s another level of engagement that allows for deeper immersion. In itself, this is neither good nor bad, but it is important to be aware of. We might be more deeply influenced by the emotions that a game evokes. The type of stories and values a game communicates might stick with us longer than a similar movie or book, for better or for worse. This deeper level of immersion also comes with the risk of becoming addicted if we are not careful to balance our lives with other forms of healthy, immersive activities. It can be all too easy to get sucked in.
Since video games encourage these deeper levels of immersion, which can make us more vulnerable to accepting the messages they convey without even being consciously aware of it, the skills of media mindfulness are essential. We have to critically assess the values they communicate and see how these line up with our own values and Christian worldview. It helps to ask ourselves the following:
- What is going on? What am I seeing/hearing/playing?
- What is really going on? Who pains? Who gains?
- What difference does it make? What Christian values does this support or ignore?
- What difference can I make? What response seems appropriate in light of my Christian beliefs?
© 2018 St Mary's Press/Pauline Center for Media Studies. All rights reserved.
Pausing to ask ourselves these questions can help us become more aware of the values we might be absorbing from the games we play and help us decide if these values are ones we want to live by. It can help us to embrace the more positive values such as bravery, teamwork, and self-sacrifice and reject those that have no part in Christianity: degradation of the human person, manipulation, wanton violence, etc.
When Video Games Spill Over into Real Life
The question then arises: If a game includes more values that are opposed to Christianity than not, is it really a good idea to play it? Some might argue that it can’t do much harm if you are aware of the fact that it is just a game and do not hold to those values in real life. It’s ‘all in good fun,’ the way someone might decide to join the Dark Side in a Star Wars game just to see what it’s like but would never aspire to become a Sith Lord in real life. There is some truth to that. Most psychologically healthy, mature people can distinguish between a game and real life, and know how to tailor their actions and choices accordingly.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, LucasArts (2004), All Rights Reserved.
On the other hand, we shouldn’t automatically dismiss the concern that a game might have an influence on our actions over time, even if we are being proactive about discerning its messages. For centuries, Christianity has pointed to the importance of habits in forming virtues and vices. Repeated good choices and actions form good habits, which over time become consistent good character traits called virtues. Repeated bad choices and actions form bad habits, which can harden us into lives of vice if we are not careful. Every time we make a choice, whether big or little, we are moving in one direction or the other: toward virtue or toward vice. Over time, little choices can build up into ways of life that are very difficult to change.
What does this have to do with video games? The choices we make in a video game do not carry the weight of choices made in real life. They are made in the context of a game, understood to be a constructed form of entertainment in a virtual setting. Choices that affect people in the real world, however, (such as the player versus player possibility mentioned above) do carry more weight than choices that remain solely in the game. And we still do exercise our real agency in a limited way whenever we actively participate in a video game as a player, even when these decisions don’t directly affect someone in the real world. This means that actions taken in video games are not totally immune to this virtue-vice effect.
Making bad choices in a video game does not have the same moral consequences as the same action might have in real life (killing a non-player character in a first-person shooter game does not make you a murderer). But when many small decisions build up over time, they can have an influence on the way our conscience is formed, as well as our mentality and outlook on the world. And this can have a bearing on real life choices we make in the future.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
By no means will everyone who runs over pedestrians while playing a Grand Theft Auto game become a man-slaughtering maniac on the road. That would be a very extreme case. But a game could influence our moods or the types of positive or negative associations we have with certain things. For example, in past years, there have been criticisms of certain war games that depict the enemies as primarily Middle Eastern, perpetuating inaccurate and offensive stereotypes about Muslims. Other concerns come from games that promote unnecessarily violent solutions to problems that could be solved other ways. The worry is that this teaches us over time to use force or aggression to get our way, rather than seeking peaceful resolutions and respectfully dialoging with those who are different from us.
But just as we can learn bad habits from video games, so we can also learn good habits and practice acting on values that are important to us as Christians. Playing games that intentionally incorporate diversity or tell stories from other cultures can help us to form a more catholic, that is, universal mindset where we are able to see those who are different than us as truly human and truly children of God. Fr. Blake Britton of Word on Fire writes about how video games with a strong hero’s narrative tap into our God-given desire to live for something other than ourselves and make a difference in the world through our self-sacrifice. We might never have the chance to be martyrs in real life, but there are plenty of video games that present players with the difficult choice of giving up their lives to save those they love and to stand for what they believe.
Some of these games even find a way to make the decision carry weight in real life. At the end of NieR: Automata, a futuristic action role-playing game, players have the choice to delete hours upon hours of precious saved gameplay to help another anonymous player win a difficult battle. There is no reward for doing this, and the next time you turn on the game, it’s like you’re starting over from scratch. Yet plenty of players still choose to make this sacrifice to help out someone who will never know who they are in real life. There are times when making tough decisions in video games really can help us gain the courage to make difficult good decisions in real life.
NieR: Automata, Square Enix (2017), All Rights Reserved.
A Training Ground for Virtue or Vice
In a sense, video games can be seen as a virtual training ground for virtue or vice, where the consequences are far enough removed that we can learn about ourselves and make mistakes without putting ourselves in real physical or moral danger. Whether video games help us grow toward virtue or toward vice is largely the result of how we choose to play them. Playing games that have positive Christian values is one way to ensure they’ll help us grow toward virtue. Setting healthy boundaries as to how much we play and what types of games we play is also key, along with being proactive about discerning the messages conveyed in video games and the effect they have on us personally. Different people have different tolerances and vulnerabilities in this regard, so it’s important to know yourself. If you struggle to control your temper, for example, you might consider limiting the time playing games that tend to frustrate you or put you in a more aggressive mood. When we become aware of the effects a game has on us and how we are playing it, that is the first step to shape our experience into a positive one that can help us grow in virtue and become stronger Christians.
A video game is never just a game. Everything we do touches our hearts and souls as well as our bodies and minds—including the games we play. When we take this seriously and strive to make gaming a positive influence in our lives, even video games can become channels of grace through which God speaks to us and transforms us into the people he created us to be.