For a home-schooled boy growing up in the church, there is nothing more thrilling than to enter the 6th grade. Not only are you once and for all leaving the trappings of childhood behind, you are, in fact, gaining access to that most mysterious and alluring social circle, the church youth group. For the first time, you find yourself spending time with the coolest of the cool: high-schoolers. If they say something is cool, you’d better believe it’s pretty darn cool.
I remember once overhearing two high-school students conversing in hushed tones.
“I heard you can sleep with a prostitute.”
“I heard you can sleep with her and then kill her and take her money. You can kill her with anything … Even, like, a squeegee or something.”
I was terrified. I had no idea what a squeegee was, and I certainly didn’t want to find out. It was the fall of 2001, and the discussion was inspired by the recent release of Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto 3. In my incredibly limited network of acquaintances, I started hearing more about it. If the authority figures in my life were to be believed, it was probably the worst game ever conceived by a depraved human mind. I had no idea that it had received widespread critical praise, and I certainly had no idea that it would pave the way for Grand Theft Auto 4; Metacritic’s highest rated game of all time, and a game that was heralded for its mature depiction of the psychological consequences of violence, as well as its satirical parody of the excesses of the American Dream. No, as far as I knew, it and games like it were corrupting an entire generation, rewarding young children for doing terrible things to innocent people. As far as I knew, video games were, at worst, destroying society, and at best, idolatry and a waste of time. Yet I wanted to play them anyway, they were just so fun.
This was the paradox I found myself growing up into. I longed to play video games with everyone else, but I was unable to understand how my Christian faith could co-exist healthily with the games I wanted to play.
For a moment, I want you to forget about whatever you’ve heard about the conflict of faith and games, and simply look at some of the stats surrounding games. Statistics from 2010 show that 68% of US households play video games. More than ⅓ of parents say they play games, and of these, 93% have children who play with them. These gamers play an average of 8 hours a week, and their purchases generated an estimated 10.5 billion dollars of revenue in 2010. This year, blockbuster release Modern Warfare 3 accrued a billion dollars in a mere 16 days, setting the record for best selling anything, ever.
Video games should matter to Christians, because they matter to our culture. The medium is like a screaming infant, begging for attention, and already affecting life as we know it. It’s causing people to reevaluate our understanding of art, sociality, recreation, and even education.
So what are Christians doing to engage this arena of culture? I asked myself that for years, because I would always hear inspiring stories about Christians who dreamt of bringing Kingdom beauty and truth into mediums like music, literature and film, but when it comes to games, it seems like all we’ve had has been Bible Adventures and, um, Left Behind: Eternal Forces. Games which, someone, somewhere may have enjoyed, but simultaneously were games that fell far short of most people’s standards in terms of almost everything (quality, stability, originality, etc.) except their spotless morals (and not even Left Behind quite measures up in that regard). What has the Church done to engage the massive industry that is video games? Not much, it seems.
It would be easy to become cynical and dismissive. That’s what many Christians have done. Even many of the ones that love games in general have written off the idea of Christians making games. But thank God that there are dreamers and artists, even in the gaming industry. Indeed, not only are there many believers bringing the Kingdom to earth through jobs at major game developers, but there are also people like Chris Skaggs and his team at Soma Games, a group of Christians who are making games for a larger market that just the Christian sub-culture; games filled with themes of truth and grace. They aren’t trying to use games to preach at people, just point them in the right direction.
I recently spoke with Chris (a man who has been described as “The Tolstoy of gaming,” though he would probably prefer a comparison to CS Lewis) about the state of Christianity and games. He sounded like a visionary as he told me clearly of his desire to make quality games that would also bring an invitation to the mystery of the truth to everyone who played them. I asked what other believers could do, beyond making their own games. He said that we can put our money where our faith is, not just in the sense of boycotting Secular Game X, but in the sense of intentionally supporting people like him and others like him. (Did I mention, Soma Games’ second release, Wind Up Robots, was just released for IOS?)
Call me crazy, but I believe that the Kingdom of God can be established in the gaming industry. My prayer is that as more believers become conscientious of the incredible amount of influence that games have in our society, that we would hear less of a protest against what games are doing, and instead begin to hear more hope-filled, joy-filled conversation about what games can do. You can be a part of this. Make a commitment to buy games that mean something, and pray that God’s kingdom would come and his will would be done in the video game industry.
Jordan Ekeroth is Editor of Follow and Engage, an ongoing project to bring attention to the ways that Christians are interacting with video game culture.