Last night, I was a hero. I led brothers-in-arms to victory against a formidable foe. It wasn’t easy. Life, death and the fate of the universe were on the line. I got shot and even died a few times. At times, all odds seemed against me, but I led my army to victory in the end.
No, this isn’t a metaphor for spiritual warfare. I was playing video games.
Does that sound pathetic? If not, it might after you learn that I’m in my 30s with a pregnant wife, two dogs, a Ph.D. and a mortgage. My life has all the telltale signs of adulthood. I’m a responsible, educated, married man, but I still felt like a hero last night in a way that I seldom do. Of course, the feeling vanished 30 seconds after I turned off my Xbox. Then I had to take out the trash. By the time I got back in the house, I was no longer The Man Who Saved the World.
The naysayers and worried mothers of the world write off video games as nothing but time-suckage for a generation with short attention spans, but there’s something else at work. Video games now make more money than movies or music. The industry has spawned multimillon-dollar companies dedicated to creating new software and hardware to keep up with the hunger for something new. But technology isn’t the only driving force behind games. Gamers also want good stories and compelling characters. A little yellow guy gobbling up dots doesn’t cut it anymore. Game companies recruit writers, even best-selling novelists such as Clive Barker, to create characters and plotlines with complexity and depth. Their job is to make the gamer feel like a hero, whether a gun-wielding vigilante, a superstar athlete or a hedgehog with superior jumping skills. People don’t play video games just to light up their bored synapses; they do it to become someone extraordinary.
Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, describes the classic hero cycle as a process of transformation. A man or woman is in the midst of an ordinary life when a crisis disrupts their world and takes them someplace faraway. In this new, bizarre, often frightening place, they go through trials, gain wisdom and learn new skills. They use these new abilities to confront evil. If they emerge victorious, they return home a more mature person with new responsibilities. They return a hero. You see this in the life of Moses, David, St. Paul and, the ultimate hero, Jesus. The hero cycle also shows up in the myths of antiquity—from Gilgamesh to Perseus—and most great literature—from Crime and Punishment to The Lord of the Rings. And it’s hard to imagine a popular film that doesn’t include the hero’s journey. Everything from Sideways to Star Wars features a hero struggling, changing and growing, whether they’re touring vineyards or blowing up death stars.
The classic hero cycle also fits the storyline of every video game I’ve played. In Halo, it’s another routine day for Master Chief until The Covenant attack, changing everything he knows about the universe. Lara Croft is doing research in a library when a stranger arrives with a compelling mystery. Half-Life’s Gordon is working on his doctorate at MIT when The Combine invades, turning him into the geek version of James Bond. And don’t get me started about the Marine in Doom 3. He’s just a typical grunt on Mars before the minions of hell get an attitude, and he keeps them in line with a shotgun and a rocket launcher. Now that’s spiritual warfare.
The games I mentioned are violent, but to a purpose. The combat highlights the suffering, sacrifice and conflict that create a hero. Video games write the hero story in bold capital letters. There’s little subtlety and no mistaking that the main character’s job is to save the world. Yes, there are plenty of games, like Manhunt and the Grand Theft Auto series, where violence is an end in itself. But, most of the time, the violence serves to remind us that the stakes are high. Life and death are on the line.
It’s exactly what we need. We need to see the consequences of evil and the rewards of bravery. We need an opportunity to save the world. We need to be reminded who a hero is and what a hero does, because our own heroic journey is much harder to observe and define. Our chance to be a hero comes at home, school and work. The challenges we face show up in relationships and responsibilities. The real heroic journey is hard to see because it’s slow and the stakes don’t seem high. We feel ordinary and boring. We don’t see how small decisions, like letting someone else take a parking space or being patient with a person who annoys us, have grand consequences in our formation as a hero for God.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Frodo says, “Take any [tale] you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know.” True heroes don’t realize they’re being heroic. They don’t see that they’re on a path that will change them and everyone around them. They often feel inconsequential and alone. They don’t see their deeds as having divine, eternal consequences. Yet, if they act with courage and honor in even the smallest of matters, they’re heroes.
The great stories—whether in a book, a movie or a video game—remind us of our heroism. They give us insurmountable odds and dire consequences as a dark backdrop that makes the heroism easier to see. But if we pay attention, they remind us that we’re called to our own heroic struggle. A book, a movie or a video game can help us recover a clear perspective on our own heroic quest. We can remember that we are in a battle that’s more important and more difficult than the toughest first-person shooter you’ve ever played. We’re called to be like Christ, to be a hero, in a fallen world. Fighting the gigantic demon at the end of Doom 3 is a cakewalk compared to loving your neighbor as yourself. Overcoming fears about relationships, finances and career is far more difficult than rounding a dark corner in a video game. But a heroic story, even a video game, reminds us of our calling in real life. Some people use video games to escape life, but I think most people play them to remind them of the hero they’re meant to be.
Video games are safer than life because we know the game will have a happy ending. And if you make a mistake, you can start over. Real life seems more frightening, but it shouldn’t. God has promised us a happy ending, and He’s always willing to give us a second chance.
So, go play a video game. See, you’re a hero, but you might have forgotten what it feels like. Spend a couple hours remembering. Blow away some monsters and save the world. Maybe it was a spiritual metaphor when I felt like hero last night. Maybe God wanted me to remember who I really am: I’m a hero, and so are you.