I enjoy playing video games. I'm going to begin by saying that. One of the best ways I have gotten to know the students in each of my classes a lot better is through talking about video games, so let me make it very clear that I'm not writing this blog entry today to condemn computer games and gaming, and I'm not at all suggesting that if you are a Christian that you should not be playing video games at all. What I will be doing, however, is taking a good look at the compatibility of Christian values and the content that gamers of all ages are exposed to in the behemoth industry that is computer gaming.
Advances in Internet technology have allowed gamers from all over the world to play together at the same time in the same virtual space. Games like World of Warcraft, DC Universe Online, and other MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) with scores and scores of active subscribers don virtual identities and adventure together for as long as a few hours at a time. Then there are single player games that enable gamers to assume the role of heavily armed soldier, command large armies, wield or take a step back in time to alter the course of history and play in a world that otherwise would not exist. A gamer can live out a fantasy in a video game and take that proverbial leap out of reality and step into a virtual world, limited only by the imaginations of a coding and development team... and this is where it starts to get curious.
As I have grown deeper in my faith over the years and more recently make more frequent habit of reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the writings of the Early Church Fathers, and studied the Sacred Scriptures more intensely, as an avid gamer myself I've had to re-evaluate the content I expose myself to not only as a Christian but as a husband and parent too.
Until a certain point I had a pretty thick skin (I call it "deliberate ignorance" now) when it came to the type of video games I was playing. I'm not going to mention titles specifically, but I've played games in the past that involved shooting people, stealing cars, robbing people, been exposed to drugs and drug use, scantily clad women, strong sexual themes, war, death and destruction, and blood, guts and gore like you wouldn't believe! The wake up call for came when my son, 18 months old at the time, took an interest in what his daddy was doing in the study. I was playing an best selling online first-person shooter at the time and my son asked if he could sit on my lap while I played. Now, I picked him up but I refused to continue playing while he was there because of the content (shooting, killing, etc.). Almost selfishly I told him "Daddy's not doing anything interesting..." and suggested he go play with his toys so I could continue playing. Actually, it was a selfish thing to do, how I could neglect my son like that? I'm ashamed of what I did.
What dawned on me as my son left the study, and it hit me like a tonne of bricks, was the hypocrisy of the situation. If I didn't want my son exposed to what was being played/viewed, then what made it good enough for me? Here I was thinking that I was raising my son well and modelling good behaviour when what I really should have been doing was modelling it even better: if I don't want my son/kids to be exposed to the content even inadvertently, then I shouldn't be exposing it to myself willingly. My son mimics me enough as it is! When he sees me doing push-ups in the family room, he gets down and attempts a few himself; when he sees/hears me shouting at the TV during a cricket game, he also shouts at the TV (with something a bit less comprehensible, mind you), so suffice to say what ever I expose myself to as a parent, my kids are going to want that exposed to them as well ("what's good for the goose is good for the gander").
What a Christian exposes themself to, especially where video games are concerned, is a matter of discernment, and using certain benchmarks like what you would your children exposed to (or not) is sound, but it all stems from your own personal sense of right and wrong (morality), what the Church's stance may be on certain content, and of course what Christ himself taught on matters pertaining to "the flesh". No, Jesus didn't play video games, but his wisdom was infinite and he, as the Father knows, what is best for you and I and will give it to you (Psalms 34:7).
Some content can be tolerated as long as it's within context and not to excess. For example, a game set in a war context where you play a soldier of some description, you can expect there to be some "virtual" death and destruction; shooting and "killing" is to be expected, so where does one draw the line? Let's put it this way: if it's not something you'd like to see in real life, then don't take part in it virtually; if the content is needlessly graphic, i.e. violent, graphic to excess or sexually explicit (gratuitous), then I wouldn't recommend viewing it or playing the game with said content; and as suggested in the previous paragraph, if it's something you wouldn't want exposed to your kids or other younger individuals, then you'd probably want to consider whether you yourself should be exposing yourself to it willingly.
Even if content is contextual it should not exalt/glorfy violence, death, destruction, social conduct, or trivialise human sexuality. If the content is or has been created with the intention to "shock" or entertain by means of the explicit material itself, the context would not be enough to justify toleration. Think of it this way: you could go to a bar an expect to be around people drinking and you could conceive that these same people around would get drunk, but if you find certain drunken behaviour offensive (what would offend you personally) could you see yourself sticking around if the behaviour goes beyond what you'd personally deem to be ordinary (i.e. contextual)?
In a message for "World Communications Day" on January 24, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI said, "Any trend to produce programs and products – including animated films and video games – which in the name of entertainment exalt violence and portray anti-social behavior or the trivialization of human sexuality is a perversion, all the more repulsive when these programs are directed at children and adolescents" (http://www.catholic.org/international/international_story.php?id=22807). Elsewhere in his message, Pope Benedict VXI stressed the importance of education by parents, schools, and parishes in developing the skills of discernment of adolescents. I completely agree with the Holy Father, but what about developing the skills of discernment for parents as well? Personally, I'm only able to know what's good or not for my son with regards to video game content because I've played video games myself. When my son comes to an age where he'd like to play video games, I will be very involved in that process especially where equipping him with the skills of discernment are concerned (throughout his life), but there I am thinking of other parents (not necessarily from the same generation as me; somewhere between 'X' and 'Y'): do they have such experience? If so, is it sufficient?
I'm often shocked to hear students talking with their friends about the video games they've played or currently play and these children - mostly all under the ages of 13 and 14 years - name titles that are known for their explicit content (I won't name them here but a Google search may give you an idea if you're scratching your head about this), and furthermore they're legally restricted titles! What does this mean? Well, in most western countries, computer games, like movies, music, television programs, etc., are classified according to their content. In Australia, the only legally restricted classification is MA15+ (equivalent to the ESRB's M17+ and PEGI's 16+ ratings). In Australia, however, unlike in the USA or in Europe, there is no "Adults Only" classification. A computer game that has content that would warrant and "adults only" classification here in Australia is refused classification and thus not released for retail. Content has to be modified by the game developer to meet the standards of the classification standards (Classification Australia) of an MA15+ rating, but all this is a different story all together; the ratings are there to assist parents in making informed choices about the content their children are being exposed to, namely to ask the question: "Why is this game rated MA15+? What does it have in it that makes it an MA15+ game?" A lot of parents fail to ask these questions or even bother taking an interest in what their children are playing, and this is just asking for trouble: if you refuse to take an interest in one thing your child does, then you're likely to decline interest in other areas of your child's life.
All consumers - parents especially - need to pay attention to classification guidelines. Personally I'd rate knowing about what's in a video game these days (in terms of content) as important as knowing what you're really feeding your kids when you buy packaged foods and so forth. We've entered a digital age and so an awareness of things digital is essential, but it's a bit like thay saying: "Be in the world but not of it". As a parent myself I'm also holding myself accountable to this: the moment I have difficult recalling the interests of my children, that's the moment I have begun failing as a parent; it's the moment I've stopped caring. Yes, it's a bold statement to make, but how do we expect to rear our children, to help mold and form them into faith-filled, mature, responsible, well-adjusted, and prudent individuals if we don't know them; if we don't understand them? How do you solve a problem if you only have half the equation?
"What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?" - Luke 11:11-12
So what are we to take away from all this?
1. Be aware of the content: doing a bit of research before purchasing a game (let alone before playing the game) wouldn't go astray, and it's as simple as doing a Google search. Read reviews, go to the game's official website, etc. and learn a bit about what you may be getting yourself into. If the content is questionable and you cannot in good conscience justify playing the game, then you probably should not buy/play the game.
2. Use the guidelines given to you already: In Australia the board of classifications puts every game under the microscope for you, the consumer, so that you may be informed about what it is you're purchasing. Pay attention to the game's classification especially if you're purchasing a game for your own children or another young individual, and if you decide as a parent that the game would not be appropriate for your children, as much as your child may kick and scream over it, do the best to reason with them. Easier said than done, I realise, but we do our children a disservice by leaving it at "Because I said so!"
3. Need vs. want: any computer game is a "want". Don't feel bummed if you can't play a game because of the content because these things aren't going to matter in the end anyway. I'm not suggesting that you should deprive yourself of all things that bring you joy and enhance your leisure time, but video games are your "thing" (and as I have said I don't mind playing video games myself), ensure firstly all things are kept in balance (i.e. don't put gaming ahead of your responsibilities) and that the content you expose yourself to isn't something that you'd either regret, feel uncomfortable with, or that you woudn't want younger/more impressionable individuals around you exposed to.
... And lastly: set the example; be a witness. Don't be afraid to admit that you don't play certain video games because you find the content either offensive or questionable. Sure, others may label you a prude, but the word "prude" is only one vowel away from "pride". Don't take such a stance because you want others to see how mature and "wholesome" you're being, but because you have made your own mind up and you've done so in good conscience. You've stood for something, and while others may disagree with you, at least you've taken a stance and not sat on the fence. By doing this you may actually encourage or inspire others to think about the content they're exposing themselves to... oh, and don't judge anyone if they're playing video games with questionable content. By all means, point out why certain content may be morally objectionable, but a decision to cease playing a game has to be made by the individual (where another discerning adult is concerned anyway; your own child/children requires your parenting skills to come into play).
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To finish up with I would like to announce that I am offering a new service through this blog. Not only will I answer your questions about apologetics and all things Christianity-related, but I am now also willing to review/research a computer game on your behalf in case you're unsure about it. Just contact me via email (found in the top right widget of the blog page) or leave a comment under this blog entry and I'll get back to it in another blog entry as soon as I'm able to.
Thank you for reading.
God bless. :-)