I didn’t get my first video-game console until after I was married. It was an old black Xbox, the kind my friends had owned years earlier. But video games had not been a part of my life in high school, and I was eager to make up for lost time.
There’s an ongoing debate about the relationship between video-game violence and real-world violence, with arguments and evidence on both sides. There’s causation and correlation; and nobody can agree on which argument owns the moral high ground. I didn’t really care about all that, though. I just wanted to fire big guns and shoot aliens.
After I defeated the aliens, I decided to skateboard across London, run from cops, dunk on Kobe Bryant, and infiltrate German military bases.
When I got my first real job, with a salary and benefits, I splurged and bought a used Xbox 360. This new game console had better graphics: when I slashed somebody’s throat it sprayed bright red blood across the screen in perfectly rendered detail. I loved it.
I spent hours on the couch fighting my way around the world, disrupting terrorist cells and tracking down dictators. Slashing, stabbing, shooting, stalking, exploding. Sometimes I’d invite my buddies over and we’d team up. We’d be holed up in an old house with two turret guns. We destroyed wave after wave of digital bad guys until their bodies covered the on-screen floor.
It was just harmless entertainment.
I am a (relatively) mature adult. I do not doubt that I am able to tell the difference between video games and real life. After growing up in a conservative Christian subculture with strict rules regarding acceptable entertainment, I was enjoying my new freedom in Christ. There was no risk that I’d become a notorious killer simply because I spent a few hours playing first-person shooters in my living room.
But it wasn’t long before I found that my entertainment choices were at odds with my real-life politics and deeply held religious beliefs. Speaking of our national obsession with guns as a hobby, I wrote:
I’ve spent many hours myself in the recreational simulation of killing. Sitting in front of my TV pulling the trigger on a wireless controller, piling up bodies of anonymous terrorists and then cashing in kills for more weapons. I can slit a hundred throats and then nonchalantly switch over to playing football or racing dirt bikes, as if they’re all the same thing. Just a few hours of evening entertainment…. We’ve blurred the lines between recreation and self-defense. Arming ourselves against evil has become a hobby, an identity, a lifestyle.
Still, I reserved my right to play those games. I knew it wasn’t a problem for me. I could handle it. But the questions grew louder: Why was I choosing simulated killing as a form of entertainment? What sort of messages was I embracing in their narratives? What effect was this having on my heart?
What started as a mindless way to waste a few hours became an increasingly troubling habit as the questions tumbled around in my head. I was doing the same thing that I accused gun enthusiasts of doing: I was blurring the line between necessary evil and hobby. I was participating in simulated killing for fun.
Perhaps less blatantly but equally as problematic, I was entering into a narrative world that reduced the other to caricatured villains. And often the only practical explanation for why they must be killed was because they look different than me. In video games, humans are stripped of their humanity. They’re not made in the image of God, they are pixels on a screen.
This is everything the Kingdom of God is not. I was suspending my own values and beliefs for a few hours of entertainment, and it wasn’t fun anymore.
Every week on the news I see another story of a shooting in a school, a mall, a home. These are all too real. Real bullets tearing real flesh, taking real lives. As a nation, we mourn. We raise our voices calling for change, calling for an end to the killing. We join hands and pray that the Kingdom will break through. And in light of that, I can’t pick up a video game controller to keep killing.
Everything is worship. Everything is prayer. I can’t pray with my lips for the killing to end while I’m playing with simulated death just for fun. Those games become a sort of prayer too, and with each simulated killing I am praying for death, death, death.
In his new book A Farewell to Mars, Brian Zahnd writes:
Christianity has offered a gospel where we can accept Jesus as our personal Savior while largely ignoring his ideas about peace, violence, and human society.
He’s right. Too often I have caught myself compartmentalizing my religion, as if it shouldn’t affect who I am when I’m spending time in imaginary digital worlds. If, in the face of unspeakable violence and tragedy in our nation, I pray, “Thy Kingdom come…” I cannot limit it to heaven and earth. I must be willing to allow the Kingdom to break through even in the fantasy worlds of the video-game console.
In Red Letter Revolution, Shane Claiborne writes:
If we know that the story ends with folks beating swords into plows, we start now. We don’t have to wait.
Perhaps, then, I can join in the Kingdom today by not only praying for an end to war, but also ending war-as-entertainment in my living room.
There are those who argue for the importance of video games as art. I tend to agree with them. Good art should make us ask questions, challenge our assumptions, make us uncomfortable. That’s exactly what those games did. They forced me to question myself, my beliefs, my motivations. Ultimately, violent video games as art forced me to give up violent video games as entertainment.
It might not be the same for you. I still believe in freedom in Christ, and I know that my experience isn’t yours. If I’m at your house, I might even pick up a controller and play for a few minutes. But as I follow in the footsteps of Jesus, I’m learning that sometimes, laying down my sword begins with laying down my video-game controller, too.