Why I Stopped Playing Violent Video Games

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.


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9 voices on “Why I Stopped Playing Violent Video Games

  1. Pingback: Why I Stopped Playing Violent Video Games | Redemption PicturesComment author's site

  2. Good thoughts. I’ve had the same experience with video games in that I didn’t start playing them till after I was married.

    The difference for me was that it was a time to bond with my husband (meaning to beat him and win). We spent many hours in the first few years of marriage with Wii controllers in our hands killing each other off.

    In a way you could say it was our marriage therapy. I don’t regret at all those hours ‘wasted’.

    Winning at video games won me respect with teenage boys at a foster home we worked out. Yes, I beat my husband in front of teen boys – no holding back for this woman! It was a part of winning the right to speak to them and influence their lives.

    My life right now doesn’t have time for video games but if I ever work with kids/teens again I will make the time. It’s important for me relate to them.

    My husband and I? We’ve graduated to bonding over other things. Like football.

  3. In general agreement. However, I do believe that for certain “violent” video games a “good vs evil” narrative is at work. Perhaps some benefit to teaching young men that fighting evil is a good thing

    • Ben,

      You make a good point. Though in my experience, I’m not sure that video games do a very good job of differentiating between “good vs. evil” and “us vs. the other”. In fact, I think they may sometimes reinforce our real-world habits of baptizing xenophobia, revenge, or imperialism as “good vs evil”.

  4. Great thoughts. I played videogames as a kid/teenager, primarily loving the old RPG’s (turn-based strategy-driven). I remember my stepdad who is a hunter and shoots handguns for recreation – in very controlled ways in Canada, not nearly as free-for-all as in the U.S. – trying to convince me I would love it because I loved very similar in the virtual world. Except that I always hated shooter games and still do. The first time I even shot an air rifle at a camp I worked still felt weird to me, very different than pressing a button on a controller.

    In my last year of high school, I basically got bored of all gaming. I was gifted a Wii later by my parents primarily for Wii Fit, which I stopped using after our school built a new and much better gym. Other than that, I really only used it for party games (what Wii is great for) as a way to connect with friends and we often had Wii parties on Friday nights. I bought a single-player once and played it once before completely losing interesting. But for the most part I didn’t really game for about 8 years.

    I bought an Xbox One when it came out last September. The primary reason was for its media capabilities, but I quickly became obsessed with NBA 2K14. It really does help me relax and I’ve spent a lot of time on it, usually right after work until my wife gets home. The next one I really got into was LEGO Marvel Superheroes, because apparently I am 12 years old, which has cartoon violence where nobody ever even dies. No problem there. Child of Light is another old-school RPG (still my favourite game style) which was more realistic but still easy to disassociate.

    Most recently, I’ve been playing Tomb Raider. To risk playing spoiler, about an hour or two into the story, Lara (controlled by you) is forced to kill for the first time. She briefly breaks down. Then you take control and go on your way, probably killing another 300 by the end of the single player mode, although it is still all framed around the necessity for survival where they attack first. It’s also much more realistic, not with copious amounts of blood or anything, but realistic. I’ve now finished the single-player which only had killing interspersed between a great survival storyline, some puzzle solving, and RPG-like level-up elements. I have now played the multiplayer a few times which is pretty much a standard shooter game, except not as good and arguably a bit less graphic. I don’t enjoy it – don’t necessarily feel like it is making me a violent person, but I don’t enjoy it.

    For me, then, I think I’ve put the line somewhere around this: a game with violence doesn’t bother me but a game that is all about violence does. It can be a helpful tool for telling a story, especially if the violence is presented as unfortunate (as in at least parts of Tomb Raider). Much like sex in movies for me: I can’t do the teenage-targeted sex-driven comedies but I’m generally fine with an artistic sex scene in a movie about something bigger.

    • I love the Lego games, I’ve played a few on the 360 :) They’re fun and can be quite challenging

      I very much agree with your last paragraph, I don’t mind games (or movies) with violence in it but not games where it’s all about violence; though I find trying to find the difference between the 2 can be problematic. I used to play the Gears of War series a lot but not so much now (aside from trying to get a couple of achievements) I find I’m playing more games like the Lego series or racing games. Having said that, I’m getting an XBox One purely to play Halo on it. It is a first person shooter, it is about defending the human race from aliens who want to kill you. It’s not graphic, but it does have guns. I play it for the story though

      I’ve always seen games as fun, as an outlet for stress and during the winter months where I struggle with depression, it has been an absolute life-saver. I’m in the middle of similar discussions but I see nothing wrong with playing video games :)

  5. Freedom in Christ is too often twisted, by those who have not surrendered their allegiance to Jesus, His will and His way, into something polar opposite – imprimatur to do whatever the hairy heck they want to do, insisting on their narcissistic will and their way.

  6. Oh boy, this again. Look. Correlation is not causation, and violent video games are not the issue. From what you’ve written about, your experience with video games is negligible at best, probably playing whatever the chump at the counter shoved in your face or your below average IQ friends were also playing. There are a lot of games that incorporate violence in creative and less senseless ways, while also challenging critical thinking, mathematics, communication, teamwork, and motor skills. Just because your limited experience with video games were defined by some of the most ill representation of what the gaming community enjoys, does not whitewash “violent” video games entirely. It’s the equivalent of saying that you have decided that reading isn’t for you because you recently read a few pages of fifty shades of grey and found it morally objectionable. This sounds ridiculous, and to gamers, it’s exactly how you sound.

  7. Pingback: Overcoming the Seven Deadly Sins: Wrath | Jayson D. BradleyComment author's site

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