People have always played games, first with stones and wooden objects, then games with cards or moveable pieces – and now today, gaming means screens and virtual reality. Older people may remember connecting a primitive computer to a television for a digital version of noughts and crosses, or moving a tiny green dot across a flickering screen in what looked a bit like tennis but where the excitement was less about the game than the wonder of technology that made it possible.
Today’s gamers are not so easily amused – and no wonder, because the multicoloured interactive world now available to us is light years away from all that. Even basic video games bombard players with coloured images, realistic soundtracks and vibrations that you can feel through the controllers, providing an immersive involvement in alternative worlds where you can become part of the game, even creating the storyline through your own choices. Add a virtual reality headset and you can literally be in other worlds – First Person Shooters (FPS), Fantasy, Sports, Empire-Building, Sci-Fi, Survivalist and more. If you’re really good at it you can even recruit your own fans who log on just to watch you playing. Children learn through them and adults unwind in these alternative worlds. So how does constant immersion in these games affect us? That’s where the spiritual question comes in, because the stories we hear from others often inform how we see ourselves and influence how we choose to live.
Being able to choose a game character who is completely different from who you are in real life is undoubtedly one of the attractions of online games
What are the stories of video games telling us? It’s easy to dismiss them as escapism from the realities of everyday life, but most of them actually invite us into an exaggerated version of life’s tough questions as players are required to decide who they will be, how to behave, and inevitably to reflect on the meaning of it all. Players frequently make life and death decisions and their choices determine not only their own survival but the chances of others. To progress in FPS games you have to do a lot of fighting and killing and your victims will usually die in horrible ways with lots of blood and gore – though both you and your enemies can respawn in multiple resurrections which means the killing can continue almost indefinitely. These conflicts often occur in a post-apocalyptic environment where players try to save the world by keeping a human remnant alive in the face of threats from aliens, zombies, monsters, ghosts and other weird supernatural forces.
Gaming isn’t all about conflict between “them and us” though – it can also be about our own identity, and there has been concern that games can offer players an unhealthy version of themselves. Tomb Raider was an early game featuring Lara Croft, who was depicted in what many considered to be an over-sexualised way with skimpy clothing and exaggerated body shape – though others argued that since she was the hero she was actually a sign of female empowerment. Either way, plenty of people would claim there is too much toxic masculinity in the gaming world. Games like Call of Duty can be played in teams and women often complain of being excluded or having to pretend to be male so as to be fully included. Being able to choose a game character who is completely different from who you are in real life is undoubtedly one of the attractions of online games, and there have been claims that this is contributing to the rise of mental illness and identity confusion. Like many things though, there is more than one way to look at this.
Mats Steen was a young Norwegian who suffered from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy which left him immobile and entirely dependent on others – but in the gaming world he was Ibelin, a nobleman on the planet Azeroth in World of Warcraft, where he interacted with others around the world who knew nothing of his lonely life in the basement of his parents’ home in Oslo. When he died in November 2014, his family expected only a few relatives and some healthcare workers to attend his funeral. Imagine their surprise to learn that a group of people nobody knew not only wanted to attend but also wished to share their memories of him. His father met with them before the funeral and was surprised to discover that Mats himself had never met any of them either. How could he have done, as he hardly ever left his family home? Some of them had travelled significant distances to be there and they reported that gamers throughout Europe were mourning the loss of their friend and would be lighting candles in his memory at the same time as his funeral was taking place. His father later commented, “I think we should have been more interested in the game world, where he spent so much time. By not doing so, we robbed ourselves of an opportunity that we didn't know we had.”
Some games make intentional connections with personal bereavements outside the gaming world. In No Man’s Sky players can adopt their own planets as memory boxes for loved ones, and playing the game becomes a form of grieving. In Silent Hill, the Room the base room is a place of healing where you might light 'holy candles' – something that’s quite a contrast with the rest of that series which is focused on dystopian worlds, but which players are commissioned to clear and ‘redeem’. Some people are wondering if after their physical death they might be resurrected as avatars in computer games with their histories and memories encoded into player-characters and so living virtually for ever, having computer generated conversations with those they leave behind.
The realities with which these ancient books deal are all central in today’s video games – life, death, right and wrong, goodies and baddies, and the meaning of it all.
Mats Steen’s story raises an interesting question about the way an imaginary world can intersect with the everyday world we all know. Christians have always recognised the importance of imagination. Authors like C S Lewis (Narnia) and J R R Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) are well-known examples, but the Bible itself acknowledges the importance of imaginary worlds – often encountered through dreams or visions such as we find in the messages of a prophet like Ezekiel, or in the dramatic artistry of a book like Revelation. The realities with which these ancient books deal are all central in today’s video games – life, death, right and wrong, goodies and baddies, and the meaning of it all. Video games typically introduce us to the questions, and Christianity doesn’t avoid them but always points to ways to address some of life’s most troubling experiences. Is life really a constant struggle in which it’s just us against monsters and zombies (or other people) in a world that’s at the mercy of unpredictable forces? From start to finish, the Bible declares that this is God’s world, God is at work in it, and no matter what happens God is for us. Gaming depends on there being winners and losers, but the very first page of the Bible makes it clear that we are more than helpless pawns in some cosmic game. We are not just winners or losers, but are all of great value to God, “made in God’s image” as the first page of the Bible puts it, in language that emphasises the equal worth of women and men (Genesis 1:27). Games invariably require us to fight our way through to a new way of being, and if we’re not good enough or skilled enough to accomplish that then we’re going to be a failure. Christians acknowledge the reality of the struggle but know that we’re not left to tackle it on our own because in the person of Jesus, God engaged in the struggle and that has broken the endless cycle of suffering. In many games the struggle never comes to an end, whereas Jesus’ invitation leads to a resolution: “come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and … you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29). Not just a resolution, but a revolution as well, because ultimately the pathway to peace is not through fighting but through gentleness and humility.
So is God to be found in the world of gaming? The frequent use of the word ‘virtual’ to describe anything online can create an impression that none of this is real (including what you are doing right now on this website!). But of course we are no less actually present online than we are in the rest of life away from our computers and other devices. The Bible is clear that there are no “no-go” areas for God and that means God must also be present in the online environment. Games are like everything else – they can be used for good or ill depending on the choices we make. The story of Mats Steen shows the redemptive possibilities of gaming. But the narrative of a never-ending fight against alien forces need not dominate our lives. St Paul put it this way: “If God is for us, who can ever be against us? … I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31, 38-39).