Having spent many dozens of hours shooting, disemboweling, beheading, and bludgeoning a magnificent cornucopia of monsters human and otherwise, I think I can safely say that I like zombies best. In space, for preference, but I’ll take a good haunted house or cursed dungeon if the right one comes my way.
Let me hasten to add that I have not actually slain thousands of evildoers, but merely count myself among the growing population of men in their thirties who still quietly enjoy the odd pixellated firefight or heroic quest on the computer or video game console, howevermuch it continues to be looked down upon as yet another time-waster offered to the credulous in an entertainment-drenched society.
The question of whether or not video games are a Proper Thing To Do With One’s Time is, I would suggest, well on its way to becoming moot, or at least changing into a more difficult question, namely what in the world to think of All These People Who Play Video Games. The fact is that computer and video games have become not merely a multi-billion dollar industry but a primary form of entertainment for entire generations of teenagers and young adults (not all of them men, surprisingly). These days, a good first-tier game can immerse you in a story every bit as complex and thought-provoking as the best summer blockbuster. The gaming equivalent of a quiet indie film is a much different proposition, but those, too, can raise unusual questions and stretch your creative abilities in interesting ways. For reasons (I suspect) largely of inexperience, there’s still a prevailing feeling among Christians that gaming is, at best, something you should do when you’re young and have time to burn before you graduate to higher-brow pursuits.
To that, there are a couple of point that should be made: first, I think everyone can probably agree that within any artistic medium (and if you’re not willing to concede the video games have the capacity for artistic expression, please go elsewhere and read another essay), there is a wide continuum between the best offering and the worst. Some video games are very fun, even calming experiences that are about as threatening and violent as a field of daisies. One of the best, in fact, takes place exclusively in a field of daisies; it’s called “Flower” and its goal is to fly around causing various buds to bloom by touching them with the gust of wind you control with the gamepad. Do it well enough, and the flowers play orchestral music, so, you know, blood sport it ain’t.
The second concession I’d like is that we all agree not to kid ourselves. Even the most high-minded aesthete has his guilty pleasures. A classical opera fanatic may devote large chunks of his free time to reruns of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” without shaming himself unduly. What’s important – especially important for Christians, I think – is that we air out these pleasures once in a while; hold them up to the light and see if we can’t identify the thing that holds our attention and then talk about it in critical terms.
For our purposes here, we first need to take a look at what constitutes a video game, which is harder than it sounds.
The truth is that I thought I had grown out of gaming. I had not genuinely devoted myself to a video game since Valve’s marvelous “Half-Life 2” in 2004 until my mother-in-law, a lovely woman who likes to give her daughter extravagant presents, purchased for us at Christmas a Wii with that system’s exercise game, the Wii Fit, because Pamela, my wife, had mentioned how hard it is to exercise in the cold New York winters. The Wii’s gimmicky selling point is that its controllers – a little remote-control-sized device (for your left hand) connected to an oblong handgrip (for your right) by a short cord – are motion-sensitive. Thus, goes the theory, the Wii’s games involve more physical activity than those in which only the thumbs are active, and so an entire program of aerobic and tensile exercise can be achieved using only your video game system and the Wii Fit program, which comes with a Balance Board in order to keep track of your feet (more on that later).
This did not rekindle my love of games. I hate the Wii Fit, and it hates me. It is a passive-aggressive, cretinous little program and I hope it catches a software virus and dies.
It starts off innocently enough: the Wii is a game system designed by the Japanese company Nintendo to appeal to people who no longer play or have never played video games, principally by being inviting, intuitive, and brightly colored. When you first plug in and fire up your Wii, the appliance, in a much-appreciated show of benevolence, guides you through a series of questions and choices that result in a little man or woman, called a Mii, with your name (or a name you like) who possesses the superficial dermal and hair characteristics you choose for him, but mostly looks like a Playmobil man. Most people choose to make a Mii who approximately represents their own physical characteristics, and thus it is that people become comfortable imagining that they are bounding over angry mushrooms or dodging bullets or, in one excellent game, building a bridge out of slime. It’s the little Mii doing all this, or so it seems.
When you first open the Wii Fit program, it guides your Mii through a series of exercises, some of which are quite fun, but before it does so, it asks you to stand on the Balance Board, a bathroom-scale-sized contraption that takes down your weight and porks out your Mii appropriately. Suddenly, my videoed likeness bore less resemblance to a Playmobil figure than to a Weeble, which, we all remember, wobble.
My wife, who is by nature a shy person (and weighs roughly half what I do), meekly acquiesced to the game’s proclamation that she had the structural stability of vertiginous geriatric (my wife has a bad hip. I wobble but I don’t fall down; she falls down but doesn’t wobble) and did her best to keep up with its mean-spirited exhortations.
I did not. I do not need that kind of grief. I might not have played video games in a while, but I very clearly remembered being a six-foot-four all-star who could carry fourteen guns and a crowbar for thirty miles and use each one of them to smack the innards out of aliens ranging in size from cocker spaniel to tree.
So I gave the Balance Board the finger and set about discovering the whole new world of video games on the Wii, including three truly spectacular and oddly sophisticated Super Mario games, a shooting game (the Wii uses an infrared controller that easily doubles as a gun a la “Duck Hunt,” though it has far fewer violent games than its competitors) called “Dead Space: Extraction” that was more exciting than any sci-fi movie I had seen in years, and, when my mother-in-law saw how pleased I was with the new device (Pam tells me that the Wii Fit occasionally asks after me. It asks if I’m looking thinner, presumably out of jealousy. Perhaps it will get hit by a truck), she gave me a Playstation 3 a few months before my 30th birthday.
I am now in the throes of puppy love with the PS3. It does everything I want it to do, from playing Blu-Ray DVDs to surfing the Internet to running all of the games at which my elderly computer turns up its nose.
In terms of pure horsepower, it is probably twice as powerful as the Wii and many of the games that are produced for the PS3 have to be shorn of their most interesting features in order to work properly on the older system. So I arrived at my television, controller in hand, prepared for adoration. But there are already signs of discontent in this relationship, and they have something to do with the way the PS3’s playership – mostly young men – differs from the Wii’s target demographic. The length of time required to finish many of the titles, for example, approaches the purgatorial; even games lauded for their storytelling chops don’t usually tell very interesting stories, though they tell them well; everywhere there is a deadening excess of brain-and-blood splatter coupled with a dearth of interesting female characters who do not look like Playboy Playmates. And yet every now and then, a game provides a window into what the medium could actually do if it were given a chance.
2011 has been a banner year for this dilemma. The most widely-applauded game of the summer was “Deus Ex: Human Revolution,” reviewed in mainstream consumer publications (read: not the gaming press) from the Guardian to Time and highly praised for the ethical and moral issues it raises. I played it for a couple of reasons – first, I loved its stone-age ancestor, a game simply called “Deus Ex” that shipped the year I graduated high school. It was well-written and fun and allowed you to solve its puzzles in a variety of different, equally challenging ways. The second reason I purchased the game so soon after release – you can drop a solid $60 on a new video game, and there’s a robust used-game market – was that the reviews said that it offered choice.
“Choice” is the holy grail of gameplay – the ideal game, to most people who enjoy narrative gaming (as opposed to “Tetris” or “Mine Sweeper,” or their more complex great-grandchildren like “Plants vs. Zombies”) is one in which you are allowed to make any choice and witness consequences to your actions. Say you’re playing a police game and you decide to rob a bank in front of another officer – what if you could not merely get in a protracted and unwinnable shootout with your colleague (pretty much the standard model), but descend into the underworld you’d have fought, had you played it straight? There are obvious limitations to a form designed by human beings – video game characters, after all, are played by actors and written by writers, and so your choices have to be limited at some level simply because the capacity to predict them and produce differing outcomes is finite. But “Human Revolution” supposedly offered a freer playing style and a plot that explored bioethics and transhumanism – two topics that fascinate me.
The trouble is that “Human Revolution” doesn’t so much raise interesting issues as mention them in passing. The player’s character, a likable cop-turned-corporate-security-director named Adam Jensen who works for a biotechnology firm, wades into a firefight with several mechanically-enhanced mercenaries at the beginning of the game, is so badly outgunned that he nearly dies, and loses the battle. This is something of a surprise; usually if you lose a firefight in a video game, you have to do it again until you get it right, but here the game skips forward six months and your character is returning to work, his life saved by the same augmentations (“augs,” in the game’s Burgessian parlance) that powered his would-be murderers. It’s a good start.
But it goes nowhere. You wander around a “Blade Runner”-esque future Detroit, shaking down debtors for extra cash or rescuing damsels in distress – whatever suits you best – and shuffle through a series of encounters with people suggested to you by your friends, colleagues and bosses until you reach the end of the story. From the get-go, it’s clear that your boss is a touch sleazy, perhaps evil, that there’s something wrong with the anchor on the local news, and that the game’s initial accident has some fishy characteristics. Finding out that the easiest possible deductions from these little clues were pretty much all correct (and correct in the most obvious way) is a faintly depressing experience, like doing a crossword puzzle in an airline magazine. The game supposedly offers different play styles in addition to its patina of free will – you can run in guns-a-blazin’ and kill as many people as possible, or you can quietly gas or throttle your enemies and leave them unconscious but unharmed (doing this to every single enemy earns you the “pacifist” bonus and is very hard). It’s skewed in a particular direction, though – mostly stealth and knockout gas, with some killing – and after a solid 20 hours of gameplay, I desperately wanted to be done. I realized that Adam only had eyes for his ex-girlfriend, whom we see fully twice, instead of the cute pilot who ferries him around for the whole game, that his every line would continue to be delivered with the same Keanu-on-Valium cadence, and that the choices I was making were either Correct or Incorrect, with no shades of gray. Every woman I encountered either flirted with or tried to seduce me; every man was easily charmed into doing what I asked him to do if I displayed the slightest empathy. Perhaps because of the cruel suggestions about my appearance visited on me by the Wii Fit, I did not find the simulacrum in the least convincing and began, especially during a six-hour bender when my wife was out of town, to feel lonely and to associate the game with loneliness.
This brings me to another larger point about games themselves: it’s quite difficult to stop playing them. They are addictive, not in the way that a good book is addictive, but in the way that crack cocaine is addictive. The only way to “complete” crack cocaine, of course, is to die, but there were moments of my “Human Revolution” experience during which I felt both miserable and compelled to do the thing that compounded my misery. This seemed weird and dangerous, and it will probably keep me away from similar games in the future.
What’s very odd is that a much more linear and less-publicized game, “Portal 2,” achieves most of the narrative goals that “Human Revolution” tries so apparently hard at. It, too, is set at a dubiously benign technology corporation headed by a frightening figure, but its writing accomplishes much more than the script for “Human Revolution,” completely without the vaunted veneer of player choice, because it is so wildly funny. Seriously.
When you start “Portal 2” (and it is entirely unnecessary to have played the first “Portal,” so don’t be intimidated), a small, nervous British robot named Wheatley wakes you up in what looks like a hotel room, tells you not to worry, and then picks up your hotel room – which appears to actually be a freight container of some kind – and rams it into a wall until you fall out and find yourself in a dank, moss-encrusted testing chamber filled with half-broken apparatus for testing the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device – basically a gun that fires a bolt that turns into blue hole with one trigger and a bolt that turns into an orange hole with the other trigger. Whatever goes into the blue hole, including you, comes out of the orange hole. The puzzles you have to solve in order to advance from room to room are fiendishly difficult and deeply satisfying to complete, and I honestly believe I thought more deeply and clearly during any two puzzles in “Portal 2” than during the entire game of “Human Revolution” (or any given episode of “Three’s Company,” for what it’s worth).
Along the way through the testing chambers of the Aperture Science Center, you meet a passive-aggressive, omnipotent supercomputer named GLaDOS and hear prerecorded messages from Aperture’s founder Cave Johnson, played the the wonderful J.K. Simmons (“Oz,” “Burn After Reading,” “Spider-Man”), who has gone slowly mad and has some of the best lines ever written for a video game character.
When you stumble into Cave’s portion of the game, he tells you hilarious, worrying things about the next puzzle (and “Portal 2” is basically a puzzle game) you’re going to attempt. “All right, this next test may involve trace amounts of time travel,” Cave announces at one point. “So, word of advice: if you meet yourself on the testing track, don’t make eye contact. Lab boys tell me that’ll wipe out time. Entirely. Forward and backward. So! Do both of yourselves a favor, and let that handsome devil go about his business.”
It would be hard to say that “Portal 2” has a message, but its basic plot structure causes you to wonder hard about science that puts “coulda” ahead of “shoulda.” “Science isn’t about ‘why,’” roars Cave, “it’s about ‘why not!’ You ask ‘Why is so much of our science dangerous?’ I say ‘Why not marry safe science if you love it so much?’ In fact, why not invent a special safety door that won’t hit you in the butt on the way out, because you are fired! Yes, you! Box your stuff! Out the front door! Parking lot! Car! Goodbye!”
It’s as slick an indictment of unethical research as you could ask for, and there’s no heavy-handed rumination on the nature of mankind’s place in the world to weigh it down; nor is there an inflated sense of self-importance. Your character never speaks, though her biographical details are hidden deep in the game, if you care to look.
There’s also a very funny subplot involving Greek tragedy, a terrific resolution that doesn’t involve killing anyone, and some of the toughest and most-fun puzzles I’ve ever played. They truly stretch your brain without making you feel inadequate – the learning curve is as steady as it is possible to be.
“Portal 2” and “Deus Ex: Human Revolution” both sold in similar numbers, but a quick glance around the marketplace reveals dozens of games similar to the latter and two, maybe three that try to offer a similar experience to the former (Obsidian Entertainment’s bizarre “Catherine” has quite a bit going for it).
Why is that? “Portal 2” is a much better game. More fun, easier to learn how to play, less needlessly disturbing, better-written…
The problem – and maybe this is a cheap shot, maybe I don’t understand gamers well enough – seems to me to be the PS3 (and XBox 360) community. These guys are hardcore gamers; folks who have been playing computer games for time out of mind, and they know what they want. Specifically, they want an action-packed story involving curvaceous women, a lot of extraneous violence in the mode of “The Matrix” or “District 9” or maybe “Alien,” and perhaps a horror-movie trapping or two. The combination tends to incorporate the worst of all worlds and create something difficult to defend from any moral perspective; gleefully violent and sexual in the most juvenile way, with some truly disturbing twists. I’ve liked several horror games, by the way – the “Dead Space” series is terrific – but frequently an otherwise un-horrifying game will toss in a revolting suicide or a baroque serial killer just to stay abreast of its audience’s development, which is less arrested than rapidly receding.
This is annoying. I like video games. I like good video games, and developers owe it to their customer base to make better ones. More than once during “Human Revolution,” it is painfully apparent that the game’s dialogue writers don’t have any formal training, or if they do, it’s not very good formal training. More than one blogger has chastised the writing team for the spectacularly tone-deaf dialogue written for a black homeless character who helps Adam with hints about the game’s secret paasages. It’s been assumed that there were no black people on the writing team, but I don’t know if that’s true. The lead writer is a woman, and the women’s dialogue is spectacularly bad, as well – a parody of femininity. “Dead Space” was partly written by a talented comic book writer named Warren Ellis, and the polish a decent script adds to the game makes a world of difference.
About “Dead Space” – here we enter into the world of games that are hard to defend from a moral perspective and are also – sorry – really fun. The “Dead Space” games are pure combat, which is not really something I go in for that often. A shooting game – “shooter,” informally – requires you to hone a set of skills that are totally useless in any other context except possibly that game’s sequel, and even that isn’t guaranteed. For some reason – probably Ellis’ involvement (I’m a fan) – I picked up the first game and was immediately, irretrievably hooked. The game’s protagonist, Isaac Clarke, doesn’t speak at all during “Dead Space;” he just scoots around terrified as progressively more grotesque alien monsters made out of bits of his spaceship’s crew burst forth from ductwork and airlocks to bite off his extremities.
The design for all three major “Dead Space” games – “Dead Space: Extraction,” “Dead Space,” and “Dead Space 2” – is nearly perfect. Each time you decide you’re going to take a moment to catch your breath, something else leaps out of the darkness and fastens its proboscis onto your head or explodes in a shower of baby spiders. At the end of “Dead Space 2,” Isaac must defeat the alien menace after a thumb-destroying series of encounters with hysterically unfair numbers of brutally intelligent aliens and almost no ammunition. When he pumps the last machine gun round into the last alien (who appears as his dead girlfriend), he just sits down and gasps as the space station he’s spent a dozen hours navigating begins to collapse around his ears and the credits roll.
“Dead Space” has an interesting plot about a cult of Scientologist-like worshippers who venerate a mythological obelisk called The Marker that supposedly confers eternal life. The Marker, it is discovered, does indeed exist – it just turns people into literally bloodthirsty monsters, deforming them into all kinds of weird shapes (one looks like a human scorpion) and setting them loose to evangelize. It’s a terrific and very scary conceit. But it’s not entirely the plot that makes the “Dead Space” franchise fun; it’s more the odds. The game’s cinematic qualities give it emotional heft, which is a wonderful thing to have, but it really shines when Isaac finds himself, say, wielding a flamethrower and facing a horde of those little spider-monsters.
“Dead Space,” in all its incarnations, is about taking revenge. Revenge for killing the people on the spaceship, sure, fine, whatever, but the “Dead Space” artificial intelligence is wickedly smart, and knows how to flank you, how to ambush you, and how to make you suffer. After dying fifty times in a row, what you really want from the game – and what it gives you in doses juuuust large enough – is to use your enemies’ strengths against them until they are dead and in pieces. To this end, you are given laser-tripped mines for monsters that sprint screaming toward you, knock you down, and run away; a face-off with a gargoyle whose limbs grow back after you shoot them off that ends in freezing the beast with liquid nitrogen and crushing it with an industrial compressor; and the regularly offered opportunity to yank off an enemy’s spiked forearm with your telekinetic superpowers, turn it around, and impale your dismembered foe on the wall. Given the difficulty I’m having here in making all of this sound as wildly fun as it is, it becomes hard to argue that The Marker isn’t turning the player into something of a monster, too.
I’m a staunch pacifist, by the way.
What’s interesting about the “Dead Space” franchise is that it wears its heart on its sleeve. In, say, “Uncharted,” your character, Nathan Drake, is a charming, friendly Indiana Jones type who gets the girl, finds the treasure, and saves the world. He also kills hundreds upon hundreds of people doing it – admittedly, they’re all shooting at him – a fact that is seldom mentioned during the game.
It’s easy to chalk up the callousness of “Uncharted” to the same willful suspension of disbelief that we employ when we watch “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” or, perhaps more accurately, James Cameron’s largely unremembered 1994 action comedy “True Lies,” in which a boring computer salesman (Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yes, really) leads a double life as a super spy, even keeping his true career from his unsuspecting wife (Jamie Lee Curtis). “Have you ever killed anyone?” she asks her husband, after discovering his secret while he’s drugged with truth serum. “Yah,” he answers lamely, “baht zey vere all bad.” Ever thus to Drake.
One of the reasons we forgive Drake – oh, shucks, Nathan – so readily is that we know the score. He’s no more responsible for the deaths of the African pirates who ambush him in “Drake’s Fortune” than Indy is for shooting that darn swordsman in “Raiders.” It was a good gag, and the three (so far) “Uncharted” games are full to overflowing of good gags. Voice acting has become a major part of the games’ landscape, so much so that Nolan North, the actor who plays Nathan, has achieved significantly more celebrity with his “Uncharted” performance than with any other role except maybe his part on ABC Family’s popular tween show “Pretty Little Liars.” At the end of the second game, “Among Thieves,” we get this exchange between North and the equally good Emily Rose, who plays Nathan’s girlfriend Elena Fisher, after Nathan has killed a war criminal, roughly six godzillion henchmen, several abominable snowmen and a few hulking, blue, crossbow-wielding freaks called “guardians:”
Elena: So, on a scale of one to ten, how scared were you that I was gonna die?
Nathan: [pauses to thnk] Four.
Nathan: Yeah, why?
Elena: A four?
Elena: You were at least an eight.
Nathan: [shocked] An eight?
Elena: You were a total eight.
Nathan: An eight? Those guardian things were an eight.
Elena: Are you kidding me?
Nathan: Yeah, those were terrifying.
Elena: Then what’s a ten?
Nathan: [beat] Clowns.
Elena: Clowns over my death?
Nathan: I, I hate clowns.
Nathan: I hate clowns.
See? Adorable. It goes on like that for a while. Also, in all the “Uncharted” games as in most action movies, nobody, not even shooting victims, sheds any blood. And honestly, if your moral sense is not suffering unduly when you play “Uncharted,” you probably have to give “Dead Space” a pass, too. They are both games where your job as a player is to kill, kill, kill, solve an easy puzzle or two, and kill. That “Dead Space” takes the killing more seriously may actually be a point in its favor, ethically speaking – and its villains are terrible monsters, while “Uncharted” pits you against people. The reason “Uncharted” feels so much more humane is that your character has friends, whereas in “Dead Space,” the main question is not so much whether your allies will betray you, but when and how gruesomely.
There are not very many action games in which the point is NOT to kill as many creatures or enemy soldiers as possible, but the most obvious exception to the rule is Rocksteady’s “Batman” series, which represent perfectly all the good things and many of the bad things about contemporary videogamery. On the one hand, “Batman: Arkham Asylum” and “Arkham City” both tell fun, interestingly grim stories about Batman and his various villains, nearly all of whom are played by the actors who voiced them on the old Fox Kids “Batman: The Animated Series” cartoon, which is still the best on-screen incarnation of the character, for my money. Kevin Conroy’s Batman and Mark Hamill’s Joker (yup, the “Star Wars” guy) are loads of fun to listen to, and the gameplay involves a certain amount of puzzle-solving – figuring out how to open locked doors from the inside, rescue civilians from elaborate traps, and uncover hiding places – interspersed with a healthy dose of beat-’em-up martial arts sequences in which you render your enemies unconscious, but not dead (this is admittedly a little disingenuous, as Tom Bissell points out his excellent “Grantland” essay on the game: “Batman, punching someone in the spine as hard as you are capable of punching someone does not strike me as the modus operandi of a man with any particular interest in preserving human life.” My dad pointed out something similar the first time he saw the animated Batman beat a thug unconscious. “That guy will never talk the same way again,” said my father the psychiatrist. To these objections, I say, “Shut up.” I take my fig leaves where I can get ‘em).
On the other hand, this is not “Batman: The Animated Series,” and the videogame audience is (wrongly) assumed to be slightly older. So Rocksteady has pornified all of Batman’s cheesecakier villainesses to within an inch of the “T for teen” rating, with Joker sidekick Harley Quinn (a character original to the cartoon, by the way) prancing around in a “naughty schoolgirl” outfit over a leather bustier and Poison Ivy mostly naked except for a strategically unbuttoned cardigan and a very brief pair of panties.
I mean, fine, whatever, but really? These characters aren’t even loosely based on reality – they started off as fantasies and have graduated to something like fever dreams. I’m not saying that it’s awful because it’s going to cause teenagers to lust, because suggestively shaped chair legs cause teenagers to lust, but it’s a little worrying to see every female character in these games either totally robbed of agency and helplessly victimized, or femme fatalizing it up in the weirdest way imaginable. It all seems sort of normal, if you’re a habitual gamer like myself, but since getting married – actually, since spending any significant time with women – it’s become clear to me that when an entire artistic genre is dominated by lonely men, something unpleasant and sideways happens to the women they portray.
At one point this year, an amusing video made the rounds under titles like “It’s Sexy Time!” that showcased the man whose parodically swinging hips were motion-captured to give Harley Quinn her sassy sashay. In a less funny way, the image of a man acting out the overblown sexuality that has been focus-grouped by a large group of his peers (the teams that build video games are huge) kind of says it all.
For what it’s worth, the “Arkham” games do not represent the nadir of pervy videogame sexiness (that prize goes to “God of War III.” Never before has the phrase “pushing her buttons” begged so strenuously for scare quotes), nor even a serious preponderance of it. Instead, they’re a strange example of how a production ostensibly for kids – remember, one of the attractions of the series is that Batman sounds just like does in the cartoon – gets jarringly sidetracked by sexuality that doesn’t fit in at all with the rest of the game’s tone. Granted, there’s some violence, even some killing (exclusively on the part of the bad guys) in the “Arkham” series, but everything else is PG-13. It could be that I’m getting old, but it seems likely to me that not everyone who likes Batman is old enough to be into S&M, or to know what it stands for.
When I was a high school kid in North Carolina I had a weekend job out in Black Mountain at a local radio station called WMIT that exclusively played Christian programming. Every Sunday, I would come by after church and play recorded sermons sent to us by the pastors of local congregations in the station’s broadcast region, and I would play them back-to-back while I read a book until I got the chance to play an hour of music I was allowed to choose myself, usually Phil Keaggy or whatever Keith Green was on hand (the station was in the midst of a spat with ASCAP and its library had suffered accordingly). One day, a sermon arrived from a pastor who sent his homilies in on ancient reel-to-reel tape, which I always played on a nigh-fossilized unit about the size of two microwaves stacked on top of each other, which was set into the instrument panel on the far wall of the studio. This pastor had a penchant for dramatic pauses that would have made Harold Pinter snap his fingers in annoyance, and occasionally I would listen to the first few minutes for sheer humor value. This week, after I’d screwed the reel tight to its rack, the preacher said, loudly,
There was a pause.
“Shall-a we do.”
Not so much a pause now as several months to work the answer out for yourself.
“SHALL-ah we do.”
It is, admittedly, a pretty good question.
If some kinds of art can be apprehended in a sinful way, what shall we do with them? Shall we excuse ourselves from the public discourse on the grounds that we don’t go in for that sort of thing? Shall we blithely tell our objecting coreligionists that all things are lawful, but not all things edify, and steep ourselves in filth?
There is probably a balance to be found between the two options, but it is a difficult one to locate. All that is known is that Christians, with a few exceptions, do not participate in the most popular contemporary American art to a degree that both makes their convictions apparent and creates work of notable quality, and we find ourselves left with only secular art and very few scriptural dicta on how to approach it.
I’d submit to you that there’s no single area more desperately in need of moral investigation than any of those we file under the phrase “guilty pleasure” and lock away. Why do we feel guilty if we play video games, or read comic books, or watch bad TV? We know why we feel pleasure, but why this guilt? There’s plenty to admire in “Portal 2,” or the “Uncharted” and “Arkham” games, even in the “Dead Space” series. These are masterpieces of a certain kind, created by people who want to give the player an adrenaline rush or an opportunity to hone reasoning skills that extends into the dozens of hours. That’s quite a tall order and its accomplishment is something to be celebrated. If the guilt is merely social stigma, let’s yank off one of its talons and pin it to the wall of the good spaceship Christianity as a warning to other people with opinions about our business. If it’s a deeper problem – fear of the bloodlust one discovers while playing “Bulletstorm,” say – let it be examined more deeply, too.
But let’s not run from it. There’s a worrying tendency among Christians to write off and dismiss anything that seems as though it might offend or attack Christian principles (and, as we all know, everyone agrees wholeheartedly on exactly what all the most important Christian principles are), with special prejudice reserved for work that seems easy to dismiss on other grounds – as a lower form of art, or an intellectually subpar example of its class. Let’s knock that off. Christian criticism should be honest, above all other things, and it might be time to pick up a controller, boot up “Super Mario Galaxy,” and see what, exactly, a huge section of our culture is enamored of. That, after all, is the only way to form deeper bonds with the society that houses our veneration of the illegitimate child of a carpenter’s wife, and those bonds are absolutely the only way to create meaningful discourse with people who might want to learn more about Him.
It seems foolish to pin this all on video games, I’m sure, but your encyclopedic understanding of Shakespeare or the films of Orson Welles is, in the best case, more likely to intimidate than attract. Start yakking about the new “BioShock” game, though, and the world opens to you.
I’d begun this essay in the hopes that I could form a coherent theory of videogames that comported with my religious beliefs, which, I’m more than happy to admit, sounds kind of stupid. Now that I’m ending it, let me suggest this to you: if you are interested in talking to young people about Christianity, or if you are merely interested in being a Christian in a group of young people, it is vital to have an informed opinion on the things that matter to them.