A Booming Industry
Despite often being excluded from the pantheon of cinema, music, and television, gaming has exploded into perhaps the most lucrative industry of all modern entertainment. While people typically think of cinema as the crown jewel of entertainment, the total worldwide box office in 2019 was a record $42.5 billion. That same year, the gaming industry hit a whopping $124.8 billion.
One study revealed that nearly 70% of Americans play video games. While the culturally ingrained stereotype of a “gamer” is that of a pubescent boy sitting in his parents’ basement playing a MMORPG (“massive multiplayer online role-playing game”), this image has long been outdated. The vast majority of video games—as many as 90%—are played on phones and tablets.
Also, while the 18-35 demographic, predictably, contains the most frequent gamers, video games—driven largely by the shift from traditional consoles to mobile devices—are no longer the exclusive pastime of the young. People age 50+ do roughly 21% of gaming (the same percentage as gamers under 18). The less scientific “eyeball test” confirms this finding. While suit-wearing professionals once poured over spreadsheets and presentations on airplanes, mobile games are now their go-to inflight entertainment.
How Do Video Games Impact Society?
Video games carry a pointedly negative stigma, partially due to their relative newness in comparison to other entertainment mediums. Another reason for their bad rap is that they often become a topic of national conversation when taking the blame for horrific violent deeds. For example, in the aftermath of the horrendous Parkland school shooting in 2018, the White House announced that it would meet with representatives of the video game industry to explore a possible causative relationship between virtual violence and real-world violence.
In the court of public opinion, the conclusion of this meeting is a given. Video games are harmful. Yet, the data is less convincing. To pin a violent action on any singular cause is dubious and overly simplistic, not to mention impossible to prove. In fact, the rise in the consumption of violent video games since the early 90s has actually been matched by a decrease in overall youth violence (perhaps the youth are all inside playing games?). Beneath the surface of knee-jerk reactions and hot takes is a sea of inconclusive studies and mixed data.
At the same time, the notion that spending 12-15 hours a week engaged in any activity—all the more one as visceral and addictive as gaming—has no effect is equally as absurd. Spending hours on end shooting enemies in a graphic explosion of blood and gore is desensitizing, not to mention almost certainly immoral. Video games may not compel gamers to act out their gaming fantasies in the real world or turn them into monsters, but, as with all entertainment choices, the experience is far from neutral.
I should also note that the conversation regarding the influence of gaming is nearly always in the context of negative effects. Yet many role-playing games tell well-crafted stories that are able to transport players into beneficial and educational secondary world experiences in the same way a gripping novel might. The interactive and participatory nature of video games lends itself perfectly to cultivating such experiences. It is no coincidence that many of the most imaginative contemporary authors are also enthusiastic gamers. Video games can inspire new and broader ways of looking at the world, evoke rarely felt emotions, and navigate experiences otherwise untouched. The Max Planck Institute for Human Development actually concluded that playing video games such as Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros increases brain matter, memory formation, strategic thinking, and fine motor skills (my 10-year-old self feels so vindicated).
To Play or Not To Play?
Nothing in the Bible unquestionably deems video games inherently sinful. But Christians should prayerfully consider whether or not or to what degree they should play video games. In the absence of a “thou shall not play video games” Bible verse, the best guiding principle is Jesus’ urging for His followers to be “as wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Here are three guidelines for Christians on this important issue:
- Make Wise Choices
The existence of graphically violent and desensitizing video games does not mean all video games should be off limits in the same way a raunchy romance novel shouldn’t prevent a Christian from reading a book by Charles Dickens. There are good movies and unwholesome ones; thought-provoking shows and garbage shows; edifying music and demeaning music. No one-size-fits-all mentality can help us navigate entertainment, and that includes video games. Christians should be intentional and aware of the images and virtual stories in which they are immersing themselves. Games that involve vicarious sin and immorality should be avoided. Graphic sexuality and (in most cases) extreme violence should likewise be shunned. Christians are called to be Holy, and such gaming experiences hinder rather than promote that calling (1 Peter 2:9).
- Maintain Moderation
Arguably, the single most concerning aspect of video games is the time they consume. This issue is not unique to gaming. Any activity performed in excess can be damaging, even Bible reading, if one spends day and night reading Scripture and leaves no time to go outside and live and obey it. But unlike a movie with a clearly defined 1.5-2.5-hour time investment, video games often invite prolonged or even indefinite play time. Players can log hundreds of hours in a single immersive, open world game. Video games can be a relaxing pastime in moderation but will severely damage mental, physical, and—most importantly— spiritual health when consumed gluttonously and without proper discipline. The Apostle Paul wrote, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful” (1Cor. 6:12). When overindulgent gaming causes us to start neglecting more important and spiritually necessary responsibilities, then we have allowed it too great a foothold in our life.
- Proper Purpose
I am by no means a “gamer,” but I do enjoy playing games. Throughout our marriage, my wife and I have played casual co-op games as a way to spend time together in the evening, and I have bonded with my kids over games like The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario. Video games are often thought of as an isolating experience, but I recently attended a wedding where the lovely couple met through online gaming (she was in America and he was in Brazil)! The game Animal Crossing proved to be a calming tonic for many people during their lonely and stressful coronavirus quarantine. As Christians, we have far more impotent and urgent priorities than video games. But if we approach them with wisdom and keep them in their proper place, video games can actually refresh and bring people together.