Posted by The Lam | Aug 10, 2011
Gaming and God: An Ongoing Conversation With My Pastor (Part 2)

Hey friends! So originally I meant to release these over the course of a few weeks, but I guess out of laze, I fell behind. Anyhow, as a quick recap, these are letters that I have been exchanging with one of my pastors regarding gaming, being a Christian and seeking something more.

You will probably need some context if this is new to you. You can see part 1 of our exchange (here). Without further ado, here is the latest exchange (although not really latest, these were originally sent back in December).

My Response Letter to Matt:

Hey Matt,

So as I mentioned last time, it’s tough to make a fitting argument against the time issue. And as I progress more into the working life, arguing against it becomes weaker, futile even. The time I have to game these days, seems rare and short if at all. As I already mentioned a few weeks ago, there was a Saturday morning where I woke up early to finish the Riddler challenges in Batman: Arkham Asylum. They were repetitive, and probably a waste of time for the measily points that I would garner. At that moment, I thought of you. I asked myself, “What am I doing?”. I think all it is is for a sense of satisfaction, if anything. Is it completely about the points? Not really. If it were, I would obsessively be playing everything and anything to accumulate as many points that I could. But what does a sense of satisfaction even mean? These are questions that I think about.

Your words have a lot of merit. On that note of a “sense of satisfaction”, there are many things that are better to do that would cost less and that is a good thing to strive for.

I think, just like you’re suggesting, that it comes down to the person. For a binge gamer (my criteria being one who can do several 3+ hour sittings consistently throughout the week), I think video games is a degenerative habit (not hobby). Looking back, I can speak for myself when I say that I was there. Although I’ve been playing games since I was 5 years old, I think there was nothing worse than the period when I was a World of Warcraft player. I forget if I told you this story or not, but I certainly did tell a few people at church. During this period, I became so reclusive that every day after work, every Sunday after church, instead of doing to celebrate and be in community, I’d skip out to play WOW instead. I think I seriously hurt some of my friendships during this period just by being unavailable. In game, I had an add-on in the interface that told me how many online hours I spent in the game. It never even occurred to me how bad it was until my best friend looked at the stats and laughed at the ridiculousness of the hours spent. At that moment in time, it totaled around 65 days of online playing. 65 days times 24 hours!!!!! It wasn’t until at his wedding when I looked at myself and said “Jeff, what the heck are you doing with your life?”. People around me were falling in love and getting married, yet all I had to show for myself was a few pieces of epic loot. Laughable! And that’s when I decided to quit WOW.

So what I’m trying to say is that binge gaming (or binge anything for that matter) is bad. How can you approach a game (or any activity) without it sucking out joy and life away? I’m thankful, that other than the WOW period, I’m pretty casual with gaming. I’m into the culture, the news, and the pulse of the industry, but at the same time, I try not to let it consume me like it once did.

Although there are plenty of things that you can argue against gaming, there are a few positives that I see.

I see how gaming at an early age has helped influence different aspects of my life today. For example, at work, I’m meticulous about certain details. Certain things, I want to get precisely right. If they’re wrong, I want to know why they’re wrong. Especially right now, with engineering consulting, there are projects that demand outside-of-the-box thinking because standards haven’t yet developed. I think in some ways, these things are similar to my love for role playing games, more so when I was 8-12 rather than now. Back then, when playing Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior games, you had to develop strategies to win battles as quick and unscathed as you could. At least the way I played it, I tried to tweak my characters as much as I could. Unfortunately, I think that sort of craft is lost nowadays. For myself, I find it so much easier to just go to an FAQ and read up on someone else’s strategy instead of developing my own.

Much like movies, the games I enjoy the most are ones with good stories and narratives, with the only main difference being that you’re the central character, and depending what game you’re playing, you’re the one making crucial decisions. Just thinking of recent ones that I’ve connected with in the past year, I think of Bioshock or Dragon Age. Games that present a good story and allow you to drive the narrative help make for a lasting impression. But all this is really only adding to the ‘entertainment factor’, but is it life fulfilling? Are any movies truly life fulfilling either?

Also, thanks to the technology, gaming is becoming less of a solo experience and has opened up more towards the direction of the shared experience. I totally agree with the different podcasts that I listen to and wrote a bit about it on my site, the best campaigns that I enjoy are the co-op ones. It’s that experience of joy when you and a friend tackle down a final boss. It reminds me of the line in Into the Wild, “Happiness is nothing unless it’s shared” (or something to that degree).

So how does all this play in to my walk with Christ? Since a month ago when we talked about it in person, I still don’t know. If the game envelopes you, then it’s bad. How can you be devoted to game and Christ? The math doesn’t work. But even in a casual sense, unfortunately it’s still not adding up. Time allotted to gaming, is time taken away from devotions and walks with God. So new questions arise. Do you take yourself out of gaming? Or do you bring God into gaming (ie. by having gaming be a secondary purpose to a primary goal, of say, creating community)?

I’m providing more questions than I am answers, but it’s a deep issue I think. Let me know what you think.

Jeff

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Matt's Response Letter:

Jeffrey!

So I just finished reading your latest letter on the game front. I'm using the term "letter" because I'm privileging this conversation, it's turning into something truly edifying. A lot of people have written letters back and forth, and later (often after they had died!) those letters got published under titles such as "letter to a ..." or "letters to ...". For example, my sister just gave me a short book that I'm excited to start digging into written by Simone Weil (pronounced v-ay). It's called "letters to a priest", and, as I understand it beforehand, it's about Simone's struggle with the Roman Catholic Church. But there are countless examples, such as C.S. Lewis' "letters to malcolm", a friend of his. So I suppose this is more like that, a conversation between peers about the things we want to wrestle to the ground. And wrestle we shall, because that's what writing is about, and relationship too. I just wish we still lived in the days when we actually wrote letters, rather than e-letters. I like typing, it's fast and efficient. But I prefer hand writing and I prefer paper and I prefer the possibility that some day, after we are dead, someone might find our letters and publish them. RDRR.

Now to the topic at hand.

How satisfying are the games we play? I want to ask this question and be very honest in my answer. I hope you will be too. When I play video games, especially a new and exciting game (or an old and exciting game that I haven't played in a long time - we'll get there) I discern that some fun is being had. If I'm really into it, I will be quite vocal as I play (oh baby, come on, come on! ... yeaaaAAHHH!) and there might even be some fist pumping if things go exceptionally well. At their best, video games are an exhilarating excursion, as you referenced, Into the Wild. It's a blast to play a fun new game, especially something innovative, genre-busting, something of quality. These moments and experiences are worth celebrating, because it's God's good world that we're swimming in. A good game, like a good movie, CAN help you to see the world in new ways. Unfortunately, these moments and experiences are quite rare for me. Video games have a way of hooking you for long periods of time while delivering very few precious moments, sort of like bad anime ... I hate those stupid filler episodes in between things that actually move the plot forward, deepen the character arc, or at least have some sweet fight scenes! I think the designers are intentional about trying to hook you, to suck you in and fool you into spending those hours, when there really isn't any justifiable substance to be found. For example, in the 1560 hours of WOW that you played, how long did it take you to grasp and experience the basic substance of WOW, and see the worlds that there were to be seen, beautiful and well-thought out worlds that they were, and how many of those hours were not about seeing new worlds, learning new things or hunting down rare and precious moments of exhilaration, but instead, were about a "degenerative habit", an addiction to item finding for its own sake? I think we need to separate these two experiences with the same medium, otherwise we will always get stuck wondering ... are games good or bad? The truth is, there is good and bad, and we must learn to pay careful attention so as not to be fooled.

So if you're with me at this point, we have a major problem now.

Certain games simply cannot be played unless you sign up for a certain amount of monotony. Games are designed this way. (the exception would be the short, action-packed, cinematic games, or games on rails rather than free-roamers ... but that's a whole other conversation, perhaps I'll say a word at the end about this.)

You mentioned rpg's. Someone recently gave me a free ipod touch, and then for my birthday, a friend gave me a $20 itunes gift card. I didn't really want any music and square enix had a christmas sale on its iphone rpg's. I got FF 1, FF 2, Secret of Mana and a sweet Square game made for the iphone called Chaos Rings, all for less than $20. I've been playing them over the holidays since I had a busy fall and its a rare opportunity to do so. I beat Chaos Rings, FF 1 and I'm working away on SoM now. But, I must confess, I've been feeling a general sense of dissatisfaction, even though I've been having fun. It's kind of annoying, but it's there nonetheless. It's just not that satisfying, and I LOVE these old school rpgs. I really do relish the beautiful, simplistic, colorful graphics and the cheesy but earnest dialogue. And then there's the awesome soundtracks! These are video game masterpieces! But they are still kind of lame when compared to the satisfactions that are available ... out ... there. But I believe that to be true of all media ... it's better to live a good life than to watch it in film, hear about it in music, or read it in a book. But ... I do believe in the value of films, music and books. I'm just saying, video games aren't super satisfying. Living a good life is immeasurably more so. That's important to keep in mind no matter what.

I think the key to seeing through some of the falseness of video game satisfaction is learning to find, create and enjoy other kinds of satisfaction the world has to offer. There are many. For example, I'm just now learning to love a 2 hour visit to the Art Gallery of Hamilton. I can go in there feeling any which way (sad, stressed, tired, etc.) and walk out feeling completely renewed and deeply, deeply satisfied. I love to just walk around in the quiet, uncluttered, peaceful ambiance of the gallery, and let the Spirit lead me, as I immerse myself in the sculptures, paintings and installations. That's just one example, but it's a new hobby of mine that I feel is good, good, good, good, good for me deep down in my soul. Things like having a wife and a son are also relatively new things that consistently bring deep satisfaction into my life. I used to like video games because they're a cheap easy way to "spend" hours and hours, and I used to actually buy video games with the hope of massive replay value. $20-60 for 1560 hours of some kind of fun is a good deal! But, I think part of maturing is finding the less accessible, harder-won, but deeper and more powerful satisfactions in life, because they don't leave you feeling shallow or infantile. Sage drinks milk and eats a sugar cookie or two if he's really lucky, but he just can't appreciate the kinds of meals that I can.

And this is when we get explicit about God and ask some important questions. We are told in Scripture that ultimately God is the greatest satisfaction, for every hunger and thirst. Hence the Bread of Life and Living Water titles Jesus uses. But the question is, how do we find satisfaction in God, and what does it look like here and now? Fortunately, we have Jesus' life to help us answer some of the tough God questions, but unfortunately, there was no Capcom in the ancient world. But my basic observation about the life of Jesus would be that He found His satisfaction in doing God's will, which was as specific for Jesus' life as it is for ours, but I also believe that He may have struggled to figure it out (that's debatable, but my personal opinion). But, even when He had what you might consider to be doubts (before and during His Passion week), He clearly deferred to the Father and trusted. When the disciples asked Jesus to take some food (He presumably hadn't eaten for a while) He had His mind on other things and said, "My bread is to do the will of My Father." Now, God's will is the same for all of us in some respects right. Love God, love people.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
(1Th 5:16-18)

And as we get more and more specific, then God's will for you isn't necessarily the same as His will for me. So back to video games. Perhaps I find video games increasingly less satisfying because I know that God has called me to other preoccupations. A strong sense of call hinders my ability to enjoy something I used to find more satisfying.

But is that a cop out answer? Is the bigger question ... are video games just a waste of time? For anyone, anywhere? Argghhh...

My simple go-to answer on that one is going to be NO. Because I think to make that claim you have to be able to back it up. And like I said, I think there can be some benefits (although benefits are not always justifying). I do have my suspicions about television and the negative effect of flickering pixels (an excellent read is a book called "Flickering Pixels" by Shane Hipps) but I do still watch a movie (or two) a week. I just think that being outdoors and being with people, or being contemplative, reading, praying, studying, exercising, all these things are preferable, but I realize at this point that I'm simply listing what I'm biased towards, not providing solid arguments. I liked your distinction about how binge gaming is always bad. Agreed.

I read a book about "Literature through the eyes of faith" once and it said, some people read literature to escape reality, some people read it to participate more fully in reality. Two opposite uses of the same medium. The book was written by a Christian and argued that the latter was the legitimate way to engage literature and that literature was valuable when that was understood. But even with that in mind, I can still play video games and ignore reality ... such as when i'm playing a game with a great love story, soaking it in and enjoying it, but then when Gene interrupts me during the game to do a house chore, I get peeved at her for interrupting my gaming. See the problem? Is the game (love story and all) enhancing my ability to participate in the reality I live in? Not in that moment, even though I might want to think, say or believe it does. So just saying, "games help me to participate more fully in reality" is not the same as it being true. Ahhh ... I feel this email needs to be wrapped up.

I like what you wrote about co-op and I agree, things are better shared, and gaming to create community is a step up from gaming to avoid it. But then we still have to ask, does gaming create community? Does it create good community? Does it do it well? I find that my gamer buddy relationships are much shallower than my never-play-video-games-together relationships. Care to comment?

Anyway, I really am enjoying this whole conversation. It's sharpening and honest and very enjoyable. Thanks for your last letter, I'm looking forward to the next one!

Matt

P.S. At this point I'm more into cinematic games, that don't eat a lot of time but deliver in a big way. I wish more games were like this but I think developers make less money often. I still love traditional RPG's though, but is a lot of it just nostalgia? I wish they made more games like ... Zelda? Halo? Heavy Rain? I don't know ... I guess I just like the linearness, the creativity of the world's and characters, and the pace. Pace has become WAY more important to me than it ever was before. To me, pace is now one of the most crucial factors in what makes a good game, a game I'm willing to play and endorse. But that still leaves a lot of room for personal preference ... ie. I admit Bioshock was pretty awesome, but I felt the story was shallow and the world was too small (which is excusable if you have great characters and plot, but Bioshock didn't, lots of games don't, really.) Even Assassin's Creed ... a game I really liked because it had so much going for it, but I like a game like Zelda or Tomb Raider because you go to the craziest locales, and there is a lot of range and diversity, without having a free-roaming time-sink. But again, this is largely personal preference. If someone was, say, in love with Renaissance Italy, then AC2 is perfect, and I actually really did enjoy the world of AC2 for that reason and so don't think I'm saying AC2 wasn't great because it was. But, I'd like to see game developers focus more on character depth and transformation, and narrative arc and compelling plot, etc. It's hard to do that well with video games, especially because the pace is slower, and to some degree user-controlled. Arkham Asylum!!! Just thought of that. I think we need more games like that! I think you know why. Grace and peace.

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