Posted by The Lam | Jan 23, 2012
Gaming and God: An Ongoing Conversation With My Pastor (Part 3)

Welcome to the 3rd edition of of Gaming and God. A lot has happened between now and when we exchanged the below emails (which has approximately a 9 month gap... :).

Since then, Matt has moved on from our church community (here) in Toronto to settle down more at home, in his hometown of Hamilton. He's living happily and finding new ways to serve God closer to home. Try as it may, but distance can't hamper the relationship of two gamers! I was telling a friend this past weekend about our continued correspondence, and how it's special for me because I have few friends that share a similar upbringing as Matt and I, who grew up gaming and respecting it to a point of discussion. We've continued to exchange our letters to each other on gaming and how it is in our lives. It's sort of interesting reading these emails in retrospect. It's only been a few months, yet so much has changed.

If you want some context, you can find part 1 of the series (here) and part 2 (here).


My Response Letter to Matt:


Hey Matt,

Good words and questions on that last letter. Definitely stuff to think about and discuss further too.

In thinking about all this gaming and how God plays into the whole scenario, I’ve come across a mental and spiritual conundrum. The conflict is where I am using the Bible to justify my life, or is the Bible a justification of my life? I think at any point if I use the Bible to justify what I’m doing instead of the other way around, then I’m veering off the wrong end. So I'm trying to keep this in mind when replying.

I agree with how you prefer the shorter bursts of cinematic experiences nowadays. Especially now, when time seems so short, this approach seems like the most fitting approach even for myself (for the time being anyways). I find that most games (certainly not all) are following this trend, giving you an 8-10 hour single player campaign, and if included, a multiplayer option to extend the experience. But to be perfectly honest, I’m not really liking that trend. For me, such a short campaign only brings that much gratification; it’s like a quick fix. But it’s usually not enough time for me to connect with the story and characters. Just like Michael Bay movies. High action, low plot, quick fix. But how is that good?

One of the things that I totally agree with is the way you described games as an amalgamation of different facets of art; visually, musically, narratively. You’re allowed to be in the thick of it all. But over the past year, I’ve been wondering, is creativity dying in the gaming field? It seems as though all the biggest titles marketed and sold are shooters. Story and narrative seem to take a backseat to all the flashy lights, sounds and explosions. This is starting to sound analogous to Hollywood movies nowadays. Hmm. An ‘expression of creativity’ is one of the main points I want to give towards gaming, but as more shooters are being pumped out each year, it seems harder to merit this.

And for this reason is why I did enjoy Bioshock. Though a shooter, the world was small as you said, but I thought it was stylistic, unique and something different not offered before at least through a gaming medium. The narrative direction and twists were what really captivated me, and I haven’t really witnessed this in any other shooters I’ve played. I got the same sort of feeling as I did whenever I watch a movie and they throw in a good twist. And on some level, I’d like to attribute that to good characters and dialogue. If you’re referring to the main character, I can see your point, but then a question arises: does there exist a first person shooter with a compelling main character? I’m trying to think of one instance of an FPS with a well developed main character, but none come to mind. I think it’s the fact that you never see the character and that they rarely talk that affects this.

But it brings back the question, how can gaming be pleasing to God? Is it even possible?

Are the only games that are satisfying, ones with rich and deep stories with well-rounded characters? If so, then what about social or casual games? Is there any value to a Bejeweled or Farmville or almost any iPhone game?

I mentioned to you on Sunday about my current playthrough of the first Assassin’s Creed. Because of the repetitiveness of the missions and a weak narrative (in my opinion), the game seemed like nothing more than a glorified casual game. I was doing the same thing over and over with no clear gains to my character. Our conversation definitely weighed on me as I was working my way through the game.

Knowing that joy is a God given gift, is it not enough if gaming brings one joy? I know the counter argument is that other things (and less expensive things) can bring joy, and maybe even bad things can bring joy (crack addicts must enjoy crack right?... not that they must… or that they should). I agree with what you say, there is more “out there”. But what does ‘more’ even mean? Is joy not joy? As you said, the key is “to find, create and enjoy other kinds of satisfaction the world has to offer”, but moreover, could this not be done while still including the gaming factor within. Is it necessary to cut it all out? This alludes back to early on in the conversation where things vary from person-to-person. Not everyone has to game (which is too bad). And obviously so, because God has called us to go “out there” and love the people around us… not to go and love the things that surround us.

At the same time, gaming has etched a funny way into my life. For the first two months working at my current job, almost every day after work was occupied with seeing and meeting friends for eats, meets, fellowship or what have you. This was all in itself great by the way. But so much time was spent out of the house experiencing joy in other facets that I started feeling an emptiness in some ways. I’ve lamented this to my Living Room as well. I just wasn’t having the proper downtime and recharge time that one needs now and then. And yes, my downtime is usually filled with gaming. As silly as it may sound, life felt sad because I wasn’t gaming (have I gone over the edge?). It wasn’t until December when I had time to game (and other stuff, not just gaming, I’m generalizing) that I started to feel better.

One thing I just learned about this week while listening to a gaming podcast is this charity called Child’s Play Charity (www.childsplaycharity.org). It’s a charity organized by gamers that raises money towards games, toys, books, or whatever else, for children’s hospitals across North America (including Toronto Sick Kids, hell yah!). So kids who are bed-ridden (or even those who are not) who aren’t allowed to leave the hospital, is gaming good or bad in this type of situation? (And yes, that’s right, I’m playing this card!)

In regards to the gamer-related-friend-circles. I only have half a handful of friends that I would characterize as “gamers”. Most don’t or if they do, just on a casual basis. But I will share one example. I have a friend at work who games probably 4 times more than I do. Of the people I know at work, he’s one of the people I’ve known the least time-wise. Yet, he’s one of the people I know better life-wise. One of the underlying commonalities that has helped boost this friendship is both our gaming endeavours. Yet whenever we talk in office or go out for lunch, gaming is hardly a central topic. It might make 5-10% of a conversation but it’s almost never the central point to the conversation. So on that note (and really, much like any common hobbies), gaming has helped me connect better, at least to this dude. But as I said, I have few friends who are “gamers”, so this remains to be scientifically proven. More data required.

I think like all things, intent is the key. Is gaming a ‘means’ or an ‘end’? I think we would both agree that it shouldn't be an 'end'. But then how do we more effectively turn it into a ‘means’?

I await your thoughts! Peace bro,

Jeff

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Matt's Response Letter:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtAdjrvD0bY - in case you haven't seen this, check it out! haha.

Okay, so here we go. Great response sir, I'm looking forward to throwing down a few thoughts in reply.

I was confused about your initial statement about the Bible and "justification for life". I want to know what you meant by "justifying my life". Because to me the phrase sounds like, "justifying what I do" or "justifying how I spent my life". But if that's true, then I was surprised when you said you don't want the Bible to be used to justify your life. I do. But I think we're just having some kind of miscommunication here so I'm asking for some clarification.

Moving on. Art in gaming. Agreed! There is a TON of potential for great art in gaming but I think it often takes a back seat and people aren't really concerned with creating great art in games or great games as art. Every once in a while you can tell that someone really was going after that "Achievement" and we see some exciting, unique and beautiful games come out, but they are rare. When these games do come out, someone like Kevin Makins actually makes a serious effort to buy these games regardless of replay value/price/ability to get it used or cheaper elsewhere, simply because he wants to support the game/company because it bothered to make something artful and beautiful rather than just something that might sell a large number of copies. Unfortunately, good art has often translated into poor sales in this backwards world. I would like to see MORE games which are serious attempts by artists to create excellent art. Some games that come quickly to mind as being more or less an example of artfully well done would be - Okami, Windwaker, Limbo, Dead Rain, that game for XBLA where you were a small Mario-type character and you could mess with time and you had red hair ... i forget the name ... anyway, I'm finding it hard to think of examples but you know what I mean. (And of course amazing JRPGS with incredible character depth, dialogue, storylines, music, etc.)

Moving on. Iphone games. These mostly suck, but I find the Iphone is sort of the perfect platform for puzzle games, so here's a quick word on that. I think puzzle games having a redeeming quality in that they challenge the mind and I'm sure, in various ways, they actually aid and develop thinking, problem solving, critical analysis, spatial recognition, blah blah blah. Plus, there are some great old school rpgs on the Iphone, muahaha. But yeah, I kind of like puzzle games and puzzles in games because they're a mental challenge and fun too. The iphone adds new ways and a mastery of control (intuitive when done well) which is pretty sweet, but I also find puzzle games don't last super long, they tend to get boring after a while, but as you probably know by now, I kind of like that.

Moving on. Sadness when not gaming. I think you're just messed up buddy! Hahaa, just kidding. I do think we all need alone time, personal space, recharging hobbies, and just plain FUN in our lives. I certainly don't think that the body of Christ needs a bunch of bored, boring, bores that just bore their way through their boring lives boring boredom wherever they go. :)

So, when you need that time, that alone time, that Jeff-time, and if gaming is a way that you really and truly enjoy spending that time, then I think: wonderful! Go to it young man!

I have only two concerns at this time. Do you play games only when you've realized that you need some of that alone Jeff-time, or do you play because you HAVE MORE ACHIEVEMENTS TO ACHIEVE! Know what I mean? What dictates when you play? Self-awareness and self-control, or self-indulgence? And I'm kind of talking about the PAST here, because at present it sounds like work and other things have you so busy that there is very little temptation to over-indulge. Concern # 2 is: Is it possible that you have an addiction which is creating a sense of withdrawal in you, so that you're experiencing a sadness when you're doing other things for too long and you don't get your gaming fix? I'm not saying that's true, just asking the question. We've both been playing countless hours of games since we were kids. I would expect that cutting that off or cutting that back would result in some kind of psychosomatic response? And we still have that other old question, what about other activities such as ... learning to play a Ukulele? Reading books. Exercising. Walking, travelling, praying, etc.

Moving on. Childs play charity. Tough question, cool question though. I think if you're cooped up in a Hospital that video games are actually a great way (lame as this might sound) to see the world, experience a variety of circumstances and life scenarios, have fun, etc. So I kind of think this is a cool notion. I've often noticed video games in hospitals and my initial reaction was, "that's good", someone was sensitive enough to think that maybe we should get something in here to make a child's experience of a hospital less frightening. Even for a short stay in the hospital, the presence of a Nintendo 64 might be a great comfort to a child, especially if that child is sick or suffering. I used to play video games when I was sick, I remember them helping me through whatever painful or discomforting symptoms I was experiencing. When people are sick, especially kids, we often give them comic books or toys or ice cream or whatever and I think that's just being loving, human and sympathetic. Also, I think it might be a good thing for kids to have heroes and heroines and to have things like ... oh I don't know ... GRAPHIC NOVELS (muahaha) to encourage them to think in terms or right and wrong and want to emulate the right. It also probably satiates and encourages that human hunger for adventure and mission. So I'd say video games can do this too.

BUT, when we're not kids, or sick kids, and we CAN actually go out and see the world, and live the things we've been imbibing and chewing on ... then shouldn't we!! Or else, was the point? Sometimes video games can prepare and spur us on, but then sometimes they can be the reason why we never go, why we never fight for justice or risk our safety for the sake of another ... because we're too busy sitting at home playing video games or because we've lulled ourselves into a mode of self-satisfaction and we want to protect our cushy domestic situation and so now we're actually motivated NOT to get off our butts, NOT to care about wrong in the world, NOT to risk and spend ourselves helping the victims who are within our reach. So, like anything else, I think we need to be constantly evaluating, what effect is this having on me right now, not just ... are games always bad or always good.

So, and here's my big and exciting news ... Gene and I are going to the Philippines in May!!! W00t ! We got a great deal on tickets to we bought them last night, we're totally stoked, but please keep it a secret for now because we're going to tell folks but just not yet. We have to consider fundraising and other things. But we're so excited, and we've been in the praying process for a long time now. We're going for a month and we're going to live in Novaliches which is one of the poorest places in the world. We're extremely excited because we feel God is calling us and that it's not only going to be an amazing trip but also a part of a larger vision that He is giving us for future ministry in the Philippines. So, it's kind of cool because there is some danger and discomfort that will come with the trip, but we don't care because we want to love and serve and bless Gene's family who live there, and any others God will use us to minister to, and it's kind of crazy (can we AFFORD this??) but we're putting our trust and faith in God. So it feels like an adventure, a mission, and I love that, and I think part of me IS feeding off of the video game/graphic novel world. I have mental examples of (albeit fictional) great men/women, leaders, heroes who have laid their lives down for the sake of others, and that IS encouraging. Obviously I have real life examples or real people too, contemporary and historical, but I don't think it's weird that I also draw upon the examples from great fiction. I think human beings have always done that, that's why we create the stories.

So perhaps that also answers, in part, your means/ends question. But there's more to be said about that, but this post is pretty long. I look forward to your next correspondence my friend.

God bless!!!

m@


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