A while ago, I had a parent come up to me exasperated: “He’s just addicted to video games and won’t put them down! I don’t understand why he is wasting all that time playing games—on his phone, on the TV and computer—I can’t seem to get him to realize there’s more important things in life.”
For many parents or those discipling teenagers or young people, I imagine that this is a common and relatable struggle. The influence of video games on the current and upcoming generations cannot be underestimated. Yet, this is an area where the Church has been struggling to give informed responses since it is a relatively new industry where developments move at a fast pace. Many older Christians and pastors simply haven’t grown up in the video game culture nor have much interest in it. As one who has previously worked in the video games industry for several years as a 3D Character Artist on AAA titles before pursuing a postgraduate degree in theology and now serving in full-time ministry, I have a unique viewpoint and interest on this issue.
The Explosion of an Industry
An Unconsidered Area of Discipleship
The average age for gamers is about 35 years old, and most have been playing for at least 13 years—which means that a majority of them started in their early 20s, and probably even younger for the upcoming generations. While approximately 60 percent of gamers are male, that percentage is gradually evening out as more developers are intentionally reaching the female market. In Canada, according to a survey by the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC), about 59 percent of Canadians play video games regularly and more than 60 percent of Canadian households have a video game console.
So, this is no small thing! All of this has happened within the space of two generations—it’s no wonder why churches are struggling to keep up and respond. Practically speaking, this means that if you are between 20-35 years old, your parents may likely have never played video games growing up, and your grandparents almost definitely did not. Thus, the older generation who are discipling young people can be caught totally unprepared to respond to the trend in video gaming which has exploded into existence seemingly out of nowhere. Some may not even consider this an area of needed attention for discipleship although it plays a significant influence in shaping the culture and young people’s lives.
The tendency can sometimes be to react by ‘demonizing’ video games altogether or calling them absolutely wrong. One study finds that 56 percent of Canadians think that video games are a bad influence on youth and cited the prevalence of verbal insults endured in “smack talk” on online games. Although there is definitely a right place for urging a young person to give up "childish ways" and embrace maturity when video games become a hindrance to discipleship, I don't think it is right to demonize the whole video game industry. While there can be a dark side to gaming, this would be an inaccurate caricature if this was all that were to be told. The games industry has also helped in the advance of many technologies that profit human flourishing (such as in medical training and rehab applications) and more studies on the benefits of gaming are forthcoming.
I taught at a Design College for a few years in the Video Game Department, and one of the projects we had our students work on was the development and application of gaming technology to help in children’s medical waiting rooms and even rehab. So, we clearly cannot demonize the whole industry. However, my friend’s question probably reflects the sentiments of many who are struggling to process how to respond to this new trend with their youth, but feeling like they don’t have any wisdom to draw on from generations past.
But is this really the case?
New Idols, Old Desires
Just because it is ‘new,’ does it really mean that it is new? Doesn’t Ecclesiastes tell us that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’?
Well, yes and no. Although the video game industry may be a new phenomenon, the heart and desires of young people (and people in general) still remains the same. Though the tools and outlets look different, we’re still struggling with shepherding the same old desires at the core of our young people.
Returning to the situation with my friend and the young man, perhaps what I told him would be helpful to others navigating this “new-old” territory. While this is by no means a complete’ response, I hope it will offer some helpful food for thought to get the conversation started.
Desires and Idols
Many of the desires in our heart are not themselves evil. Rather the problem often is that we find their fulfilment in the wrong object. This is what the Bible calls idolatry. Now, before you take out the sledgehammer to smash the ‘idol’ of a gaming console or mobile device, there’s some wisdom we can learn for addressing idols in our life. I’ll briefly offer two steps here.
1. Discerning Desires
I asked my friend firstly, what type of games were the young man playing? Were they adventure, sports, role-playing, war, simulations? Multi-player or single-player? I was attempting to put my finger on what were the core desires in this young man’s heart which he was finding their fulfilment in a virtual world. Within his heart, there is a right desire for meaning, purpose, and accomplishing something great.
If he’s playing games that simulate the experience of accomplishing something epic and noteworthy, then perhaps his heart’s desire is to find meaning and give his life to a cause bigger than himself. The heart may be asking: What meaning does my life have? Will I ever accomplish anything great? Will I leave a legacy? Does he post and boast of his accomplishments and high scores on social media or tell you about how fast he beat that quest game? If he’s playing multiplayer games, is it pointing to a desire to connect with people? Is he looking for a sense of community to find his place in the world and how he relates to others? Is it the desire to work as a team to accomplish some epic quest or mission? If he’s playing single-player games, is it an escape from reality? If so, why? What is he escaping? Is it an inability or unwillingness to communicate or bear with the difficulties of others and life?
Virtual realities offer a simulated experience and fulfillment of these heart desires. But they are just that - virtual and not reality. If we put the issue in terms of those questions, we can see that those are all not inherently bad desires—nor are they unique to gamers. The desires in a video gamer's heart are desires which can be shepherded and redirected into more productive areas or perhaps even cultivated in a healthy way through video games. At their core, these desires are familiar and which the church has been dealing with for centuries.
If we can pinpoint the core desire(s), then we can seek biblical resources to address it.
2. Directing Desires
So, once we’ve discerned the desire, what now? Well, don’t squash the desire. The desire isn’t necessarily the problem. It is the object into which energy is being poured that is misdirected. Redirect it. Help find its right target.
If their heart is desiring to find meaning and purpose in their life—do you think the Bible speaks to that? If they’re desiring to be a part of a mission of epic proportions and lasting significance—have you heard of something like that before? If they desire to find community, comradery, support, teamwork in a common goal, affirmation, and belonging—does the Church know of such a group? And if they see in themselves desires which cannot ultimately be fully satisfied in this life, or struggle with the pain of broken interpersonal relationships—do we know a hope that answers this?
Yes! Yes, we do! The Gospel answers all of these desires in the most resplendent and satisfying ways. We need to show how it speaks to and satisfies those desires more fully than even the best video game can and that video games (which may have some good) can only incompletely image what we truly desire.
What greater meaning and purpose is there in life than to know, enjoy and glorify God (Rom. 11:36; 1 Cor. 10:31; Psa. 73:24-28; John 17:21-23)?
What greater mission is there than the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) we’ve been given as ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor. 5:18-20), ‘storming enemy lines’ for the purpose of the advance of the Kingdom (Psa. 96:3; Acts 1:8; 13:47; Matt. 6:10, 33; 24:14) which will be without end (Isa. 9:7; Luke 1:33; Heb. 12:28; Rev. 21:1-27)?
What more amazing community is there than being called to be co-labourers (1 Cor. 3:9), striving side-by-side for the sake of the Gospel (Phil. 1:27), spurring one another on (Heb. 10:24), never leaving a man behind and bearing each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:1-2), forever adopted into the family of God (Eph. 1:5; Gal. 4:5-7; John 1:12-13; Rom. 8:14-19)?
And what greater hope is there than knowing that the same God who has created every good gift (Jam. 1:17) as a foretaste of the pleasures which are found in Him alone (Col. 2:3; Psa. 16:11) and who is making all things new (Isa. 65:17; Rev. 21:5) as we move towards our eternal dwelling? There is none.
All other substitutes pale by comparison, and the glow of their screens dim in the light of His glorious grace! While video games may offer virtual fulfillment of these desires, the Gospel offers real and eternal fulfillment through Jesus Christ.
Are games inherently evil? No (of course this excludes those games which may cause one to commit or revel in that which God’s Word defines as sin). They, like many of the other legitimate leisure activities are part of God’s common gift of grace to be enjoyed properly. They are the product and expression of human beings carrying out the creation mandate to cultivate all spheres of life. They may even be useful in tuning our desires to long for the things we should or point out the brokenness of our world (even the virtual ones we create). However, like any good gift or pursuit, they can be easily distorted and become idolatrous when they distract us from the ultimate end of all our desires, which is God himself.
So, how do we shepherd a gamer’s heart? The same way we do anyone else’s—we lead them to the glory of the Gospel.
We teach them to reflect theologically about the games they play and discern what are the desires at play and how it may help or hinder them in connecting those desires to their proper target. There may indeed be a time to say that you need to cut video games out, but there are other times where it may not be the case. Just as an inordinate fixation and obsession with another form of leisure may be unwise and ultimately hurt one's spiritual development, we need to show gamers these subtle dangers and help them plug into real community that will help them discern this in their own lives. We require wisdom and a Gospel-centered approach to discipleship that sees the aim to be nothing short of a heart fully enraptured by the beauty of the Gospel. The Gospel—the glory of God—is the centre around which all of life’s other good, but ultimately secondary things, will find their proper place.
A lot more can be said about this topic, and perhaps in future articles I will explore it some more. But hopefully this has given some good starting thoughts! I pray that many others would consider how they can reflect biblically and theologically about this area of discipleship - especially since it isn’t going anywhere and we’d be amiss to bury our heads in the sand about it.