Beautiful Violence – Violent Video Games and Christianity

Guess it'd be in poor taste to make an Inquisition joke, right?

Guess it’d be in poor taste to make an Inquisition joke, right?

There’s a subtle difference between violence perceived and violence enacted. Both have a nearly equal ability to push themselves into our consciousness, surely enough. However, it’s entire possible that violence has use as a metaphor in film, as John Woo demonstrates. We can take those films on two levels – on the surface, they’re enjoyable bouts of violent exploitation cinema with bits of character development. In a deeper sense, they’re morality plays set in a violent situation which contain Christian symbolism throughout. In video games, there aren’t many examples to which one can point in this regard. In most cases (at least in those played by the majority of people – no indie game discussion here), violence becomes an ultimate resolution to the conflict in question. Does this mean that the mere thought of playing a video game with violent content runs counter to Christianity?

We must ask: is this neccessarily wrong? We always have the Old Testament to tell us that violence has played a part in God’s action in the world. In that sense, violence gets two answers: yes, do it, and no, don’t. In video games, we can think of them as portraying fake conflicts. Every conflict in a game isn’t a real conflict; on the contrary, it’s simply a metaphor. Think of it as sleight of hand towards the brain – when I play Doom 3, for example, am I actually frightened OF something, or is it merely the illusion that I’m being frightened? That’s a key difference in the perception of video game violence. Am I actually DOING violence, or am I partipating in little more than a metaphorical conflict? Most games would like you to think that you’re actively participating in an experience that’s supposed to replicate real life, but that’s obviously not true. Games have different rules than real life. In a game, I can commit suicide or murder people; in real life, I would obviously NOT do these things. Games almost exist in a twilight realm between reality and illusion.

Not that Doom 3 doesn't scare me to death half the time.

Not that Doom 3 doesn’t scare me to death half the time.

This comes down to the fact that games, at the most reductive level, consist of an assemblage of rules and nothing more. Said rules might facilitate an experiential component in some game, surely, but the player still operates under these restrictions. Even what we now call “morality” in video games comes down to a few set choices in a dialogue tree that leads to more choices, and so on. BioWare sets a multitude of predetermined trees with paths and leads you onto them with slight variations for different choices. No one’s disputing the level of detail put into said dialogue trees, but the realities of time and space mean that only what rules the designers place in that system exist in the game. It feels like your personal choice solely because of your participation – although, in fact, it can never be an solely individual experience because it’s a static product.

Jesper Juul, academic ludologist, says as much in the introduction to his book Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds:

In the title, Half-Real refers to the fact that video games are two different things at the same time: video games are real in that they consist of real rules with which players actually interact, and in that winning or losing a game is a real event. However, when winning a game by slaying a dragon, the dragon is not a real dragon but a fictional one. To play a video game is therefore to interact with real rules while imagining a fictional world, and a video game is a set of rules as well as a fictional world.

For Juul, it’s not so much a matter of distinguishing between “real” and “not real”; the rules of the game are, in fact, real, but the worlds in which they function (however much immersion creating or realistically portrayed) are not.

In a Christian sense, can we accept such a premise? To set the stage for an answer, let’s take a look at the Book of Joshua. Straight after the death of Moses (and the beginning of the Israelite journey into Canaan, the promised land), Joshua inherits Moses’ duties by God’s decree. God not only gives Joshua all the powers of Moses, but He also guarantees his success in conquest of the land. As it says in chapter 1:

Be strong and courageous, for you shall give this people possession of the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous; be careful to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, so that you may have success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

The verse in question, of course, is verse 8: to meditate upon the law of the Lord day and night. Usually used in Christian circles to promote the act of habitual Scripture reading, it would seem said verse was taken out of context. To view it literally, as many claim to read the Bible, is to hear that the Word of God as expressed by the Pentateuch should be an ever present reminder in Joshua’s mind. The Law exists as a manifestation of God’s Word on earth; to turn from its straight path (hence, the left or right metaphor in v. 7) leads to abject failure. To be strong and courageous in the face of overwhelming odds can only happen when you meditate on this Law. Joshua finds success in everything he does by virtue of these words, eventually founding the Tribal Confederacy (so called by academics) that established Israel as a power in the region…after they brutally conquered all their enemies in a massive herem to God (that’s a topic for some other time, surely!)

So, what can we say in this regard? Well, to meditate and dwell on certain subjects can determine our behavior. The mind affects the body. Thus, to think something with an intent is to do that something in a very real sense. Let’s make the distinction very clear as in Matthew 5:

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.

Jesus talks of someone who looks at a woman with lust. Lust, as defined as an intense emotional feeling in the body, does not have connotations of body but in mind. The mind controls the body in a real sense; therefore, to think of said action in a context of desire means to do that particular action. Jesus, contrary to some jovial jabs, isn’t the Thought Police; rather, he’s identifying the root of the problem. Adultery starts with lust; isn’t this obvious enough? Jesus takes the Pharisees’ prescriptions, usually placing a hedge around an action to prevent one from doing said action, and makes an optional task the norm for ethical behavior. If it was thought alone, then how could we consciously avoid sinful behavior? That doesn’t make sense from a theological standpoint. You may have to perceive an evil action in Scripture by the act of reading it, for example, so reading the Bible would be sin. So much for that.

To merely think it, of course, would mean every thought would be a sin at all time, and that certainly isn’t the case with video games. Am I intending to kill something that doesn’t even exist? Not really; I am interacting with the rules of the game. Does it elicit actual emotions in me? Sometimes! It certainly depends on the experience the game presents or the atmosphere it creates. Some games don’t bother with these at all, just relying on the rules themselves to provide challenge; the aethetics become a secondary component.

Thus, we can see violence in video games, like in film, isn’t necessarily opposed to Christianity; however, the purpose and intent COULD BE. That’s the important distinction. What’s constructive and what it not, in that regard?

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.