Discerning Your Entertainment Options: Grand Theft Auto V Case Study

Grand Theft Auto V 5 Michael

I keep writing about this game! Wow, lots of Christian writers suddenly came  out of the woodwork to talk about Grand Theft Auto V, of all things. Those sales numbers don’t lie; you need to pay attention as to why people play it. Thankfully, looks as if there’s a diversity of opinion on the subject.

First, we have Drew Dixon writing on the subject of Grand Theft Auto V and misogyny. I don’t quite agree that the main appeal comes down to a few simple minigames among a host of content (i.e., the story and/or strip club sequences), but I imagine the lack of a female protagonists struck many as odd, or strange. It seems Mr. Dixon appears much more angry at the high review scores relative to the offensive comment – a notable issue, given that Polygon gave certain games (notably, Killer is Dead and Dragon’s Crown) low rankings based on such moral appeals. Their inconsistency on this subject makes the issue quite baffling! One could make the obvious appeal that “everyone in the game is a horrible human being in a hyper-criminal world more exploitation than art”, or “Rockstar always takes the satire angle even since the earliest games of the series”, but their increasing realism do make these somewhat pat generalizations. Drew also says it’s a bad game, and I can’t really say either way without playing it.

On the other hand, I wrote that GTAV probably obtained high ratings purely out of fun. Let’s be honest: the aesthetic sheen rarely matters. Sometimes, it contributes to the experience, but most times the specific time and setting eventually take a backseat to the actual playing of said game. Grand Theft Auto, as with most Rockstar games, does a great job of emulating a set of real-life occurrences, absurd or not, and translating them into exciting game mechanic form, much like a sports game emulates the feeling of a sport. Does that justify some of the sinful content in the game? Not necessarily. That transforms into an issue of 1 Corinthians 6:

12 All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, but God will do away with both [i]of them. Yet the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body.

The approach for Christians towards Grand Theft Auto V, primarily, cannot involve a rigorous discussion of its faults. That might appeal to a Christian audience, of course, but it does not expand or widen the conversation. Listing each and every variable problem with the game, then stating this to someone thoroughly enjoying Rockstar’s world, will not a convert make. More than likely, you will entrench them back into their previously held positions; due to the opposition against them, they will believe them even more strongly than they did before. If that approach doesn’t work, then what will?

Let’s take a look at 1 Corinthians 6 again. Obviously, the person who believes differently will not offer Scripture the time of day, but we can use it as a precursor to our future conversations about video games:

14 Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? May it never be! 16 Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her? For He says, “The two shall become one flesh.” 17 But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him. 18 Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.

Here, Paul tells us that our bodies belong to God; we are, in effect, God’s tiny roaming temples in the grand scheme of world events. The word “member” here refers specifically to male sex organs, so you understand the metaphor immediately: a Christian enslaved to sin is like a man (woman too, for our context) enslaved to immoral sexual desire and prostitution. So we see that we, as Christians, must avoid sin in our own lives and our own activities. So far, so good. This interpretations lies with the Reformed crowd, as Tim Challies gives us. On the one hand, this allows us to look at the situation as an objective observer. We see the continued decline of Western Christian culture as Grand Theft Auto-esque products increasingly define our leisure time. This isn’t a good thing. Challies’ conclusion makes that clear:

The fact is, we are more than the games we play, but we are certainly not less. Games like GTA V offer choices—hundreds and hundreds of choices. Though a player is experiencing this world through a controller and a screen and fictional characters, he still makes choices and every choice is moral. Every choice matters. Every choice is significant. Every choice says something about who he is and what he values. The things that entertain him shine a powerful spotlight into his heart.

Our choice in entertainment says much about us. However, to equate playing the game with my mental attitude towards a love of sin might stretch the issue a bit. The comments section below shows a lot less nuance than Challies provides, wherein people harp on one particular aspect (i.e., “GTAV is definitely bad”) and ramming it down other people’s throats. Again, this behavior reinforces the backfire effect, and negative dismissals on both sides lead to a death of conversation and communication.

What is the connection between playing violent and sexual games versus real-world behavior? Science does not provide us with a definite conclusion on either side. The Bible shows us plenty of bad and violent things as well at the service of God’s plan for humanity and the world, but withholding immediate judgment (because it’s the Word of God) lets us delve into its inner meanings and its flow. In the same way, making such a cursory judgment of people who play games does not invite us to explore this new, interactive medium; the word “games” certainly doesn’t help cross from one cultural situation to another.

Theologan’s response goes much further in this regard by placing video games under the moniker of all entertainment. When Logan Paschke says thus, I am inclined to agree:

Is it not true that every single consumption of media involves experiencing and participating in them? Every page you turn in the book Fifty Shades of Grey, every scene you watch in the Sopranos, and every song you listen to by Macklemore are choices that you make to experience the content provided. You are participating in it through your decision to continue.

This is not just true in the sense of content that Christians often warn against, but also content that is welcomed by Christians. When I pick up the Bible and read, I’m making a decision to spend this time to experience and participate in what God is doing in my life.

The concept of creating art is no different. It is a decision to experience creativity and participate in its creation. Motives are another matter entirely. The process remains the same. When you decide to take your lunch break to work on your short story that is even more involved than any interaction that you would participate in and experience as a reader.

We should take the effort to cleave motive from participation; otherwise, couldn’t we always attribute our enjoyment of anything towards our sinful nature? That’s the easy way to do it: create a new law. The hard way, actual interaction with a world in need of salvation, makes us reconsider what we do and how we say things. What do we play? What entertainment do we imbibe? Does this allow us to talk to other people and understand our culture? We cannot get at the disease just by observation of the symptoms from a distance. We must interact, in the same way Paul interacts. The letter to the Corinthians shows us a window into a different context, but the modern adaptation isn’t that hard to see in chapter 10:

23 All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. 24 Let no oneseek his own good, but that of his neighbor. 25 Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake; 26 for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains. 27 If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscience’ sake. 28 But if anyone says to you, “This is meat sacrificed to idols,” do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; 29 I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience?30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?

Don’t wander into a gamer’s house and expect to condemn his/her most cherished hobby. That’s not the way to start a relationship! To use big boy words, talking to others requires a dialogical approach. We need to talk about it, and not in the strange judgmental tone which starts to emerge about one single aspect of the video game. Rather, what about all video games? What’s good about them? What’s bad? How do we know, from both a mechanical and moral standpoint? Explanantions breed conversations; conversations breed meaning and truth.

Much of this comes down to that word “context”. Our actions usually reflect the fact that we move through many different social spheres, each with their own language and associations. In that sense, we need to recognize our context and react appropriately in a Christ-centered way. In this sense, I cannot produce a general rule. I can only plead for discernment when dealing with a new form of entertainment that suddenly burst onto the mainstream. If we take a nuanced approach, we will get a nuanced response. If we understand our context, we will end up in fruitful dialogue. If we don’t, however, I fear insularity, finger-pointing, and social shaming. That’s not a Christ-centered approach by any stretch.

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.