Fitness, Santification, and Video Games

After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.

1 Peter 5:10

Somehow, I turned into a fitness maven.

I wouldn’t call myself an exercise nut by any means. I spent much of my childhood dabbling in said childhood’s delights, including all varieties of candies, sodas, and other sugary confections. As a result, I have what modern parlance would call a “gut”. I deserve it, admittedly, for not doing enough to remove it fully at a younger age, but the academic lifestyle did not help. The life of the mind does not often care about the body!

Of course, at some point, you just need to get over it and get rid of it, so that’s been my goal for the past year and a half or so. If I’m gonna sit on my buttocks and write/read/podcast all the time, I can’t just let my muscles and stomach lining wither away from disuse. Thus did the exercise regimen begin. I already lifted weights, but that doesn’t do a thing for your heart other than cause strain. I needed something difficult that a youngin’ like me could do, that would challenge me and force me to focus on it. Riding a bike or treadmill’s too dull, and I often find myself running/pedaling slow purely out of distraction. The solution?

Physique 57 changed all of that. A exercise regiment created by Tanya Becker based on the Lotte Berk method of barre training (have fun Googling all that!), it’s the most intense workout I believe I’ve ever experienced. As per the name, it contains 57 minutes of a nonstop set that uses every muscle in your body interspersed with stretches. When I say it doesn’t stop, I MEAN it doesn’t stop. The first couple tries will induce pain and suffering, believe me; you need to take breaks most of the time, even though you’re not supposed to do that. I found myself completely short of breath. Honestly, it didn’t seem to matter how else you prepared: Physique 57 hates your guts. Either you’ll submit to its whims and hold your leg up for ten minutes at a time whole doing stretches, or you’ll quit like a whining baby.

Barre Bar

I use a chair, but using a bar won’t make it hurt less.

I’m not one to give up easily, so I persevered. I did this three times a week for the past six months or so, and the difference is clear. None of this was easy. It required a pretty high level of stubbornness (I will not let this stupid thing beat me!) and commitment (I will do something that my body hates three times a week for the rest of my foreseeable life). Sometimes, the aches aren’t good, and sometimes you will feel exhausted by its end. That doesn’t mean it does not work! If you want something, you need to work hard in order to get it. That’s just the way of things.

Video games gave me a similar lesson. I temporarily quit King of Fighters XIII after suffering what I would call, lightly speaking, a “catastrophic series of losses”. When you play people in KOF XIII who, clearly, know the game’s rules much better than you, it’s hard for a beginner (94 hours!) to do anything of substance. You just need a break from the practice at that point, and playing more won’t help. However, when I returned to the game, I resolved to learn how to play once again. I will not retreat to Street Fighter IV unless absolutely necessary!

Step one in that process involved learning the timing on Takuma’s bread and butter combo string. Like most of the best characters in the game, Takuma’s moveset includes a two hit string that involves C, f+B. Unlike most of those characters, Takuma requires you to charge down back, then hit forward and kick in the middle of that string. Tell me if this sounds easy, and I will hurt you plenty. Learning to do it, and learning to do it consistently remain two different things entirely! That does not mean it’s unlearnable, but it takes at least a few hours for the muscle memory to kick in.

Thankfully, after practicing it for so long, I am actually able to do Takuma combos in real matches. Since his damage turns from mediocre to absolutely terrifying with this default combo, I am quite happy to play KOF now! In the end, though, it required a substantial time commitment to learn this at all. Fighting games require this in general, but KOF’s by far the hardest including execution requirements. HD combos alone should frighten you out of your gourd:

That’s not impossible. It just takes some dedication and hard work. Pat Gann said something similar on our most recent podcast: it’s not true that you “have no life” if you dedicate time to fighting games. The situation really makes fighting games a PART of your life, and that’s the mentality you need in order to succeed in a competitive sense.

All of this talk of success requires failing. A lot. In the words of Walt Disney:

I think it’s important to have a good hard failure when you’re young. I learned a lot out of that. Because it makes you kind of aware of what can happen to you. Because of it I’ve never had any fear in my whole life when we’ve been near collapse and all of that. I’ve never been afraid. I’ve never had the feeling I couldn’t walk out and get a job doing something.

The same remains true of our Christian walk. Will we fail? Yes. That’s an inevitability. In the same way I fail in doing Physique 57 well, or fail to perform HD combos up to snuff, we can easily lapse when it comes to Christian faith. Anyone who says otherwise obviously has not read the Bible at all. Trials exist; temptations accost us daily. Just look at this cursory list of “things to do” from Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8

Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; and that no man transgress and defraud his brother in the matter because the Lord is the avenger in all these things, just as we also told you before and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. 8 So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you.

None of this sounds hard, but you know from personal experience that it is, indeed, difficult to maintain day in and day out. Doing the right thing goes against our nature. And yet, if you practice at it, on days where you feel like it and days that you don’t, that mode of thought and action becomes a part of you over time. Practice and practice over and over again. What first felt difficult becomes natural. Training helps!

Sanctification requires time, effort, commitment, and stubbornness. You don’t just get rid of bad habits, or learn new skills, or do anything simply by thinking it. You must remain cognizant of your own failings, and work to improve them. God will help in the task, if only you ask. That doesn’t mean things will solve themselves; you still need to put in the work in whatever you’re doing.

Heck, if I can get in shape and actually execute combos in some of the most difficult fighting game mechanics of all time, then becoming a better Christian should also come with the right mindset and work ethic.

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.
  • Joseph Quattlebaum

    this reminds me of Albert Bandura’s self-efficacy. having a mastery experience over anything is a psychological need for humans.

    i wonder how far it goes, is the mastery over games and fitness an end into itself or simply a means to an end; that end being training for our “Christian walk” as you put it?

    • Zachery Oliver

      Hm, I’m honestly not sure. Perhaps it can be both. Mastery certainly has a pleasant ring to it, but many games don’t bother to take the game’s design to its fullest extent.

      Because of that, I use a fighting games here specifically because the well is deep here; there’s an innate depth to the whole of rules which, once mastered, lends itself to a second set of rules: playing against actual human people. All you can do is memorize their options at any particular point, rather than know exactly what they’ll do, and that comes down to good reads and reaction times. In this case, then, the mastery of one component actually leads to a second set of things to master (which you may never fully obtain).

      Life is not like video games, obviously. Video games have clear rules and objectives where we can see the connection between our action and the results, but real life is often the opposite. But many individual components of life do have their own clear rules, objectives, and goals. Perhaps it does create a space for mastery that otherwise wouldn’t exist, and that’s probably a good thing.

      • Joseph Quattlebaum

        I wonder also where enjoyment and entertainment fit in here. I know I’ve played games for hours trying to “master” them and I wouldn’t describe the experience as “enjoyment.” I guess the feeling of dominating your opponent is what I was striving for, but I didn’t enjoy getting pwned all along the way. I wonder if there’s a Christian walk equivalent to “getting pwned.” Perhaps not, just as there’s no real equivalent to “dominating your opponent.”

        • Zachery Oliver

          I don’t think anyone enjoys getting “owned”, at first. It mostly depends on your perspective. I have personally been completely obliterated by opponents and have been the obliterator in kind. Some days, I am totally beating a game, and other days it’s a struggle. Frustration plays into that, and your emotional states.

          If you turn every instance into a learning experience, though, there’s much more fun to be had. Why did you lose? What did you learn? Did you not know something said game/opposition did? Can you recognize it? All of these post-match/situation reflections constitute, for me, much of the fun. All games rest on this strange “illumination:, where you get a strange EUREKA moment and you’ve figured it out (or, at least, you think you did). Then implementing that strategy turns into yet another round of this thought process.

          Over time, all this learning and struggling turns into victory, and those are the moments you work towards. That’s a personal barometer of success and improvement. Fun and enjoyment don’t mean that struggle isn’t involved. In game terms, fun is the joy of winning while mastering fair game dynamics.

          In Christian terms, I think we can look at it as a sort of “self-improvement” scenario. You want to be more like the tax collector who knows he’s bad and needs God’s help to become better, than the Pharisee who constantly compares himself to others. An opponent’s abilities can become a standard to which you aspire, but the domination isn’t an end in itself.