The Difference Between Appearance and Reality: Intentions

This is a preface to our podcast topic this Saturday – tomorrow, in fact!

Owl Butterfly

Are our choices in-game a reflection of our true selves or are we just playing? Do the actions we perform in video games somehow reflect real-world actions, or is there a divorce between the reality of the situation (me sitting in a comfy chair doing nothing) and the vicarious experience on display in the game (probably something involving conflict, more often than not)?These questions racks the Christian brain, and website like PluggedIn would not exist without out. It depends, however, on how you view your relationship with the game being played.

The most common passages to come up in such a discussion is Matthew 5. Have you not heard, so very many times, that to simply look with lust at another woman constitutes adultery? I’m not against such an interpretation, so let’s take a closer look at the context from whence those verse arrive:

17 “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

We see that the discussion of several commandments subsequent to this particular saying, and it’s there for a reason. Christ comes to fulfill the Law – that is, to enforce its mandates and to make it even more clear that such laws come about as a result of holiness. Christ shows that holiness both in Word and deed, so there’s no problem there. Imagine, though, that you believe that you do not commit a sin because you don’t commit adultery, or that you do not murder people – Jesus, then, says this:

20 “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Of course, the joke’s on you: you can’t surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, and neither can the Pharisees! If I didn’t know any better, I’d say there’s some sarcasm in here. Anyone who lived as Jesus’ contemporary would know that Jewish religious leaders conducted themselves as “holier-than-thous”, so it’s not surprise that He cites them. They’re the only religious authority they would know in the time of the Second Temple, so Jesus usurps their expectations. No one follows the Law perfectly (except the One who made it, duh). Thus, Jesus delves into the realm of common relationships intentionally to show that, while they weren’t “sinning” in the traditional Judaic sense, they certainly sinned in the eyes of God by their intentions. Thus, when we talk about anger and murder, we’re not all that far off-base:

21 “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. 23 Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. 25 Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.

The standard, supposedly, raised up to the level of thought, but surely this comes as no surprise. The original intention of the Law creates a holy people, fitting to be called God’s people, so it is that the mind makes the body work. We shouldn’t find ourselves too surprised that feelings and emotions become a stumbling block and a sin in and of themselves when directed towards wrong ends. And, furthermore, we should not find ourselves surprised that our emotions, at many times, control us rather than the other way around. This is important: God judges the heart, but the heart is wicked and deceitful. So now you might see why Jesus needed to come to earth, take the sin of the world, and die on a tree. We could not possibly correct ourselves, and only God gets us out of the hole.

But, of course, we need to take action by conforming our mind to His likeness. Then, the emotions direct themselves towards Godly ends. Difficult? Of course! In the long run, though, this is utterly necessary. Thus, when the sexual sin appears after this passage, we’re not surprised when Jesus goes down the list and makes sure we know our intent, our mind, and our emotions come into play:

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.

If something makes you sin personally, get away from it. If you know you cannot control yourself, then do not provide sin the possibility space to manipulate you. If you’ll never develop self-control over a particular thing, why bother making the issue hard on yourself and dropping further into sin? A new life requires a change, and sometimes those changes aren’t accepted by us even as we continue to say that we want it. Christ says: show me you want it, and I will help; you cannot cover His eyes.

So it is that we arrive on the subject of video games. So how do they fit into this? Well, like anything else: what do you hope to get out of them? What’s your intention in playing them?

Do they throw you into a violent rage? Do they make you lust after someone (although, let’s be honest, you might need more help than that if you find yourself in this situation with polygonal men or women)? What state of mind do games put you in? I ask this series of rhetorical question because, really, you know the answer for yourself. I don’t need to give it to you at all: if it makes you sin, and you find yourself in that situation, there’s no reason to play them.

To put it a little more philosophically: video games, at their base, consist of a system. That system has rules, and no matter how complex those rules get, they’re rudimentary and binding based on the will of the game designer, the programmers, and whoever else had a say in the game’s aesthetics, play, and feel. Whether the game lets you stomp on turtle heads or kill prostitutes, both descriptions before merely describe some aesthetic and surface-level examination of what’s happening under the hood. Whatever game you play functions with the palette given by the developers, and you merely fill in the canvass.

Could something like Grand Theft Auto offend someone or possibly bring them into an ultimately negative state of mind? I am sure it has happened before, and will continue to happen. Does it happen to me? Not really; I can tell the difference between appearance and reality, the fantasy on screen and my life outside of it. I play within the rule sets, and that remains satisfying. Others will reject them outright, and that’s their perogative given their own sin history, but I haven’t had a problem with video game violence or any of its myriad depictions over the years, and I imagine it won’t change any time soon. Sin on screen does not become sin in real life, but your intentions playing the game do matter.

Sorry to make it so clear and distinct, but that’s how it goes.

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.