Video Games and Anger (Part 1)

Video games possess a unique quality among the various artistic mediums. While others provoke us to emotions, to feel the artist through their work, or to motivate us to some action, most of them don’t necessarily do this in an active sense. Read a book or watch a film, and you’ll hear many ideas conveyed in both obvious and subtle ways,

Yet, if you had to say it straightforwardly, none of those experiences really involve you, the reader/watcher/participant, as an active party. You merely take a sideline, waiting to see where authorial control will take you. That’s not necessarily bad, of course, and I would never intimate such an opinion. But, and I imagine this makes games popular, the ability to interact with a set of rules allows a certain degree of engagement that strikes a different color from literature and film.

I merely jest, though, in comparing things with big words like “mediums” and whatnot. Video games, like all games, represents something unique for us to do, whether for the purpose of recreation, socializing, escapism, and all the rest. They often channel life into them, allowing it to burst through rather than being the focus. And, for me, that’s quite alright; a little bit of structure here and there into a wondrously ordered, yet random, universe quite fits my personal fancy.

So, to come to my point in the most roundabout, unedited way possible, games elicit emotional responses from us. Though I wouldn’t call it their primarily function, human nature necessitates responses. When we fail to play the game in the right way, follow its rules, or otherwise miss some essential part of the whole, we often exclaim and get angry. Anger’s a unique response; it doesn’t often happen in a novel or a movie, and if it does your investment never reaches that level of emotional vigor.

How many times have you missed a jump in Mario games, and felt that feeling rise in you? Maybe you fought a final boss until he hit that last sliver of life, only to find yourself defeated from a “cheap” (in your words) move. Heck, Ninja Gaiden exists to create anger with its boss suicide attacks in the reboot sequel. Perhaps you missed that one opportunity to put your opponent away in a fighting game, only to lose in a glorious comeback – not so glorious for you, anyways! I will admit, even recently, that my Playstation 3 controller experienced its own “controller flinging” moment during my God of War sessions. Video games with any form of pushback make us angry, and that’s great…maybe? So why do we do that?!

To take PBS’ view, partly it derives from the simulation-based nature of video games in general. If you invest yourself enough in something, you hit that point of, shall we say, “immersion”. Everything fades away, in a sense, and your body focuses on what’s happening on the screen RIGHT NOW. When you lose, then, you truly ARE losing – or, at the least, your body’s engagement forces you to feel a lack of victory.

Combat games display this best, as your body unleashes waves of endorphins for victory. Hey, we hunted and killed other people and living beings (and still do) for several thousand years, and from that model victory in a violent video game takes advantage of that “evolutionary” development to hook you into the experience. An endless feedback loop leads to the desire for greater challenge and mastery; the cycle will continue until you get bored.

But, again, this doesn’t really solve the problem of anger. It makes you better at the game, shapes your focus, and sharpens the situations into perspective. What kind of anger do we mean, in this context? What’s the theological reasoning behind our actions? Can we call it healthy in any way, or are we fooling ourselves?

Firstly, we know God gets angry, often called “wrath” in the Bible. The wrath comes up a lot, in both the Old and the New Testaments. If we think of God as the perfect being, and that perfect being also displayed emotions and made us in His image, then anger (directed well or misdirected) will form part of our emotional makeup. God feels angry, but that anger only burns against unrighteousness, disobedience, and opposition to His will. He knows best, and He can’t stand to see people violate His best plans for their future. Thus, He’s perfectly within His right to display anger in its perfectly correct manifestation.

We can see, throughout the Old Testament, that God’s anger is known both by action and reputation. Yet, the Israelites and their prophets also understand that God tempers His wrath with overabundant compassion; He never turns to anger for too long, and unless the time and the circumstances warrant it. Nehemiah 9 gives us a good picture of how post-exilic Israelites (exile was a punishment out of anger; see 1Ki 14:15Jer 15:13-14) thought of God through nearly a millennium of being His people:

“But they, our fathers, acted arrogantly;
They became stubborn and would not listen to Your commandments.
17 “They refused to listen,
And did not remember Your wondrous deeds which You had performed among them;
So they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt.
But You are a God of forgiveness,
Gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness;
And You did not forsake them.
18 “Even when they made for themselves
A calf of molten metal
And said, ‘This is your God
Who brought you up from Egypt,’
And committed great blasphemies,

Just because God remains slow to anger does NOT mean He doesn’t get angry; He just happens to know WHEN He should. And that makes all the difference. Jesus isn’t any slouch when it comes to anger either (remember the whipping at the Temple? Yep.), as Matthew 18’s parable demonstrates:

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. 26 So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ 27 And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ 30 But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. 31 So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. 32 Then summoning him, his lord *said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ 34 And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 35 My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

Verse 35 certainly doesn’t leave room for doubt: the Father will do the same to you. The difference is that God remains slow to anger. What about those who turn angry in great haste? Proverbs will show us the way:

He who is slow to anger has great understanding,
But he who is quick-tempered exalts folly. (Proverbs 14:29)

A gentle answer turns away wrath,
But a harsh word stirs up anger. (Proverbs 15:1)

A hot-tempered man stirs up strife,
But the slow to anger calms a dispute. (Proverbs 15:18)

He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty,
And he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city. (Proverbs 16:32)

A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger,
And it is his glory to overlook a transgression. (Proverbs 19:11)

Do not associate with a man given to anger;
Or go with a hot-tempered man, (Proverbs 22:24)

A fool always loses his temper,
But a wise man holds it back. (Proverbs 29:11)

You get the picture, I hope: being slow to anger remains a virtue, a help, and certainly a good way to live a life. To become more like God, our anger must arrive as a controlled force, used with right and forceful purpose; it cannot exist for no reason, or simply as a case of uncontrolled emotions. Paul says that it’s better to get rid of anger in its entirety rather than display it wrongly (Colossians 3:8), and we can agree with him wholeheartedly.

Sometimes, though, you will get angry. And you must deal with it, especially in encountering trials and difficulties, whether real, imagined, or digital. So what’s a proper way to deal with it?

Onto Part 2.

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.