Violence and Video Games (Part 2)

Originally posted as a comment here, then expanded. It seemed good enough as a post to expand my thoughts.

I’m not troubled at all by the violent imagery in games. For the sake of making this blog an all-ages enterprise, I’m not going to post any pictures of violent video games, but anybody reading this surely has access to Google ImageSearch and can find that themselves. But still, it doesn’t bother me.

It’s a matter of distinguishing between the world presented before you and those of others. If, for example, you’re developing some kind of sadistic bloodlust while playing Call of Duty, then you should seek medical help and should stop playing immediately. But let’s expand upon this a bit: what is the proper theological response to violence and video games? Or, what would be a properly “Christian” video game? Does the aesthetic appeal of the game, violent or not, determine ultimately whether it’s proper for a Christian to participate in such activities?

In my mind, the “myth of redemptive violence” isn’t what’s at play with video games. Wink’s pacifistic characterization, like those of many theologians, are too simple. Too straightforward. Too removed from the mire and muck of human life. When Barth proposes his conception of grace in universal election, for example, he inevitably applies the idea too far and create a conception wholly inconsistent with the Biblical text simply because of its Christological lens (for those not savvy to this language, it means a theology and worldview which is entirely focused on Jesus Christ – in deference to, let’s say, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. These do represent different aspects of God’s character, and for Trinitarian Christians, it can distort one’s image and understanding of God). In the same way that Scripture presents and undermines that same kind of imagery, God also aids the Israelites in massacres, genocides, and violence – how do those fit in the supposed non-violent narrative?

Augustine explained this through the idea of civic duty – if God, or the authority God places above the people (Romans 13, for all you fun-loving people out there) demands a response in violence, then you’d better give it. If God controls the world with his divine providence, than who am I to say that violence isn’t the right solution? I know, I know – most theologians will simply say these “genocide narratives” never happened, pointing to some exterior historical, and human, resource to evade the question. But that’s not a great answer, nor very consistent. That’s basically reneging on their point in the first place; if it is actually true, then they’re in the same hole they began.

Pointing to ancient creation myths as its origin, as well, takes advantage of this narrow focus, placing the blame on one central idea – the best way for arguments to make a stand is to attribute something to one particular idea, after all! Not that human society has had a complex and turbulent development, and it can arise out of myriad factors that history might never record! Or, I might ask, how do we characterize that violence as redemptive?

The idea of the hero who saves the day through violent action might be a “general” theme of video games, but let’s allow a new perspective on the same idea. Grand Theft Auto IV, if I learned anything from the game, taught me one thing: the life of a criminal is horrific, and may force you to make choices that you would never want to make: choosing between the life and death of someone you know. As far as I played, I didn’t want to live out that lifestyle, and certainly didn’t enjoy the game experience – it was disgusting, to put it mildly. And in that, the violence only added to my feeling that this was not the real American dream, or a Christian one, but the dark underbelly of what really occurs in a criminal life even with its promise of glitz, glamor, and glory.

The violence was quite an addition, honestly, to that experience. Where is the heroism in this, I asked myself. I honestly couldn’t find it. That’s the kind of response I think we should pursue; our reactions to games, as Christians, should reflect our lives. The games themselves can represent whatever they wish. Everyone’s going to get something different because they come from different places. But I think it’s highly generalistic and perhaps even elitist to assume that everyone follows a myth of redemptive violence when they take their own experiences to a game.

They can have an anti-objectivist message (Bioshock), or perhaps represent the consequences of actions at the sake of the natural world (Shadow of the Colossus), or perhaps the importance of God or some other deity’s creation/natural world (FFVII). But what you get, as with anything, doesn’t come in a 1:1 ratio from the creators; content becomes lost and is added from the developer to the player. It is in that way that the violence in games has its meaning in context, both game and player. It may not have meaning in your context, certainly, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t Christian in any way. That’s a straight-jacket on God.

If you’re playing a game for the joy of the challenge, and for the social aspects that come along with that challenge, or a beautiful aesthetic/story, then the violence within the story should have a moral character within the metaphysical construct of that game universe. And it doesn’t even have to be a moral message that the author intends – it can certainly be injected into what the game presents, as many blog posts here give substantial evidence to that effect. Certainly, I’m not going to be playing Carmageddon (wow, am I dating myself) or something like that any time soon, but with Final Fantasy VII? Absolutely.

There’s a resonance with the characters in the story and the situation in which they’ve been placed that doesn’t allow for another non-violent solution. To say that a Sephiroth-like personage would suddenly arrive in our time and place doesn’t even make sense to evaluate in moral terms from a Christian standpoint. When have we ever had an alien being visit with intentions to destroy us for reasons we can’t even begin to fathom? Better yet, have we had the ability to inject one of those persons with alien cells to create a hybrid super solider? It’s difficult to say what kind of standpoint we could take in that sense.

I’m not allowed to make Cloud Strife pursue non-violent solutions. Cloud attempts, throughout the game, to convince Sephiroth otherwise, but he won’t have it; he wants to destroy the Planet regardless to fulfill his own desires. What Christian response can there be to the destruction of the entire Planet?

There’s nothing in the Bible that would actually provide us with a reasonable and easy response to the idea of an alien invader, or a deranged madman set on world domination. In the same way that (as a friend and I discussed today) if there ever were a zombie apocalypse, it most likely wouldn’t happen in a way that anyone could possibly predict, how could we ever say that violence won’t, at some point, be the only response? Shall I turn the other cheek to our zombie invaders?

Forgive my hyperbole and stream-of-consciousness hypotheticals, but I am making a point here. The character enact violence because this is the solutions their worldview represents. They fight because if they don’t, the Planet will die, and everyone along with it. We, as a society, have had similar experiences in that path; it’s not much different than, let’s say, a World War II. It’s not so much a myth of redemptive violence, that violence solves anything once and for all, but that some conflicts must be fought, whether with the word or the sword. These were the reality for society at large. I’m not going to belabor the point by accusing the Allies and their enemies of dehumanization, but that is how wars are fought in mind and body.

Video games are framed around the concept of conflict and resolution, mental or physical. They require a challenge, whatever that might be. That video games haven’t become more diverse or creative in seeking less violent subjects over time owes more to the lowered expectations and market forces, but I think we gamers could demand a little more from our product creators with our wallets. Still, I don’t think it’s necessary to get rid of violence in games.

Do I think myself a hero? Not really. I’m just enjoying the mechanics and the challenge. When it comes down to it, a person who enjoys the game is first enraptured by the sights and sounds, and then the game itself. That’s where the interactivity truly forms a unique bond. It’s a relationship with a media product unlike any out there, and that is why its hosts such a unique community, especially those who aren’t of the more mainstream variety. In almost every case, the player inhabits a specific role, whether of a self-created identity or otherwise, and they merely fulfill that role. But the player has the right to decide what to do in that role, or to even accept it in the first place. That element of choice is unique.

If you can’t accept violent video games in a Christian way, fine, that’s your choice. But there’s much to be found that is exemplary, beautiful, human, and redemptive in even the most violent subject matter.

So, I ask, truly, whether or not violence in video games is alright for a Christian. I’d say, sure, why not? As much as it might be cliched to say “it’s just a game”, it is for most people. Real life is an entirely different matter.

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.
  • JWheels

    Good post, and I agree with most of it, but there are a few things to point out:
    First, genocide narratives are a real problem for our conception of God, but less so in light of the revelation of God in Christ; perhaps God sanctioned violence in the context of ancient Israel, but he did not in the context of civil society, which is (hopefully) where we live now.  At most from the OT we can get a sense that God can justify violence; it’s a pretty big stretch to say it advocates it.
    Second, not all games push the myth of redemptive violence, just as not all films, or even comic books, do.  The best games, films, books, etc., are those that can portray violence (and every other aspect of their story) vividly and realistically.  Take for example the rape scene in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: it was profoundly disturbing, and quite frankly, it should be.  Every portrayal of rape or violence should make me feel at least a little sick.  You pointed to GTA4 as an example, and though I haven’t played it, that’s the sense I got from its trailers and friends’ reviews; its gritty realism and tough choices are the exact opposite of the myth of redemptive violence (and I noticed that you said that you didn’t particularly enjoy it, either!).  On the other end of the spectrum are games like Carmageddon (you can’t be THAT old – or maybe I am too…) and Borderlands, where violence is portrayed as both fun and immediately rewarding; these games go beyond even the myth of redemptive violence to some absurdly unrealistic place.  It’s not surprising that these games were successful for reasons other than their depth – because they had none.
    Third, I’m impressed with the way that some games can create a reality in which violence is not only appropriate but it’s the only appropriate response; there was an excellent article about that recently at the PA Report:
    The situations you described above, as well as the world of The Last of Us and The Walking Dead and…well, just about every other game, some more than others – these are situations that demand violent responses.  But as I said, you can include just about every game you can think of in this category, which in itself is telling: why is it that almost every game demands a violent setting?Which brings us to my point: we seem to need violence in order to make games fun – and not just any violence, but justified, myth-of-redemptive-violence type violence.  Sure, not all games are like this: some go way too far (like Carmageddon); others (increasingly) portray violence in gritty and dark ways, as it should be portrayed; and very occasionally, there are really fun games that aren’t violent at all, or which allow violence to be one option in many.  I take comfort in the fact that we need to think up worlds and situations in which violence is the only option, because our own world doesn’t allow this worldview to seem realistic – but it makes me wonder why we spend so much time looking for a reason to be a hero.  Because whether or not we can trace all violent imagery back to Marduk, we can’t deny that there’s a strong pattern throughout our society of violence and violent heroism; and the fact that this is the height of our entertainment should make us reflect critically.Lastly, I want to say that violence alone should never be the deciding factor in whether or not Christians should play a game, watch a film, read a book (like the Bible), or partake in any other media.  Just because violence itself isn’t actually redemptive doesn’t mean that a story that includes violence cannot be.  My personal favourite games include Bioshock (which makes me sick to my stomach, but has intriguing concepts and powerful themes), Alpha Protocol (because you can go through the whole game without killing anyone, if you’re good enough – it’s always an option), and Mass Effect 2 (because you have to make difficult choices, and your character reflects the choices you’ve made).  These games are all very violent, and they all justify violence, but violence itself is not portrayed as the only option – or at least not a redeeming option.I think video games have come an awfully long way, and I think that gamers have too.  I think that self-awareness and critical appraisal of these issues is going mainstream; I just wonder if the general gaming audience is noticing.

  • I would hope I’m not saying God advocates violence all the time. But does the Hebrew Bible simply get thrown away afterward? I find that its significance to the early Christian conception of God seems too important to simply blacklist YHWH and call it a day, using whatever resources of human civilization neccessary to cut out the important questions. Violent conflict is never an easy decision (well, unless God was actually leading your armies), and it shouldn’t be. I think a pure pacifistic stance equals an attempt to remove ambiguities, the same way a totally conservative evangelical might support the United States in every militaristic endeavor. Either one takes it to an extreme that fulfills their own proclivities. In any case, I don’t want to present an easy answer to an impossible question.
    I would chalk up our violent games as a result of a sinful world (hey, a simple answer!). You could say, perhaps, that advances in technology have let us get beyond the “violent game” paradigm. But I think, even now, they’re still portraying things in the same light (see the new Tomb Raider) with a new and shiny coat of paint. We have to be very careful with this kind of move towards “realism” that basically dominated E3 coverage this year. At least modern games aren’t deceptive; the newer kind may give us the same thrills while blatantly justifying the violence through its narrative. Furthermore, those games which did have over-the-top violence are so realistic that, to some journalists, it was almost like a sort of blood-lust. God of War: Ascencion is pretty horrific, from my perspective. So games are really going both ways, and both in wrong directions if the next year will have anything to say.
    I have to say, though, I think the heroism might actually be a secondary component in some cases. I’ve met plenty of people just interested in playing games for fun or escapism or any number of other things. Perhaps as an outlet, yes, but also a bizarrely helpful aid in problem solving skills and reflexes (though it’s never going to train you how to use a gun). Or they may just accept the cultural training already given to them. To me, it more represents a lack of creativity, but bigger budgets mean they can’t take as many risks. Even indie games have violence, though. It’s a matter of balance, and I hope they’ll find it soon.

    • JWheels

       @viewtifulzfo Well said 🙂

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