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.