I've played a lot of video games in my lifetime. When I was a boy my dad bought an Atari 2600---the one you could use to play Pong and that E.T. game everyone hated. I played video games until my college (and seminary) years, when I gave them up for my studies. When seminary was over, I started playing them again, more interested this time in how they might function as art. Seeing video games as art was, at least for me, a new concept, but today critics, players, art museums, and artists alike agree games can be studied this way. Since then, I've written about gaming for a number of ministry-oriented and mainstream outlets.
So far I have never struggled with addiction to video games, and I can't speak to the psychological research and theorizing. Instead, I simply wish to provide in this article some clarity and nuance for a subject too often considered in an alarmist context, especially within the church. Video games are a comparatively new medium, and as such they are the object of much skepticism and intrigue. Those who do not play games often view the medium as a waste of time at best and a corrupting influence at worst. Meanwhile, video game proponents---permanently on the defensive---make excuses for bad art and actual corrupting influences. We Christians must be truthful about these things, but neither side right now is telling the whole story.
In their article for CNN on the demise of guys, Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan point out that "research reported in the Annual Review of Public Health suggests a link between violent video games and real-life aggression: Given the opportunity, both adults and children were more aggressive after playing violent games." I will take them at their word. But then again, there are studies that make similar claims about watching television and, well, even reading violent Bible passages.
Still, these are not useless findings. They illustrate a problem inherent to an information- and entertainment-saturated culture: media affect us in ways we don't always understand, even if we ultimately determine that effect for ourselves. Each medium has unique dangers. But simply consuming entertainment media does not cause us to sin any more than eating idol-sacrificed food or hearing our next-door neighbor shout an expletive causes us to sin. God has expressly forbidden legalism in his Word for times such as these, when the benefits may outweigh the apparent dangers of a medium. Books can encourage both isolation and thoughtfulness; television can encourage passivity and empathy. With a certain amount of sober and vigilant reliance on the Holy Spirit and the truths of Scripture, many video games can provide insightful, even beneficial experiences.
It's a problem that video games tend to reward violence. Games should be more about play than success, experimentation than victory, discovery than dominance. Thankfully, the best (though admittedly not always the most financially successful) games leverage this truth, providing a way for the player to overcome obstacles through means other than violence, challenging the player to rethink his knee-jerk assumptions about the "enemy," and providing opportunities for discovery and exploration of other worlds and people. Even as blockbuster games become increasingly violent, these more beneficial qualities are slowly becoming more mainstream within the gaming industry.
Still, the quickest and easiest way to craft a compelling video game experience is to make it about killing enemies. As a result, video games are generally much more violent than other media. But the traditional "shooter" has reached a saturation point. Consumers are looking for something other than the latest Call of Duty. As a realistic optimist, I suspect they're looking for something more resonant with the human experience, something more mature. And now they are being offered such experiences. We have games that question the validity of violence, games that stress the importance of community, games about the loss of a loved one, and even games about our inability to attain redemption for ourselves. Video games grow more varied each day. Violence may always be a staple, but how that violence is portrayed may change for the better.
The charge that games are addictive has merit. Developers have mastered the ability to draw in the player for "one more game" with increasingly advanced techniques. One can only assume this trend will continue. Those who play games would be foolish to ignore this danger. As with alcohol, food, or reading, we must refuse to be mastered by anything (Rom. 6:16; 2 Pet. 2:19), preparing ourselves for inevitable temptations by establishing clear boundaries as necessary. If this sort of discipline is a particular weakness, it may be best to avoid games altogether.
Yes, video games are contributing to our crisis of a pervasive entertainment culture. Much of what we watch, listen to, and play encourages escapism. But the problem isn't so much with the medium as with the naïve and thoughtless ways we indulge ourselves. Neither blindly chasing "cool" video games nor stubbornly rejecting every new form of entertainment can protect us from our sinful disposition. What we choose to play, we must learn to responsibly engage.