Video games are an interesting, and often divisive, topic to bring up in a conversation among Catholics. Beyond the conflicting arguments of games being for kids, games being too violent or sexualised, I’ve often been told “Just don’t pick up the controller”. The implication is that grown men should not be playing video games, or that video games themselves are, and lead to, occasions of sin.
Since the 1980s, articles from leading publishers like The New York Times have written on the “evils” of gaming. Articles citing video games as being responsible for negative neurological effects, lack of sociability and even a major factor in obesity circulate widely. The sentiments raised by these articles continue to this day and are often still used by those who are not gamers themselves, including many Catholics.
Along with comic books, what was termed as “geek culture” in the 1990s has become more mainstream and accepted in Western culture. With thousands of video games being released on a yearly basis, the industry has generated higher annual revenue than any other form of entertainment. In a 2018 study by the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association (IGEA), it was found that 97 per cent of households with children have computer games, and 80 per cent of those own more than one game device[i].
Is this a good thing?
That depends on the video game and the player playing. Video games vary vastly, even within their various genres – from Tetris to Age of Empires to Mass Effect. The most popular of these are First Person Shooters (FPS), Role Playing Games (RPG) and sports games on PCs and consoles; puzzles and communal games dominate on smart devices. The most popular game in the world at the moment is Minecraft, wherein you are free to change the world around you and create whatever you can think of within the game.
Regardless of differences and genres, there are common themes to be found among all games, particularly around enjoyment and experience. Much like audiences once watched plays for enjoyment and catharsis, video games can expand a player’s experiences beyond what they might be capable of. When a gamer speaks of a game they played, they do not typically say “My character did this”, they say “I did this”.
Like reading a book, players can experience new worlds, engaging multiple senses – visual, auditory and kinetic. They can be emotional experiences. Allowing players the space to problem-solve and participate in teamwork, video games can promote creativity, sociability, and mental acuity. They can be extremely positive and enriching, but they can lead to negative experiences too.
Some of the negative reactions to talking about video games centres on the level of “player agency” – the capacity the player has to dictate how their character acts in the game world. Conflict in some video games is often brought about by killing, deception or lust, and that it is depicted so graphically, is the focal point of much consternation on the topic. Adding to this, video game addiction and toxic attitudes in online communities are known issues that are associated with gaming. These are real and problematic in the world of gaming because of the normative effect of exposure to these themes, but they aren’t exclusive to video games.
So, what do we do? As a tool, and a component of leisure, video games can be a fruitful instrument for the formation of a human person via interactive experiences of beauty. However, as with many other cultural phenomena, a poor formation and unhealthy approach to gaming can contribute to the negative outcomes sensationally reported by major media outlets.
According to the IGEA article, the average age of gamers in Australia is now 34. Sixty per cent of parents play video games with their children. Forty-four per cent of parents play online video games with their children, 84 per cent of parents have talked with a child about playing safely online and many adults play to keep their minds active. This illustrates the fact that as Catholics, we need not be afraid to be active and engaged with video games and video gaming culture.
Several of my friends are these parents who grew up with gaming culture; several of them game regularly with their children. The answer doesn’t lie in avoiding video gaming altogether, but experiencing it with our kids and helping them to form a mature and healthy relationship with gaming, like we do with sports, academic endeavours and social relationships.
I believe theologians should be taking video games seriously as an avenue to tell great stories and further share our faith. After all, Christ Himself taught with stories. Like Giotto, Aeschylus, Bach or Tolkien did in their own fields, the landscape is free for the exploration and development of video games and their relationship with beauty. From plays and speeches to the printing press and film, Christians have always used the most cutting-edge technology of the time to share their faith with others and give glory to God through the most beautiful creative works. The answer here isn’t to turn our backs on gaming and gamers, but work to understand and use it for the good, the true and the beautiful.
Words: Rian Galliott
Images: Pexels: Jessica Lewis; Unsplash: Kabita Darlami
Rian Galliott is a self-professed geek, and artist. Having spent 15 years in youth ministry between various parishes, and the Archdiocese of Sydney, Rian went on to complete an honours in Theology, and majored in philosophy during his undergraduate studies. Rian's thesis was on beauty and videogames, looking at the theological, philosophical and experiential encounter that a player may have in digital worlds.