You’ve heard the reasoning before from pastors, Christian authors, and maybe even people in your church: “video games aren’t sinful, they’re just stupid.” They grumble about what young men might accomplish if they devoted their gaming time to something productive or compare video game addiction to pornography. Unlike these voices and the many like them, popular Christian blogger, Tim Challies, says that video games are okay—good even—when played with discernment and moderation.
While Challies’ article represents a step forward in the church’s awkward relationship with video games, he makes a significant misstep in the process that needs to be corrected:
It’s possible to play games not merely as an escape from our unjust world, but as a means of longing for a better one.
Let’s be honest: There is little intrinsic value in gaming. For most of us it is merely entertainment.
Most people play video games because they are fun, and this is fine. Good, even. Where Challies falters is in his assertion that there is little value inherent in gaming. Challies himself doesn’t actually believe this. He goes on to encourage Christians to avoid the “bad” (as in “morally suspect”) games in order to “find many that are . . . beautiful, and at times even brilliant.” Beauty and brilliance are themselves intrinsic values. So what are some other values that belong naturally to gaming? The following list is not comprehensive, nor do these values apply comprehensively to all games—they are simply five values that are prevalent enough to be acknowledged by pastors, church leaders, and church members. Let’s begin with the one that Challies mentioned.
Video games are made by people who were fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). All games are made by people made in the image of God—people who, by their very nature, reflect God’s beauty. We should not be surprised, therefore, when digital worlds take our breath away. Nor should we be alarmed when digital spaces appear more interesting than our own.
We should certainly guard against the temptation to become so wrapped up in fantasy worlds that we neglect more pressing duties in the physical world. However, we should also guard against the hyper-rationalistic tendency of failing to long for a better world. Part of the reason that we tend to enjoy game worlds is because, in many ways, they are better than our own. We live in a world where wicked people often escape the consequences of their unjust actions while the innocent are oppressed. However, videogames are almost always fair. They present players with an absolute set of rules that come with immediate consequences. It’s possible to play games not merely as an escape from our unjust world, but as a means of longing for a better one. Our longing for the new heavens and new earth, a place where righteousness dwells, is crucial to a Christ-like perspective on the here and now.
Video games are inherently educational. Every time we play games we learn something about the world, ourselves, or even just about the game itself. Playing video games helps us develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, which in turn help us be happier, more productive people. They can also give us insight into the experiences of people across the globe. Sometimes, they can even expose us, forcing us to admit unhealthy attitudes or preconceived notions we have about others. Further, when we play games with others, we must learn how to handle losing and how to win graciously—video games can teach us humility.
Because games are developed by people made in God’s image, we should expect them to reflect His truth. As with everything else in creation, games reflect truth imperfectly. However, if we will play with discernment, they can deepen our perspective, appreciation, and engagement with the real world. Because video games are interactive, they can open our eyes to the experiences and perspectives of others. They have the power to shine light into the darkness of our hearts.
By putting us in the shoes of others and giving us agency, they help us cultivate empathy for the less fortunate and the marginalized. While it often feels like power fantasies are overtaking the industry—those very power fantasies are becoming more honest about the depravity of our world and our inability to bring peace with the sword. There are also a growing number of games that force us to acknowledge our weaknesses in helpful ways. Furthermore, because games are interactive, they often provide us safe spaces in which to grapple with difficult moral decisions. Like any other artistic medium, video games certainly do not always speak the truth and should be called out when they don’t. Nonetheless, we should ask for eyes to see and ears to hear when they do.
While we were created in the image of God, it is also important to recognize that we are physical creatures. Scripture tells us that our physical bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Jesus Himself was physically raised from the dead. Our bodies have intrinsic value; we should, therefore, take an interest in caring for them. Video games can help us do this.
Current research tells us that video games can relieve stress, improve brain function, stimulate our minds, and boost creativity. Game designer, author, and researcher Jane McGonigal says that gaming is the neurological opposite of depression. When people play video games, brain scans show the most active parts of the brain are the rewards pathway system, which is associated with motivation and goal orientation, and the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and memory. These are the two main parts of the brain that don’t activate when people are suffering from depression. It is important to note that these benefits dip significantly when we play for three or more hours a day. To truly tap into the health benefits of gaming, we must play responsibly.
Video games bring people together. They provide us with meaningful shared experiences in a world that often seems to be growing more isolated. The many intrinsic values of gaming are often deepened in the context of community. Video games train us to work together—to lean on one another’s strengths in order to solve problems we could not solve on our own. They also often help us understand each other. If you want to know what people are really like, try playing a game with them—you will soon see how they act under pressure, what they will do to win, and how they respond to unexpected challenges. And yes, as Challies rightly notes, they are a lot of fun. Some of my fondest memories growing up revolve around playing games with my brother and I’ve only just begun forging such memories playing games with my daughters.
I agree with Challies when he says, “So I say go ahead and play your games. Enjoy your games. Play them for the fun of exploring, conquering, experiencing, winning. Just play them like a Christian and you’ll be fine.” To play video games as a Christian, however, requires being honest and discerning not just about their content, but about their value. The entertainment games provide is just one of the many values intrinsic to interactive media. Let’s play games responsibly, with discernment and moderation, but let’s dig deeper. Let’s tap into the many values of games, and ask the Lord to open our eyes to values we’ve failed to see. In playing games Christianly, we may just become more self aware, more mindful of our neighbor, and more in love with our God.