I am a Christian.
It took me a long time to say that on this blog. Not because I’m ashamed of the fact, nor that I’m unsure of it, but because I was worried about being perceived as something I’m not. Afraid of being improperly categorized due to someone’s preconceived notions of what that label means. And let’s not pretend that it doesn’t happen. Simply by saying the word “Christian” I’ve placed a picture in your mind of someone, or an idea of someone, based on your past experiences or education. Same as if I were to say “Cowboy” or “Blue Collar” or “Politician”. Those words carry with them pictures, attitudes, and the temptation to reach down into the toolbox, pull out the broad brush, and paint an entire landscape of individuals with the same color. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s how the human brain makes sense of the world. The problem is, even within our own specific category, we’re not all the same, are we? There are some Cowboys that even other Cowboys, true Cowboys, don’t want to be associated with. Like Roy Rogers.
As one who believes what Jesus taught about morality and love, I do my best to treat everyone with the same respect afforded to any of God’s creation. Over the last 15-20 years, I do feel much more compassion towards people than I did as a cynical, jaded Gen-X teenager. I think that speaks to a softening of my heart as well as an accumulation of wisdom. Doing so has led me to open up and interact with many, many gamers with whom I disagree on a great many issues, and I value those friendships that I’ve forged. But when I see another gamer who is also a Christian, especially one who walks the talk, I gravitate towards that individual. Sharing a worldview as well as a preferred hobby results in an instant brother/sisterhood that is difficult to explain. It’s not just what we do, but who we are that is relatable.
Another reason I pay close attention to other Christians in the gaming community is that I’m interested in how they do it. By “it” I mean, how do they balance an incredibly time-consuming hobby not only with normal, everyday responsibilities, but also with a lifestyle that is supposed to put our relationship with God above everything else. Many gamers struggle just with the former! I’m in that category, as well. In all honesty, I’m embarrassed to say that my time gaming far outweighs the time I set aside for prayer and study. And by “outweighs”, I mean like, hours a day. And it’s not ok. Even within the Christian community, we don’t usually talk about how much time we actually devote to deepening our relationship with Christ. I suspect that with my generation, the numbers are strikingly low. If a fellow gamer has been able to crack that particular nut, maybe that person has a few pearls of wisdom for those of us who struggle to put aside the distractions. And so, I observe. The truth is, the Christians in the gaming community are pretty quiet (more on this later). So when I came across the cleverly named Waiting for Rez blog, which includes the bold tagline “A peculiar mix of MMO gaming and Christianity”, I was intrigued.
Over the several months that I followed WFR’s author Ironweakness on Twitter, and through occasional visits to his blog, I developed a fondness for both his intelligent writing style and his frankness about life, both spiritual and non. While our taste in games didn’t overlap tremendously, Ironweakness was incredibly diligent about publishing posts and seemed able to balance content creation with other aspects of his life – something with which I have also struggled lately. Then a few days ago, a post appeared on Waiting for Rez that left me with mixed emotions. Ironweakness, upon taking stock in his current life situation, had discovered that he was neglecting several aspects of his life in favor of gaming and blogging. In particular, two sentences caught my attention:
My relationship with Jesus Christ has also suffered as I’ve worshiped at the altar of my Steam account rather than at the foot of the cross. This more than anything else has crippled me spiritually, mentally, and socially. – Ironweakness
Sadly, none of this comes as a surprise to me, and shamefully, I can relate to it pretty well. But, it causes me to pause and reflect on the difficulty of dedicating your life to your faith while participating in a hobby that’s very design is to pull you in and keep you engaged for large chunks of time. The more I try to reconcile the two and find examples of success, the more I wonder how compatible they truly are.
It’s not just the immense time commitment and temptation to push more important things aside, either. Over the last few years, I’ve suppressed several red flags that, individually don’t seem like much of a problem, but collectively, could point to a larger issue. For example, I’m occasionally bothered by Paul’s warning in I Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” I don’t think that video games are inherently childish – well, no more than most other forms of entertainment, anyway – but there certainly is a lot of childish behavior associated with them. One needs to go no further than the mind numbing “real gamer” debates that pepper YouTube comments and Reddit threads to concede this. Gamergate, outcries for social justice and equal representation, gender superiority/inferiority, journalism/company bashing…it all begins to remind me of driving my four kids around in the back of the minivan. The constant snipping and fighting serves as an annoying distraction to the actual goal: watching the road. If the two sides to #gamergate were my kids, I would have sent them both to their rooms. Is this how I should be spending my free time? Watching groups of cyber-ites getting whipped up into a frenzy over words? Even without the biblical nudge it can be enough to erode my interest. On the other hand, JRR Tolkien, a Christian and a much smarter man than I, was famous for extolling the virtues of fantasy for adults:
…I do not assent to the depreciative tone. That the images are of things not in the primary world (if that indeed is possible) is a virtue, not a vice. Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent. – JRR Tolkien
And, in fact, if we are the sub-creators that Tolkien thinks, then isn’t our desire to create a story, a struggle between good and evil, simply a reflection of us being made in the image of God, the only true creator? This would seem to support my earlier musing that it’s not the games that are childish, but the players.
Probably around a year ago, Izlain put out an episode of Couch Podtatoes about religion in gaming. He specifically tweeted at me looking for guest volunteers. Likewise, not long after my Beyond Bossfights episode with Murf, he also sent me a message wondering if I’d like to talk about religion in games. I declined both times, for a couple of reasons. First of all, while I’ve been a Christian for a long time, I don’t feel qualified to be the voice of Christianity within the gaming community. I’m not sure that anyone would see me that way, but in the absence of other voices it seemed a possibility to me. I simply don’t have it all figured out. Secondly, while I’m pretty good at taking a high-level, academic view of some things, my faith is not one of them. Atheists, while highly principled and very passionate about their unbelief, are not necessarily defined by their atheism, and therefore can take a more distant and academic stance. As a Christian, my faith doesn’t just define me, it is me. It’s hard to not take attacks on my faith personally because my faith is, in fact, personal. I don’t mean to say that Izzy and Murf were planning to ambush me – in fact I’ve found them both to be very gracious and respectful human beings. Instead, I don’t trust myself to remain calm and impartial while discussing a subject with so many potential hot buttons. And then, what kind of representative would I be? The last thing I want to do is inadvertently feed into one of those stereotypes I alluded to at the start of the post.
During Izzy’s Couch Podtatoes show, I remember them talking about how religion is represented within games. For the most part, the panel on the show, none of whom described themselves as traditional Christians, had difficulty bringing to mind many examples of this. I remember my head exploding with examples while listening to the conversation. Perhaps it’s selective attention (when you notice something more often than others because you’re unconsciously looking for it), but I find examples of, or allusions to religion in gaming all the time. Most often, the depictions are that of either wacko naïve cult followers, or those with evil and power-grabbing intentions. For example, I stopped playing Bioshock Infinite because of religious imagery that didn’t sit well with me. At the beginning of the game, the player is forced into baptism by a group of creepy robed cult-like followers. It’s an obvious imitation of the Christian sacrament. The plot of The Binding of Isaac is that of a little boy trying to escape from his over-zealous, religious, murderous mother. Assassins Creed posits that Adam and Eve were visited by a spaceship in the Garden of Eden instead of God, and features as antagonists the Knights Templar, who represent leadership based on faith. The Children of Atom in Fallout literally worship the radiation that is killing them. Heck, even Civilization V insinuates that the genesis of a faith is rooted in man (and used as a means of crowd control) and not a direct connection with and attempt to understand our relationship with God. While I still play and enjoy several of these games, the undercurrent is always there. I struggle to think of an example of when a religion, especially Christianity, is depicted as a peaceful and positive influence. Honestly, I’m not as offended by this as I am wary of how others will perceive Christianity in light of the overwhelming “evidence” that religion is filled with power-hungry psychopaths. We’re bombarded with such a humanist-centric viewpoint from all angles, from academia to entertainment. And, the more we’re presented with viewpoints, even subtle ones, that align with a specific worldview, the more we accept that worldview as correct. Just as importantly, what are these repeatedly reinforced stereotypes doing to me? Are they helping my faith, or hurting it?
Lastly, I wonder if the gaming community is compatible with my faith. This is a bit tricky, because I realize that my “community” is somewhat curated and not fully representative. Even so, I’ve always thought that it was healthy to look at other viewpoints that don’t necessarily align with your own, so my feed is not limited to those who openly agree with me on Twitter. In fact, with only some exceptions, I’d venture to say that a majority of gamers I follow disagree with me on some fundamental issues. The only instance of somebody blocking me (that I know of) happened after exchanging a string of tweets with someone I disagreed with on a matter of faith. I had felt that the discussion was fairly measured, but I guess he didn’t feel the same. While some of the Christians on twitter are fairly transparent about it, many choose not to address their faith in an open forum. I’m not being critical; as you remember from my podcast opportunities, I’ve had times where I’ve chosen silence, also. I’m sure there are varying reasons for making this choice, but I’ve got to think that at least one of those reasons is the pressure to remain non-confrontational and inoffensive. It’s very easy to offend people nowadays with the most mundane statement, let alone a tweet that mentions God or Jesus Christ. Wait, you’re offended right now, aren’t you? Great, now I’m offended! But I do know they’re out there. I know because I’ve had private messages from them. I think it says something that the world’s largest religion feels forced into silence within the gaming community.
While I don’t encounter a lot of direct disagreement on social media, casual, sarcastic, and disparaging messages about religion or Christianity are a daily occurrence. Even more common are the tweets with the well-intentioned messages that reveal the fact that for most of us, God is completely removed from the picture. Believe in your friends. Believe in science. Believe in the goodness of humanity. Believe in yourself. While superficially encouraging, is it truth? Is it where I should be placing my faith? As with the repeated religious messages in games, how many times do I have to see the implication that God is dead before I start accepting it as normal? Again, I’m not offended by any of this, nor am I calling on anyone to change their behavior online or anywhere else. I’m simply wondering out loud if, as a Christian, I’m being responsible with my own time and talents.
A comment that I often hear when asking these types of probing questions about games is that they are no different than other forms of entertainment (I even used this comment above, see how common it is?). I think in some ways this is true. But video games have always felt…kind of different. They are designed to be addictive. While this is also true of television and fiction (leave them wanting to start the next chapter/episode), I don’t think of sports or music or stamp collecting as being specifically designed to “hook you in and keep you playing”. Video games are also designed to be social – multiplayer games specifically. Even single-player games have been made more social in the form of enthusiast websites, forums, and podcasts. The added social pressure to continue playing is sometimes strong enough to keep players coming back long after the game itself has lost its entertainment value. So, no, I don’t think that gaming is exactly like every other hobby in how it relates to my faith. I think it’s inherently more tempting to spend hours upon weeks upon years neglecting more noble pursuits while escaping into the immersive virtual worlds of gaming. Granted, the choice to do so is ultimately mine, which brings us full circle to the title of this post.
And the answer is: I don’t know. But the fact that I’m even asking does concern me.