What do you know about video games, and perhaps more importantly, what do you suspect?
Did you know they are the most consumed form of entertainment in the world? The combined hours go far beyond those spent watching TV or movies, to say nothing of reading. Did you know the average gamer is 35 and nearly half of them are women, with more 30-something women than teen boys? Did you know that for roughly equal revenue, game production costs about a quarter of a movie while requiring a fraction of the manpower?
Depending on your point of view such statistics are horrific or ho-hum. If your only experience with games has been the trench warfare of managing your child’s screen time then you might see them as proof of a creeping scourge, a poison in the modern media mix. On the other hand if you grew up on games like Myst, mesmerized by fantastic worlds as detailed, compelling, and moral as Narnia, Rakhat, or Middle Earth you may be the type who’s hidden your Halo in church while knowing these numbers already.
Are video games a curse or a blessing?
A sin, a sacrament, or something in-between?
Consider another time and another medium. It’s 1931 and movies are exploding in popularity as the Great Depression rages. Demand outstrips supply year after year and an eager producer at Twentieth Century Fox writes to a dozen evangelical colleges begging them to send talented, Biblically grounded writers to create good and wholesome movies. Months go by and his plea goes unanswered except for one dean who writes, “I’d rather send my students directly to Hell than see them stop in Hollywood along the way.” Thus is sealed the next century of the media juggernaut that becomes the most culturally influential force in human history. In hindsight many of us see an enormous error. We see an anecdote that needs only a dozen heartbreaking words to crystalize a tragic miscalculation that we are still suffering for today.
Those pious college presidents judged a new medium because they didn’t understand it. They walked away from a blossoming art form because it was messy – populated and patronized by people unlike themselves. They had no notion that a film could touch their hearts, fill their souls, or call them to great virtue, an experience we’ve all lived through and found to be deeply formative. Likely their only experience was to quarrel with their children who clamored endlessly to attend the “sinema.”
…There but for the grace of God go we.
Ready or not, interactive entertainment, AKA gaming, is the Hollywood of tomorrow. It will be the dominant cultural medium for the next century and it’s taking shape right now before our eyes. How can we, as the Church, learn from our past and do better than we did in the 30s? Or will we repeat the error, turn our backs on gaming and abdicate another cultural battlefield to the World?
In C.S. Lewis’ 1945 essay “Christian Apologetics” we may find a bit of guidance.
“The difficulty we are up against is this…the moment have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted…What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects, with their Christianity latent…Our business is to present that which is timeless…in the particular language of our own age. … must be timeless at its heart and wear a modern dress.”
And more from John Gardner who writes, “…all art is, at its core, moral.” Its function in society is to educate, presenting “…valid models for imitation.”
If we are to do better we must first understand and embrace the role of art in the Kingdom of God, specifically that at its best it is not primarily evangelistic but rather apostolic. Which is to say it evokes, demonstrates, and articulates a particular culture. It provides us questions to ponder as opposed to answers to accept. Heavenly art provides us with a moral vocabulary as we witness both good and evil, wisdom and folly, beauty and ashes, all set for us to behold and reflect upon. Dorothy Sayers famously quipped that the church has never made up its mind about art but we must make peace with art’s intrinsic mystery if we are to avoid the Hollywood mistake.
Second, we must recognize that gaming is a legitimate and maturing art form and no longer merely a technology for distraction. Roger Ebert said, “Video games can never be art until one makes me cry.” I invite you to play That Dragon Cancer if you have any doubt that this threshold has been broken at a sprint, and not by one game but by dozens.
With that said, allow me to return to the idea of video games as a modern apologetic. Lewis’ call for “more little books…wear a modern dress” could hardly be better fulfilled than by the variety, reach, and ubiquity provided by games. What’s more, there has never been a medium more able to pivot, adapt, and speak to any particular moment, “becoming all things to all people,” like games. As a medium of communication, as an art form pregnant with kingdom opportunity, interactive entertainment today is exactly where film was in the 30s. If that pleading producer were writing today, would we seize the moment and answer the call? Or would we wag our fingers because gamers are “weird?”
Assuming the best response, and to set appropriate expectations, we must not take the challenge as a simple matter of products. We must reject the temptation that whispers “If we just make one great Christian game/movie/song, we’ll retake the Entertainment Mountain!” Be certain this is not a product matter, it is a culture matter. We must locate, disciple, and nurture creators and artists. We must support the development and growth of the Leonardos, Michelangelos, and Durers of gaming today and thereby enable the creation of hundreds of “little games,” of every genre, truly excellent in form and function, with Christianity latent and thereby irresistibly winsome.
Indeed, this is the work of a generation and countless investments, but take heart. Loren Cunningham suggests the gospel only needs to take root in 10% of a culture before it reaches a self-sustaining critical mass from which it can continue to grow. Recalling the last statistic from above, the entire game industry has been estimated to consist of roughly 50,000 people. A tithe of that, Cunningham’s critical mass, is 5,000 disciples or just one medium-sized urban church.
It’s a big goal, but it’s a doable goal. It is my goal.
Recognizing gaming as the Hollywood of tomorrow is a critical first step and I’m glad to say we’ve made enormous strides the last several years. I’m no longer chided for games being “of the devil.” Embracing gaming despite our discomfort is where we are today and I have reasons to be optimistic. Planting that field with seed enough for a mighty harvest is what lies before us.
I pray the Lord sends workers to this field.