Thinking Biblically about Violence in Gaming

An Old Topic Is Renewed In Light of Recent Gaming Releases

As gaming has become more mainstream, the subject of violence in video games is not as prevalent as it once was. Many game companies are striving for more realism as a way to stand out amongst competitors. One of the most anticipated, and now divisive, games of 2020, The Last of Us Part II, once again renewed an old discussion about “How should Christians approach violence in gaming from a biblical perspective?” I’ve played many violent games without hesitation and struggled with figuring out a biblical “limit” to violence in gaming.

Most believers will have different convictions in regards to gaming violence but all Christians, at minimum, should pray through and consider how we play differently than unbelievers. We as believers must “. . .work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13 ESV) It is easy for believers to think, “it’s just fantasy, this is not causing me to stumble” but I would propose that we should think deeply on how Christians should play any game.

Mortal Kombat’s Fatalities are usually what comes to my mind when I think of video game violence. In a finishing move, a character may rip out an opponent’s spine or perform some other gruesome death in order to create shock. As best as I can describe it, the developers are trying to elicit a pleasurable disgust from its players. Often players, especially with friends, will laugh with glee at how gory and violent a Fatality or similar execution can be done in a game. A Kotaku interview that was published around the time of Mortal Kombat 11, detailed the amount of dark content that was viewed by the employees working on the project. An excerpt from the article reads:

“You’d walk around the office and one guy would be watching hangings on YouTube, another guy would be looking at pictures of murder victims, someone else would be watching a video of a cow being slaughtered,” they said. “The scary part was always the point at which new people on the project got used to it. And I definitely hit that point.”

https://kotaku.com/id-have-these-extremely-graphic-dreams-what-its-like-t-1834611691

The same interviewee noted he would also hate going to sleep because of the violence and gory that he would see in his dreams. We as believers must guard our hearts and ask the Fatherly regularly if we are letting our entertainment affect us in a negative way. Gaming violence is fantasy but it CAN cause us to be desensitized to real violence, or worse, it can also plague our thoughts.

The violence in The Last of Us Part II is meant to be as real and difficult as possible. TLOU2 has given names to minor enemies and they mourn their fallen comrades. It seems to be humanizing death and making us think more about how trivially we have approached killing in gaming. Stealth kills take time to execute, gurgling noises are heard, and the cutscene kills are nauseatingly realistic. No doubt, there is some intended shock value but there is also a subtle message of, “you should not enjoy this.” The entire story of the game is “what does violence/revenge cost us?” As believers this could actually push us to be introspective and consider our own intentions within our entertainment. The intent between MK and TLOU2 are vastly different though they are both intensely violent.

There are some games we are allowed to choose as to whether we are violent in a given situation. Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2’s campaign was recently remastered for the PS4 and Xbox One. With this remaster came the notorious campaign level called, “No Russian.” In this mission you play an undercover operative that has infiltrated a Russian terrorist cell who attacks a civilian airport. You can choose to participate in the slaughter, you can walk the entire mission without firing on civilians, or the game actually offers you the ability to skip it without affecting trophies or the campaign. Did Infinity Ward cross the line or was art reflecting a reality of the life world we live in?

Violence in games comes in various degrees with various intentions which is why it is so important to investigate games through the ESRB website or other reputable review outlets. Is there a level of violence so severe that a believer should not play it despite the story, authorial intent, or enjoyment? After struggling with this question for months, I was blessed with some clarity when I listened to a 2015 episode of The Reformed Gamers Podcast, episode 41. In the episode, Adam and Logan discuss and ultimately come to the conclusion that morality in video games do not equate to morality in life. Murder in a video game (and other sins depicted in gaming such as theft) are not inherently sinful, primarily because sin always comes back to the heart and our own intentions.

Violence in gaming does not equate to violence in life and therefore we do not sin by participating in it.

We do not break the “Thou Shalt Not Murder” commandment when no real life is lost, unless we do so out of hate or anger (Matthew 6). We really only sin when the violence in gaming is leading us into real world violence or we allow it to affect us spiritually or mentally, as in the case of the aforementioned Mortal Kombat employee. We must be sure to not allow fantasy violence to invade our own personal fantasties. If Mortal Kombat or the TLOU2 is giving us ideas on how to be violent towards our neighbor, despite if we’d actually act on it, we are in sin.

We must listen to the conviction of the Holy Spirit in this regard. Each of us will have a “line in the sand” that we cannot cross. I don’t know a specific criteria for what is “too much” but “I will know it when I see it” if I am walking with the Father closely. We have to ask God, “Does this game, or my attitude towards this game, dishonor the Father? Is this affecting my soul?” We need to be prepared to hear an honest answer from him and walk away from certain games, or TV shows, when He makes that line clear to us.

Let’s continue the discussion in the comments. How do you navigate violence in games and what are some major turn-offs for you?

2 thoughts on “Thinking Biblically about Violence in Gaming

  1. A great piece, although I do believe the nuance moves further. What is it in the heart that is willing to even participate in ‘fantasy’ murder? Would not the Christian be more encouraged to enjoy ‘fantasy’ good? Not all killing is equal, as much as not all ‘fantasy’ killing is equal. For instance, fighting off enemies in a simulation (as all games are, when we get down to it) is different to killing randies.

    I wholly agree that how people engage media is deeply important to how they practice biblical attitudes, because if we’re going to recognize that all things are the Lords are therefore respectable of, well, our respect, then that can include the games we play, but it can be difficult as the gaming community expands into more and more RPG elements (the whole, “play as a good or bad person” schtick).

    Can Christians play violent games? For sure. The Christian walk is a violent one, whether through explicit acts of defending our fellow man against hateful people, or fighting tooth-and-nail against sin in our lives, the Christian walk is violent, but it is also patient, quiet, and loving, and finding that balance is very difficult. Some people don’t quite have that balance, and honestly one can learn who they are simply by playing games with them.

    I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but at my church I kick some major butt at Halo LAN parties, but I honestly can’t enjoy winning because there were times that one or two members who would play were so vitriolic about their loss that it was clear they were playing the game with a wrong heart (and no, I wasn’t trash talking! I hate that!!). At that point, we need a Christian brother to check one-another’s hearts, and sometimes you can see that best during competitive experiences (you know, like playing a violent game like Halo).

    Like

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