The Bible does not address the subject of video games.
Understandable, since video games themselves were not actually created until 1958, in the form of a predecessor program to what was considered to be the real first Video Game, Pong, released in 1972. However, the Bible does have a lot to say about things like violence, edification, and things like that—primary arguments against playing video games from many Christian circles.
It’s strange to me that video games are so universally panned by the majority of Christianity while at the same time, you’d have to step into a pretty ultra-conservative Christian circle to find the same sort of disdain toward violent movies or TV shows anymore. Where these mediums of entertainment have become much more widely-accepted among Christians, it seems that all the blame for violence-inducing, reality-denying, secular compost and the baiting of mindless masses has been heaped on video games.
Why is that? And how should Christians relate to the widespread pastime of gaming?
There are several popular arguments I’d like to take a look at here, and the counter-arguments against them:
1. The Immersion Argument
An age-old argument against video games is that they are too immersive, and therefore too addicting. It is true that success while playing video games releases dopamine, which is a feel-good chemical in the brain…a sensation that people can become addicted to (interestingly, similar amounts of dopamine are triggered in women when watching movies and TV shows as are released in men when playing video games). According to the American Society of Addiction medication, addiction is defined by several sustaining factors: inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Summarily, several doctors narrow it down to two traits: The person needs more and more of a substance or behavior to keep him going; and if the person does not get more of the substance or behavior, he becomes irritable and miserable.
Among the people I know personally who have played video games, the ones who fall under any of these categories are negligible. While that by no means is indicative that video game addiction is a non-issue, it can’t be said that video games are addictive for everyone, or that every gamer is a compulsive one.
In many ways, playing video games is no different than watching movies, except that one controls the game’s hero—moving about the world, interacting with other characters, etc. While for some, this causes them to become more deeply immersed—and, yes, to even become addicted—there are just as many who can set down the controller and walk away at the drop of a hat; who can go for weeks or months without gaming, facing no irritability or withdrawal symptoms; who do not use gaming to escape from real-life problems; and who can also play video games without neglecting their job, household, marriage, family, etc. This suggests strongly that while video games can be immersive, the control one has over his or her own mind is a key factor here.
The argument of “if they can be addictive, why play them at all?” sounds good in theory, but doesn’t really stack up to how most people—even Christians—live their lives. Alcohol can also be addictive—yet it’s not something that most people describe as completely off-limits. It’s rather to be consumed in moderation.
Thus, someone who struggles with time management, or who has a natural tendency to become addicted to things, or to become neglectful of real-life responsibilities, should absolutely, sternly monitor and limit his or her time spent gaming. But for that same person, one might recommend closely monitoring their intake of other potentially addictive substances. The key for the gamer is to be sound-minded and in charge of their gaming habits, so as not to become a slave to what was once simply a means of entertainment. As Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians:
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything.– 1 Corinthians 6:12
2. The Kids & Games Argument
This is a big one. Arguments rage over whether or not kids should even play games…and if so, at what age, and for how long, and furthermore, what games? On and on.
Well, the pro-gaming parent can rest easy. Popular cognitive researchers of the modern day have come forward to express the proven health benefits of games…including increased hand-eye coordination, fine motor and spatial skills, problem-solving and logic capabilities, multitasking, puzzle-solving, strategy, perseverance, memory, concentration…and, yes, even real-world social skills (with the advent of online gaming, players can interact with others on the same platform as them, using team-building strategies to confront obstacles and create new worlds). There are also plenty of interactive games—both for the computer and console—that teach kids math, reading/writing, language arts, history, geography, and more…all in an interactive platform. These can be especially helpful for kids who struggle with learning disabilities, autism, etc. I’ve read many first-hand accounts of parents whose struggling students thrived when using a video-game based learning system where classrooms failed to hold their attention.
But it bears noting that the anti-gaming parents have valid points, as well. Too much screen time can result in headaches, incidental or even permanent ocular strain, and a sharp dip in social skills, depending on the individual circumstances.
So, there’s really no hard and fast rule for what games, how long, and at what age kids should be allowed to play. When it comes to kids and video games, it’s up to the parents, who know their individual child’s needs the best, to set healthy boundaries and to enforce when it’s time to play games and when it’s time to go outside, pick up a book, etc.
3. The Edification Argument
Another argument is that video games are empty, pointless, or add nothing edifying to the Christian’s life. While this was possibly true in the days of Pong and ET for the Atari, modern video games hardly fall under the same banner. With today’s plethora of games involving expansive worlds, in-depth characters, stunning graphics, and multi-layered plots, this argument no more holds up than the argument that because a movie or book is not “real-life,” no one can gain anything from it. The takeaway often depends on the person, and certainly on the game, but the time is long since past when all that video games offered was mindless entertainment—like knocking a ball between two paddles, and nothing more.
Nowadays, video games go above and beyond to deliver an experience that is not only interactive, but also intriguing and thought-provoking, leaving the gamer walking away with questions to answer about the facts of life. Like with any other entertainment platform, the consumers of video games won’t settle for heartless stories, empty characters, or pointless maneuvers. The argument of video games being void of any vital takeaway message through storytelling, characters, music, etc. is simply no longer true.
4. The Violence Argument
It’s also been said that violent video games rear violent people. And it’s true that many studies reflect increased aggression in those who often play violent video games. But is this correlation, or causation? Are violent games nurturing violent people, or are violent people seeking out violence in the things they imbibe?
While it is likely a bit of both, there has not been even one definitive study that can objectively and unarguably prove the former. And while violent people do tend to play violent video games—there’s no denying it!—they can also be said to watch more violent movies, keep company with equally violent people, and listen to more lyrically violent music.
Similarly, one can’t blame video games as a media platform for violence. While First Person Shooter (FPS) games such as Call of Duty, Mortal Kombat, or Grand Theft Auto may indeed stir up violent tendencies in some players, it’s debatable whether Harvest Moon—a game where a perpetually-smiling little farmer trots around planting vegetables, falling in love, and getting married—is chumming the waters to reel in the next mass shooter.
Also, as recently as 2017, studies conducted by such groups as Frontiers in Psychology have confirmed that no direct correlation could be found in the long-term between violent video games and violence in people; again, it depends on the individual.1 Thus, it is required that the individual be sensitive to his or her own limitations and whether the media they take in—no matter what it is—is adversely affecting them.
So, how should the Christian navigate this? Always sternly separate reality from fantasy. You may be able to charge in sword-swinging and kill a direwolf for your dinner in your game, but I don’t recommend making the attempt in real life. Nor should anyone walk away from a driving game thinking they can fly down the interstate at 105 mph with zero legal or physical ramifications.
In the same vein, it’s always good to consider whether the video game you’re playing hinges its story on acts of senseless violence or irredeemable selfishness to progress the plot. There are plenty of video games that elevate love, happiness, self-sacrifice, freedom of the enslaved, carving one’s own path, etc., without requiring unscrupulous acts of hatred or murder on the character’s part.
Killing, theft, bullying, and other ferocious acts are abundant in both the world around us, and in movies, video games, and TV. Whether it’s a character we’re playing, a character we’re watching, or a person we hear about in the news or see in our day-to-day activities, these egregious actions are never things we should seek to emulate in our own lives. While negative actions are a part of living in a fallen world, and certainly can be found in villains both real and fictional, discernment is vital. We don’t want to imbibe such copious amounts of negativity from any source—even the news!—that we then become depressed or disheartened, or even find ourselves resorting to violent thoughts as a first reaction when something goes wrong in life. This kind of knee-jerk tendency toward a violent response is a pretty good metric for all people, not just gamers, that their intake of the negative needs to be brought into check.
5. The Empathy Argument
It’s been said that video games make one less empathetic. While, certainly, there are video games where women are objectified, where death and carnage are glorified, etc., and this can cause the player to become less sensitive to these things, it really depends on the game. This is not a universal trait of all video games. A story of a father searching for his lost daughter or a king trying to save his kingdom can tug at the heartstrings and actually stir up empathy, whether seen in a movie like Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia, or played out in a video game. And if one subscribes to the belief that immersion in video games is so much higher than in other platforms of entertainment, one must also admit that the empathetic factor would have to be higher when playing as a character who struggles through loss, self-doubt, and redemption as opposed to watching this journey in a movie or reading it in a book.
At the end of the day, video games are a form of entertainment. They’re a way for many to unwind, relax, and visit a world not their own. It’s something we all do in one way or another; some prefer to go out for drinks with friends. Others might choose to curl up with a book. Some turn on Netflix or a football game. But it’s fairly well-understood that not one of those groups is so vastly judged as being “outside the Christian norm” as gamers. Which is really unfair to them.
What About Gaming Disorder?
In 2018, the World health Organization (WHO) officially added “Gaming Disorder” to their classifications, pouring new life into the debate about whether video games are inherently a bad influence. But do the findings support that belief? The WHO website has this to say about Gaming Disorder:
Gaming disorder is defined in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as a pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.
For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months.
Studies suggest that gaming disorder affects only a small proportion of people who engage in digital- or video-gaming activities. However, people who partake in gaming should be alert to the amount of time they spend on gaming activities, particularly when it is to the exclusion of other daily activities, as well as to any changes in their physical or psychological health and social functioning that could be attributed to their pattern of gaming behaviour.
When it comes to the subject of Gaming Disorder, once again it’s not a blanket issue; it’s a case-by-case basis. While no one can deny that the enjoyment of success and challenge among other elements in video games can be addictive, healthy boundaries, moderation, and prioritization of what’s really important in one’s life can keep gaming from becoming an unhealthy pastime—or even a disorder.
What seems clear to me—both from research and personal observation—is that video games, like any media, are not themselves inherently bad. But like any book we read, TV show or movie we watch, or even the company we keep, we must set healthy boundaries for ourselves. If a gamer indulges in games that overflow with sex, violence, and anarchy, or games that glorify the bad and defame the good, that will have an effect on the mind; and if a parent allows a child free, uninhibited rein to play for hours on end any game they want, including age-inappropriate ones, this can certainly lead to both physical and mental struggles. Similarly, if a person is putting his or her gaming time ahead of family time, before God, or in a place of idolization in their heart, something needs to change. No way around that.
But replace the words “video games” or “gaming” in these scenarios with anything else—sewing, drawing, writing, watching movies, hiking, drinking, sex, etc.—and the same holds true. Anything done to excess, anything idolized, and of course, anything imbued that is not edifying, will be detrimental. The fact remains that video games are not in themselves more “evil” than any other media input; and the scientific facts are that there are cognitive benefits to these things. It bears repeating that there are video games with edifying plots, even if they are not what one would consider “Christian games”, i.e. based on a story straight from the Bible; just as there are other forms of media with good moral lessons that are not specifically based in Christianity.
In the end, as in all things, it behooves the Christian gamer to make wise choices about the content of the games they play and moderate their gaming time based on what’s beneficial vs. detrimental to them. This almost always means listening to those around us to be sure that we’re not harming them in some way with our habits—which is a key sign that we’re out of balance. Our feelings can deceive us, but the impact of our gaming time on our friends and family can very much tell us if we are out of moderation in the time and energy we expend on games.
Ultimately, before God and loved ones both, Christian gamers are required to keep their hearts and heads in line; and, as always, to make certain that nothing, not even the 20XX Game of the Year, is taking the rightful place of God on the throne of his or her heart.