Virtual Discernment

Mixed Media

Popular reactions to video games have been wide-ranging. Some claim it was violent video games that led Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to kill their classmates at Columbine High School. In contrast, Steven Johnson writes about the many intellectual benefits that video games provide.

Others point out the dangers of addiction, citing reports of gamers playing for days or weeks at a time. Game designer Jane McGonigal argues that if the same energies and talents that gamers develop while playing video games were put to real world problems, we might be able to solve world hunger, oil shortages, and international pandemics.

These arguments highlight the complexity of figuring out the proper uses of technology. Technology and media are not neutral; they shape worldviews, habits, and virtues, for better or worse. Should I be playing “Grand Theft Auto”? “Call of Duty”? “Words with Friends”? “Angry Birds”? These questions cannot be easily dismissed as virtual, unreal, and inconsequential.

Answering with thoughtful discernment can be overwhelming. Often we get lulled into not thinking too deeply about this “stuff.” But becoming numb to these questions can soon turn us into cynics and passive consumers. How do we remain people of hope and love, engaging our culture?

First, talk about and engage video games on their own terms. Play video games, ask others questions about the games they play, and learn the language to talk about gaming without prejudice.

Second, take an aesthetic approach. The tendency of Christians is to jump straight to morality when it comes to stories and actions in video games. We tend to see puzzle games and simple games as morally neutral, while assuming that first-person shooters and complex story lines are more morally problematic. Games are a visual, audio, participatory, storied medium; we have to take into account all of these dimensions.

Finally, take a more balanced approach. Extreme reactions and hyperbole will not draw us into dialogue with one another. Popular culture often can segregate us generationally. We need to move from a stance of quick judgments toward that of a discerning conversation. In this way the church can come together in community, appreciate the gifts and interests of each member, and carefully journey toward a more Christ-like way of life.

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