(I recommend that you read Part 1 of this article first)
A mighty warrior girds on his sword and shield and prepares for the great battle. Today is the day. The evil, multi-headed dragon has been taunting the world long enough, wreaking havoc on everyone in his path. Now comes the day of reckoning. Now comes the defeat of the raging beast.
Am I talking about this scene from the book of Revelation in the Bible?
Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. . . .
And war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they did not prevail, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil and Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Revelation 12:3-4, 7-9)
Well . . . I certainly could be talking about that scene from the Apocalypse . . . .
Or . . . I could be talking about a scene that hundreds of thousands of adults, teens, and children enjoy every day: fighting dragons, demons, and other monsters in popular online role-playing games such as Runescape and World of Warcraft.
So . . . then . . . if the content in many video games is so similar to stuff that’s in the Bible, why do so many Christians think the Bible is great and video games are terrible?
I don’t know. As I said in Part 1 of this article, if the Bible were a video game, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) would have to give it a rating of AO: Adults Only because of all the sex and violence in it.
But as I also said in Part 1, this does not mean that the Bible is a bad book. Rather, it means that the Bible is a complex book written by adults, for adults, covering both the best and the worst of human experience, and putting it all in the context of our relationship with God.
Are video games bad or good?
So . . . then . . . why are video games so bad?
I don’t accept the premise of the question.
In fact, I believe that video games are good.
Yes, as I said in Part 1, some people go overboard and spend way too much time playing video games. And yes, some video games really are awful.
But do we as a society say that books are bad because some people spend way too much time reading, and because some books are really horrible?
Video games and online gaming are one of the ways that we modern, technological humans work out in our minds some of the same big issues that the Bible brings us face-to-face with.
The prime reason that video games are condemned both by conservative Christians and by politically correct liberals is that they are chock full of all the things you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company: weapons, fighting, violence, war; sexuality, scantily clad women, relationships of questionable morality. (Though really, the vast bulk of popular video games are quite prudish when it comes to sexual content.)
There are many different types of video games. And many of them are not violent at all. But the ones that get the most criticism are the ones that are most violent. So let’s take a closer look at violence in video games.
What about violence in video games?
What do you think about:
- Driving around in a car loaded with missiles, machine guns, and bombs, systematically destroying everything and everyone in your path?
- Stalking city streets and abandoned buildings armed to the teeth, looking for others to shoot, and getting rewarded every time you kill someone else before they kill you?
- Getting together with a big team of friends and going out onto a blasted battlefield where the goal is to kill everyone on the opposing team before everyone on your side dies?
- Going out into forests, fields, or dungeons killing every person and animal you see, both strange and familiar, and racking up more and more rewards the higher your kill count goes?
Millions of adults, teens, and children enjoy doing these things every day in single-player video games and in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) such as World of Warcraft and Runescape.
Isn’t that wrong?
Isn’t that very wrong, inhuman, disturbing, and disgusting?
If it were taking place in real life, yes.
But it’s not. It’s taking place in a game. Nobody is actually getting hurt. It’s all pixels and lines of computer code.
And that is a critical difference.
Is imaginary violence the same as real violence?
Have you ever murdered someone in your mind? Someone you were ripping mad at? Or have you ever had sex with someone in your imagination? Someone you find very attractive and alluring, but who would never in a million years consent to have sex with you?
If so, then assuming you didn’t go ahead and do it, what’s the difference between you and a murderer? What’s the difference between you and a sex offender?
The critical difference is: You didn’t actually do it. You only thought about doing it. And we are charged only with the things we actually do, not the things we just imagine doing.
Video games are not real life. They are worlds of the imagination. Video games project realms that exist in the human mind onto a screen where we can see, hear, and virtually participate in things that we otherwise could otherwise only fantasize about.
Most gamers who have killed thousands of other players in online games have never actually killed another human being. And no gamers who have slain multi-headed dragons thousands of time in online games have ever actually felt the heat of a dragon’s fiery breath on their skin in real life, mastered their fear, and advanced toward it anyway, sword in hand, to vanquish the evil beast.
But in their minds they have.
And that is where all the action takes place: in the human mind.
What do video games do for the human mind?
Video games and online games are mindscapes. To understand their popularity and power, we must look at what they are doing in the minds and spirits of the people who regularly inhabit these terrains of human imagination and spirit.
Yes, of course: Computer games are fun! That’s why people love to play them.
But there’s more to it than that.
Like the Bible, video games and online games are written by humans, for humans. (I happen to believe that the Bible is also divinely inspired, but that’s a topic for a different article.) Every single scene in every single computer game is a product of the human imagination, and is experienced in the human imagination. And since the digital landscape is a place where anything can happen but nobody actually gets hurt, it is a “place” where we humans are free to engage all of our deepest drives, desires, fears, and aspirations in a relatively safe environment.
And the beauty of it is that even though these scenes are not taking place in the objectively real, physical world, and even though nobody actually gets hurt, in our minds they are real encounters. It is like the difference between imagining killing your boss and actually killing your boss. Imagining it allows you to vent your feelings and work through your issues with the ol’ boss without actually offing the guy or gal and spending the rest of your life in prison.
In a now-famous experiment conducted in 2007 in the labs at Harvard Medical School, researchers discovered that the effects on the human brain were the same whether people actually practiced a five-fingered piano exercise on the piano, or only imagined practicing the exercise in their mind, without actually moving their fingers. The most surprising result of the experiment was the discovery that “mental training has the power to change the physical structure of the brain.”
And if things we only imagine doing can change the physical structure of our brain just as much as things we actually do in real life, can’t the things we imagine doing also change the structure of the human mind and spirit?
So isn’t imaginary killing almost as bad as real killing after all?
Now, I know what you’re thinking:
“Aha! So engaging in sex and violence in video games does psychologically harm video gamers just as much as if they did it in real life!”
No. Despite the freaky claims of fruity hypnosis websites and Internet gurus, the Harvard experiment does not mean that the human brain cannot distinguish between imagination and reality. A few psychotic individuals aside, we humans can easily tell whether we’ve actually killed or had sex with someone or just imagined it!
And the difference in results is huge.
Actually killing people or having non-consensual sex with them has far-reaching consequences on the victims and on everyone who knows, loves, or works with them. Those effects boomerang back onto the perpetrators also, often destroying their lives as well.
But killing someone or having sex with someone only in our imagination has no such wide-ranging ripple effects. And as long as we keep it in our mind and keep it in perspective, it does not damage and destroy our own lives either. We can’t always control the thoughts and desires that enter our minds, and we are not held guilty of things we only think about and never actually act upon. (However, if we nurse those thoughts, and would do them if only we could do them and get away with it, then they do have serious negative consequences in our spiritual and psychological life.)
So . . . what do video games do for us, then?
What the Harvard study does suggest is that we can face, deal with, and work out issues and situations in our minds, using our imagination, it will bring about similar changes in our brain and in our character as if we faced, dealt with, and worked out those issues in our outward physical life and in actual interactions with others.
We all know instinctively that this is true. Have any of us not mulled over a tough issue we’re facing at work, at home, or in school, tried out various solutions in our minds, played each one out to see what the likely outcome would be, and finally come up with something that we were certain would work?
Of course, we still have to actually apply the solution in real life. The point is that our mind went through a whole evolution and arrived at a constructive solution without our body having done a thing. Through imagination alone we changed the “structure of our brain.” And that can and does lead to positive change in our “real” outward physical and social life.
Why are we humans so fascinated by sex and violence?
How does this relate to sex and violence in video games and online gaming?
As I said in Part 1, the reason we humans are drawn to sex and violence in our entertainments is that sex and violence touch on two of our most fundamental drives:
- Our drive to reproduce ourselves and perpetuate our species, which trumps even our survival instinct.
- Our survival instinct, which drives us to do whatever it takes to stay alive when faced with possible death.
Obviously, sex relates to our powerful biological reproductive drive—and to our even more powerful spiritual drive for deep, creative union with another human being.
And violence relates to our survival instinct. In violent and potentially deadly encounters, our will to survive is pitted against the urgent threat of death breathing down our necks if we don’t make full use of our intelligence, experience, and raw, focused physical force in order to snatch our own life out of the jaws of death.
It is no accident that in the human experience, our most intense feelings of aliveness often come either when we are engaged in intense lovemaking or we are engaged in life-and-death combat.
Soldiers returning from deployment in a hot war zone often find that nothing in their ordinary day-to-day life at home can quite compare to the intensity of all-out combat in which somebody’s going home in a body bag, and they’ve got to make damned sure it isn’t themselves or their buddies. Ordinary domestic life seems flat and lifeless by comparison.
And as for the sense of intense aliveness in lovemaking, if you’ve ever experienced it, there is no need for me to explain it to you. And if you haven’t experienced it, I’m still not gonna explain it to you!
Why is there so much violence and sex in our entertainments? Because sex and violence touch the beating heart of our deepest drives, desires, fears, and aspirations.
Okay, then what does all of this have to do with the Bible?
Leaving aside sexuality—since it really isn’t a major factor in most of the hugely popular video and online games—let’s look at the deeper meaning of violence, both in computer games and in the Bible.
Some crazy “Christians” have concluded that this means that God approves of war, and that our job as good Christians is to wipe out our non-Christian enemies. Fringe Christians don’t have a corner on that market. Islam, Judaism, and just about every other major religion have their warlike radical fundamentalist elements who believe that God is on their side, and their God-given mission is to kill the infidel.
However, that is not the real meaning behind the extensive war and violence in the Bible.
What the Bible is really talking about in chapter after chapter of Cain murdering Abel, Israelites slaughtering their enemies and forcibly conquering the Holy Land, and angel armies battling satanic seven-headed dragons is the eternal, archetypal battle of good against evil.
What does it have to do with real life?
We live in a human world filled with real evil. Some of the evil is physical: wars, murders, muggings, rapes, malnutrition, starvation—the list goes on and on. Some of the evil is emotional: verbal abuse, child and elder neglect, racist and sexist language, and so on. Some of the evil is intellectual: corporate deceit, political propaganda, intellectual snobbery, false advertising, and on and on. And some of the evil is spiritual, such as when corrupt clergy use their position to take sexual or financial advantage of their parishioners, often destroying their victims’ relationship with God and the church in the process.
We also live in a world filled with real, human goodness. Every day people engage in small and large acts of love, kindness, and service for their fellow human beings that are far too many and varied to list.
We face issues of good and evil every day. Some of those issues are trivial. Some are more serious. Some have massive effects that ripple through the entire culture.
Ignoring the conflict of good and evil will not make it go away. And wishing that video games weren’t so violent won’t change the powerful forces that cause gaming companies to produce content full of conflict and violence for the millions of gamers out there who demand it.
The conflict and violence in video and online games is simply a reflection in the imaginary computer mindscape of the real conflict and violence that goes on all around us. It is also a reflection of the deeper conflict between good and evil that goes on in the mind and heart of every one of us as long as we live on this earth. This is the spiritual conflict that is represented by the wars and battles of the Bible.
What do video games do for the human spirit?
When video gamers are battling dragons and demons, they may not be thinking about the ultimate spiritual struggle between good and evil. But whether they are conscious of it or not, when they gird on their virtual sword, shield, and armor and go to battle against the evil three-headed dragon, their brain, mind, and spirit are being subtly but actively rewired.
That rewiring is all part of the process of training our minds and spirits to be strong in the face of evil; to stand up against the forces of darkness in our world and in our mind; to become a hero in conquering evil and injustice and championing what is good and right.
True, not all computer games have a highly developed moral sense. But most of them do present issues of good vs. evil in the battles they offer their players. And whether or not it is explicitly present, our mind itself fills in the blanks, and perceives the virtual battles we fight as battles of heroes against villains, of good against evil.
Perhaps in some halcyon future when, through the strength and power of God, we humans have vanquished all evil and banished all injustice from this world, we will have no more need to stage epic battles in our video games in order to excite and entertain ourselves. Perhaps then the spiritual stages represented by the battles of the Bible will all be behind us, and the resplendent new Jerusalem pictured in the final two chapters of the Bible will have fully descended. Perhaps then violence will disappear from our computer screens.
But we are far from that day.
I do believe that the new Jerusalem is already on its way. But we still have many evils to fight and overcome in this world—and in our own spirits—before evil itself will be banished, and the entire world will be filled with love and light.
Video games: part of the upward struggle of humankind
When adults, teens, and children engage in virtual battles in video and online games, it is all part of the exercise of the human spirit, rewiring our brains and strengthening our minds to engage in the battles of good and evil in real life.
As we confront and vanquish virtual dragons and demons on our large and small screens, we are gradually building up strength and confidence within ourselves that we can then use to battle against all the evil and injustice in the world around us.
It is the same strength and confidence that we need to prevail against the emotional demons and mental dragons that taunt our minds and breathe destructive fire within our hearts, continually threatening us with psychological and spiritual death.
It is good for us to go forth boldly and enjoy all the exciting virtual battles that video games and the online gaming universe have to offer!
Then, refreshed and invigorated by success in our virtual battles, our brains re-wired for victory, we will be better prepared to go forth into the world—and into our own souls—as conquering heroes whose mission is to replace evil with goodness and darkness with light wherever the adventure of life may take us.
For further reading: