Worship through gaming?

Yesterday I posted the following questions on both my Facebook wall, and my Twitter feed:

Is it possible that playing/making a video game could be considered an act of worship? and, is it possible for a video game to stir or invoke a feeling of worship in the same way a painting/picture or a song can?

It was a question that had been on my mind for a big part of the day – having come to mind during a discussion of worship (and the variety of things that my church does to create an atmosphere where people can worship God) during the creative ministries team (band, painters, dancers, and other creatives) practice.

My opinion* is that games have the potential to evoke a sense of worship – after all, people have made games designed to evoke a variety of different questions and feelings, with differing levels of success – but I haven’t come across one that does at this point (I’d like to at some point in my life though – get on it Christian Game Developers!). The question of whether playing a game can be an act of worship is much more complicated to answer. On a simple level, worship is the total surrender of every aspect of a Christian’s life to God – everything we think, do, say, etc, etc. So the comment given by my friend Craig – “Considering that ‘true’ worship is how we conduct all of our lives, it then depends whether or not you would consider playing that video game a Godly event or not.” – is something that cuts straight to the heart of the matter. As it is, I’m not sure where I stand on that – many games released probably aren’t the best things to expose to a mind that seeks to put God first, and there’s the whole escapism thing, and the addiction/compulsion issue, both of which complicate the matter further.

I believe that a Christian Developer^ working on a game who dedicates their passion for the project at hand, and the work they put into it, to God’s glory is performing an act of worship – much as in the same way a Christian painter worships God as they paint, or a Christian musician worships through practice and performance – and I believe that a game made with the intention of bringing players to a place of worship can be as effective (if not more) as a painting or a song made with the same intentions.  As for whether a Christian Gamer can worship through playing games, well, I cannot give an answer – there are too many questions to consider at this point. Maybe someone with more experience behind them, and a deeper understanding of the issues at hand, will provide an answer – maybe if no-one does, I’ll come back in a few decades with a true answer to the question.

Until then, feel free to debate it in the comments.

*Which could be taken with a grain of salt, I’m sure that people smarter and better informed than I am will argue these questions in years to come with much more authority.

^Christian denoting the developer’s faith, not the game that they are necessarily working on

A Regret, an Action, and a Request

Reading the stuff I talked about in Monday’s post has got me thinking about the place that Video Games have in my life right now, especially in relation to everything else. Being brutally honest with myself, I’m realising just how much of my daily life is being consumed by games at the moment – and I’m not happy with it, in fact I’m slightly disappointed in myself. I don’t think I’m addicted (yet), but the fact that I spend more of my waking hours (on days when I’m home, which is all pretty much all but Fridays and Sundays these days) playing games is worrying to me, especially given everything I’ve been giving up to play.

I used to spend time writing, either here or for college. I even wrote poetry when the mood struck me, and had been contemplating sitting down and writing a book at the beginning of this year. I used to spend time reading books, and now I’ve got a mounting backlog of books that I have been given that I still haven’t taken the time and effort to read. I used to spend time sitting and thinking of deep questions, contemplating the meaning and purpose of the things around me, and the things that I had been reading and experiencing. I was meant to be using the past 6 months to find myself meaningful employment, and while I have done some looking online for work, and have applied for a course at the local TAFE for next semester, I haven’t done nearly as much as I could have, mostly because it’s easier to sit and play games than to actively look for the work that I desperately want and need. Most importantly, I used to spend time building my relationship with God, praying and seeking Him through His word. All of these things have taken a back seat in my life over the past 6 months or so, and I’ve come to regret that over this week.

Regrets without actions are fruitless however, so the real question is what I’m going to do about this. The obvious answer is to step back from games. Whether this turns into completely giving up games until my life, and more importantly my relationship with God, is back in some kind of order (at least, as much as has ever been possible for me), or a less serious scaling back, I’m not sure at the moment. At the very least, I need to stop immediately turning the computer on after I wake up (seriously, even before I’ve eaten), and staying on it until I head to bed (which has been getting later and later the past month or so), and instead use the time in the mornings and evenings to get back into the habit of spending time with God, and I need to spend more time during the day trying to find myself some work.

I want to ask all of the people who read this that either live with me, or are friends with me on Steam (through which I play most of my games) to keep me to this. At the moment, I don’t want to spend another day from the moment I wake up till the moment I fall asleep either playing, or thinking about playing, games. So if you see me playing something, check up on me, ask me how I’m going with my resolutions here. If I’ve been there for a while, keep pestering me until I stop playing. I don’t think I’ll be able to do this without a community supporting me, so I would ask all of you to be the community I need right now. Anyone who does help me with this over the next few weeks/months, I want to thank you in advance.

The ‘Demise of Guys’?

Yesterday a family member shared this article with me. I found it an interesting read, and I wanted to talk about it, and the article it references, and maybe respond to a few points.

While it is true that video games can be addictive (or as the team behind Extra Credits put it, games can cause emotions and responses within the brain that can be addictive) – there are too many self confessed stories that confirm it (mine included) – and pornography is an easy trap to fall into, and a hard one to get out of (any bloke who makes it through life unscathed by it, you’re one of the lucky ones, don’t forget it), I’m not sure if I agree with everything that the original article said – especially when they seemed to ditch the whole Porn side of the argument (which, in my opinion, is the greater danger of the two), and focus on how video games are making a society of lazy young men with commitment issues.

I don’t have much to argue their point with outside my own life and another response, and a forum thread on the original TED Talk* I found while looking deeper, but I will say that there are a surprising amount of young men I know that, given the choice, would choose being lazy and not working – video games or no. I like the argument raised that if it wasn’t video games that people were using to avoid work, it would be movies, rock and roll music or books – most of which has been blamed in the past for corrupting the youth (to the point where between the 1930’s and 1968 sanctions were placed on movie studios to insure that every movie that came out of Hollywood met a decency code that ensured that it was made with an acceptable moral tone)^ in exactly the same way that video games are today.

There’s much more that I could say – the discussion of the problems with getting guys to engage in the school system would be a long blog post by itself (and one I’ve been thinking about writing for a while now) – I do want to finish with the agreement that – like almost everything – the ideal for playing video games is moderation. It’s not an ideal that I stick to all the time (which I am coming to regret – more on that later this week, still thinking it through), but it’s one that parents need to enforce while their children are young and still exploring the medium – the same way that it’s irresponsible to let a child watch TV all day, it’s irresponsible to let them sit in front of a computer or console playing games all the time – and later on in their life – throughout their life at home as a teenager and young adult, don’t let them forget their responsibilities to themselves (a healthy body and mind, the skills learnt through school/tafe/uni, etc) and to their family.

*Much like any forum thread (even one on a more intellectually based website), some of the comments are insightful, some are rubbish, and some are a mix of both – I leave it to the reader to decide.

^More from cultural backlash than anything else, but I can imagine the vast majority of people pushing for movie censorship (as it pretty much was) shouting ‘Think of the Children!’. See more about the topic here.

Video Game Ethics Part 2

While writing Part one of this series I realised that I have more to say on this than I thought. Sorry that Part Two has been so long in coming, between wanting to make sure of everything I wanted to say about this, and having other things to write last week, it’s taken a while. In any case, the continued thesis on the way Ethics play out in Video Games

Talking about Ethics in Video Games is always hard, since some games give you an incredible amount of freedom to make your own choices, while others restrict you to pretty much just shooting/stabbing enemies in linear corridors. The things that I said about Fallout: New Vegas (and I’m given to understand, the Fallout Series in general) aren’t true about the Assassins Creed Series – and that has the potential to undermine everything I have to say on this topic. Most of the examples I would prefer to draw upon (being familiar with them from personal experience) when I discuss the way in which games can provide space for a broad range of ethical or moral are from a single genre (RPGs). Many of the other games I’ve played either have events with the potential to be significant moral choices already made as part of the story they are telling (which is worse if the player doesn’t even have control of the character at this point, but non-interactive storytelling in an interactive medium is a topic I don’t want to get into right now), or characters who have interesting moral and ethical perspectives, and some amazing character arcs, while the player character is a cardboard cutout with little to no personality of their own. Not to say that either of those cannot be good games – two examples that come to mind would be the Assassins Creed games for the former, and Starcraft and Warcraft 3* for the latter – but they don’t offer much in the way of player choice concerning the ethical decisions of their character(s).

Even among the examples of ethical or moral choice that I could give there are differences. Mass Effect had both a ‘good’ and an ‘evil’ slider, both of which increased based on the actions of the player – since both only went up, the results of both sliders showed how you acted (which another blogger so wonderfully explained in this post – it’s closer to the end). The KotOR games both featured an alignment slider (from light-side to dark-side – being a Star Wars game) that went up or down based on the player’s actions, with bonuses given when a character had a high score at either end of the scale – making any real choice other than ‘am I going to use heal or lightning more this play-through’ impossible. Compare both of these to my post about New Vegas, which is a good indicator of both the more recent Fallout games, as well as The Elder Scrolls games (which were made by the same developer). I don’t have a major problem with any of these games as games, all of them offered me good choices which I did sit and think about, but I think that we are still waiting for a game that does this perfectly (or, at least, well enough that it doesn’t feel that I have too much freedom, or that my choices boil down to being either either a complete doormat or a complete jerk – since swapping cripples me from a gameplay perspective)

What I’m saying is that games as a medium could do more to explore the ethics and morality of the player, as well as generally . There are some good examples where players are free to express themselves – I spent a thousand words talking about one of them two weeks ago – but I honestly would like to see more games that allow the player to make these sorts of decisions. I’d like to play more games that offer me a choice which causes me to sit and consider exactly what I really think and believe about a subject, and make a decision based on how I would react to being in that position (on any of the sides involved). I’d like to be so drawn into the world that I can make choices that I already have firm opinions on easily and quickly, without being concerned for how this will affect my ‘morality slider’, and whether it will cripple me in the future.

I’m not sure exactly how to wrap this up, but if you feel the same way, or if you have an opinion on any of this stuff, feel free to jump in and comment, see if we can get a discussion going……

*Which have no player character, since both of which are story driven, character based Strategy Games (The player is simply the giant hand which order the armies around, and nothing more).

Video Game Ethics Part 1

This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while, and it’s been one that has been intermittently on my mind depending on what game I’m currently working my way through. I’m currently playing something that’s brought this topic to mind quite strongly – Fallout: New Vegas – so now is as good a time as any to talk about the way that someone’s sense of ethics applies to games. I’m primarily going to talk about my own experiences with this, but I will go into some of the observations I’ve made watching others play games, and into some of the more cliche aspects of the way that players generally act within the worlds provided to them by games. But first, I want to set the scene for New Vegas, as – since it’s the game that’s re-sparked the desire to talk about this – I’ll be framing a fair bit of the discussion around it.

Fallout: New Vegas takes place in an alternate reality where culturally the world never left the ‘vibe’ of the 1950’s, but advanced scientifically at a rapid rate. Set in the year 2281 – over 200 years after the ‘Great War’, which left America (and by implication the rest of the world) scarred by the aftermath of the nuclear warheads that dominated the final hours of the war, leaving a wasteland in it’s wake – the player character wanders the open world that the game provides, learning to deal with the residual radiation, the scarcity of food, and the brutality of the societies that have sprung up in the aftermath (humans having survived in fallout shelters called ‘vaults’) in the wasteland surrounding Las Vegas (which, through the machinations of one of it’s leaders, survived the bombs). I could speak about the setting and various aspects of the game for the entire blog post, but I’ll just post this link to a wiki page for anyone interested in finding out more.

Since it’s a Role-playing Game (RPG), New Vegas allows you to create a character of your own, and shape them into whatever you want them to be over the course of the game. You start with no affiliations to any of the factions in the world (either major or minor), and very few skills and abilities. Over the course of the game, your decisions shape the world around you for good or ill, and by the end of the game you have brought one of the three main factions into complete control over Vegas and the Mojave – or destroyed them all, leaving total anarchy with you as the most dangerous person of them all. You meet a lot of people, some of whom will try to kill you, some of whom will help you if you stay friendly with them (or do something for them), and some who are happier to leave you be (as long as you give them the same courtesy). You are free to do whatever you wish to – most of the NPCs in this world are killable, anything that can be carried is there to take. There is a justice system (if it can be called that), but it requires someone seeing you commit a crime (theft or murder primarily), and it results in everybody in the area (or in the wider faction, if your relationship with them is poor enough) turning hostile and trying to kill you – which if you’ve spent any time leveling any combat skill isn’t too much of a hassle for the player if they know what they’re doing (as somewhat demonstrated here and here), and especially once they’ve passed the half-way point of the game.

A lot of people I know would criticize a game that gives anyone this kind of freedom – to essentially be a sociopath with little consequences (the lack of places to sell items and buy ammo would be the only…..oh wait, there’s an unkillable merchant who will sell you stuff no matter what….never mind) – and there are certainly people who would play using that mentality. I can’t talk about them, however, since I have never felt comfortable playing that way, and there aren’t many people who actually own up to that sort of play-style anyway. There is one person I know of who played through a previous Fallout game without killing a single creature (with the exception of the one you need to for the combat tutorial), which he documented here – it wasn’t a completely non-violent play-through (which I don’t think it would be possible to do), but his character’s hands ended up being completely unsullied by blood, human or otherwise.

My personal play-style involves putting myself into the characters shoes, and making decisions the way that I would if I was in that situation. I only kill human characters if they attack me first, or if combat is otherwise unavoidable – companion characters are problematic (one of them attacks members of the faction they hate on sight, others run off to attack anything hostile that they detect, even if the hostiles haven’t seen us yet), and it’s always a possibility that I could fail a skill check that avoids fighting. I’ve sided with the main faction that is the least questionable about their methods (when they get around to actually doing things, they’re bureaucratic to a fault). My character does steal occasionally, but only rarely is it truly theft (i.e. the owners are still alive), and there are some fairly decent reasons to do what the game considers theft (i.e. After stumbling upon a base owned by a faction that hated me – the one in direct opposition to the main faction I have joined – they all attacked me, and I felt that taking their equipment – which in all fairness, they weren’t using anymore – was fair in exchange for all the grief they had given me). I help others with their problems rather than just demand that they give me what I want – or take it by force or theft (both of which can be possible solutions to problems). In short, I carry my own ideas and concepts of what is wrong or right – which in themselves are informed by my relationship with Christ – into the game with me – slightly modified to match the setting, but there all the same.

So this post went a little long (over 1000 words), and I’m not quite finished taking about what I wanted to say…..looks like this will be part one of two then. Next week I’ll talk a bit more broadly about this, move away from just the one game….until then, God bless.

Black Stump 2012

I’ve applied to do a talk at this year’s Black Stump Festival, and if I get the spot, I plan to do a talk similar to the one I did last year. I won’t say more about it here, cause I’ve just finished doing a slightly more complete write up of what I’m planning to do on the Digital Missions Blog (the blog I set up after last years Stump – it’s been pretty dormant, but I hope that’ll change).

Hopefully I’ll have another blog post later on in the week (I’ve had a few thoughts simmering for a while, I may as well get them out). Until then, God Bless.

I’m back!

So it’s been over a month since my last post, and I’d been a bit erratic before that. So much for the schedule I decided to keep at the beginning of the year…… so I’ll play a bit of catch up with you all now that I’m in a blogging frame of mind.

So over the past month I became very busy – I’ve been helping a friend and fellow blogger move into (and renovate) his new house, I’ve done a few days of manual labour for some money (which was really helpful, since I’m not on a regular income at the moment), and the school holidays took place, meaning my access to any sort of computer was limited. Putting this together with not really having anything to say at the moment, and not wanting to waste people’s time (or my own) by rambling on about things that don’t fire my imagination or passions, led to me putting both my blogs aside for a while – along with my online games, the various Internet videos and flash games I play, and almost everything except reading (of which I did a lot over the past few weeks).

There’s not much else I have to say about the past few weeks. Hopefully I’ll still be in the mood to write, something to write about, and the time to do so, next week. Until then, God Bless.