The freedom that isn’t, part 3

I love video games.  That’s why I try to avoid playing them.

Remember Pong, the arcade game that launched an industry?  By today’s standards, it was primitive in the extreme.  But the technology developed rapidly, and by the time I was in seminary, I found myself spending hours a week in video arcades.  When we graduated to having video games on our home computer, I would disappear for hours at a time.  These, too, were primitive compared to today’s gaming systems, but highly addictive nonetheless.

“Addictive” is not just a metaphor.  Many games are designed to draw you in and keep you obsessed, and some research suggests that this may not be all that different from chemical addiction: game play produces surges of dopamine-fueled pleasure, which can make compulsive gaming like looking for your next fix.  Indeed, the American Psychiatric Association, no stranger to controversy, has decided to include “Internet Gaming Disorder” as a “condition warranting more clinical research” in the newest version of its diagnostic manual.

What’s the point?  As we’ve seen in previous posts, the Corinthians were claiming that their non-legalistic freedom in Christ made it permissible for them to indulge their sexual appetites.  Paul countered that something could be permissible but not beneficial–in other words, Don’t just do something because it’s not against the law; do it because it’s a morally good thing to do! 

Paul then goes on to insist that even if a behavior is permissible he will not be “controlled” (1 Cor 6:12b, CEB), “dominated” (NRSV), or “mastered” (NIV) by anything.  The word he uses suggests being subject to the power or authority of someone or something else.  The Corinthians might claim to be free, but ironically, without a transcendent vision to guide their moral decisions, they could unwittingly be enslaved to their bodily passions.

Again, I love video games, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with playing them (though there are other reasons to object to explicitly violent and/or pornographic content).  But I know what it means to go from playing a game to the sense of being played.

Long ago, on a family vacation to Lake Tahoe, I wandered into a casino.  I was underage.  Flirting with the forbidden, but wanting to remain relatively inconspicuous, I started dropping what few coins I had into a slot machine.  I remember the tactile satisfaction of pulling the lever, the anticipation of watching the wheels spin, the excitement of hearing coins clink in the tray below.  I dropped in the next coin, and the next, and the next.  When I ran out of money, I went to the window and asked for change for a dollar bill, waiting for a security guard to appear and grab me by the arm.  But no: the clerk merely gave me a jaded look, as if to say, Ooh, aren’t you the high roller?

When those few coins were gone, I stopped.  I began to understand the glassy and vacant stare of some of the people around me, who pulled that arm repeatedly, robotically.  I felt like I had been gripped by something alien–and it frightened me.  I left without looking back.

“I have the freedom to do anything, but I won’t be controlled by anything” (1 Cor 6:12b, CEB).  Is there any part of our lives in which we’re kidding ourselves about how “free” we really are?