Killing time

It’s official: according to the folks at Guinness World RecordsGrand Theft Auto V has become the fastest video game–indeed, the fastest entertainment property of any kind–to gross $1 billion in sales.  Yes, billion.  It took a whole 3 days to do it.

Movie producers and book publishers can only dream and salivate.

As described by Nick Gillespie on Time.com, GTA-V is an immersive experience that “allows players to roam around a fictionalized California, assume a variety of different identities, and engage in sex, drugs, and violent criminal activities rendered in state-of-the-art graphics.”  He notes that other media–including movies, music, and comic books–are also “drenched in sex and violence,” raising the moral question, “What good can come of allowing large numbers of people to imagine themselves transgressing conventional morality and playing different social roles for themselves”?  But without answering the question, Gillespie argues that video games represent a contemporary art form, “the perfect medium for a digital, networked, globalized age.”

Indeed, at one level, you have to admire the technical and artistic achievement: the fictional city of Los Santos, painstakingly modeled on Los Angeles, is realized in such detail that a gamer could spend hours just driving around like a virtual tourist.  But many question the wisdom of actively submerging oneself in such a violent storyline, one which gives players an opportunity to simulate torture and murder.  Even a friendly review unblinkingly calls GTA-V “a sprawling tale of criminal maniacs self-destructing on a blood-spattered career trajectory to hell.”

Right.  Nice way to kill an afternoon.

Video game violence: there’s good reason for caution.  One 2003 American Psychological Association report cites evidence that violent video games, even those considered “unrealistic,” can stimulate aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior, thus increasing the likelihood that people will respond aggressively to provocation.  A more recent 2010 press release adds the variable of personality; it may be that violent video games are more likely to affect those who are impulsive, indifferent, or more easily angered to begin with.

But even if no such evidence existed, would Christians still have a reason not to play?  And please note: this is not simply a matter of the rules we make for our kids.  The gaming phenomenon transcends age and gender.  This is a question for all of us.

There are, of course, no absolute rules in Scripture prohibiting video games, only the rules we make for ourselves or others.  And not all games are created equal; Wii bowling and Frisbee golf are a far cry from GTA or Call of Duty.  But even then, we shouldn’t take too much for granted.  Research suggests that the effects of video game violence are true not only of realistic simulations but even the more abstract mayhem of some games rated “E for Everyone.”

Ratings for games (as for movies) give us helpful information, and may help us make sensible rules.  I would never have hyper-violent games in my home.  But where does one then draw the line?  What kind of violence is okay?  How much is too much?

Rules are never ends in themselves, nor a substitute for actual moral reflection and decision-making.  Thinking back to earlier posts on 1 Corinthians 6, we must sometimes go beyond rules.  Instead of asking if it’s okay for a Christian to do this or that, we should ask, with Paul, “Is it beneficial?  Have I been or will I be mastered by it?”

Video games are here to stay.  They can be fun, and may even have therapeutic uses.  The technology will undoubtedly advance, offering us more and more realistic and immersive experiences.  And through it all, as with any technological or cultural trend, Christians must learn to think as Christians, as people who know that they been saved by grace into a life that is simultaneously freed from legalism but bound to the pursuit of Christlikeness.