By Drew Dixon

Image: Seth Hahne

“My son is really into Minecraft. How do I know if he is addicted?”

“My child has been pestering me to let him play Skyrim, should I let him? Won’t he get addicted?”

“If I let my child play videogames for too long, will it affect her ability to function in the real world?”

As the family pastor of a Southern Baptist Church who moonlights as a part-time videogame critic, it’s not uncommon for parents at my church to ask me these questions. I also get to hear some of these same parents make confessions of their own: “I am SOOOO addicted to Candy Crush Saga” they say. “I might be a little too into Halo,” they admit.

For most of my adult life, I didn’t really understand why there was so much talk about videogame addiction. I have always enjoyed games as a hobby and an opportunity for social connection. Many of my closest friends play games regularly, and some of my fondest memories come from playing games with them. I don’t ever remember choosing games over relationships. But a couple years ago, all of that changed.

Minecraft is a mixture of building, exploration, and survival. Players begin in a randomly generated world and are then free to harvest resources through mining and then use those resources to build whatever they want. The possibility of being able to build whatever I wanted if I invested enough time and energy was incredibly compelling.

Minecraft

One morning I was late to work. I had slept through my alarm after staying up late playing the game the night before. I was constantly looking for excuses to play on my lunch break or in the morning before I head off to work. When I wasn’t playing, I was thinking about playing or talking to my friends about playing. One particular Saturday morning, I was miserable company when my wife surprised me with breakfast in bed after having stayed up until 4:00 A.M. playing. I started to feel out of control.

As a fully functioning adult and pastor, I should have been able to exercise more self control. Instead, I had made the game an idol.

***

183 million Americans play videogames for at least an hour a day and the younger you are, the more likely you are to play videogames. 99% of boys and 94% of girls under the age of 18 report to playing videogames regularly.

One of the most common misconceptions about videogames is that it is a hobby for young males–the average gamer is 30 years old and forty-five percent of all game players are women. In fact, women over the age of 18 represent a significantly larger portion of the game-playing population (31 percent) than boys age 17 and younger (19 percent).

We are a nation of gamers. If you spend much time watching the news, you might be on the fence as to whether or not that is a good thing. We could talk at length about the prevalence of violence in games, but perhaps the biggest concern is the enormous amount of hours people are playing videogames each week. News reports tell us of those who reportedly died after playing a videogame for 40 hours.

The possibility of videogame addiction is a serious subject. If games pose a real threat to the health and spiritual vitality of our families, that is something we should know and warn others about. But while there are certainly many games that are designed to hook us and keep us playing, it has not been meaningfully demonstrated that videogames cause addiction.

Americans spend far greater amounts of time each week watching Television–the average American spends 34 hours a week watching TV, a number that increases as people get older. In comparison, Americans spend an average of 13.2 hours a week playing videogames.

In other words, our problem with balance and self control has existed long before videogames so rapidly rose to popularity.

***

Many Christians tend to cut ties altogether with those things that we tend to mishandle.  I have fallen into this trap myself. Soon after coming to faith in Christ at the age of 17, I threw away a large portion of my music collection because I was convinced that it was distracting me from Christ and corrupting me on some level. I now listen to and enjoy a number of those albums.

I have noticed a similar trajectory with many friends with regard to videogames. The easiest solution to an apparently damaging hobby is to quit playing videogames. Such actions, however, merely treat symptoms without getting to the source.

“There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:15). Jesus is telling us that there is something that is wrong with us at our very core. Remove the media we are supposedly addicted to from our lives and we will still remain imbalanced and inattentive to the people who matter most to us. If we are thoughtlessly consuming games, television, or movies, the solution is to learn how to be thoughtful about our media consumption, not how to abandon scapegoats. If we are being selfish, we need to learn humility rather than dodge the issue. The media we consume is not the problem. We are. If we jump too quickly to label things in this world as dangerous or childish, we miss out on the personal transformation Christ offers.

We need to have the courage to ask whether there is a way to engage media that will encourage us to be selfless. Is there a way to play videogames to the glory of God?

Certainly, some Christians who cannot maintain a healthy relationship with videogames should be wary of playing them, but I think it is a mistake to ignore them altogether. When we treat these cultural creations as our enemy, we miss out on what can be gained from playing videogames. Here are three things we might gain from playing games:

A Deeper Affection for God

Just as listening to a beautiful piece of music or watching a thoughtful movie can help us to be thankful for the God who is the source of all beauty, so can a playing a beautiful videogame. Certainly there is an surplus of violent, puerile games, but that is changing. More than ever, videogames are a examples of creativity and beauty. They allow us opportunities to explore new worlds, make difficult decisions, and experience new things. In the right context and with the right perspective, these experiences can make thoughtful Christians more mindful of and thankful to God.

Journey, an example of a game that showcases the beauty of God’s creation and man’s God-given creativity.

A Deeper Understanding of the World We Live In

If there is one spiritual reality that games tend to get right it is the depravity and corruption present in our world. Many of the most popular videogames confront us with the reality that “none is righteous; no, not one” (Romans 3:10). What bothers us about most violent videogames is not so much the violence itself, but the fact that the violence you commit in these games is devoid of consequence. Thankfully, games are getting better at illuminating the consequences of sinful violence. Games like Spec Ops: The Line and Red Dead Redemption help us to acknowledge the futility and cost of selfish violence by letting us experience the personal and collateral damage that violent behavior causes.

Spec Ops: The Line, a game that presents violence as horrific and unnatural. Throughout the game, carrying out objectives becomes increasingly uncomfortable. By the time the game ends, it’s clear that the protagonist is far from a hero.

A Deeper Understanding of our Neighbor

Videogames often allow us the strange yet beautiful experience of seeing the world from another person’s perspective. In Papo & Yo we are offered a window into the life of a young boy with an alcoholic father. In Cart Life we get a better idea of the pressures and difficulties of managing a street cart business while fighting for custody of a child. In Papers, Please we are tasked with serving as a border crossing agent for a communist country who must balance trying to do his job, helping desperate people, and providing for his family. These are experiences I will likely never have outside of a videogame. They help me understand the lives and situations of others. They encourage me to be empathetic.

Papers, Please

A Deeper Relationship with our Neighbor

Videogames, unlike most other media we consume, are often communal in nature. Videogames like Dance Central, Space Team, and Super Pole Riders have provided tremendous times of fellowship among the students at my church. Multiplayer games require interaction and encourage us to work together or compete against one another. Either way, we are interacting and learning about each other when play games together. While videogames may not be the best way to build community, they are a better way to build community than many other forms of media we are more prone to trust. Even if you don’t care for videogames, simply taking an interest in the videogames that those around you like to play can make a world of difference in your relationships with them.

Super Pole Riders, a competitive game played by 2-4 players. The gameplay is so ridiculous and random that the game tends to instill a sense of fun-loving play in those who play it rather than the focused seriousness often inspired by strategy and action games.

***

Videogames, like any other good gift in this world can be skewed and perverted in such a way that they become unhealthy. My experience with Minecraft certainly was. For me, the answer was simple: I needed to take a break from Minecraft. Taking an extended break from the game allowed me to refocus my time, energy, and priorities. Several months later I was able to play the game in moderation with some students from my church. We showed each other our creations and helped each other complete in-game projects, activities that depended my friendships with them. I was building and sharing a virtual world without becoming inattentive to the real world.

Minecraft wasn’t the problem, and by leaving it behind, I would be leaving behind a beautiful, illuminating, relational experience.

Drew Dixon is the editor-in-chief of Game Church. He is also an associate editor for Christ and Pop Culture and writes about video games for Think Christian and Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter.

Feature illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.