Are video games a waste of time? Furthermore, is thinking, writing and reading about video games a waste of time? Is there really anything to be gained by dedicating a significant amount of time and effort to playing, analyzing and discussing works which are part of a medium which is constantly changing, outdating itself, and shocking the general public in new ways?

Well, yeah. What we’re witnessing in video games is a medium coming of age before our eyes. It’s no wonder, then, that the medium has yet to gain any real widespread acceptance within the Christian community. We tend to remain behind the curve as a group, only accepting a technology or medium after it’s been vouched for by the world at large.

It’s no surprise – and no real crime either – that Christians have remained standoffish about trying out the new Halo or playing through the new Mario game. After all, these are large commitments of time and money that seem geared toward a certain type of demographic and personality. In the meantime, Christians flocked to the movies, they set appointments for television shows, and they love to read books. They love these things so much they make “Christian” versions of these things and they reference them in their sermons. They talk about them after church. They have fellowships based around them. Now, though, many Christians are buying Wiis for parties, Xbox 360s to be able to talk to people across the country, and Playstation 3s for the Blue-Ray player and are finding themselves with a video game console. This is not even taking into consideration PCs, web-based and Facebook games, and mobile phones.

It’s simply inescapable now that, if you consider yourself to be one of those Christians who enjoys engaging, addressing, or analyzing culture you simply must consider this new medium seriously. I don’t mean that you must partake in it regularly, but that you must stop merely thinking of it as a simple or harmful way to pass the time. It is that, at times, but it is also often so much more.

In Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissell makes this case without ever really arguing for it explicitly. He simply shares, in nine chapters, various ways videogames have impacted his life. At times they have consumed it. Other times they have enriched it. One particular period they very nearly destroyed it (with the notable help of cocaine). In all cases, they have some affect on the author that goes beyond a mere hobby. Like books, movies, television and music, games have become a venue by which we can face the world, our neighbors and ourselves in relatively profound ways.

While other video game proponents (myself included – see any podcast where I talk about the subject) have often been found guilty of hyperbole and naive over-acceptance of every positive claim made for the medium, Bissell remains notably neutral on the overall value of the medium in contrast. He merely tells of the very personal experiences he had with various games and leaves the reader to cast their own judgment. For those who approach the book with an open mind, there is the discovery that video games have the potential to be both extremely helpful and extremely harmful to the human soul.

Isn’t this exactly the case with all other art forms? Isn’t this the danger with a well-crafted but morally abhorrant film? Isn’t the potential to become engrossed in the world of a book both an incredible asset and an incredible danger? Isn’t the same potential in a game just as substantial?

As games become more varied and more popular, Christians face yet another asset and challenge to our various callings. While pastors may have been excused calling games a waste of time in the 80s and 90s, in this new millennium, it’s time for those same pastors and their churches to consider the implications of this growing medium. Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives is an incredibly accessible and well-written place to start.