Another pleasant night of house church is winding down. A card game kicks up among the kids in the far corner. A young mom pulls out a crocheting kit, discussing how she just got into the habit. The repetitive, back-and-forth production of a pink scarf catches my eye. I turn to a good friend sitting next to me:
“That’s like video games. The repeated activity, the intense focus, the progressive goal.”
My friend thinks. “Yes, but in the case of crocheting, there’s a product at the end. Video games don’t give a beneficial product.”
“No, no, the product of video games are like books: you don’t take something tangible away from a good story, you take away altered ideas.”
“I’m not sure I play video games like that. I usually just boot it up to wind down at the end of a day.”
We stop. The conversation feels slightly stunted; can you talk about video games at church? My mind drifts to a more “meta” question to our conversation:
“Do you know any Christians who think critically about video games?”
“No. I honestly don’t.”
Before I go on, let me be clear: I am discussing “video games criticism” from the first-person angle of an amateur. I do not share the above story because it brings new or profound insight (it does not). I am not writing because I find myself some “subject matter expert” on games design, games criticism, art criticism, et cetera. I am not under delusions of grandeur—I’m writing from (in spite of?) my position of inexperience for a couple reasons.Video games offer new and meaningful systems in which to craft and critique experiences.
First, I share personally because, over this past year, I’ve felt an oversight in the U.S. evangelical church—regarding video games, we have largely dismissed (as harmful) or ignored (as meaningless) one of the largest cultural phenomena of the past 40 years.1 My friend and I stumbled through an exploration of what video games mean because our tradition has little common language or opinions regarding this hobby. The pulpit, the blogosphere, and informal discussion seems to provide regular thought regarding other pervasive media types, such as movies, or fiction books, or sports, or social media. But sadly, I see a disproportionate amount of careful, nuanced thought on an industry so extensive that:
- 63% of U.S. households are home to at least one person who plays video games regularly (3 hours or more per week)
- 48% of U.S. households own a dedicated game console
- In 2015, consumers spent a total of $23.5 billion on video games’ accessories, software, and hardware combined2
Second, as a gamer, I’ve noticed this dearth of Christian critical thought is occurring alongside an unprecedented growth of meaningful video games. In the past few years, likely thanks to the cutting-edge influence and growing popularity of the “indie” game studio scene, more and more games are being designed with explicit truths and presuppositions embedded into the narrative and gameplay. One of the most mainstream examples of this occurred earlier this year, when Blizzard, one of the largest game developers in the industry, released Overwatch. The developers made clear that they were creating more than just a team shooter game. Overwatch celebrates heroism and diversity and lets the players experience these facets through a multi-cultural (and multi-species) cast of a couple dozen heroes. The story is more than just a cover, however: all these characters play the same game in significantly diverse ways while working toward one, unified goal. Both the overt message and subconscious feel of the game communicate the strengths of unity in diversity. This is only one example of many, many games, with artists, developers, designers, and more who are all passionate to bring fresh perspectives into the world through their work.3
Realizing both of these trajectories early in 2016, I spent a chunk of time reading about video games, criticism, and the combination of the two, as well as playing games more thoughtfully (and playing more thoughtful games). Let me re-iterate: I am certainly an amateur. But my self-justification for writing is also the point I want to make: Christian gamers need to start thinking deeply about video games now, because the need and opportunity have never been so great.
Defining moments are difficult to determine when they are happening. The mainstreaming of “meaningful games” in the past five years, however, likely owes much to That Game Company’s Journey, released in 2012. A masterpiece in both art and story, it was received with almost universal positive acclaim and reached a well-known status for an indie game. The wordless narrative depicts the typical hero’s journey story arc, runs about as long as a typical movie, and leaves the players in the odd spot where they can write their own interpretation onto many of the events in the game. Ian Bogost, Chair of Media Studies at Georgia Tech and renowned game critic, commented at the time that “in a medium where interpretation is scorned as indulgent and pretentious, Journey gives no ground: the player must bring something to the table.”4 Journey wrangles emotional engagement from the player and fosters communication around itself through its creative use of story.
Journey, and games like it that provoke emotion and conversation, foster games criticism well because “the essence of criticism is conversation—a passionate, rational argument about a shared experience.”5 Initially, it is a discussion between the object of critique and the critic. What tools and methods does the game use to communicate meaning to me? What do I feel when I play Journey? What parts of it bring out those feelings? Bogost describes this process of criticism as “to get to the bottom of something, to grasp its form, context, function, meaning, and capacities.”6 The give-and-take with the object quickly formulates into discussion with others (why else is traditional “criticism” through written or spoken word?). How do I describe this experience to others? Why do I agree (or disagree) with someone else’s sentiment about this game? What truth or goodness or beauty is drawn out from Journey?
A facet of good critique that Journey reveals, however, is the need for the critic’s familiarity with the medium.7 Journey is beautiful no matter what—but if a player has never “jumped” in a video game before playing Journey, then they would have no idea of the freeing feeling a Journey-jump has, say, compared to a precise Mario-jump, or a frantic Sonic-jump. If they have never experienced the virtual bullying-fest that can break out over a typical multiplayer game with mics and headsets, they will never grasp the significance of the silence exercised in Journey’s “multiplayer” (an unexplained mode where one player can be dropped into another player’s game, completely unannounced and without ability to communicate to one another).
Perhaps, then, I was too hard above on the church leaders and influential who do not play video games. The onus of game examination falls upon those of us who play on a regular basis. C. S. Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism, exclaims that “every art is itself and not some other art. Every general principle we reach must, therefore, have a peculiar mode of application to each of the arts.”8 The responsibility falls on the gamer to apply the rules of criticism to the game. So let the social-media savvy blogger comment on the intersection of faith and Twitter likes; let the pastor who played college ball continue with his (over)use of sports illustrations. Let us who play video games, critique video games.
How then shall we think? We do not have an easy starting place. Even Frans Mäyrä, a leading games scholar and professor at University of Tampere, admits that “it appears that our language for describing gameplay performance is still rather limited.”9 What I have found helpful is to start not with my thought processes, but with those of the game.
Let me use a recent blockbuster-indie release to explain. The Last Guardian was highly anticipated game stuck in development for almost a decade. It finally released at the end of 2016 to mediocre reviews. Complaints range from “bad camera angles” to “sloppy controls.” One interesting complaint, however, was that the game withholds some power from the player. The Last Guardian revolves around a relationship between young boy and a giant bird-dog creature. The player controls the boy—the bird-dog is controlled by AI…an AI which acts remarkably like a finicky pet would. Both parts are necessary to solve many of the puzzles. If the player, as the boy, has solved how to get from point A to point B, but the bird-dog is busy munching on a snack or laying in the sunlight, the boy is stuck. This is, from the point of the typical reviewer, “bad game design”: the game withholds rewards from the player arbitrarily.
I think, though, that these reviewers may be listening to their own ideas above that of the game. Their points are what might be considered “checkboxes” that a game must achieve: if the game doesn’t do A, B, or C, then it is not good. Bogost challenges the idea of bringing our own preconceptions to the table: “We gripe when a game doesn’t do what we expect, rather than ask what such an unexpected demand means in the context of the game.”10 In the case of The Last Guardian, I believe that Matt Peckham of Time Magazine saw past his own expectations and listened to the game:
Impatient players may balk at the way Trico sometimes ignores them, or how much time can pass before he’ll act in accord with their wishes. That would be a mistake and a misreading. The game’s contemplative sequences are as meaningful and essential as its fast and furious ones. Trico can be mercurial, adolescently willful and sometimes maddeningly stubborn, but he is always knowable. What he requires most is your patience, a virtue discarded by the handholding school of game design, an assumption provocatively challenged by Ueda throughout The Last Guardian.11
This is perhaps the defining aspect of criticism: the art must first examine me, before I examine it. Is The Last Guardian a bad game for making me wait? Or am I an impatient person for being unwilling to see the game differently? Critics, Christian or not, seem to agree on this point:
- C. S. Lewis: “The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”12
- Kevin Schut: “Good criticism leaves the door open to the possibility of a change in perspective.”13
- Ian Bogost: “Asking that a game does exactly what its player expects risks eliminating the possibility that it might offer a new way to understand the world.”14
- And A. O. Scott, chief film critic for the New York Times: “You must become the person who is willing to change your life based on the exhortations of art.”15
Shigeru Miyamoto, a revered game developer and the creator of Mario and Legend of Zelda, spoke at the 2007 Game Developers Conference, a gathering of the brightest and best in the industry. At the time, the Wii was taking off as a success, particularly with its motion controls and games for gamers as well as non-gamers. He had Wii Music in the works, and so some of his design talk was centered around conducting allegory. In the middle of a long section about the labor of love that is game design, he dropped a quote about gameplay that stuck with me:
“When I am holding the controller and setting the tempo, I feel that my own personal game is in the midst of creation.”16
Gaming is unique in that it is one of the few entertainment forms where meaning is added through interaction. Watching a movie does not require interaction: the meaning from the movie is simply derived from the focus of the viewer. A gamer, however, creates meaning through interaction, with the progression of the game depending on user input. Failure and success, story progression, complex decisions: much rides on the gamer.
I postulate, then, that gamers are more ready to critique than consumers of any art. We write and derive meaning with each button press and trigger pull. The question remains: what will we do with our creations in the coming year? Video games will not stop offering new and meaningful systems in which to craft and critique experiences. In 2017, VR purports to immerse us in alternate realities, one of Nintendo’s flagship games will turn video gamers away from screens and towards fellow players, and many companies will play the strings of nostalgia for aging gamers.
So how will we critique? How will we form a language? I suggest two steps. First, join the conversation where it is happening. Earlier, I noted that the church has “largely dismissed” video games—but it has not done so entirely. It’s right to point out those I’ve personally seen engaging well, including Dr. Kevin Schut and his book Of Games and God; the fine writers over at GameChurch and Geekdom House; and the magazine that you currently have in your (digital) hands. Converse with those who are pioneering the way of games criticism within the Christian tradition, both through reading and digital correspondence (protip: many of these people like to tweet).
Second, start the conversation in your local churches. Bring up your thoughts about video games in awkward conversation with your friends. Talk about themes in the latest games with the gamer teenagers in your church—they’re bored out of their minds anyways, waiting for their parents to stop talking so they can leave. Ask your pastor how he thinks digital entertainment and Biblical rest fit together. As C. S. Lewis says, “the many use art and the few receive it.” This year, work to receive video games and share the experiences with others.
1. Before I continue, it is fair to note the “largely” doesn’t mean entirely, and it’s right to point out those I’ve personally seen doing this well, including Dr. Kevin Schut and his book Of Games and God, which is responsible for a lot that is here; the fine writers over at GameChurch; Geekdom House; and the magazine that you currently have in your (digital) hands.
2. Stats taken from http://essentialfacts.theesa.com/Essential-Facts-2016.pdf
3. For more on Overwatch and other meaningful games from 2016, check out GameChurch’s 2016 Games Jesus Loves.
4. Bogost, Ian (2015-11-15). How to Talk about Videogames (Electronic Mediations) University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition. Kindle Locations 421–422.
5. Scott, A. O. (2016-02-09). Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 260.
6. Bogost, Kindle Locations 136–139.
7. This was first brought to my attention by the story of game developer Brie Code’s non-gaming friend, who did not enjoy Journey as her first gaming experience.
8. Lewis, C. S. (2014-08-26). An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge University Press 1961. Kindle Edition. 28.
9. Mäyrä, Frans. An Introduction to Game Studies. SAGE Publications Ltd; 1 edition (March 3, 2008). 15.
10. Bogost, Kindle Locations 1228–1229.
12. Lewis, 19.
13. Schut, Kevin (2013-01-15). Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 176.
14. Bogost, Kindle Locations 1240–1241.
15. Scott, 72.
16. Quoted from deWinter, Jennifer (2015-05-21). Shigeru Miyamoto: Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda (Influential Video Game Designers). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition. 117–118.