Book Review: Of Games and God

Of Games and God front cover

For many years now, I’ve been trying to figure out how video games fit into my Christian faith. Certainly there are many aspects of video games that would seem contrary to the faith. Violence is often callous and gratuitous. Sexuality is prominently on display in most M-rated games. And there’s no denying that video games take a lot of resources to enjoy, both money and time. I often wonder, if Jesus returned and found me sitting on the couch playing Final Fantasy, what would his reaction be? Would He be disappointed that I wasn’t doing something more constructive to further His kingdom? Or would He tell me to stick in Mario Kart instead so we could race against each other?

So it was with great interest that I picked up Kevin Schut‘s new(ish) book, Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games (2013). Schut earned his PhD in communication studies and is currently an associate professor at Trinity Western University. As I recently earned my PhD in communication as well (and teach a class about video games), Schut seems like the sort of kindred spirit I needed to engage with to really answer my questions about faith and video games.

Schut’s purpose for writing the book is straightforward. He writes in Chapter 1:

This book is about helping the Christian community find a balanced approach to computer and video games–and also, I hope, a little about helping people outside the Christian community understand some of the issues related to faith and games. (p. 2)

He sums up his intent by saying:

The cultural debate about video games is part of a long discussion about the nature and value of technology. I believe my call as a Christian is to engage video games and their surrounding culture, gain critical understanding of them, and help transform them. This book is mostly about the second step–gaining critical understanding. (p. 12)

Contents of the book

Excluding the intro and outro chapters, the book covers eight topics:

  1. Understanding what video games are (a chapter necessary for readers who have no clue what he’s talking about)
  2. An outline of common challenges faith critics raise against video games
  3. Violence in video games
  4. Video game addiction
  5. Gender roles in video games
  6. Educational video games
  7. A series of interviews with Christian game developers
  8. The social side of gaming

The first few chapters mostly set up the debate about faith and video games, identifying what people are arguing about and why questions of faith even matter when thinking about games. The real meat of the book comes in chapters 4, 5, and 6 with the evaluation of violence, addiction, and gender roles. These three topics by far breed the most controversy, even outside of faith communities. Each of these chapters requires a lot of set-up. Not only does Schut have to explain what the problem is, but he brings in academic resources about these topics to ground the discussion in fact, and he also has to describe games that epitomize these controversies. Interspersed are his own personal reflections about how his faith has been challenged by these seeming un-Christian features of video games.

From there, the second half of the book is more of a defense of the good aspects about video games. He talks about how video games are being used for education. He interviews quite a few Christians in the video game industry to understand how their faith influences the games they make. And then he ends by talking about the many vibrant online communities that develop around video games.

This book’s audience

Who exactly is this book written for? That’s a question I asked myself time and again while reading Of Games and God, and I can identify two audiences.

First, this book is for the most staunchest of religious critics who are against video games. Schut spends quite a few pages debunking various myths about video games and gamers, and he frequently talks about how new technologies are often met with skepticism in the faith community, but how over time, new technologies become accepted and Christians realize that the technology itself is not evil. The technology is amoral: how you use the technology can be good or can be sinful.

Most of the Christians I know don’t hold to these myths about video games, nor do they have a problem with video games. I know there are some ultra-conservative Christians who think video games are a complete waste of time and sinful enterprises, Christians who would never buy a single video game for their children. But I think those people might be in the minority. While this book might make some inroads with that group, I honestly think that the ultra-conservative members of the worldwide Church have more deep-rooted issues with their faith. It’s not video games they are against. They have a more elemental distrust of modern culture at large.

Second, this book is for non-academics. Schut appropriately references academic research about video games, but is very approachable and easy to read. Readers won’t get bogged down in statistics or research methodology. This book should be understandable to people without a college education.

After identifying these two audiences, I realized: this book is not for me. As an academic, and as somebody who has read the original research studies about video games, this book didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know. And that’s fine. There need to be more authors like Schut who engage general audiences on these issues.

Of Games and God back cover

But what about faith?

While Of Games and God has a lot of useful information about video games and faith, intended for a general audience who knows little about video games or how they are studied, the real question is, does this book have any value as a guide to faith? While I hate to denigrate the work of another Christian, I have to point out that this book is more “Of Games” than “Of God.” Schut is not a theologian or pastor. He is not writing from the viewpoint of any specific denomination. If I’m remembering correctly, I believe he paraphrases a couple Bible verses, or at least references a handful of biblical story lines, but if you’re looking for a guide that backs up each statement about how Christians should play video games with Bible verse after Bible verse, keep looking.

The book is fairly short: eliminating the references and notes, it clocks in at just under 180 pages. There are quite a few screenshots of games throughout, so that’s not even 180 pages of solid text. Like I said, each issue that he covers requires so much set-up–explaining the controversy, explaining how the games work, explaining any research on the subject–that by the end of each chapter, there’s not much room left over to discuss matters of faith.

And this is the book’s biggest flaw. I really appreciated Schut’s frequent personal reflections about how his faith influences the types of games he plays. He discusses, for instance, that he doesn’t think that Christians can never play violent games: violent story lines can teach us much about matters of faith, even if the creators aren’t Christian. But he also says that there are some violent games he doesn’t play.

I’m not suggesting that he should provide a checklist of criteria to determine which games are compatible with the Christian faith and which are not: I think Schut would say, and I agree, that such an approach leads to legalism and doesn’t effectively address the issues at hand.

But at the very least, I was looking for some sort of practical guidelines about how the Christian faith should influence the games Christians play, or even the way Christians play video games. Christianity is a religion of the heart, and certain topics that might make some Christians stumble don’t affect other Christians. It’s not necessarily about what games we play (though you could probably make a pretty convincing argument that some games are never acceptable, like this game about rape). Rather, it’s about how our heart and faith are affected by the games we play.

Does our video game playing ever bring us closer to God, or is it just a distraction that we use to avoid communing with the Lord?

Should you read this book: I cautiously say yes. Even though this book didn’t really address any of my questions, at the very least, it got me thinking about these issues anew. In that sense, then, the book has strengthened my faith, but only in a roundabout way.

Game on,
~Dennis

My Favorite Still-Image from The Big Bang Theory Opening: The Hands of God Gripping the Sphere of Life

The Big Bang Theory has an iconic opening. Not only is the song catchy, but the opening is composed almost entirely of flashing still images, roughly chronicling the history of the earth and humanity.

There are images of dinosaurs, cavemen, monkeys, the pyramids, Abraham Lincoln, airplanes, space, and even breakdancers. For a full breakdown, check out Harald Kraft’s page.

One image, though, always stays with me. The intro starts with a view of space, but then holds on a single image for a few seconds before blasting through 108 more images. And what image does it begin with?

The hands of God gripping the sphere of life.

Big Bang Theory opening

Actually, not really. The image is a cell going through mitosis.

The cell is in the anaphase, which means the sister chromatids have separated to either side of the cell. At this point, the cell is ready to divide in two.

The way the chromatids are arranged, though, look like hands to me. I know that the nucleus is roughly spherical shaped, so to me the chromatids look like fingers wrapped around a ball.

Because I proclaim God to be the origin of all life, this image is a reminder to me that God is at the center of all creative acts, from the creation of the universe (the titular “Big Bang”) to the creation of each life.

It’s an odd thing that a show largely about atheists, who occasionally mock religion (or in the case of Howard and Raj, mostly disregard the teachings of their respective religions except when it’s convenient for an easy joke), has the effect of uplifting my faith every time I watch it.

~Dennis

P.S. Interestingly, the opening also features several explicitly Judeo-Christian images, such as images of Moses, Jesus, and David as well as the Notre Dame de Paris. My eye can never process these images when the opening is playing at its proper speed; I only noticed them when I saw all the images laid out separately on Harald Kraft’s page linked above.

I Don’t Know Why, but I Can’t Stop Making Churches in Minecraft

Minecraft has got to be one of the most innovative and original games of recent memory. I’ve been playing since the beta release. Not continuously, mind you. I play for a few months, run out of things to build, take a break, and then come back, realizing the team at Mojang has released more content and fixed bugs (and probably also created a few new bugs).

Every time I step into Minecraft, though, I find myself compelled to build churches, crosses, sanctuaries, and other Christian works. It’s usually one of the first things I do when I create a new world. Sometimes I build a giant cross, and cover the entire thing in torches: the cross, then, serves as a luminary landmark when the world gets dark.

Whenever I’ve played Minecraft in the past, I always did so on Survival mode. Creative mode–which gives you unlimited blocks, makes you invincible, and allows you to fly–was always too intimidating. Now that I have all these blocks, what am I supposed to do?

Recently, I came up with an idea for a castle. I spent several weeks working on it, then update 1.7 came. The greatest addition of this update, in my mind, was the inclusion of stained glass windows. A simple addition, I know, compared to all the new biomes they added. With stained glass windows, I could now work on the cathedral I’ve always envisioned.

Creating in Minecraft is a spiritual pursuit

A focus on Creation as a theology is something I often feel lacking in American Christianity. Christians, of course, acknowledge that God created the universe, and many of them say they enjoy “being in creation.” But Creation is more than just stating a fact about who created what.

We are made in the image of God, and that means, we share desires and abilities that God has. God is the only being that can truly Create: make something where nothing existed before. But since the beginning of time, people have mimicked God’s creative side by creating works of art themselves.

What we create isn’t so much important: music, painting, sculpture, architecture, pottery, light bulbs. I believe humans have a need to create, that everybody possess that creative spark, whether they use it or not. And when we create, we should do so as an act of worship.

Minecraft is one of the few video games that is solely about creation. It’s not about destruction. While there is some killing, I believe that killing can be seen in a Christian light, which I’ll get to eventually.

When I play Minecraft, I always want to create bigger and better things. And when I create churches, crosses, and sanctuaries, I want God to be proud. In Minecraft, I can create something out of nothing.

My first Cathedral, a monument to Christ

Creating the Red Cathedral (as I’m calling it for now) took hours of work. I started with a base of sandstone, and from there, added glowstone, quartz, and red and pink stained glass.

The cross was constructed entirely of glowstone, which emits quite a bit of light. Now for those who are unfamiliar with Minecraft, let me explain something about light. The world of Minecraft is inhabited by “mobs,” some friendly, some hostile. The hostile mobs–like zombies and skeletons–only come out at night. They spawn as soon as it gets dark, and when the sun rises, they either burn up or seek shelter under shade.

Hostile mobs can be warded off, though, if an area is bathed in light. Light from torches and glowstone will keep mobs away, as long as the area has a certain level of luminosity.

As I constructed my cathedral, though, I realized that even the light from my massive cross wasn’t enough: the mobs filled the space anyway!

Minecraft church inhabited by skeletons

The cross to the left, the skeleton manages to find enough shadows to hide in.

Minecraft Church spider inside

This spider has no fear standing in the light.

Minecraft Skeleton burns

In the day, this zombie burns to death.

At first I killed the mobs at night: get off my cathedral! But every night, they come back again. No matter how many lights I put up, it was never enough to keep out the mobs.

Minecraft Church mobs on top

Mobs crawling all over the top of the Red Cathedral.

But after awhile, I stopped killing them. I thought, maybe there’s a metaphor in here somewhere. Perhaps the mobs are simply lost people seeking refuge in the church. Now, I know that’s a silly thought: there’s nothing in the game’s programming that says mobs are attracted to church-like structures. The mobs are simply appearing based on an algorithm. It doesn’t matter what structure I’m constructing.

But then again, Minecraft is one of those games where the player is encouraged to project their own story onto the game world. The game world certainly provides the player with no story. The player, then, is free to create the story that makes sense to them. And this was the story I created.

Minecraft is “procedurally generated,” just like the Universe

Building the Cathedral is repetitive. I do the same thing over and over again, and when I change my mind, I find myself deleting dozens of blocks, only to remake them a few squares away. Building this Cathedral, though, is by no means boring. Rather, I get “into the zone” where I start thinking about spiritual matters, things I wouldn’t normally think about during the hustle and bustle of the day.

The world of Minecraft is “procedurally generated,” which means, the world is created anew each time a person starts a world. Rather than the world being predefined, like almost all video game worlds, the world of Minecraft is created “on the fly,” according to certain rules and parameters (procedures or algorithms). The world initially only renders what the player can see. As I move into new areas, more of the map is generated. This map generation is theoretically infinite, and theoretically different for each player.

Just as the Minecraft world is created according to certain basic rules, so is the Universe. God created a set of rules at the beginning of time: the laws of physics and chemistry. He determined how elements would interact with each other, how gravity would work, how galaxies would function, and so on. And then He created. He set the world in motion, and the Universe has been following these same rules (procedures, algorithms) for 13 billion years. The Universe is expanding every second, and it is being created according to God’s rules, just like the Minecraft world.

The procedural generation in Minecraft, though, isn’t perfect. Sometimes blocks end up floating randomly in the air, just one or two. Sometimes holes appear in the ground, just one or two missing blocks. Sometimes the different biomes don’t mesh properly: older versions of the game used to create frozen lands right next to deserts. In short, glitches enter the system, and as a player, when I see these “mistakes” in my mind, my desire is to fix them, to help my Minecraft world “come into being.”

Minecraft glitched world

I hate when there’s a “missing” block: in my mind, I want that space filled in, so the lines are straight and unbroken.

God’s Universe is also affected by a glitch, the glitch of sin. Sin frustrates Creation. I’m not exactly sure in what ways, but we are told in the Scriptures that Creation is groaning and longing for that day when it will be realized and perfected. When I see mistakes in my Minecraft world, I want to fix them. God, in the same way, is helping His creation come into being. What that looks like, I don’t know. What God does outside of earth, in the Milky Way, in the galaxies beyond our ken, I don’t know.

There is a difference, though, between the glitches in Minecraft and the glitches in the Universe. The glitches in Minecraft are due to imperfect humans creating imperfect software. The glitches in God’s universe aren’t due to an imperfection with his original software, the Law of Nature. Rather, He allows the glitch of sin–but only for a time.

I started adding people, and nothing good resulted

Once I had constructed the two wings of the Red Cathedral, which had doors blocking them off, I started adding Villagers. Villagers are friendly mobs in Minecraft. You can trade items with them, but they aren’t too intelligent. When night comes, Villagers will hole up inside buildings. Hostile mobs, though, try to break down the doors and attack or infect the Villagers. Come morning, they exit their huts and go about their lives.

I added about 15 or so people near my Cathedral. I wasn’t sure what they would do, but I was hoping they’d protect themselves at night. While the Cathedral itself has no front door, they can find safety in the wings.

That first night, the Villagers holed up in the library, bracing against the relentless assault of the zombies.

Minecraft Church mobs try to break down door.

Behind the glass you can see the tops of the Villagers’ heads. Assuming they stay inside, they should be safe.

And here’s the thing: the Villagers did survive the night. But in the morning, not all the mobs burned up. Some of them hid in the shadows. What happened next? I knew this would happen, but I couldn’t prevent it. The Villagers opened the doors too soon, went out in the world, and were promptly slaughtered.

Minecraft Church mobs in the library

The mobs swarmed into the library, the safest part of the Cathedral.

Minecraft Creeper in church

This Creeper has such a dopey look on his face, as if he’s done nothing wrong at all.

As I reflected on the massacre of the Villagers, I thought, there’s another metaphor buried in this situation. After God freed the Israelites from Egypt, He gave them the Law, the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments weren’t about control or making their lives miserable: the Ten Commandments were supposed to protect the Israelites and give them a prosperous life. The Ten Commandments were supposed to protect them from evil. But there’s a catch. For the Ten Commandments to actually protect them, they must be followed.

I gave my Villagers protection. If they stay within the walls at night, and if they don’t open the door in the presence of mobs, they will live. But they couldn’t even follow these two rules. The opened the door anyway, perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps out of ignorance, but they were killed nonetheless.

Now, Minecraft is a game, so I have to play by its rules. I wondered, though, how I could theoretically fix this problem of Villagers not following my rules. Two options came to mind:

Give them weapons. In Minecraft, I carry a sword and bow, but the Villagers don’t have weapons. Perhaps if they had weapons, they could protect themselves from mobs. That sounds good in theory, but if the mobs are really lost souls, then I wouldn’t want the Villagers indiscriminately killing them in my world. Also, I thought, what would happen if the Villagers started using weapons on each other? Something given to protect them, then, would actually end up harming them.

Teach them the rules. Perhaps even better than giving them weapons, though, would be to teach them the rules in a personal way. What if I could become a Villager, speak their language of nasally chirps, and explain to them how to live a better life? That’s what Christ did for humanity. The trick, though, is that I’d want the Villagers to have free will: I’d want them to follow the rules, guidelines, on their own accord. And whenever people have free will, they always have the option of doing what they want, for better or worse.

The completed Red Cathedral

This post has been a capturing of just some of my spiritual reflections while playing Minecraft. I could go on, but this post is getting long enough as it is! I’ll conclude by showing up some more pictures of the completed Cathedral.

Game on,
~Dennis

Minecraft creepers in the library

To me, the library represents the centrality of Scripture in the Christian’s life. Perhaps these creepers were just attracted to the Word.

Minecraft Church re-construction

My church had a central area that was extremely tall, reflecting the glory of God. Midway through construction, though, I thought: the church is too short. It must be bigger. So I built it high into the sky.

Minecraft Church construction

Still constructing the new addition. From on top of the church, the world below fades away.

Minecraft Church at sunset

Looking at the setting sun. The central door is open: anybody can enter the church. But it is narrow. The way to Christ is narrow, and not everybody makes it.

Minecraft church

A view from the floor. The church is so tall that the game can’t render the distance to the top. There are lights up there, but the top appears dark because the game doesn’t render the environment that high.

Minecraft Church hospital entrance

Under the church I built a hospital. This is the back entrance. The foundation of the church, in other words, is healing.

Minecraft church hospital interior

Hospital interior.

Minecraft church hospital interior

Hospital interior.

Minecraft church hospital interior staff rooms

The staff room, located to the side of the central area.

Minecraft church hospital pharmacy

The hospital pharmacy.

Minecraft Red Cathedral completed

The completed Red Cathedral. Click the photo for the big version (works as a widescreen desktop background).

Minecraft Red Cathedral completed

A view from the direct front. Click the photo for the big version (works as a widescreen desktop background).

Can God be Glorified by Playing Video Games?

Everyday, Ordinary Worship blog

A few weeks ago, my pastor mentioned Grand Theft Auto V in a sermon. He did so casually, and wondered if violent video games were linked to violence in the physical world.

He also mentioned that our congregation had a LOT of doctors and PhDs, and he wants to find ways of engaging with the scientific community on matters of faith.

These two thoughts cemented an idea I’ve had for a long time. After some consideration, I proposed a program to the pastoral team: a talk and discussion about video game concerns with parents. I’ve taught a class on video games before, so I’m familiar with all the research about violence, body image, sexuality, race and gender issues in games, addiction, fitness and obesity, and more. Video games have been controversial for 40 years.

In this program, then, I’ll talk about what the research actually says on these controversies, and explain to parents how the video game rating system works, giving them guidelines so they know how to choose games appropriately for their kids.

To help promote the program, one of the pastor’s asked me to write an article for his blog about how playing video games can glorify God. The following is an excerpt, with a link to the rest of the article:

Video games have been a huge part of my life ever since I was five or six. I’ve been playing for over 20 years and have spent countless hours mastering so many games I can’t keep track of them all.

A few years ago, I was trying to explain to my friend, a fellow Christian, why I enjoyed video games and how I thought they were beneficial to my faith. He dismissed my explanation and thought I was just trying to justify mindless entertainment. Maybe so. After studying mass communication in school for the past decade, it’s natural that I reflect a lot on my media consumption. As a Christian, I am constantly endeavoring (often unsuccessfully) to point my life to God.

I played video games for about 10 years before I found Christ. At first, my Christian faith didn’t have much effect on the kinds of games I played or the way I played games. But slowly, God has been molding me after His image, so I think it’s possible that at least some of the games I play are glorifying to God. If He were beside me on the couch, I think He might even like playing video games with me.

Read more

Game on,
~Dennis