Forgetting to Blink: Video Games Pt. 1

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Over the last few weeks I have rediscovered a Facebook game called Zuma Blitz.  It involves a frog shooting balls at a chain of balls that endlessly come out of two holes in the map.  If you match three or more balls they disappear.  You are given a minute to clear as many balls and score as many points as possible.  After a minute the game ends, unless of course you get the balls with hourglasses on them which adds 5 seconds to the clock.

As you can tell, the game is completely realistic and carefully follows the laws of physics, if you can get over that whole frog shooting balls out of its mouth part.  But the reason I like Zuma Blitz is you are given five lives every hour.  This means I only end up playing the game for 5-10 minutes at a time before going back to regular life.

During those 5-10 minutes, my mind works things out.  While my finger moves and clicks the mouse, I don’t think about scoring points.  I think about church and sermons and Cross Country and my marriage and my children and the mysteries of grace.

At the same time, I forget to blink.

My eyes get dry and my contacts fall out.  I never forget to blink at any other time except when I am playing a game like Zuma Blitz.  When I work tirelessly on sermons I still blink.  When I watch movies, I blink.  When I read books, I blink.  When I run really hard and am focusing all my attention on moving my legs faster, I still blink.

But when I shoot balls out of a frog’s mouth I forget to blink.

I play Zuma so that I can think about anything but Zuma but I am still concentrating so hard on matching those balls that I forget to blink.  This paradox lies at the heart of a discussion on video games and art.  Whether our cognitive facilities are engaged or unengaged, the cultural mediums we interact with have a subconscious pull on us.  It seems we should be just as mindful of the subconscious pull then the conscious one.

Video games did not arrive on the scene until 1980 and even now they are nowhere near as popular as other mediums like movies, novels, TV shows or even those old fashioned canvas paintings (okay, I know that video games are more popular than canvas paintings.  Leave me alone all ready :P).

With that said almost every pastor I know under the age of 40 plays video games while not every pastor I know spends hours looking at paintings.  And most pastors don’t just click balls out of frogs but play the time consuming RPGs (role playing games) and violent FPSs (first person shooters) and a few of us still love the old school RTS’s (real time strategy).

This blog is the first in a series of posts that will seek to speak truth into the video gaming medium.  The question isn’t whether we are to accept or reject the medium as a whole.  Instead I hope to provide an analysis of the medium from my perspective as a Christian pastor.  Such an analysis will certainly hope to meditate on whatever is true, lovely and right about video games while encouraging disciples to be thoughtful and careful about which games they play and how much time and money they spend playing them.

In order to begin such a conversation, it might be helpful to briefly visit the reasons that Christians have often chosen to reject artistic and cultural expressions.

The first is summed up in the old Sunday School song, “Be careful little eyes what you see.”  Under this thinking just seeing the wrong thing could cause you to contaminate the purity God intends for you.  There is a lot of violence in video games and much of it offends me (we will talk about that in a future post), but to avoid a longer theological discussion let’s just quote Jesus in Mark and move on.  Mark 7:15 reads, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”  It is what you say and do that makes one impure, not what one sees and hears.

The next reason has to do with wasting time.  Why spend a half hour watching TV when you can spend a half hour praying?  Why spend 2 hours watching a movie, when you can spend 2 hours listening to a sermon?  Why spend 100 hours beating that video game when you can spend 100 hours solving the problems of the world?  It is a good question and we should be good stewards of our time.  Yet I have always struggled to articulate just what is a waste of time and what isn’t.  Is running 100 miles in one week a waste of time or a huge accomplishment?  You only need to run about 30 miles a week to stay fit and healthy and 100 miles could work against you.  Why spend a day rafting down a river?  Why spend an evening skiing on a mountain?  Why spend an entire day planning a romantic twilight dinner for your significant other?  I have no idea where to draw the line and that applies to video games as well.  With that said, I still do think there should be a line.

Next we have said:  Don’t waste your money.  And we should be good stewards of our money.  However, if you stick to a budget, video games are fairly cheap for the amount of entertainment you get.  Most $50 games go on sale no less than six months after their release, which means if you are patient you can pick them up for $5-$10.  Most movies cost $5-$10 and give you 2-3 hours of entertainment.   Video games give you far more bang for your buck.  So once again, you have to go through the messy and complicated work of defining what “wasting” looks like.

The last reason people reject artistic mediums is that they are a waste of good emotion.  Why cry at an oil canvas painting when your neighbor’s life is much, much worse?  Why sit through hours of an emotionally exhausting TV drama when your sibling needs those emotions to make their pain less great?  Why waste compassion on fictional characters in bizarre, fabricated circumstances?

Here we have something that causes us to stop and think.  Does our art (whether it is a movie, a TV show, a painting, or a video game) open us up to understanding and compassion or close us off to the world?

That question is at the heart of how we should critique art and so I want to leave it dangling for today.

See you tomorrow.  Until then don’t forget to blink.

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