Prescribing our Described Worlds: Video Games Pt. 2

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The year was 1997 (or was it 1998?).  I was hanging out at my friend Ben’s house.  The Nintendo 64 had been released and his parents bought him one.  I would never think about asking my parents to pay $200 for a video game system, let alone the additional $30-$50 for games.

But I had $100 of my own money and because of the N64, the Super Nintendo’s price was reduced to my range.  I bought one and played the 2 games that came with it.  But Ben had had a Super Nintendo for a decade and 30 games to go with it, 30 games he would soon just give to me because they were worthless now that he had the next best thing.

That particular afternoon in 1998 (or 1997) I snatched one of his games called “Final Fantasy 3.”  I asked him if we could play it and he immediately dismissed it as “too complicated” and “single player.”

I insisted, being offended by the “too complicated” part and so we put it in and watched the credits roll.

It was the 3rd Final Fantasy to be released in the USA but there were 5 Japanese games before it so the numbering was later changed to reflect the Japanese games.

What followed has been a decades long infatuation with quite possibly the greatest video game ever made.  The graphics were gorgeous.  The music was overwhelmingly beautiful.  The plot was intriguing.  The characters were fully formed and moving.  And the game play did not consist of bouncing on enemies or punching or shooting them.  For awhile I played through the game once a year.  Now I go back to it every other year or so and I am always moved by its brilliance.

Yesterday I presupposed that video games are artistic expressions.  I know a few who disagree with me but, mostly because of Final Fantasy 3 (or 6 as it would later be correctly numbered), I hold to the claim.  With that claim I argue that video games should be subjected to the same critique and engagement as the other arts.  That is why I dismissed some of the more ridiculous claims that Christians have made against art.

Today I want to talk about two wider criticisms and apply those to video games.

The first is what I called “prescriptive criticism.”  These are the critics who judge art based off of the world that is supposedly prescribed.  I would include most “Christian” critics in this category.  These critics are always focusing on “what’s the message?”  And if the critic agrees with the message then they deem the artwork “good.”  If the critic disagrees they label it “bad.”

In the case of Christian music, critics don’t pay attention to the melody, the beat, the vocals, or the instruments.  They narrow in on the lyrics and ask, “Does this song mention Jesus enough times?”  “Does this song portray God as able to fix all our problems?”  “Does this song’s God like 6 day creationism?”  “Do these lyrics quote the Bible?”

The problem with such a view is that not all art is prescriptive.  Some art just wants to describe the world as it is and let us figure out where to go from there.  Christians seldom know what to do with that art so they tell the art what its prescriptive message was and then dismiss it as being erroneous.  This is why all the “Christian” art, especially that which is loved by Christian radio and Christian publishers tends to be prescriptive.  They are all sermons in the form of a novel, song, movie or video game.  This has led to some horrible artworks produced and made popular by otherwise well meaning Christians.  In turn many cultural critics have written off the entirety of Christianity as being “close minded.”

So a counter movement has sprung up that I roughly identify with Christian Hipsters.  These are the descriptive critics.  They don’t ask, “Do I agree?” but instead “is this true?”  By this they mean, “Does this movie, song, video game accurately represent reality as it is?”  With that question some justify watching all manner of profanity, arguing, “The world is a profane place and we shouldn’t ignore it.”  I would agree but it is still hard for me to believe that watching pornography is a way to acknowledge pornography exists.  The same goes for graphic violence.

The real problem with descriptive critics is that they seem to deny that good art can be prescriptive.  Some of the best novels and paintings and even video games have prescribed a better world for us and asked us to strive towards it.  Others have shown us a worse world and begged us not to go there.  Here I think of utopias (like Star Trek) and dystopias (like the Walking Dead).

So I think a better way to critique art is to dig past the conscious questions of “do I consciously agree?” or “do I consciously verify that this is true?” to our subconscious participation in the piece.

On a deep level, what is happening to us as we engage the art?  Are we opened up or closed off to our neighbors and their realities?  Are we filled with hope or despair?  Do we become better at problem solving and critical thinking or do we suddenly start thinking a gun is the answer to all of life’s solutions? Are we made angry and is that anger justified and focused on the evils of the world or is it just that type of abstract anger that is angry for no reason?  And in the case of Zuma Blitz, why am I forgetting to blink?

Tomorrow I will talk about games that fail the above test but let’s go back to Final Fantasy 6.  At first glance FF6 fails the prescriptive test because it doesn’t mention Jesus and it seems to suggest that magic and brute strength are the way to solve the world’s problems.  To add to its “evils” it never quotes Scripture *cough* shameful *cough*.

The greatest moment of the game was when the world was decimated into a wasteland by the antagonist. Walking through this village after the disaster was chilling.

It also fails the descriptive test because we do not live in a world where magicians are running around setting things on fire.  There was never (nor will ever be) a great war of the Magi that decimated the planet.  And every time we get into a confrontation we can’t mystically summon magical Espers to appear and help us out.  More than that, there are not three statues somewhere out there that need to be perfectly aligned or else the world will go bonanzas.

However, there is a prevailing belief that the world all ready has gone bonanzas because our harmony has been misaligned.  There are many who believe we are all ready living in a post apocalyptic world.  And as you go through the game, you find that it is not the brute strength or the magic powers that end the ruin and save the day and bring about harmony.  It is the characters (14 of them!) learning how to love.

With a full 14 characters this was the best cast any of the Final Fantasies would have.

The protagonist, a woman named Terra (top left corner), regains her powers when she falls in love with a group of orphans.  Locke, the thief, comes into his own when he finally grieves and moves on from the death of his fiance.  Edgar, the Prince, fights for the love of his people.  Celes repents of being an Empire General and learns to love her adopted grandfather who works himself to death building a raft for her salvation.  Throughout the game all 14 characters learn to love and in so doing find the power to realign the world and defeat evil.

Beyond that surface, dare I say “conscious” message, the music, the visual art, the dialog, even the game play, all come together to fill the player with a subconscious peace, harmony, hope, encouragement and love that help us survive our dystopias.  This subconscious nudge towards all the virtues is out of this world but, at the same time, firmly grounds us in the realities in which we live.

That and the game is just too much fun.

See you all tomorrow where we visit the opposite end of the spectrum.

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.