The year after I graduated college my wife was still taking classes. I had a cushy “associate children’s pastor” job that didn’t require anywhere near the amount of hours that my full time college athlete’s life had demanded of me over the past five years. So that year I found myself sitting at home, while my new wife did homework, wondering what to do with all this free time I hadn’t had for years.
The answer became read books, run miles and play video games. I had never been much of a gamer and still don’t consider myself that way but I had this new Nintendo Wii with a couple Zelda and Mario games. I also had a lot of leftover 90s games still saved to my laptop hard drive or on CD-Roms, most notably Civilization 2 and the original StarCraft.
Thus began a mild obsession with video games that carries through to today. As I have written elsewhere I absolutely believe that the best video games have much to offer society in general and the arts in particular. The Zelda games especially stand above the rest as masterpieces of critical thinking, music, the visual arts and story telling. Some of the best story telling in the world right now is happening in video games. But don’t get me wrong, the worst video games are right next to pornography in their ability to destroy lives.
With that said, I approach them with great hesitation. Stories have been used for millennia to shape the ethics of entire cultures. Stories have a way of capturing our hearts, minds and imaginations like nothing else can. And when our hearts are captured, our lives are changed and not always for the better. Moreover, recent studies have shown that the more interactive the story, the more powerful the effect on our habits and attitudes. Video games, being the ultra interactive stories they are, can deform and misshape us faster than any other medium can.
Take for example “first person shooters.” The story of every first person shooter is that you have a gun and there are other guys with guns trying to kill you. It is up to you to have the biggest, baddest gun to kill them first. When we interact with this story, we begin to see the world through the light of “bad guys with guns” who are only stopped with ever bigger guns. It is no wonder millions of young men are now lobbying the government to let them have the biggest, baddest guns!
On the flip side, when we interact with a puzzle solving game (like Zelda) we begin to look at the world as puzzles to be solved. We begin to realize that no problem is too hard if you have the right tools and the right frame of mind and the world becomes a better place.
I might also add that video games increase our stress levels in sometimes dangerous ways. A lot of them, if not all of them, require intense concentration that is not easily or non violently broken. These increased stress levels take a great toll on our physical bodies, causing them to age faster than otherwise and make us more irritable to be around.
All that to say, video games have a great power over the player and it is one that needs to be respected. To borrow from the Corinthians passage I quoted a couple weeks ago, video games have a way of preoccupying us towards the things of this world.
For this reason for the last 5 or so years I have stopped playing them all together during Lent. It has always been a very meaningful practice and almost painless. By the second week of Lent I barely miss them at all. It helps that Lent is my busiest time of year when I have taxes to file, Holy Week services to plan, end of fiscal year recording, vision casting events, conferences and the like. In fact, if it wasn’t Lent I would probably be forced to not play them anyway just to stay productive!
But the reason I give them up as a Lenten fast is because I am wary of their power. I don’t want their power to triumph over God’s power in my own life. I don’t think I am addicted to them and yet one can never be so sure. The nature of this world’s preoccupations is that they hide under the cover of “innocent fun” until they have a grip on you.
And that is why Lent in particular and fasting in general is so important.
If you want to read my blog series on video games you can follow the links below.