The Christian and the Dreaded M – Some thoughts on mature video games

ImageWhile the Bible was written for us, it was definitely not written to us as a culture. This means that there are some things, especially in our entertainment-obsessed culture, that seem to be grey areas. One of the most well-known and disputed grey areas is the subject of video games, namely the more violent or mature ones. Since the Bible doesn’t have a commandment that says “Thou shalt not play M rated video games,” this requires some thought and study to decide what is acceptable to play and what is not in the life of a Christian.

First of all, when we decide what games are and aren’t acceptable, we have to realize that the ESRB was not sanctioned by God to be the standard for what we should and shouldn’t play. It isn’t perfect. When a game has the dreaded “M” in the lower right corner of the box, it should raise a red flag. However, that red flag should give pause for thought and deeper understanding of why the game is rated that way, rather than instantly forcing you to place the game back on the shelf (or more accurately, click the back button on Amazon). Rather than going by only what is on the back of the box, it’s best to do some research on the positive AND negative aspects of the game. (A great site for this is Plugged In, run by Focus On the Family, which gives bible-based, family-oriented reviews of all sorts of media.) Many M rated video games, much like R rated movies, have positive aspects to them that aren’t covered on that black and white rectangle. There have been plenty of games that most people will believe were mis-rated, whether the rating was too high or too low.

By contrast, we also need to understand that the media we take in can have an effect on the way we live and how we think. This isn’t necessarily always true, which is the reason why some mature video games can be found acceptable. But if you’re blatantly doing evil in “choice” style games such as Mass Effect, you may find yourself drifting towards those choices in real life; or if you’re endlessly mowing down civilians in an open world game like Grand Theft Auto, you may find yourself with violent tendencies, or more disturbingly, viewing the people around you only as targets. Yet, as I said, playing a violent video game will not necessarily make you a more violent person or decrease your value of human life. This is because of the biggest aspect of choosing appropriate media:

Know thine enemy. And in the case of any human, our biggest enemy is the sin that is with us from day one of our lives. It’s our master unless we trust Jesus for salvation, and it’s still a huge temptation afterwards. But, as Luke 16:13 tells us, we can’t serve two masters, because “…either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” If our goal in choosing “appropriate” media is focused on seeing how close we can get to the line of “this is sin, and this isn’t,” we’re probably not truly devoted to Jesus, and we’re really just desiring sin.

When you’re choosing your next game, think about the sins that you specifically struggle with. If you have a tendency towards anger or hatred, you should avoid games centered around violence. If you struggle with lust, don’t play games marked with sexual content. If you’re a former or current drug addict or alcoholic, avoid stirring up those desires with a game marked by “drug use” or “alcohol.” If you are susceptible to making video games your idol, you may not want to purchase any at all (or if you really must, buy ones that aren’t deep and immersive or addictive).

Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” When deciding whether to buy a game, you have to compare both the content of the game and your own maturity. If you think a game will cause you to have intelligent and wise thoughts, such as “Is it ever okay to use violence for a good cause? Was XYZ a good choice? Are lies acceptable in any situations?” then it may be a good choice to play that game. If it may not cause you to have thoughts as deep as those, but the thoughts it does cause are mostly innocent, a la “Whoa! That was awesome! What a cool explosion!” then you may want to consider getting another game, but it’s not necessarily a bad idea to get this one. However, depending on your maturity level, these thoughts can be a slippery slope to cruel-spirited ones like: “Hahahaha! Killing civilians is hilarious!”

However, there are some games that I believe Christians shouldn’t play, period. One of these types of games is the game that blatantly glorifies sin. Games like Grand Theft Auto fall into this category: namely, games that glorify violence, generally in the form of murder, against the likes of innocent civilians, cops, and rival gangs. …Which, of course, you commit in bulk. Desensitization to violence or death is real, and should and can be avoided at all costs. We’re made in the image of God, and life is precious. (It is worth noting, though, that this is very different from a game that has military or justified violence.) Games that depict grotesque, horrid or demonic-looking creatures or claim to show actual demons should also be avoided not only on the amount of scariness, which may or may not apply to you, but because of the dark, false spiritual content that is frequently attached. While there may be some Christians that are probably solid enough in their faith that they can easily pick apart the false religions in these kinds of games, they sure don’t live up to the standards of Philippians 4:8, because dark and disturbing images have a way of sticking in your head, and the twisted spirituality will likely come along for the ride.
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So, all in all, it would be unwise to say something along the lines of “I’m never ever going to play or buy any M rated games.” We have to remember the inherent imperfection in ratings, the effect a game’s content can have on our spirit, and our own maturity and susceptibilities. If you follow these guidelines and select games appropriate for yourself (or your children), these games can become useful for entertainment, stress relief or fellowship with others.

If you’re still a child, the odds are you are simply not able to accurately judge whether you’re mature enough to play certain games. This is why, even if your parents don’t force you to, you ought to continue to rely on them to make the final call on whether you should be allowed to buy the latest shoot-em-up. (After all, you may be just a tad bit biased.) If you’re a parent, don’t instantly drop the ball when you see that M on the box of the game your child is asking for. But, after you compare the game’s content with your child’s level of maturity, don’t be afraid to give either response to their request, even if it means they’ll be disappointed.

Like Wreck-It Ralph, we’ve gotta take it “one game at a time.”

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