Video Games as Culture Creators

Echo’s Parent Summit was held last week, where we had an interesting conversation about the cultural impact of the rise of the video game. Our ministry is strong in helping young people to interact with their culture with a critical and redemptive eye, teaching them to discern the worldview behind their media and other cultural voices and then decide how to respond in light of the claims of Christ. We often go through the exercise of discovering the worldview of a commercial, song, film, or video. One thing I have not done is to do the same with video games, because until recently I have underestimated the culture shaping potential therein.

While watching TED talks (which coincidently come to my living room via an internet stream through a gaming console) I recently saw a short film by a 20 something about the influence of video games on his worldview. You can watch this very interesting video here. This is a perspective from someone immersed in the digital world to the point that it greatly shapes his worldview. He noted, for instance, that he and many of his friends have logged more hours driving cars in video games than they have behind the wheel of an actual automobile. This is just one example of a seismic shift in our culture, where people actually find their home in the digital world and sometimes prefer it to the actual world. This is true of MMORPG games like World of Warcraft or Second Life, and it is true of console games like Call of Duty and others.

This is not just a “time out” from real life for them, they are beginning to form actual friendships and identify with virtual communities as much or more as they do with physical (real-life) communities. The cultural impact of such habits cannot be overstated. Youth culture watchdogs used to point to the Oscars and the Video Music Awards to take the temperature of youth culture and identify upcoming trends. Now, the video game industry is greatly and reliably outperforming both the movie industry and the music industry! If you follow the money, you will find out who has the most interest in shaping the hearts and minds of a generation. Look at this website for some surprising data about the dollars and cents of video games. This is what is capturing their wallets, and if it captures their wallets it captures their attention.

David Perry, a game developer delivering the talk at TED said this: “What game developers are talking about at gaming conferences are emotion, purpose, meaning, understanding, and feeling. Can a video game make you cry?” So, because I take seriously the charge to shepherd the hearts of teens, I want to thoroughly investigate anything that has their attention. With this excuse so easily available, this busy husband/father/pastor/seminarian bought a gaming console (for research, I swear!). Here are my initial thoughts (from a non-native to the current gaming world):

1. The games are surprisingly cinematic. They are telling stories: grand, immersive, sophisticated stories. Gone are the days of Mario searching for the princess in carbon-copy side scroll dungeons. The graphics are so lifelike, the sound is ultra-realistic, and the artificial intelligence is getting better all the time. These games tell stories that are full of depth and moral complexity. They are anything but childish. Teens and young adults will spend HOURS immersed in these stories. Story is one of the most powerful forces in our culture. Stories matter because stories are the language of the heart. They instruct very effectively, as any teacher knows. Jesus himself knew the power of a well-told story to change the human heart. I am not saying that these stories are sinister (some of them might be inspiring!), only that they will certainly prove to be influential. Gaming provides a way for me to enter into the story, making it even more powerful. Even the controls eventually fade into “autopilot.” After playing them very a short amount of time, you reflexively and automatically interact with the story without realizing you are cuing this button or that.

2. These games are addicting. I remember living through the release of Halo, the first big hit from Microsoft in console gaming. I had friends who struggled with flunking out of school because the game was so seductive. Gaming gives the player a level of immersive escape, taking them to another world and allowing them to perform deeds they could only fantasize about in real life. They are very powerful. One could easily understand how millions of adults spend hours playing them every week. The temptation to escape the problems of this world by going to a world you can dominate or control shouldn’t be ignored. Gaming is a great place to turn when trying to escape real world problems or real world suffering. The problem is that these problems will still be there when you log off. This is an important part of our evolving culture, and it is easy to forecast game addiction becoming something requiring clinical treatment. What is it that makes them so addicting? A researcher studying the impact of gaming on our culture gives these 4 realities that the gaming world supplies:

a. Urgent Optimism – Extreme self-motivation. The desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope for success. Gamers always believe an epic win is possible and worth trying.

b. Social Fabric – More than an escape, Millenials are finding these gaming communities as a surrogate for a community that is harder and harder to find in the real world. The gaming communities are the places where “everyone knows your name.” This is a positive thing as much as it is a negative thing. These are environments of collaboration, knowledge refinement, ideation, dispute adjudication, and even accountability. This social fabric is a place where people of different ages and backgrounds mix based on virtual achievement and expertise. There are few other environments like it. Gaming takes a lot of trust to play with others. Think about all kinds of people coming together, getting organized into complex systems and specific roles to creatively solve a problem. Gamers create very tight social networks. Look at how simple games like “words with friends” and “Farmville” have smashed the gender stereotypes of gamers.

c. Blissful Productivity – A lot of gamers have the feeling that they are not as good in reality as they are in the game. In the game, they can be the best at something. Because they are the best, they are valued, needed, and respected. They can attain the admiration of others when they dominate them or help them. The average player of WoW plays for 22.5 hours per week. That is a half time job! The reason for this is the moving finish line. Gaming has a way of dangling the carrot a little bit further each time you achieve something. It rewards your win, but then it makes you anxious to race to the next achievement or level or item. Real life is full of failure. In gaming, this feeling is rare. Most of the time, the game tests you and challenges you but it does make sure you can succeed. Your missions are perfectly matched with your progress in the game. There is no unemployment in games; there is never a lack for something to do. It is SO satisfying to be on the verge of an “epic win” all the time. Parents need to recognize how powerfully seductive this reality is, especially to young men. Gaming can answer a deep longing of the male heart.

d. Epic Meaning – Gamers love to be connected to awe inspiring missions and huge world changing stories. Jane McGonigal notes that the largest single topic wiki, only rivaled by Wikipedia, is the WoWwiki. They are building an epic story! The COO of Blizzard Media, the company that makes WoW, when asked why people play WoW said this: “How often in your everyday world do you get to feel heroic? How often do you get to step into a world and do something big and meaningful? People need an escape from ordinary life, it’s just something people need.” What is implied in this statement is that our normal lives just aren’t good enough.

3. Their interactivity is culturally significant. Think about the passive forms of media that have dominated the broadcast era: books, music, television, movies. Although they offer multi-sensory experiences and awaken the imagination, they don’t ask for my input. Video games offer a chance to enter the story and make choices, to input and interact on a new level. They offer you the chance to dunk like your favorite basketball player, commanding an avatar that captures not only his likeness but his voice and attitude. They offer you the chance to journey to worlds that have never been explored because they only exist in the digital world. Taken online, they are very competitive. I have talked with many teens about the frustrations and temptations of the live and online video game experience– trash talk, bullying, cliques, and peer pressure all thrive in this subculture. What does this mean for classrooms that employ an outdated learning style? What does this mean for ministries that are still dominated by the “sit and listen” worship event? The question we need to be asking is how are teens (and adults) experiencing meaning through games? I heard one person argue that they would rather hire someone with a high level achievement in World of Warcraft than a Harvard MBA.

Why Does this matter, and what should we do? This matters because teens are VERY impressionable. This influence WILL shape them. The quote from the film I linked earlier that haunts me is this: “I’m not sure what the implications of my experience are…video games are fun, engaging, and leave your brain complexly vulnerable to reprogramming.” That is just it! No one knows exactly what the implications are of such a significant cultural shift. I know that I want to have the conversation as we figure this out with our teens! We always teach this strategy, something we borrowed from Walt Mueller: DISCOVER, DISCERN, and DECIDE. Don’t let them sort this out on their own. It requires that we listen to the stories that games are telling, and we discern how they are influencing our hearts and minds, and then we decided what to do. This might mean using gaming as a way to connect with our students, giving us a chance to critique or guide or rewrite “the map” for them. As parents, we can’t allow our teens to consume all of this in a vacuum. I know there are game age-ratings, but those ratings are very superficial when you consider the culture shaping power of gaming. It is not just the violence or the profanity that will have an effect on shaping their heart. It is the story. The ultimate medicine for the gamer is a real-life story worth living!

Torn – A Series on the story of Esther

The book of Esther is one of the most dramatic and beautifully told stories in the Bible. It tells the story of a young woman named Esther and her cousin Mordecai as they try to survive and thrive as Hebrews in the land of Persia. Mordecai and Esther find themselves in a very important position, possessing very powerful knowledge, at a very critical time. The story has quite a few unexpected twists and turns, and is loaded with drama, intrigue, irony, and comedy. It is also one of the most puzzling books in the Bible. First of all, there is no mention of God. The book nowhere acknowledges God’s activity on the stage of history. It doesn’t record anyone praying to God or asking for His favor (even though it does record a fast, which might be assumed to be prayerful). On top of that, the characters do not always behave as you would expect Biblical heroes and heroines to behave. There is a lot of moral ambiguity that can be difficult to sort out. Besides being a very entertaining read, it also has a lot to teach us about the tension we sometimes feel between God’s Kingdom and our culture. Esther and Mordecai are in a very tough spot to be a Hebrew.

Lessons from a woman caught between two worlds – This book raises all kinds of questions about how we are to deal with our culture. Many of us feel like Esther did – torn between two worlds. We love Jesus and His Kingdom, but our culture where we live is seductive and has its own allure. The power of Esther’s story is the tension she must have felt being stuck between two very different cultures. She was a Hebrew, and that gave her a sacred obligation to the will of the God of her people. At the same time, she found herself thoroughly entrenched in the Persian culture, a culture that was drawing her deeper and deeper into itself. She embodies the struggle to be in the world but not of it. This is one of the hardest things for followers of Jesus to do. What do you do when the culture you are in threatens to swallow your faith, rewrite it, or erase it? I have watched so many people struggle with how to interact with their culture as a follower of Jesus. This is the tension I want to explore in this series. Echo has people all over this continuum. Some are just holding on, barely surviving. Some have already been swallowed up by the culture. Some are doing their best to be the influence and not the influenced. People take three stances when it comes to the surrounding culture:

1. Isolation – No contact, no impact. Sometimes the church has gotten this wrong. Sometimes the church has been tricked into isolating itself from people far from God in the name of protecting the holy ones from corruption. I have met many people that really do love God, but they look at the world and our culture like it is full of potential sources of “infection.” Their strategy to survive is to create a separate culture, walled off from negative influence and protected from corruption. They end up living like bubble boy, afraid of what is out there that might corrupt them. The irony of this is that whenever we do this, we have been tricked. According to Jesus, His disciples are the ones that are contagious! The danger is not to us, but to the kingdom of darkness. We are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. The light is more powerful than the darkness, and when you shut up all the carriers of light inside of little cloisters and holy communities and churches and concerts, there is no chance for anyone bound in darkness to discover the light. Jesus warned his followers against this: he said a “You are the light of the world; city on a hill cannot be hidden.” Look at John 17:13-19. Jesus prayed for his disciples, not that they would be taken from the world, but that they could be a force of influence and change in the world. Without contact, you can’t have any impact on your culture. You might get a little messy if you try this. Can you imagine a Jesus that avoided what He found impure? For this reason, Echo cannot be allowed to be a shelter from culture, a group of people separated from the world that needs them. I love that we have a pastor that models this. Our pastor, Brad Russell, created the Washington West Film Festival to interface with and engage our culture.

The story of Esther could be very different. At multiple points in the story of Israel, the Jews struggled with influence and took the path of isolation. You can imagine Esther and Mordecai being so offended by the suggestion that they be complicit in this corrupt and perverse culture! The story would be one where Esther was killed and Mordecai as well, dying to persevere her “honor” or virginity. This isn’t easy stuff by any means, but this is how the story goes. What I am saying is that it is possible to limit your influence because you limit the exposure other people have to the hope and life that is in you. Now of course, this works both ways.

2. Assimilation – You can’t stand fast without contrast. The other thing I see happen when it comes to culture is that people are just swept away by its current. The force of culture just swallows them whole and assimilates them, they become just like everyone else in culture and any distinctiveness about them is lost. If you are not strong enough to be the influence and you are always being swept away in the current of your culture and negatively influenced, you might need to limit your contact with negative influences. You cannot be a rescue swimmer until you stop drowning and learn how to swim. It is not what is the similar to everyone around you that will grant you influence, it is what is different. I am not talking about something weird, strange, or bizarre, but something distinct. If you lose your distinctiveness, you lost your ability to influence and attract others. If you are just like everyone else, just one more follower in the crowd of sheeple, why would anyone bother to follow you? The right kind of difference is contagious. Here me on this: if Esther was just another pretty face in the crowd of hundreds, this story would look so differently. Something made her different, something more than superficial made her stand out from among the others. The key to influence is to discover life on a level that few others ever find. Then you have found something that will make you stand out! The Jesus movement, the Kingdom of God – it is a counter-cultural revolution. It is not the popular thing but the right thing. It is not what everyone does, it is only what the remarkable can do. If you want to impact the world, you will have to do it living differently that everyone else. We are called to be aliens in this world, living “in it but not of it.” There is supposed to be a quality about us that is “otherworldly,” like we have been somewhere else and we are from somewhere else.

3. Transformation – Look at 2 Corinthians 5:16-20, and listen to this charge by the Apostle Paul. He describes the followers of Jesus as the ambassadors of Christ, as if God were making his appeal for reconciliation with the world through us. He is imagining a force of positive change unleashed on the world with transforming results. Esther’s initial struggle is this: how to I prevent being swallowed by the culture even as I am surrounded by it and immersed in it? That is where many of us are, barely surviving. In that case, you may need to find some sources of strength and change some habits and reroute some patterns. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that living for God’s Kingdom means staying “pure” somehow. It doesn’t mean anything that small! Esther eventually discovers this. It isn’t just about surviving. Not only does she want to survive, but she wants to influence her culture of the Kingdom of God. I know in Echo we have people that are struggling with both of these challenges. The secret lies in protecting the fire of God in your heart, so even when you are immersed in your culture without, you heart is captured by God within.

**Food for thought, seeds for discussion with your teenager:

*What do you find tempting or alluring about your culture?
*Why do you think “Isolation” isn’t an effective strategy for dealing with culture? Can you think of reasons why you should be isolated from some things in culture?
*What exactly should make a follower of Jesus distinct from others? What are some superficial ways that people sometimes look to distinguish themselves?
*What do you think Jesus meant when he prayed that his disciples would be “in the world” but not “of the world?”