Ep. 194: Video Games vs. God
From Mario Brothers to Fortnite, we’ve seen video games shift from generation to generation, ultimately propelling a $40 billion a year industry. With new trends on the rise every year, video games aren’t going anywhere, and should we want them to? On this week’s episode of indoubt, Kevin Schut joins us to give a Christian perspective on video games. We breakdown the stigmas surrounding them, including violence and antisocial tendencies, asking whether or not Christians should be playing video games at all. At the same time, Kevin and Isaac discuss the positive ways that gaming has grown and how we can use that as an opportunity and a chance to evaluate our walk with God. Join us as we explore the world of gaming and how we, as Christians, should be viewing them.
Welcome to the indoubt Podcast, where we explore the challenging topics that young adults often face. Each week, we talk with guests who help answer questions of faith, life, and culture, connecting them to our daily experiences and God’s Word. For more info on indoubt, visit indoubt.ca or indoubt.com.
Hey, everyone. This is Kourtney. On this week’s episode, Isaac is talking with guest, Kevin Schut, a professor at Trinity Western University and author of the book, Of Games and God. Kevin’s joining us to give a Christian perspective on video games. We break down the stigma surrounding them including violence and antisocial tendencies, asking whether or not Christians should be playing video games at all. At the same time, Kevin and Isaac discuss the positive ways that gaming has grown and how we can use that as an opportunity and a chance to evaluate our walk with God. Thanks so much for listening, and I hope you enjoy this episode with Isaac and Kevin Schut.
With me today is Kevin Schut. Kevin is a Professor of Media and Communication at Trinity Western University here in British Columbia, Canada, and he’s also the director of the new Game Development BA at TWU. And you can correct me on what I said wrong there in a second here. But anyways, we’re grateful to have you on the show today.
I’m glad to be here. It’s a lot of fun.
Before we jump into the topic of, maybe I could say, a Christian perspective on video games, why don’t you just first tell us a little bit about who you are and then even more specifically how you came to know Christ?
Well, I am from Canada originally, grew up in Edmonton, and I am a lifelong gamer. I started playing computer games at home when I was 10, and my dad brought home a Commodore 64. And ever since then, I’ve just been hooked on them, not in the bad sense of the term. And when I ended up going to grad school to do my work in communication studies, the professor who talked to us on our first day said, “You’re going to be studying something. So, if you’re going to study, you should study something you love.” And that was the moment I stopped, and I thought, “I wonder if they let you study computer games.” And apparently, they do.
So I’ve done all of my scholarship and research surrounding video games. There’s lots of other things that I talk about in classes and stuff like that, television, and other kinds of media. But video games is what I… That’s the thing that I study the most, and I’m quite passionate about it. I think that the Church has a gap there, so that’s what I feel like my calling is.
In terms of my own Christian faith. I have grown up a member of the Christian Reformed Church, and all my life, I feel like I’ve known Jesus, and Jesus has walked with me and claimed me as His own child. And so as I’ve grown up and matured, that’s something that I’ve embraced more consciously as an adult, and now as a mid 40-something, I’m still trying to figure out how best to walk with God.
And I think it’s important that God has called you into the realm of video game culture. And it’s important that indoubt actually tackles this as well because I mean, video games, people play video games. It’s a reality, right? And people still have really strong thoughts on video games, as you also know, either positive ones or negative. You unashamedly say that you are a lover of video games, and you’ve gotten into them at a young age, and you love them obviously. Whereas I could take them or leave them, and usually, I leave them. I think it’s important that I explain that before we have our conversation because listeners are going to come from maybe more so where where you are at and maybe some where I’m at and many in the middle. So, I think the conversation will be really helpful.
So you say in Of Games and God, you say this, “This book is about helping the Christian community find a balanced approach to computer and video games.” And you also say, “That a wise consideration of video games avoids blanket praise or condemnation of them.” Now, there’s so many things that we could just tackle first at this first point, but I’m wondering if you just walk us through how to have that wise consideration.
I think one of the key elements that, I mean, you’re doing here in this ministry, and that I don’t think the church always does enough when it comes to culture, is engaging it, not just sitting from a distance throwing stones at it or just refusing to get involved in any way, to try things out, to actually look at them. The classic example is the person who condemns a movie they’ve never seen or complains about video games but has never played them before. It’s something that is difficult for other people to accept as valid criticism. And to be honest, it also closes off the possibility that God could be working there and doing something valuable there. And so, I think that engagement is probably the number one thing.
And then the second thing is actually just booking off time to talk about these things, right? Video games are a little funny in terms as a medium. When you compare them to other forms of communication like movies, like books, like television, or anything like that, people tend to be either really big on them or don’t really do much of them at all. That’s how video games are. Older media, just about everyone watches a little bit of TV, right? But there are a lot of people who don’t play any games at all. And so, it does make the discussion difficult because people who don’t play video games feel uncomfortable talking about them simply because they don’t know what they’re talking about, right? And I can understand that.
But I do think that when you have something that’s this massive in culture, and just as a reference point, I was looking this up recently, last year in the United States alone, the sale of video game software was $40 billion. It’s in the same neighbourhood as the global film industry, so it’s a massive deal culturally speaking. And there’s tens of millions of people who tune in for eSports events and be playing simultaneously on major games and things like that. So, it’s a big deal.
And so even though we’re not necessarily always comfortable talking about it, we do have to schedule that time. We have to make a point of having Bible studies, discussions, sermons, whatever it is that allows the Christian Church to actually engage these things. We have to schedule that time.
It’s funny that you say that. I remember in 2015 when I was full time here at Back to the Bible Canada, we were taking a group of people to go to Israel. And we got on the plane in Vancouver airport, and next to me were these two guys from… I think they were from Kuwait. And we started talking, and I asked them, “What are you doing here? You’re going back to your hometown?” And they said, “Oh, we were at a video game tournament in Whistler.” And I was like, “What?” And they said that this guy’s brother, he won, and he won money. And I’m like, “Wow, that’s crazy.” But even that is a… Even though that’s been going on for probably longer than many of us think, it’s still kind of surprising.
It is. There’s a couple of developments over the last five to seven years that have actually really changed video game culture and made it an even more mass global phenomenon than it was before. And one of those is the rise of streaming video. And obviously, this as being a podcast, you’re familiar with sort of internet-based communication. But this live streaming of people playing and doing commentary or having commentary shows and conversations, but especially watching people play on YouTube or on Twitch – Twitch is a huge gaming platform – just has transformed the nature of gaming. And gaming has always been social. A lot of people think of it as antisocial, but it typically isn’t. It’s often a social phenomenon. Streaming has made it that way in a huge way, and there are many, many people now that make their living just making money off of that. The biggest YouTuber in the world did so on the back of playing games, right?
And the second phenomenon is this rise of eSports, and what you were talking about with those Kuwaiti players is the rise of tournaments for money. And that scene actually has been around for a very long time. Back into the late ’90s or mid ’90s, eSports existed, but it was a pretty small deal at that point. And somewhere around 2012, 2013, a couple of games started to go so mainstream globally that it really changed the equation there. Actually, this had been the case in South Korea for a good decade prior to that, but League of Legends went sort of nuclear in 2011, 2012 in terms of public consciousness.
And these final tournaments of the year. The first time, I think there was 3000 people in a hotel room, and then the next year, it was, I don’t know, 10,000 people. And then the following year, they did Staples Center, and they packed it with 30,000 people. And the year after that, they had tens of millions of people around the world tuning in to watch online.
So in a very short space of time, the amount of attention drove all kinds of money into this. And so, there’s this professional scene that’s generating a huge amount of money, just tens of millions of dollars in prize pools. And so, we now have professional teams that train, and it’s a very different scene from 2010. The video games scene is just a different world because of those two things, streaming and the eSports scene.
Now, you say one thing that I think is important for especially those that maybe are from my perspective, which is pretty… I don’t know too much about, let’s say, video game culture, especially when it comes to how to engage it in the Christian faith. And you talked as if video games are just one of the other forms of media entertainment, or I think you said communication, so you had film, books, video games. So that’s the first thing, which I think some people, that’s a big deal to just include video games in that kind of same category. So maybe just talk on that point.
And then after that, I think then we can kind of come underneath that and say, “Well, what is that healthy theology of play?” Because we look at things like a family movie night as just… That’s part of a recreational thing that we do, and it’s not as if we’re being totally turned off our faith or anything. So anyways, those two points, just kind of maybe touch on that.
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. It’s a really good question to ask about video games as a medium. Maybe you’re not familiar with the term medium. It’s what we use in communication studies to talk about a means of communication. So, film is a medium. A book is a medium, et cetera. Games are actually very ancient, board games, right? But most people didn’t think of board games as a form of communication because what’s the message of chess, right? It doesn’t have a message. And so, we wouldn’t think of it as a medium in the same way. I think you could actually make an intellectual argument that there is a form of communication going on there, but it’s certainly nothing like a book or nothing like a film.
But what has changed with video games is that as soon as you add all of this extra computerized audio visual stuff, the capacity of a game to create meaningful activity has really expanded substantially. And by the way, the board game culture has exploded as well. And there’s some amazing board games out there that, I would say, tell stories and have been very meaningful activities as well. But video games are even greater. They can basically look like movies. They can sound like movies. And even the ones that aren’t. A game as simple as Tetris, there’s a capacity for movement and play and thinking in a way that yes, it makes it a form of communication. It can be very meaningful.
For anyone who has never encountered a video game that has made them cry, I would encourage them to play a game called That Dragon, Cancer, which is exceptionally hard by the way. It’s a Christian family whose one-year-old was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and they made a game about the experience, and it’s not fun. It is a very difficult and emotionally challenging game to play. Although, it’s simple to play in terms of a lot of just point and click with a mouse. But beautiful, absolutely beautiful, very moving and not the same thing as watching a movie about the experience. Because you’re interacting with it and manipulating and changing things, it changes your experience. It changes your emotional involvement.
And the magic element, because games can use all the stuff that older media use, they can use printed word. They can use moving images. They can use still images. They can use sound. They can use music. But the thing that separates video games as a medium is in fact the thing of play that you mention there. And play is the capacity to actually manipulate something and do something with it, right? And play is one of those things that, in its attempt to be serious, the Church has often downplayed, right? And to be fair, the Bible does not talk about play explicitly in the way that we use the term very much. But if you read between the lines and you look at the kind of God who God is, I think play is built right into the very first creation account.
I find the creation account is orderly and structured as it is, is also regulatory of a God that is deeply creative, and that’s at heart what play is about, creativity. It’s about free movement within a bounded space. That’s one of my favourite definitions of play. And I see that in the creation account, and I see that in creation. The incredible diversity and strangeness’s and wonderful, weird things that are in our creation and around us shows me a God with a sense of play.
And it’s built into humanity too. Often things that we call creativity could just as easily be called play. When you pull out some paints and you splash them on a canvas, what are you doing? You’re playing with materials in order to produce a pleasing effect, right, or a moving effect or something. But you’re taking things, and you’re moving around with them and experimenting with them. And even people who do technical jobs, computer programmers, are playing all the time. They have a problem. They have to solve it, “Well, maybe we’ll try this. Maybe we’ll try that.” People who really love what they do, they’re playing with their work in a sense.
And so this fundamental aspect of humanity that God has baked into who we are I think shows up in all kinds of places. But video games, it’s essential. You can’t do a video game without play. And so, this is why I think it’s so wonderful to think about video games from a Christian perspective, not that everything there is wonderful because play, like all things, can be corrupted. It can be damaged, but it is part of who God made us to be, and we can do it better, and we can do it worse. And so we need to start thinking about that.
Here’s something else, under the subheading of transforming culture, you say, “We as Christians are supposed to do more than just watch,” a culture in society I assume you’re meaning, “We are to plant love, whether it be in our everyday world or that of World of Warcraft.” I like that. I like you saying that. But at first, at least for me, it could be easy to dismiss that kind of idea as silly maybe. So, I was wondering for those that maybe are in that mindset, could you convince us that that’s actually valid?
This gets back to the Christian emphasis on seriousness, and there’s good reason to be serious. There’s a lot of challenges in the world. Evil is real. It’s painful. It hurts people. And so, I think the Christian Church over the centuries has often come off as a fairly humourless kind of culture. And I think that you can extend that very easily to games because they’re playthings. They’re toys. That’s stuff that children do, right? And to misuse Paul, “When I am an adult, I put off my childish things,” right? And so, there’s this inclination to treat games as nothing more than playthings. And I would say they are playthings, but why do we have to say nothing more then, right? There can be an opportunity to explore our full potential as humans, as creative beings, as playful beings, when we do actually play games.
So this whole notion of games are for kids, games are silly, and games are trivial, I could use the economic argument, “Well, you can think that, but clearly it’s big business, and a lot of people are involved, so it’s serious because of that.” But I don’t like that argument because it means that money is what justifies it, and I don’t like that argument. I would rather say it’s an opportunity to do meaningful things. They are often fun, but that shouldn’t discount them as something worth looking at.
To use the example of World of Warcraft, which by the way is no longer sort of the titan that it was when I was writing the book, but it’s still a big deal. And there’s lots of game communities like it. It is a place where people interact online. It’s a place where they form communities and friendships and spend time together and do meaningful activities together. Often people will log into games, and more recently, Fortnite would be an example of a game like this, and they might play the game, but they might just sit there and chat. It’s the new pub that people gather at. I mean, it’s a place for people to be social. So yes, where people are, that’s an opportunity for us to plant love, to show Jesus in a way that’s meaningful and can impact people.
It’s just so wild to think about that, but you’re absolutely right there. These are real people there. There’s still someone behind those letters. That has obviously an implication on kind of bringing truth and love to them. That’s great, Kevin. Let’s just continue on here.
There is a stigma. I mean, there’s lots of different stigmas and stereotypes on gaming culture. So, there is a stigma that violent video games. They affect a player’s real life, and the conscience and their belief on ethics in terms of violence and everything like that. And I remember even recently there was the news of those two boys in British Columbia who did some pretty violent crimes. Right away, the news was like, “One of the boys was on I think Twitch or something, and they were gamers.” And so, people are connecting these things together. So, what have you found? What could you just kind of get us thinking about in terms of this idea?
So the first thing to say right off the bat is there is no clear scientific evidence that playing violent games leads to real world aggressive behaviour. Now, there are serious psychologists who have published articles that claim some kind of evidence of limited effects. But even the people who claim the effect, it’s a relatively limited thing. So this notion that someone plays a violent game and otherwise would be a pretty healthy, well-adjusted citizen of the world, but they play this violent game, and then they decide to go out and shoot people, there are very few serious social scientists who would say that that’s the case. There’s just not clear evidence on that score.
Personally, I think there’s good reason to question the prevalence of violence in games, and I think there’s some problems with it. I’m personally quite uncomfortable with the narrative of using violence to purge evil from the world because from a Christian perspective, I think that’s diametrically opposite to Jesus’ approach to these things, right? And I’m especially uncomfortable with how some people in the evangelical and broader Christian community adopt that narrative and seem to think that using military force, for example, to get rid of the bad guys, how neatly that aligns with video game violence. And I find that very problematic from a Christian perspective, but I don’t think it’s as simple as you play a violent game, and you become a violent person.
I think Christians should also be aware that things like public violence, like the young man that you just referred to doing senseless and evil things, is very hard for us to understand. And so, what we end up doing is we cast about for easy explanations. And looking at things like video games, that’s a convenient understanding. But the fact is that evil is complicated. It is difficult to understand. It is painful, and it is messy, and we’re all involved in it, right, as broken people ourselves.
And so we need to be aware of people trying to pedal really simplistic narratives of how to get rid of evil, “Well, if we just got rid of video games or at least violent video games, then we’d all be well.” That’s so wrong. I mean, the Bible makes very clear that we are corrupted to our core, and it is only the love of Jesus that can begin to heal that. But we’re never going to be perfect by the time we’re dead, right? That’s not to say that video games don’t contribute ever, that they are all perfect or that they’re all wonderful. That’s absolutely not the case. But if anyone tries to pedal this narrative of: “If we just got rid of this, we’d fix this problem-” that’s not how it works.
Thinking about ethics in video games and whether or not, when you… Thinking of Grand Theft Auto, it’s a perfect example. You can do things that if you told your grandma what you could do in this game, she would freak out. It’s crazy what they allow you to do in that game and even the actual narrative of the game, what you do. So, for that for instance, a question of mine is, in the same way that there are some movies and some books that maybe we just don’t as Christians engage, can that be the same said in video games?
So personally, yes. From my perspective, I feel that way. But there are other Christians who have made the case, and I think relatively persuasively, that there are reasons why it might be okay to play games like that. I think that there isn’t a hard and fast line, that I think it’s part of negotiating our relationship with God and negotiating our relationship with other people and also understanding the nature of games and my involvement with a game, that all of those things sort of play into it.
I mean, I’m doing research right now on how do gamers actually understand their moral and ethical actions in games. And my preliminary research has suggested that it’s actually a really complicated thing, that often, just to give an example, gamers will often play as if they are a character. And they won’t make decisions that they would do. They make decisions that their character would do. It’s a kind of role playing that allows them to sort of see the world from another perspective. That can actually be a helpful thing sometimes in dealing with evil to sort of understand where people are coming from.
And sometimes, people will approach games as if it’s a chunk of LEGO. And I use this example sometimes. If my daughters were playing, and they created a LEGO dinosaur, and then decided, “You know what? Actually, I want to make an apple instead,” so they rip the head off the dinosaur, and they start building the apple. It’s not like someone goes, “You monster. How did you decapitate that poor dinosaur,” right? Well, of course not. It’s a toy, right? It’s something that we play around with. And many people approach video games with… We look over the shoulder, and we go, “That’s a moral and ethical decision that you’re doing. You just blew up a village. What are you talking about? That’s a horrible thing that you just did.” And they’re going, “Well, well, okay, wait a second. This is a game. There’s no real people here. There’s a bunch of pixels on the screen. I just want to see what happens. I’m not trying to kill people or torture people. If there was anything real here, I’d never do it, right? I just want to see what the game has.” I’m still sort of torn on this morally speaking. I’m still not sure if we can really fully disassociate ourselves that much, but I know that that is going on in the gamer’s mind. So, I don’t think it’s a simple thing that we can just easily judge.
That having been said, my personal belief without doing a great deal of research on this, and this is what I hope to delve into a little bit more is I don’t think that we can really fully separate ourselves entirely from the narratives that are on the screen and sort of pretend… When we look at a tree in a game, we think tree, even if we go to ourselves in our head, “Well, it’s just a bunch of pixels. It’s not really a tree,” right? I think there’s a little part of our mind that still holds that. So, when, as in Grand Theft Auto, you can beat a prostitute to death. Okay, that’s an awful thing to do, right? There’s no actual person in the game. It’s a bunch of pixels, and yet I don’t think that we can totally dissociate the fact that this is something like an image of God. And so, I’m reluctant on that one. I haven’t settled on that. I do think it’s complicated, but I do think that that it’s a hard thing to justify for me as a Christian.
And so I think that gamers, if there are gamers listening to this, and you’re a Christian, I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I want you to think about this. I want you to actually interrogate your play. And I want you to go, “Okay, so what am I thinking right now? What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Is this actually a healthy thing?” And if at the end of the day you look at this honestly, and you come away saying, “I think that God is okay with me doing this,” well, then that is between you and God to sort of work out in your relationship. And I’m not going to sit there and point fingers at you, but I do want you to engage. I do want you to think about that.
And I guess the last question here is just generally for the Christians that are gamers and the Christians that maybe just aren’t, it’s just not something they enjoy or whatever, what’s something that we must think about? I mean, you’re a Christian gamer. What would you like to tell all of us that we need to think about, do? What’s our duty here when it comes to video game culture?
So to non-gamers I would say the thing that I said at the beginning, engage, make time for conversation, and be humble about this. Be open and willing to talk to people who are doing things that you don’t understand and that you’re not necessarily comfortable with. And be generous with them. To people who are gamers, critically interrogate the things that you’re doing yourself, right?
And for people who have a passion for it, I call you to actually step into the games industry and make a difference there. And this actually ties into something that’s really dear to my heart because we just launched a Game Development program at Trinity Western, and we are looking for Christians who want to be artists, musicians, business people, designers, programmers in industry because we want to help prepare them to go out and make a difference in that world. It’s a very quick thing, but those are some of the things I think are really important.
Thank you so much, Kevin. If you’re listening right now, and you’re interested in learning more on the subject of video games and Christian faith, firstly, I would say go check out Kevin’s book Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games. We’re going to put a link to that book on our episode podcast page. And also, Kevin gave some other resources and different places to go to as well, Christ and Pop Culture, Love Thy Nerd. We can also put the links on our episode podcast page for that as well. But once again, thank you so much, Kevin.
Thank you for having me.
Thanks for joining us for this episode. Video games tend to be something that you either play or you don’t play, and I’m glad that we’re making this space to talk about this and hear from Kevin. If you’re interested in Kevin’s book Of Games and God, we’ll have a link on the episode page online.
In the last few episodes, I’ve mentioned another ministry that we partner with, Truth and Life Today. On September 29th, one of our guests who we’ve had a couple of times now, Brian McConaghy, will be featured on an episode. So, if you enjoyed listening to Brian and hearing about his work with Ratanak International, I’d encourage you to check out that episode on truthandlifetoday.com. Thanks again for listening this week, and I hope you join us for our next episode where Joshua will be talking with guest, Jeremy Cagle.
Thanks so much for listening. If you want to hear more, subscribe on iTunes and Spotify or visit us online at indoubt.ca or indoubt.com. We’re also on social media, so make sure to follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.