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Can gaming be good?

Video games are often cast as violent, sexist and addictive. But a new genre of virtual fun is serving a higher purpose.

By Trisha Elliott

Prying my 11-year-old from his Xbox is like trying to get gum off your shoe: almost impossible. I worry that the lethargy will turn his muscles to mush, the insularity will make him anti-social and the violence, brutish. And so one Saturday, I sermonized about the perils of gaming. I whipped out scathing studies, like two administered by the American Psychological Association, which conclude that playing video games contributes to attention problems and impulsivity, and that violent ones can make players more aggressive and less empathic. “But games help people, Mom,” Isaac retorted.

Along with a healthy dose of skepticism, my curiosity kicked in. “Prove it,” I said. So Isaac spent the day introducing me to games he thought were psychologically helpful, spiritually formative, community building and even theological. First, there was SimCity, where gamers embark on a God-like venture to create communities. Then Minecraft, which ends with a sermon-like poem: “. . . and the universe said everything you need is within you, and the universe said you are stronger than you know.” We watched snippets of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask that dig into the stages of grief. We had to make an ethical choice at the end of Life is Strange — save a town or your best friend. I discovered that Halo, a shooter game, addresses religious ambivalence; the point is to destroy the Covenant — a tribe controlled by religion gone wrong.

Every game Isaac demoed delved into religious themes: salvation, evil, mysticism, magic, transcendence, death and rebirth. In his favourites, he gets to play God, achieve some version of immortality and is empowered to save the world through perseverance, problem-solving and patience.

Unlike film, literature and music, the virtues of gaming have largely been off the theological radar — until recently. A new spate of publications tap into the connection between religion and gaming, such as Of Games & God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games (2013), Playing with Religion in Digital Games (2014) and Religion in Digital Games: Multiperspective & Interdisciplinary Approaches (2014). These analytical works argue that video games aren’t just about entertainment and escapism; they help us confront ethics, develop character and make meaning. “Video games want to address our hearts. . . . In them can be found cutting edge, groundbreaking ways of making sense of being human,” says Andy Robertson, a family gaming expert in a 2012 TEDx talk.

Video games might help us make sense of being Christian, too. Since 2004, Rev. Adam Kilner, a minister serving Dunlop United in Sarnia, Ont., has incorporated video games into worship services. As a gamer himself, for as far back as he can remember, it was natural for Kilner to explore gaming from a faith perspective while he was a Christian education director at a camp, trying to engage kids in Christian life. The first game he ever used in worship was Angry Birds, where irreverent pigs steal the birds’ eggs, and the birds, whose feathers are justifiably ruffled, try to get them back. Kilner set up a couple of screens, and the kids took turns playing and cheering. Then at the opportune time, he introduced the passage from the book of Matthew: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (23:37).

Since then, Kilner has explored Jesus’ Incarnation in a Christmas Eve family service while inviting congregants to play the game Super Mario Bros. He illustrated what the Apostle Paul meant when he talked about what it takes to win the race while putting Super Mario Kart up on the screen. What about the downside of gaming? “People say video games make people more violent. Adolph Hitler existed long before [them]. Maybe some people do want to play with a gun after playing Fallout 4,” admits Kilner. “But there are good sides to gaming, like the creative side.”

The industry is lucrative. In 2016, the film industry generated $88.3 billion in total revenue worldwide. Sounds staggering, until you compare it to profits earned by the video game industry, poised to generate $99.6 billion this year (all USD). The availability of high-speed Internet, combined with the prevalence of cell phones, has crowned the gaming industry an entertainment superpower.

Not only are people spending a lot of cash on gaming, they are devoting an extraordinary amount of time to it, too. According to Jane McGonigal, the director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future, a California-based non-profit think-tank, we spend three billion hours a week playing games. But just when I am on the cusp of despairing about what could happen if we collectively devoted all that money and energy to solving world problems, Susanna Pollack, president of Games for Change, a non-profit organization based in New York City with a mission to create and distribute games for social good, tells me that she thinks gaming can make a difference.

Pollack’s list of game changers include: Half the Sky Movement: The Game, which invites players to move through a series of quests related to real-world challenges facing women and girls; Re-Mission, a game for cancer patients intended to increase players’ sense of control over, and knowledge of, their disease, and adherence to treatments; and Foldit, a puzzle game about protein folding in which gamers’ efforts contribute to medical research. “In only 10 days, U.S. gamers helped unlock the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme that the scientific community had been unable to unlock for a decade,” says Pollack, adding that exciting possibilities to make positive change lie in the development of more virtual reality and alternate reality games.

Maybe video games aren’t as bad as the stereotypes have led us to believe. The effects of gaming depend on the type of games, the intention with which they’re played and how well gaming is balanced with everything else in life. And I concede that video games have the potential to enhance faith and change the world for the better. I wouldn’t have reached that conclusion two months ago.

Much like the games he loves so much, Isaac’s arguments are winning me over. But don’t tell him. I’d still like his skin to see the sun.

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.

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