"Mommy, what is that alien doing?"

On November 20th, one of the most anticipated games of the year will be released for the Xbox 360, Bioware’s Mass Effect; when it arrives on my doorstep, I will have the choice to encourage alien, unnatural, sexual immorality. PC gamers have known Bioware for their Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights series, but console gamers were first introduced to the game designer with the 2003 hit Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic. Capturing the spirit of the epic Star Wars story KOTOR (as the kids would soon call it) became one of the most popular games for the original Xbox and arguably the systems best RPG. Aside from the Star Wars branding, KOTOR succeeded because of its compelling storytelling. Much of the game could be spent getting to know your characters; the more they liked you and approved of your actions, the more they would share about their history. In addition to back story, talking to the other characters in the game opened up new plot threads. Ultimately, however, these conversations didn’t affect the plot of the game much, they just opened little side missions. In Bioware’s new role playing game set in space, how the player treats the other characters will determine if they are able to visit entire worlds and whether or not they will witness an alien, lesbian, love scene.

Is it wrong to punch a random pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto? Or to steal a car? If I purchased the upcoming Grand Theft Auto 4, would I have to obey all the traffic laws in order to avoid sinning?

I have Mass Effect preordered. Lord willing, on November 20th I will be exploring space and trying to save the galaxy in what looks to be one of the best RPGs (and maybe even one of the best stories) of the year, but what I won’t be doing is watching video game characters have unnatural relations. So am I going to avert my eyes when that scene comes on? No. I just won’t let my characters act or talk in a manner that will lead to the scene. In Mass Effect, the characters are not predetermined to be fornicators, the player has to have conversations and do things to encourage the other characters be alien, lesbian, lovers. And I won’t do that. So it’s okay to play and enjoy the game, right?

I tell myself that a game which gives players the option to sin in the game world is no different than the options we have to sin in the real world. I’m not in sin just because I have the opportunity to punch someone in the face in my real life, so if I have the opportunity to punch someone in the face in a game, but I choose not to, am I sinning to play the game? I don’t believe so.

I’ll go so far as to say that it is alright to play and enjoy a game which gives you the option to view sexually immoral acts, but that still leaves a much bigger question: at what point (if any) is it a sin to act a certain way in a game?

Is it wrong to punch a random pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto? Or to steal a car? If I purchased the upcoming Grand Theft Auto 4, would I have to obey all the traffic laws in order to avoid sinning? This is far from an easy question to answer for sincere Believers, but if we are to take every thought captive, then it is important that consider this issue.

Does it matter what I do in a game? To some extent, I have answered this question “no” for my own gaming. I don’t think it’s wrong to run people down on a video game; but what’s interesting is that I rarely choose to play the “Bad” character. If given an option in a video game to save someone and get less points or kill them and get more, I nearly always save them–even though I don’t think it’s “wrong” to “kill” them. It may be permissible in my mind, but it’s not profitable (or comfortable) in my heart.

So where does this leave us? Although it seems pretty clear that games such as Mass Effect, which merely allow players to make immoral decisions are not necessarily sinful to play, we are still stuck with the question of whether or not it is a sin to steal a car in a video game (and what if you’re stealing it from Nazis?). In other words, does a sin committed by a digital character constitute a sin on the part of the player?

There’s no quick and easy answer to this outside of legalism. Rather, we must use discernment. Instead of quickly deciding that a particular game is “good” or “bad,” we should be testing all things to see how they line up with Scripture, what God commands, how it might cause a hindrance to our walk or a stumbling block to others. The relationship between digital immorality and real-world transgression might not always be clear, but we can know that as long as we sincerely and diligently choose to test all things against the Truth, God will give us the grace to discern between alien fornication and speeding to win a race in Need for Speed.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    My wife walked in a couple years back while I was meandering around the digital sandbox that is Grand theft Auto: San Andreas and was horrified that I stopped an old lady on a motorcross bike, kicked her in the face to knock her off, stole her bike and then accidentally ran over her while trying to drive away. As the pool of digital red began to spread under her fallen form and a couple wads of cash began to appear around her, my wife goggled, not really sure what to say. “Wow. That’s horrible.”

    She is not the kind of person who should be playing something like GTA:SA.

    What is the difference between her and I? Neither of us remotely support violence or theft. The thought that something like the game scenario I just described actually takes place on occasion in the real world sickens me. I’m not violent. I’m not prone to theft. I don’t rejoice in iniquity. And neither does she. And yet I don’t have any moral compunction about driving a camper into a crowd milling about a plaza in San Fiero or shooting a surface-to-air missile into my ex-girlfriend’s car in Los Santos. Why is that?

    I think it’s because the two of us are observing different things going on in the games space. Where she sees me, her husband, stomping on a woman until she dies, I see little more than a game mechanic.* I have never really been able to identify with the roles presented me in games. The term role-playing game has always been a bit of a joke when applied to video games.** I was not a plumber crawling through pipes to find a mushroom where there ought to have been a princess. I was not an elfish fellow hunting for Tri-Force. I was not trapped on the isle of Myst or Riven or even J’nanin. I was not Gordon Freeman. I was not even Thedane or Cossarwal, adventurers in the land of Azeroth.

    And I am not CJ, stealing cars, killing hookers, and decimating the state’s law enforcement legions.

    In fact, there is no God or morality in the realms where those concepts (Mario, Link, etc.) dwell. There is only the mechanic. Those who can see that can play games like these without fear for their soul’s well-being. Those who can’t, those who empathize with the mechanic as if they were actually people, shouldn’t touch the stuff. It’s a matter of self-awareness and self-honesty.

    *note: the little more that I see is related to visual interests.
    **note: see Escapist Magazine’s thirtieth issue for a decent treatment of this – and especially John Tynes’ “Masks in the Woods.”

  • Alan Noble

    The story about your wife is very interesting. When GTA3 first came out I was playing it while my grandmother was over to visit. Somebody mentioned something about her not approving and she said, “Well, as long as you kids are having fun.” It was reassuring to hear that from her, particularly since she’s a fairly conservative woman (she almost won’t move into her assisted living apartment because they had a Bingo night).

    Why is it that you’ve never been able to identify with video game characters? Do you identify with characters in films or novels?

    It seems to me that on the whole video games have been focused mainly on game play and not on plot or character, but I’m not sure it will stay that way. More developers are attempting to make characters that players can identify with. So what happens when/if you do come across a game that draws you into its world in a compelling way? Will it then be a sin to play there?

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    It could be that I just have a hyper-active awareness of unreality. When reading a novel or watching a movie, I rarely have any real kind of involvement with the characters because no matter how intimately I can identify with their individual plights, they are still just a fabrication to me. And even books and movies are wholly propelled by soulless mechanism. In The Lord of the Flies, Piggy never suffers the wrath of the others unless I turn the page – his life just stops and enters stasis. William Blake never completes his journey in Dead Man unless I decide to pay attention.

    In a lot of ways, books and movies are similarly interactive to video games. Games are of course less scripted, but they still require my interaction for the in-game morality to play out.

    But no, I don’t really find myself wrapped up (or “immersed” as the pop lingo leads us) in either books, film, or games. There are moments with which I can sympathize, characters who remind me of real people, but on the whole I enjoy boks, film, and video games because of their marked unreality.

    You’re right that video games are developing more and more toward story- and character-driven product. As this comes more and more to be, I think it will become more and more necessary to carefully evaluate the philosophies such games forward. But I personally never keep from reading a book simply because it forwards values that are repugnant to me; I only save myself from such things if they are of no value to me.

    To use a popular example here, despite not finding Rowling’s Potter books to be really of any positive moral value, I read them and thoroughly enjoyed them because they succeeded in their art. Their story was engaging and I wanted to know what would happen. If the story and characters weren’t engaging, I wouldn’t have bothered – even if the values protrayed in the series were intimately entwined with my own.

    I just don’t see stories in that way, their not real so I don’t need to treat them as if they were. And more, my involvement in a story bears no real indication of my own moral values. Aesthetic values, yes, but not so much the moral ones.

  • Melvin (Inelm Odlis)

    Ahhhh the good ol’ “morality in video games” discussion. I love these. over time I have come to realize that the reason I play video games is because I have the ability to control and manipulate different characters/settings/environments around me. while we are using the GTA series as a base for morality in video games I have this story to tell:

    When i was 15 I told my mother that I wanted GTA3 as a gift, and as usual, I worked my @$$ off to get it. A month later me and my mother went to the local gamestop to make the purchase. Once we arrived I immediately pulled the game off of the shelf and handed it to her with with a wad of cash from my hard earned allowance.

    She asked: “why do you want ME to buy it if you had the cash to do it?”

    I pointed at the “M” rating and told her what it meant. of course she didnt approve of it, and to make matters worse the personification of “Comic Book Guy”(from the simpsons) came and reinforced all of negative things that I had already said ( I didnt give her That much detail, I wanted the game and I brushed the truth…just a bit), she looked at me somewhat angrily, and cominc books guy’s last statement was “Yeah you definately shouldn’t buy this for your son ma’am”. and we left; without GTA in my hand.

    On the way back home my mother took an alternate route and we eventually went to Target. I thought we were just going to perhaps purchase some sort of clothing or things for the home. The first place we go is to the electronics section. By memorization she points at the GTA case and says “that’s the one right?” I nod in confusion, assuming this was some kind of ploy to make sure which game to NEVER buy me; but she had a sales clerk open the glass and hand it to her.She looked me in the eye and said:

    “Who is that fat*** to tell me how to raise my child?, I know you, your not gonna go on some shooting spree, or assault anyone. So here, and if I do hear anything about you acting like these game characters; you’ll wanna stay in a jail cell!”.

    it seems as if as far as this world goes the cliche’ “actions speak louder than words” is true. I am not much of a christian or any religion for that matter. but any and all persons who were convicted did something physically they adulterated PHYSICALLY, they fornicated PHYSICALLY. People felt the wrath of god for taking in the act of their thoughts. What occurs in video games can be considered a “physical” action but, what actual repercussions were brought about when you commited a sin?

    As far as sin goes a personal guideline that I use to define what sin is is usually “would this action hurt or negatively affect anyone?” and usually it doesnt, no one in GTA laments over a newly commited corpse, there’s no digital funeral that I was invited to, and while I was in digital jail, no digital family pointed a digital finger in accusation. So until the day that happens, I’m going to have sexual relations with prostitutes, kill them, and steal my money back, all at the push of a button. Aren’t video games great?

  • David Dunham

    Wow Melvin…very helpful thoughts on the issue. I think you’ve made some good observations, and of course no one can disagree that physical violence and gaming violence aren’t necessarily related. As Christians, however, we have to ask one more question that’s relevant to the discussion.

    See, we understand sin to be an offense to God, not simply something that does harm to other human beings. So we have to ask, does my playing this game offend God? So, along those lines, I have a question for Alan: Is there any sense in which taking pleasure in the “digital immorality” is actual sin?

  • Alan Noble

    “I have a question for Alan: Is there any sense in which taking pleasure in the “digital immorality” is actual sin?”

    Yes. And maybe the simplest example of this could be the feeling of pleasure that can come from avenging oneself in an online game.

    This question gets even stickier when you take into account that currently video games (for all their sweet graphics) have characters that are relatively unrealistic. GTA3, for instance, is really rather cartoony in design. These poor graphics allow us to separate ourselves from the action. But what happens when the people we are running over really look like people? What happens when we take pleasure out of senselessly killing characters in a game that really look like people? That’s a question we’re going to have to answer when the time comes.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    David, I think first you have to answer the question of whether “digital immorality” is actually immorality at all.

    I would suggest that it depends entirely on what goes on in the individual’s head. If the person is immersed enough in the gameplay that he can say that he is killing innocents, then I think we could say that immorality is afoot—only the immorality is not digital and embodied by pixels, but very real and forged in the psyche. As well, if a person plays such a game—even without immersion—but does so against the advisement of his conscience, he is certainly the prey of immorality, yet still immorality forged within him rather than without.

    As both Alan and I suggested, the answer to the moral dilemma is to be found within the individual. This suggests that the outward object is not at issue (in this case, the video game), but the inward man. This is a similar state that believers find themselves confronted with in regard to things like alcohol, gambling, movies, sports, books, and My Little Pony—all things that can be misused by the deceitful heart of mankind, but can also be a blessing when approached in good conscience. This of course reflects the need for self-evaluation and honesty in the believer and the necessity of good elders to keep accountability pure and helpful.

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  • http://glorygazer.blogspot.com Doug Smith

    Alan,

    Would you also reason that it’s okay to watch a DVD with immoral scenes or extras so long as you skip them? Where does one draw the line in media choices of this type? As a Christian, why support media of this type that is known to include such ungodliness? It seems that, in the interests of avoiding legalism, one can toy with swinging them pendulum treacherously close to license. It is true that we can and often must be around temptations in this world. We have to buy groceries and patronize other businesses. But to have it brought into your own house? How does this relate to Romans 13:14 : “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires”? I don’t know you or your heart, but I fear such an article as this could justify the practice many have of “driving too close to the edge” and result in an otherwise easily avoidable temptation.

    Doug Smith

  • Alan Noble

    Doug–

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment.
    The first thing I would say is that I would not reason anything for anyone else on this matter. These are issues that each one of us needs to deal with before Christ in humbleness, honesty, and obedience. Certainly, we should not allow ourselves to fall into sin in the quest to avoid legalism. However, we must also keep in mind that sin is not sin unless we sin. Owning or enjoying something, whether it be a game or a DVD, which is capable of being used sinfully is simply not the same as sin. Which brings us to your question:

    “Where does one draw the line in media choices of this type?”

    The answer cannot be (if we desire to be inline with Scripture) clear cut or universal. We must submit every single thing that we do to the Lord and examine it discerningly according to His Word. For some of us this would mean that we cannot watch certain things, others can. For example, in buying this game I can say with confidence that I am not making provision for my flesh to gratify its desires. Others might struggle here.

    If there is one concept we hope to stress here it is that Christ is Lord of everything, which means that we must thinking discerningly about our entertainment choices while not blindly rejecting everything created by unbelievers.

    To your second question:

    “As a Christian, why support media of this type that is known to include such ungodliness?”

    First, because it is well made and there are elements of the game that are worthy of praise. When we, as believers, fail to praise what is worthy of praise we are not loving our neighbor; we are not recognizing the “manishness” of man which God has given us, then we fai (for more on this, be sure to read David’s Golden Compass article).

    Second, because I am not responsible (nor able) Biblically to examine every single item I purchase to determine if it contains, in any form or fashion, an element of ungodliness, (or in this case, the ability to be used in an ungodly manner). Why stop at sexual ungodliness? What about greed (I would have to never watch a commercial)? Selfishness (films, TV shows, commercials, music)? Hatred? Gluttony? In order to avoid purchasing (supporting) products that have ungodly elements I would have to leave this world altogether, and Paul told me not to.

    Now, I do, firmly believe that each of us needs to reasonably consider at what point we are making provision for our flesh. If we fail to do this, then we will be consumed by the world. Because of this firm belief, you will note that my article ends with a call to discernment. Which is why I am a bit confused: I’m not sure how urging people to use discernment in regard to video games could be classified as justifying unrighteous license. Nevertheless, let me reiterate:

    As believers we are called to take every thought captive. This means that we must be humbly, honestly, and obediently taking every thing we do before the LORD. We have no right to our own legalism or license. If something will lead us to sin or create a stumbling block, then we must shun it. If it won’t, then we must examine to what extent it might tempt us to sin. But it is always our obligation to turn to the LORD and His Word for discernment.

    I hope this answers some of your questions and I sincerely desire that no one would take anything I say as a license to sin.

  • David Dunham

    great response Alan. I benefited as much from it as I did the original post.

  • Alan Noble

    Thanks David, I hope hope so; its just about as long! ;-)

  • http://glorygazer.blogspot.com Doug Smith

    Alan,

    I disagree with much of where you’re coming from, but I do appreciate your gracious response.

    I realize that there is a difference in being around ungodliness and actually committing sin. I realize that you are not trying deliberately to encourage people to licentiousness; I was just stating my fear that your article (by giving your choice as an example) might have that effect (although unintended). It’s hard for me to imagine how seeing an article like this by someone’s pastor, for example, would be fitting (and I’m not talking double standards here, but recognizing that pastors are leaders who people rightly expect to be above reproach).

    I do question your point that you are “not responsible (nor able) Biblically to examine [should we say, "exercise discernment about"?] every single item I purchase to determine if it contains, in any form or fashion, an element of ungodliness…” if by that you mean that if you could find out something would be inappropriate for you to view, that you really have no obligation to try to know about that ahead of time (it seems that you did know with the video game in the article, although you plan to avoid viewing the objectionable content). If you’re spending your money on it, you ought to know enough about it to have a half-way decent idea about whether your purchase can be helpful or harmful to you.

    To illustrate, I don’t know if you are a parent but as a dad, I am quite interested in knowing what the content is of media in advance for the sake of my children. But it is important for me to know for myself as well. What we put into our minds is extremely important (and images stay there), and I believe God holds me accountable for the use of my time and money. A 2nd grader recently mentioned Beowulf to me (his dad took him to see it!). I can’t go see it on his recommendation alone, and I definitely can’t go see it after reading the review at http://www.pluggedinonline.com! And even if I could, how could it possibly honor Christ for me to do so? (I must admit that it is a dilemma for me to think about how reviewers at Christian sites can watch many of these things, but I am glad that they can help me to avoid what is not praiseworthy; although I would likely not go at all rather than chance it if I had no info.)

    In regard to the commercials, etc., I do not watch television on a regular basis. When I’m around it, I’m reminded why I don’t need to. I just can’t see of what value it is to be immersed in all the advertising, which, as you say, promotes greed, selfishness, etc. as well as sexual immorality. This is surely not necessary to loving God and neighbor. There are plenty of other ways to honor the praiseworthy in people created in His image.

    I’m not saying it’s necessarily sin to watch TV or play video games and agree that different ones of us can handle different things, but why do we often hold so tightly to those things? It’s hard for me to see the apostles (or the persecuted church) justifying the media intake we have today, much of which is completely unnecessary to love God and neighbor. Surely much of what I have said comes from my experience and knowledge that I became easily obsessed with games years ago. I realize I have my own blind spots and inconsistencies and don’t claim perfection in my thought on this matter (or to have all the answers for everyone else), but it does really seem out of place with the tenor of Scripture’s call to have no fellowship with darkness and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. I’m not against “discernment” but it sounds like a cop-out to justify questionable choices in this case, to me, and seems to insinuate that those who would dare to call such media “bad” not discerning (like abuses of the weaker/stronger brother concept I have seen where the supposed weaker brother is ridiculed as a legalist). Although, again, I realize you are not trying to promote sin and glad that you make a distinction between viewing alien fornication and speeding to win a race.

    May God give us all true discernment through His Scriptures as He continues to conform those of us who trust His Son into the image of Christ.

  • Alan Noble

    Doug–

    It’s wonderful to be able to have a discussion about these issues that is civil and, I believe, very thought provoking.

    I think much of our disagreement stems from a differing view on what is permissible when it comes to media. But I really appreciate what you said about our current intake of media, which often times is not edifying at all–but of course, we must be cautious here, enjoying what is skillfully made by men who are made in the image of God is a very good thing, as long as we are discerning.

    I think I overstated or mis-stated when I spoke about our responsibility when it comes to sin; I certainly believe that we have an obligation to know (if we can know) what something contains before we let it into our head. I suppose my point was that we are not called to refrain from purchasing anything that supports sinful behavior or presents sin. But we are called to avoid things which would “be inappropriate for [us] to view.” I think I just wasn’t clear on this point.

    In regard to the effect of the article, I am concerned by the concept that it would not be appropriate for a believer to share their stance on a moral issue, particularly when those thoughts are ended with a call to godly discernment. Have we gotten to a place where it is appropriate to condemn something but not to praise it?

    -Alan

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    @Doug & Alan – If I may, I think that something that is “inappropriate for us to view” will always be wrong by the definition of inappropriate. The question that Alan seems to be raising is: Which things are inappropriate?

    Alan is saying, I believe, that those things which are inappropriate vary from person to person and from time to time and mood to mood. I agree with this and would put it to being primarily contingent upon one’s strength of faith and one’s cultural situation (with more emphasis being put upon the former).

    If I may use an example here to illustrate the cultural point? I grew up a minute’s walk from the beach in Laguna Beach (in the OC). Summers and Springs, Falls, and Winters were spent in swimwear. With people in swimwear, tank tops, short-shorts, and all manner of clothing that gave ample room for skin to flourish. One might say I was desensitized to bare flesh, but because seeing women in bikinis and men bare-chested and musclely was so very normal and run-of-the-mill, it was never a big deal to me.

    Then I met some people from the Midwest. They were not used to bare skin. They were not used to short-shorts or spaghetti straps. And to their minds, those things were evidences of immodesty and temptations that could not be resisted.

    The thing is, they were right. And wrong. For someone of their cultural persuasion and degree of faith, those things were certainly real temptations that could only be overcome with great strength of character. But for someone from my cultural persuasion, their concern was akin to saying a girl in a loose sweater and jeans or a man in business-casual was an inordinate temptation. Their concern just couldn’t translate because what was inappropriate for them just was not for me. And possibly even vice versa, I guess.

    The thing is, we should be aware of our own struggles and the things that are inappropriate for our own level of faith first and foremost. If we have concern for a fellow believer, but if they are truly relying on the power of the gospel in their lives and really do not have the same trouble that we would have, it may be that they have a liberty at which we have yet to arrive. Likewise, if we do not have trouble with something but note that others do, we should not tempt others with what is of little concern to ourselves.

    Essentially, I’m just restating the epistles of Paul here.

  • Alan Noble

    Here’s an example of the wrong response to this game: The “Sex-Box” Race for President

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  • http://www.aaronhall.com/ Minnesota Attorney

    Although certain conduct is only an option in the the game, there remains the concern that by buying the game, people are supporting these types of games. I supposes this raises the question of whether you should vote with your dollars.

    Minnesota Attorneys last blog post..Blog Law 101: Keeping Your Blog Legal

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