The Beautifully Dark Side of Videogames

John Marston is not a good man. The famed protagonist of Red Dead Redemption kills unsuspecting victims. He lassos men and drags them behind his steed. He ties up a lady, places her delicately on the train tracks and walks away, just as a train speeds toward her. I do all these things on my own volition. Still, I am frustrated – outraged even – when Marston, out of my control, passively observes the casual rape of helpless women. Marston is an irredeemable sinner, I say. I draw the distinction clearly in my own mind: Marston is the sinner – I’m not. I’m just playing the game and following his lead.

Our relationship with the concept of sin is an uncomfortable one. It doesn’t matter who we are or what religion or creed we ascribe to, sin makes us uncomfortable, whether directly or indirectly. Whether it’s a known wrong we’ve committed that we can’t seem to push out of our mind, or an act that violates an outside standard, the awareness of that outside standard can haunt us.

For Christians, the outside standard is the nature of God himself. It’s because of this that sin is given such weight – it violates not just a legal boundary or arbitrary rule, but the nature of a particular supreme authority. It’s not simply that God might strike me dead for something truly bad; it’s that sinning results in a broken relationship with God. The least of my concern is having to meet my maker; sin results in a relationship with our maker that is effectively broken.

One big implication of this is that sin also causes our relationship with creation to be hindered in a substantial way. Every good thing, while still good in its own right, is tinged by those who interact with it under sinful influence. Business, ecology, culture, art, friendships, marriages, and vacations are under the influence of this curse.

In other words, reality is truly, deeply broken. There is no way to escape this truth. There is no one who manages to rise above this condition, though many religious people have tried. I may strive and fight for perfection, but my failures are inevitable. As the apostle Paul writes in the book of Romans, “None is righteous. No, not one.”

It might be a relatively simple prospect to live an outwardly righteous life. With a certain amount of accountability and restraint, I can keep myself from murdering someone, stealing, or committing adultery. Still, my heart persists in undermining those efforts. I lust after something or someone that does not belong to me. I hate anyone who annoys me, offends me, or gets in my way. I operate under the assumption that I am the most impressive, important person in the room. I abandon the standard of a creator, and I arrogantly put myself in his place.

Artistic mediums that ignore the reality of sin are sentimental at best. Thomas Kinkaid may paint a lovely cottage, but there is very little richness and resonance to his work because it lacks an acknowledgement of this key truth. Videogames, on the other hand, tend to acknowledge our inherent sinful nature without even trying. In fact, videogames’ biggest strength is that they illuminate our nature and force us to come to terms with it. In a videogame we are, simply put, selfish jerks.

When I am given a blatant moral choice, I may make the outwardly righteous choice, but my inward tendency still remains. I do what it takes to progress, not because it’s right, but because it alleviates my boredom and allows me to feel good about myself. While playing Pitfall, I used crocodile heads as stepping stones. In the city of Rapture, I killed untold numbers of people, simply because they are insane. It wasn’t enough to win a match of Mortal Kombat against my friend; once he was unconscious, I had to turn into a dragon, and bite him in half.

These days, we long for meaningful moments to occur within our games, and we’re embarrassed for the action game that contains awkward and stilted social interactions. Even still, after spending much of Far Cry 2 doing deeds for the notorious arms dealer known as the Jackal for some extra diamonds and burning men alive, walking into a nearly empty bar and receiving nothing more than empty stares and impatiently quick explanations just seems right. I don’t deserve a relationship with these people, and they can’t risk one with me.

John Marston, he was a follower. He followed everyone who crossed his path. He did what he was told, and all out of a fear of being stuck. I was a follower too. I followed Marston to the very end. I did what it took to get him there. And game after game, I follow whatever leads me to whatever end. All I ask for is an end, and some excitement along the way.

As a sober exploration of my sinful state, many of these experiences are incredibly valuable, not harmful, as many have charged. It’s just a videogame. These worlds, these people, and these choices are not real. I’m not truly sinning in these games, as much as I’m exploring the concept of sin. But I know one thing: I am not a good man.

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