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.

About Richard Clark

Richard H. Clark is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture. He has a Master of Arts in Theology and the Arts from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He lives in Louisville, Ky. He is also the managing editor of Gamechurch and a freelance writer for Unwinnable, Paste, and other outlets.
E-mail: clarkrichardh [at] gmail [dot] com.
Twitter: @deadyetliving

  • Ben Pitseleh

    I think that is an interesting statement, that video games inadvertently acknowledge sin and confront us to wrestle with it. I would agree. In the end I come to the same conclusion, I am not a good man.
    What I question about myself is the games I choose to play. There are plenty of games out there, and while I currently play Ratchet and Clank, I also am playing Call of Duty. Is one better than the other? Is one inherently bad? No. But I illustrate that my gaming tastes are wide, so I can find enjoyment in a large facet of games, but then turn around and choose some that have some have some questionable actions or choices. For instance, I highly enjoyed the God of War series. I think they are fantastic games. Highly entertaining. But the entire premise is a little lacking on the noble side. Even ignoring that though, there are constantly actions I was confronted with while playing. In every iteration of the game, there are sex scenes where you can choose to have intercourse with women (though for the record I know that the action is all off screen). I choose not to, and the end result is I don’t get some extra orbs or get to platinum GOW3 because of it. I’m good with that. But why would I want to play a game that subjects me to make that decision at all? Or in the first game, the protagonist Kratos must sacrifice a human to open a door and continue. You have to do it to proceed in the game. I did it. It felt weird to say the least. I don’t want to do that again, but I did it. Almost without question because I had to in order to move on. Why should I put myself in that position? It is ridiculous. And yet, when the next game comes out I will consider purchasing it, and most likely will.
    In a way it is “just a game” and I acknowledge the rights and wrongs just as everything else in this fallen world. On the other, I am choosing entertainment that is steeped in sin in many ways. No, the games aren’t sin, but many facets of what comes out of me when I play are. It does make very clear how much I am in need of God’s grace.

  • http://newbreedofadvertisers.blogspot.com/ Sam Van Eman

    A sobering confession here. I wonder if you play any of these games for reasons outside of the basic elements that make a game playable.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com Richard Clark

    Sorry to take so long to respond!

    @Ben – Yeah, it’s a fine line between a game that allows us to explore those aspects of our humanity and a game that just wants to unthinkingly glorify them or revel in them. As far as God of War goes, that’s a game I put in the latter category myself, though it really is right there on the line. Plus, it’s really a personal decision as to what makes sense to play, and what doesn’t. As for why we should do sinful things in-game, I think it CAN be an illuminating experience, assuming we’re able to move past the issue itself and start thinking about the subject matter at hand in the game.

    @Sam – I’m not sure what you’re asking here. Are you asking if I play games for reasons other than “fun”? If so, I guess the answer is yes.

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  • Steve

    Sorry for dragging up an old article (almost a year old or so), but I felt the need to put in my two cents.

    I was reflecting recently on the concept of video games and simulating questionable actions within them and how to frame that particular dilemma as a Christian. One thing that struck me upon thinking closely is that, to some degree, all media is interactive and “acted out” by someone.

    For the story it is the author and for the movie it is the actor. It may often fall upon an author or actor to portray a character whose views they do not agree with and whose actions they find unsettling. They may have to act out or envision these situations in great detail to make a point. In the end, the question (which is the most important one) would be is there a point to the story?

    I wouldn’t say that this perspective justifies every form of questionable conduct in fiction, but I think that it is more a matter of the story as a whole as opposed to any individual action. Also, there is certainly something problematic about wanting to only ever play as a villain, versus playing one simply because that is the role available in a story. The most important thing in any story is what lessons we can draw from it that portraying a character of questionable morals in that particular vaguely creative/interactive role is worth it and if we can maintain proper objectivity to see the lesson.


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