There are obvious citations that anyone can pull up that show the benefits of video games in an individual’s fine motor skills, their ability to think more critically, and make better decisions. Likewise, some have learned history through games such as Assassin’s Creed, and others still, despite the common claim to the contrary, managed to form strong bonds through the gaming community. There are numerous other examples that people can bring to the forefront in the discussion on the values of gaming, but the positive correlation between the ethereal world of gaming and the physical world are very real. Yet nonetheless, video games have born the focus of many who claim they are not inherently good and productive uses of time.
Most believe recreation and leisure to be inherently good, especially within the Christian worldview where we see the first act of God after Creation was to rest. Video games are simply another expression of recreation and leisure—so why do so many people, especially Christians, harp on them? Christian gamers hold much frustration over what seems to be a continual belittling and castigating of those who enjoy video games. Perhaps the most common refrain from them is that any recreational activity can become an idol. If that’s the case (and it is), why single out video games? Frankly, people single them out because they’re absolutely correct to. The problem is not so much that people can single video games out and paint a broad brush by saying that they are generally a means people use to escape responsibility, there are better ways to spend one’s time, there are better things to spend one’s money on, etc. These things are all true and most who enjoy video games recognize this—the problem comes with the rampant hypocrisy that is so often present with those who call out video games apart from other recreational activities that can just as easily become sources of idolatry.
I find the one who has all sorts of sports knowledge tucked away in their brains to be on equal footing as the one who plays video games for hours on end. Likewise, the couple that binge-watches hours of television, has their nose continually buried in fiction, scrolls endlessly on social media platforms, buys a boat/camper/vacation home just so they can continually “get away from it all”—all the while skipping out on church, etc., shares culpability for how they spend their time. In the end, my point in writing this is not to say that video games are fundamentally bad, nor that one who plays them is necessarily wasting their time doing so. I firmly believe God has given us video games, among many other things, for our enjoyment and His ultimate glory. Yet just as any good thing can be abused and made into an idol, so too can video games.
The question then is not if video games are evil, or bad, or even necessarily fruitless in terms of what their intended goal is. The question is if on that Last Day, we will stand before our Maker and give an adequate account of the talents He gave us. It is the same sentiment behind John Piper’s plea that seniors don’t waste their retirement collecting sea shells on the beach. It has very, very little to do with how enjoyable and beneficial some of these things are in their creative beauty and entertainment value. Rather, it has to do with what is of superlative good. It has everything to do with what is the best use of our time. Some days, that might look like enjoying a movie with the family, playing a video game for a short bit, or yes, even collecting some sea shells on a lovely beach, basking in the goodness of God’s creation. For most days, the superlative good is not bound up in our leisure and recreation. Arguably, one might even say that at best, there’s a six-to-one ratio to be found here.
If we truthfully examine ourselves, I can’t think of many who can say with full confidence that they’ve balanced their use of time quite as well as they’d like. Many are not as “in control” of their recreational habits as they let on. For most of us, this is part and parcel to navigating life in a fallen world. Our spirits are constantly in lock-step with our flesh, the one battling over the other for dominance. If we are honest, we ebb and flow in seasons with particular disciplines, and especially, habitual sins. In this same vein, many have reserved a set of sins which are more socially acceptable, especially within the church, and they are loathe to rid themselves of these sins because of the strangle-hold they have upon the person. I’m likewise not altogether convinced that the majority of Christians are battling sin with the sense of agony and striving the apostle Paul conveys, mainly, because I don’t know that they see the battle for what it truly is.
We also have to recognize that at some point, there is a qualitative difference in the things we find entertaining. Some things which spark our amusement are more innocent, or more wicked, than other things. Many wish to relegate entertainment to some sort of nebulous realm of indifference, where objectionable content is not objectionable by virtue of it being made for entertainment purposes—yet this is something which Christians must take into greater account. I suspect many do not participate in such things as a result of arduous exegetical work that convinced them objectionable content is appropriate to engage in as Christians, but rather, they simply did enough homework to use the Bible to justify their poor choices. Nothing is value-neutral, especially when it comes to entertainment. It ought to be a problem when we find ourselves amused by the things for which Christ died.
I don’t believe video games, nor even forms of entertainment, are the issue in and of themselves, of course. One given to enjoying video games too much is simply bearing the fruit of deeper-seated issues. One can have meaningful and unadulterated, good fun. The goal is not to instill a lengthy list of reasons why one cannot enjoy these good gifts, but encourage them to assess the valuation of actual good within them. Thus, the issue goes beyond the externals to the heart of each person, though we can still widely look at our culture as assess a broader issue at play. Rather than isolate entertainment as the root problem, I believe the issue is that we are a fundamentally soft and decadent culture, and for that reason, we are an entertainment-driven culture. We don’t lack time for leisure; we have too much time for leisure, and so we are driven by finding every which way we can to occupy that drive.
Many of us are not forced into the habitual, day-in and day-out struggle that people in less affluent cultures are. Few can even sympathize with the experience of one’s grandparents, let alone long-dead relatives, whose life left little time for the things we have today. In other words, it is not the fact that we desire entertainment and have the audacity to enjoy being entertained. It is the fact that we are a people consumed with maximizing our pleasure in all the wrong ways, entertainment simply being one of them. While there are numerous reasons why I believe all of this is so, I sense much of this discussion boils down to is an issue of mastery and self-control. For that, I simply offer up an anecdote from my pastor regarding John MacArthur:
My pastor used to work at Grace Community Church and because of the large amount of other people on staff, it was invariably someone’s birthday nearly all the time—which naturally meant cake. Everyone would gather to celebrate and extend a happy birthday, including MacArthur. My pastor isn’t much of a fan of cake, so he would politely refuse and one day as he stood next to John, he noticed he also politely denied a piece of cake. He turned to MacArthur and asked, “You don’t like cake too, huh?” John replied something to the extent of, “No, I actually really like cake, but I make it a practice to deny myself what I like so that nothing takes mastery over me.”
People might look at something as small as this and decry MacArthur a legalist; after all, it is just a piece of cake. However, I would suggest such a person grandly misses the point: it is the “small” disciplines that prove the foundation of our principles. John was set to have only Christ as Master, and knowing his own disposition toward a love of cake, he denied what he enjoyed because he acted on principle. The idea being that if he made a regular practice of self-denial, even when the cost was low, the end result is a more disciplined life.
If you’re still struggling with the concept here, supplant “cake” with whatever else it is that you enjoy (and I don’t mean to the point of stretching the illustration to absurdity). Then, think of Heb. 12:1—notice the author doesn’t single out sin, but even that which provides an encumbrance, meaning that which might be a “distraction” for this singular goal of running the race set before us with endurance and fixing our eyes on Christ. The point becomes much broader than cake, as it moves us to think beyond simply enjoying things by impulse. It moves us to think in principled terms, and then act on those principles.
The point being: if you make it a regular practice to deny yourself the things you enjoy and love, even when such things are not inherently sinful or bad—you can make the same conscious decision on something all the more difficult. You can stand firm when temptation is great; you can endure through trials and temptations because you have long made a habit of having mastery over your flesh (1 Cor. 9:27). In the wake of the many ministerial failures and disqualifications of the past and the many yet to come, there is an incredible nugget of wisdom in the anecdote of “Johnny Mac and his cake.” Yet even for the average layperson who may never enter into vocational ministry, there is still an incredible amount of wisdom to be found in MacArthur’s practice here. The simple reason for this is that it involves a regular act of volition to deny yourself the things which you enjoy most.
The problem is, most of us don’t make it a practice to deny ourselves because we don’t have to, and figure there’s no real point in doing so since that’s the case. Rather, we presume that on the day it is necessary for us to go without, we’ll make the faithful decision to do so. Perhaps that is the case for you, but more than likely, you are just like the rest of us, and would find that practice all the more difficult if you have not provided ample opportunity to deny yourself over the years. Couple this with the fact that the heart is deceptive above all else—and we are masters of self-deception, fooling ourselves into believing we do things the right way for the right reasons—and the “I’ll do it tomorrow” mentality truly shows itself for what it is.
The problem with video games, and other forms of entertainment and leisure, is that it is just like having a slice of cake. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a slice of cake every once in a while, yet when you start to find reasons to celebrate all the more regularly, you tend to develop an insatiable desire for sweets. The natural result is that if you aren’t measured and controlled in your intake, you make exceptions elsewhere in your diet, and you become overweight. Perhaps you even develop diabetes. Continue down this road and the inevitable result is that your overweight, diabetic self is sitting on the operating table waiting to have a limb removed simply because you couldn’t be bothered to develop self-control and maintain a better diet. None of this happens overnight. Nobody gains 60 lbs. in the course of a week even. It takes time and a prolonged loosening of self-imposed measures of control to get there. The same can be said for those who have an extramarital affair. Very few start out their marriage with the intent to commit adultery—but it was a long series of choices that brought them to defile their marriage bed.
The point I’m drawing out here is that these things do correlate, even though they may seem entirely unrelated. It is not to say that video games are the devil, nor that recreational activities in and of themselves are the devil and thus lead to adultery. The point is that we are creatures of habit, and habits are just that. They take time to form and our hearts are rarely pure in the choices we make. It is even more rare that one thinks through an issue to see how it will effect them in the years to come. The problem also isn’t that we have too little time on our hands for things like entertainment and leisure. We have ample time on our hands for all sorts of activities; what we choose to do with the time we have though will invariably shape us. This is Paul’s own fundamental point in Rom. 12:1-2; things have a way of transforming us—that is—pressing us into the mold, as we are passively engaged in them. Entertainment does this in a way no other thing can, yet few seem eager to explore that connection.
I also tend to see that in some of the “gray areas” of the Christian life, like how much time is too much time in playing video games, most tend to err in favor of liberty. Again, the same is said for others whose entertainment choices and recreational activities bring them to err in favor of liberty. Yet here we go, right back to the issue of mastery and cultivating the godly habit of intentional, self-discipline through denial. Whatever occupies your thoughts, habits, and guides how you spend your money is what masters you. These things do correlate, whether or not we like to admit as much. If you sense that perhaps I am being a little too dogmatic about this, let me just ask: the last time you went directly into intentional sin, how long did your period of temptation last? Did you give in right away, or did you hold out until an avenue of escape was made known to you? In other words, did you kill your sin, or did it kill you? If it got the better of you, examine other areas of your life and bring them into submission so that your body may be your slave. Treat the root, not simply the fruit.