In 1939, as the television was becoming a more common household device, a New York Times reporter predicted that “TV will never be a serious competitor for radio because people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it.” This turned out to be misguided, and in 1950, Daniel Marsh concluded that, “if the television craze continues with the present level of programs, we are destined to have a nation of morons.”
Writing even more hyperbolically, author Ray Bradbury wrote: “The television, that insidious beast, that Medusa which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little.” Around the same time, architect Frank Lloyd Wright dismissed television as merely “chewing gum for the eyes.”
All of this criticism led satirist Peter De Vries to jab: “My father hated radio and could not wait for television to be invented so he could hate that too.”
It seems we are unable to approach a new technology or cultural trend without an extreme reaction. Most recently we can see this in response to video games. That media in which people use ever advancing computer technology to participate in anything from missions to save the world, fight off alien invasions, solve puzzles, play classic board games through social networking sites, or click to harvest their virtual crop of strawberries.
Popular reaction to video games has been wide ranging; some claimed it was the violent video games that lead Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to kill their classmates at Columbine High School. In contrast, Steven Johnson writes about the many intellectual benefits that video games provide, in his 2006 book, Everything Bad is Good for You. Still others point out the dangers of addiction, citing a number of deaths, mostly in China and South Korea, where there have been reports of gamers who have died of heart attacks and starvation for playing games from 3 day to 2 weeks continuously. And then there is Jane McGonigal. A video game designer who argues in her 2010 TED talk and 2011 book, Reality is Broken, that if we put the same energies and talents that video games develop in gamers to real world problems, we would be able to solve world hunger, oil shortages, and international pandemics.
There are a number of good reasons for these reactions. The Economist featured a 12-page special report in its December 10th issue, having realized that video games are a rising economic force. The video game industry is estimated worth is now over $56 billion a year, and predicted to grow to $82 billion by 2015. It would be pretty silly to simply ignore them.
There is also the standing debate between film critic Roger Ebert and TED talk speaker Kellee Santiago about whether video games are or can ever be considered an art form. There is also the latest neurological research, written about excellently by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows and Sherry Turkle in Alone Together. Both of these books discuss our cultural optimism and assumptions that technology and new media forms improve our humanity. They argue that a more realistic picture is one where discernment is needed to discover the benefits as well as the potentially negative consequences. It turns out that technology and media are not neutral, that is, they shape worldviews, habits, and virtues, for better or worse.
And that is the heart of it, really. It may sound overly philosophical or academic, but there is real conflict when fundamentally different assumptions and visions of the world confront us in our real everyday relationship and decisions. Should I be playing Grand Theft Auto? But also, should I be playing Words with Friends? Farmville? Angry Birds? These are not simply questions one can easily dismiss as virtual, unreal, and inconsequential.
This is a conversation that continues in cycles. Every time a new medium or technology is created and become prominent in popular culture, we once again are confronted with the challenges of discernment. We usually start with a really divisive debate, with vague articulations of the pros and cons, on the verge of total condemnation or idol worship. We dig deeper. We get slightly more intricate and specific language to talk reasonable. And end up in sub-groups of those that we can talk to in this newly developed language. It is really just a calmer, sleepier version of our initial division. We get lulled and soothed into not thinking to deeply about this “stuff.”
But becoming numb to these questions can soon turn us into cynics and passive consumers. How do we remain people of hope and love, and live into the questions discernment challenges us with?
While not by any means exhaustive, I would like to suggest a few first steps. First, it is important to talk and engage video games on their own terms. That is; play video games, ask others questions about video games they play, learn the language to talk about video games without prejudice. This is similar to what Jamin Brophy-Warren suggests in his Q talk in 2011. He helped create the magazine and website called Kill Screen. One of the goals of this publication is to create a space for conversation and criticism in the gaming world, similar to what already has existed for quite some time in the music and film industries.
Secondly, we need to take an aesthetic approach. The Christian tendency is to jump straight to morality and ethics when it comes to stories and actions in video games. We tend to see puzzle games and simple games as morally neutral, while assuming that first-person shooters and complex story lines are more morally problematic. This ignores the other aspects that are worth considering in discernment. As a visual, audio, participatory, storied medium, we have to take into account the positive and negatives of all of these dimensions.
Finally, we need to take a more balanced approach; extreme reactions and hyperbole will not draw us into dialogue with one another. Understanding and engaging video games is a practice, and takes practice. For Christians this practice will take us deeper and give us a better location in which to change the conversation. In order to have more intergenerational conversations, we need to start sharing what we love and who we are across the segregated categories that popular culture often trap us in. We need to turn conversation from one of quick judgments and rules toward that of discernment and carefully journeying toward a more Christ-like way of life.