Evangelical Christian books on video games have typically been dreary, censorious affairs. Painting with oversized brushes, concerned authors with knitted brows have warned us for decades that our children and country are going to hell in a handbasket because of these games. They have not, let us say, been all that subtle or nuanced in their assessments. As a "gamer" myself, I have toyed with writing a book on video games, since there seemed to be a need for a balanced voice in the conversation. I'm glad I never got started on that project. Kevin Schut has already written it.
Schut is a media scholar at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. His book, Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games (Brazos) tackles issues related to video games, both high-profile issues (violence, representation of women, addiction) and themes that have yet to receive much attention (video gaming communities, Christians in the video game business). Better yet, he deals with these issues as someone who knows what he is talking about. He's a gamer, and a video game academic (yes, video gaming has been of interest to academics for some time now).
But do not let that intimidate you. This book isn't a heavy, academic tome. Schut has put some heavy research into this book, including some interesting original survey studies of gamers and game designers. But unlike some academic books, this one is readable. One of Schut's strengths is his ability to unpack difficult and subtle concepts in a way that is approachable, using metaphors that are within anyone's grasp. His writing is clear and crisp and fun to read. Even his endnotes are worth reading; he cites so many good resources. Ordinary Christians who want an informed perspective on video games ought to read this book, whether they feel academically qualified or not.
'It Isn't That Easy'
That is not to say they will find easy answers here. Schut states his purpose up front: He wants Christians to develop a faith-informed critical perspective on these games for themselves, rather than becoming dependent upon a guide to spoon-feed them the answers. "If we can learn to think critically," he writes, "we can be our own guides." As they say, teach a man to fish...
But this will prove disturbing or irritating to some readers who yearn for someone to spell it out in black and white: "So, can my son, in good Christian conscience, head-shot a zombie to save the town?" Again and again, Schut responds, "It isn't that easy. It depends a lot upon the context, what your son is getting out of it, what he understands himself to be doing, how he unpacks the spiritual significance of this game." Frustrated moms everywhere can either grit their teeth...or else begin conversations with their sons. This book will help inform those conversations considerably. Concerned parents (or pastors, or youth leaders) will understand the dynamics of gaming better, so gamers will feel more understood. And gamers will have a better idea of some of the dangers and risks inherent in gaming that concern their parents (or pastors, or youth leaders).
Schut comes at these issues as an expert who knows the field well enough to see both sides. His approach in each chapter is to introduce a question. For example, "Are video games valuable educational resources?" He will then present one side of the debate ("Nah, video games are a waste of time—they make our kids stupider every day."), and explain why critics feel that way. Then he will present the other side ("Are you kidding? Video games are the biggest opportunity for educators to engage kids since the invention of blackboards!"), and explain why proponents feel that way. And finally, he will consider the claims and counter-claims as a Christian. Usually, he ends up saying, "You're both right, and you're both wrong" as he presents a nuanced alternative or a blend of both sides.
The range of issues he covers is impressive. He sets the whole debate about video games within the wider context of our anxieties and utopian hopes for new technologies. He looks at what gaming means, and how playing is part of what makes us human. He muses about how a digital medium could possibly convey spiritual truth. He looks at violence and sexism in games, and how they are slowly changing. He explores gaming addiction, and the healthy and human uses of fantasy and escape. He considers whether games are a waste of time, or whether they are training us to think better. He examines online gaming clans and communities, and to what extent they are truly communities. He surveys Christian gamers to get their perspective on creating and playing games.
An impressive scope indeed, and Schut deals with each issue with balance and generosity to both sides of each debate. He is no theologian, at least, not by trade. The reader will search in vain for extended exegesis or detailed theological analysis. Rather, he comes as a Christian scholar who makes his field accessible to his readers through his own faith-informed perspective. We need more of his kind.
Taking the Conversation Further
That is not to say that I agreed with him all the time. Here are some areas where Schut's ideas could perhaps use some further development or refinement:
First, although he does help readers create a critical perspective, he doesn't take the next step and formulate a specifically apologetical perspective. That is, how do we play and discuss games in a way that challenges unbelief and brings us face to face with the gospel? He starts in that direction, but to complete the journey, some applied presuppositional apologetics would be in order. There is work to be done here, for there is a huge need for such an apologetic among gamers (the internet is fairly atheist-friendly).
Second, I wish he had spent a little more time on gaming addiction. In high school, I was very nearly addicted to the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, and I know how powerful the pull of an alternate identity can be for a teen who doesn't really like himself. A few paragraphs that would guide pastors in how the addicted can re-center their identity as a son or daughter of God would have been welcome.
Third, in discussing video game design by Christians, his three categories—"explicitly Christian," "allegorically Christian," and "Christian-friendly"—seemed too rough and wide. I would have appreciated some exploration of how Christians might convey the contours of a Christian worldview in a way that could invite non-Christians in as well, but was more than just an allegory. How can games resonate with a Christian imaginative light without preaching or aping the gospel? It felt as if he scratched the surface of what could be fertile and fascinating conversation.
And finally, as an academic who teaches media, I would have appreciated seeing his survey questions in an appendix (that's standard practice for survey studies).
But these are comparatively minor flaws. One book cannot say or do everything. What Of Games and God does is map out space for further Christian thinking about video games. And that in itself is a major achievement.
Ted Turnau is a teaching fellow at the International Institute for Christian Studies. He is the author of Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective (P & R Publishing).