I was born in 1982, the same year the Atari 2600 went on sale. My dad waited until I was older and could fully appreciate it before purchasing the system for me. That purchase would shape my life more than he anticipated. In his spare time, we would sit in front of the TV together and play Tank and Pong and attempt to decipher the disastrously designed E.T. For my dad, it barely ranked as a hobby. He was more interested in fishing and grilling.
But I had a lot more spare time than him and was far less interested in the outdoors. Every Christmas list was packed with requests for video games and the systems that played them. Faced with requests for a new console every four years or so, my parents would complain about forced obsolescence, that frustrating moment when you realize that a perfectly good piece of technology is no longer useful—a trend that started with the Nintendo-Sega arms race and not with Apple’s iPhone, as many assume.
As a result, I was intimately aware of the evolution of the video game medium. This may be why I was both intrigued and underwhelmed by Andrew Ervin’sBit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World. Ervin seeks to provide a kind of historical walkthrough of the form, offering us a bird’s-eye view of just how drastically the aims and audience of video games have changed over time. He comes at his subject matter from an outsider’s perspective, transporting himself back in time to the first-ever video game, Tennis for Two, and exploring the twists and turns of the art form’s history by way of its most noteworthy creative innovations.
An Outsider’s Encounter
So much attention has been given to the evolution of the video game industry—financial models, money earned, misguided marketing, and the player acquisition and manipulation that comes with it—that the art form itself has been mostly overlooked by the mainstream. This makes perfect sense in a world that proclaims value based on dollars spent, and dollars spent has indeed been the industry’s claim to fame. As video games came into their own in the ’90s, the industry was generating revenue more than two and half times larger than the film industry.
Add in marketing typically aimed at a primary audience of teenage boys and an innovation cycle tied to realistically depicted violence, and it’s easy to see why video games largely lost the trust and curiosity of the mainstream. Ervin himself writes, “I never wanted to associate myself with the millions of people for whom bloodlust—even virtual bloodlust—became a virtue.”
As part of this disinterested mainstream, Ervin was disgusted when he first encountered the darker tendencies of some video games. He writes of trying the violent first-person-shooter DOOM: “While dated, the original incarnation remained disconcertingly brutal, even in our desensitized age.” And on the prospect of shooting his friends in Goldeneye, he writes, “If shooting creatures from hell had felt vaguely disconcerting, shooting human avatars of my friends felt positively sickening.”
Eventually Ervin acclimated himself to standard video game violence, even seeming to appreciate it for what it revealed about himself. “I wasn’t disturbed by the violence, I realized, as much as by my enjoyment of it.”
The entire book takes the self-reflective approach to games of all types, spanning from the aforementioned Pong forerunner, Tennis for Two, to Super Mario Brothers, to the online time-suck World of Warcraft. Focused on what he perceives (somewhat idiosyncratically) to be key creative innovations in the art form, Ervin looks first for ways that games might teach him about himself.
The result is a book that veers wildly from memoir to a reported history of video game evolution. Often, Ervin’s own quirky interests seem to be guiding his choice of topic more than anything else. Still, his uniquely self-aware approach to exploring the medium is not without value.
In his most recent book, Play Anything, author and video game designer Ian Bogost explains what Ervin models in Bit by Bit:
“When faced with a strange, scary, and contemporary technological medium like games, people want either to vanquish it as a threat or to bottle its black magic for use elsewhere—in homes or schools or workplaces. But games aren’t magic, and the most special thing about them isn’t unique to them anyway—their artificial, deliberately limited structures teach us how to appreciate everything else that has a specific, limited structure.”
Without calling them out explicitly, Bogost warns against the duel temptations any new medium offers: idolatry and demonization. Either warps a man-made marvel into a supernatural work, giving it entirely more credit than it deserves. Video games aren’t for bowing down or burning. They exist to serve us and to help us to better serve God. Like many of God’s good gifts, the benefits may not be readily apparent to all, but the potential for good is there nonetheless.
Ervin, who is an agnostic, describes the artistic value of games like this: “Cordoned off from the workaday world I can find the mental and emotional bandwidth to better mediate my relationship between the real and the mystical or extra-real.” In other words, they are a catalyst for self-awareness and metaphysical enlightenment.
Christians will be quick (and right) to point out that we have a Book for that, and we have the local church for further guidance. But God has given us graces through the years that serve to center us and teach us about ourselves, things like books, sports, articles on the internet, and yes, all forms of art, even digital interactive ones.
Technological and artistic innovations like these aren’t formed in a vacuum merely for capitalist corruption and consumption (though they are never completely untouched by those dangers). They arise out of culture and need. They address aches and longings that arise in the world, often before we’re even fully aware of them.
It’s not hard to imagine that this new medium, now coming into its own as an art form—complete with auteurs, critics, and connoisseurs—might exist for a reason. Just like me in 1982, video games were born with a purpose largely unknown even to those who created them. We are naturally frustrated and frightened by the technological leaps and bounds each new year brings. But this growth comes with purpose, even if those purposes are unknown to us.
In the final chapter of Bit by Bit, Ervin imagines a future where video games embrace their potential by becoming more humane. By allowing for human freedom to be carried out in an artistic context and by encouraging a “more enlightened, democratic, and civil level of discourse” in multiplayer landscapes, Ervin sees video games as a logical answer to society’s most pressing woes. Of course, we are far from this potential being fully realized, Ervin acknowledges, citing the industry’s ties to its militaristic origins and the more recent upending of Gamergate, an ugly forerunner of the culture wars that reared their head during the 2016 election. “I’m confident,” he says anyway, “that we can do better.”
His use of the first-person pronoun here is striking, coming from someone who both proclaims himself and shows himself to be an outsider to the video game community throughout the book, often in ways that may cause the invested gamer to cringe. But after diving in with an open mind, he finds himself permanently embedded in the world, too filled with awe and curiosity to back away.
Christians are right to be deeply skeptical of each and every innovation. Each one brings new dangers and misuses that threaten to swallow our humanity whole. Every new device can pull us away from the spiritual realities and disciplines we so deeply need to thrive. But we’re also meant to marvel, and maybe even appreciate, those things within creation that may unnerve us.
Like a man at the Grand Canyon struggling with a fear of heights, we stand at the precipice of something beautiful. We can turn and walk away, but we’d miss out on what the rest of the world calls wonder.
Richard Clark is director of editorial development for CT Pastors and Preaching Today. He is the co-founder of Christ and Pop Culture and a contributing writer at gamechurch.com.