After much cajoling, whining and emotional manipulation, my parents finally bought me a Sinclair ZX Spectrum 48K. Despite the many assurances that such a purchase would help me fulfil my homework responsibilities, my prevailing memory is of hours spent on games such as Jet Set Willy and Manic Minor.
The bleeps and bloops, sound effects and two-colour graphics were nothing like I’d ever seen before. Back then, games came on audiotapes and you daren’t stay in the room at the same time as it was ‘loading’, lest you breathed in the wrong way and caused the whole thing to crash.
Things are different in 2013. Games don’t come on tapes now, but on disks or, increasingly, as DLC (Down Loadable Content). The big gaming brands of yesteryear — Sega and Atari — have both withdrawn from the industry as behemoths Microsoft and Sony muscled them out with the Xbox and Play Station brands respectively.
Bigger budgets and wider appeal
Games look and feel like Hollywood blockbuster titles now and have the production budgets to match. The controversial Grand Theft Auto 5 took $800 million on its release day and 2009’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 generated more revenue than James Cameron’s film Avatar.
The demographics of who plays games have also shifted significantly in the past 15 years. Adults like me, who grew up with video games in the 80s, make up a significant portion of those who play them today. Quoting a report commissioned by Pixwoo, a social gaming network, wired.co.uk says: ‘Rather than being a 12-year-old male, the average gamer is actually 35 years old with a job and a family’. Games aren’t just for the male demographic either. The Washington Post recently reported that almost half of the gaming population is now female. And, with the advent of family-friendly consoles such as the Nintendo Wii, games have a far wider appeal than ever before.
All of this is to say that video games in 2013 can’t just be written off as a fad, something kids grow out of, or just for nerdy teenage boys who have acne and are bad at sport. Like Facebook and Twitter, the new entertainment media has grown into a global and cultural phenomenon in its popularity.
Why are games so loved? Well, put simply, video games are a ton of fun. The creativity of game developers, designers and artworkers elevates the medium into a legitimate art form. Playing Halo 4 is like watching a high production interactive sci-fi movie, and games like Sim City, where you plan and run a city (infrastructure, taxes, town planning, etc.), offer real learning potential. Gaming in 2013 is more sophisticated than ever before, but is not without its issues.
Violence in games
Advances in technology mean that the next generation of video games can feature photo-realistic graphics and, in some cases, violent content or adult themes. Expect more tabloid headlines like, ‘Grand Theft Auto 5 torture row: teachers slam scenes of extreme violence in most expensive game ever made’.
The main difference between the Hollywood blockbuster film and gaming in 2013 is that now you can interact with the virtual worlds of Xbox One and PS4 game consoles. Fancy winning the Champions League as Barcelona football club in FIFA 13? Go for it! Perhaps overseeing an expansive military operation is more your thing? Then Battlefield 4 is for you. Want to go on a city-wide murderous rampage? You’re in luck! Grand Theft Auto 5 just came out.
In the Old Testament there is always an evaluation of violence: it is either God’s right judgment on sin or the violence itself is clearly demonstrated to be evil. However, violence in video games either happens in an amoral context or no moral context at all.
There are some challenges ahead and some titles are clearly not appropriate for all people. Just as with the film industry, video games are regulated and suitability advice is given to parents via the PEGI (Pan European Game Information) mark on the cover of each game.
Developing the right tools
The big issue for parents, however, is when young people are with peers who have access to games that are age inappropriate. Parents need wisdom to help young people think through what they ought to do with the choices they’re presented with when an adult is not there to make decisions for them.
My nephew is 13 years old and my older brother has told him that he’s not, in any circumstances, to play Call of Duty (PEGI 18) at his friend’s house. Will Ashar obey his parents’ wishes? Well, that’s going to depend on a number of factors. We know that law alone will be insufficient in helping him make the right choices.
Therefore, we need to help young people develop the tools they need to make good decisions: a Christian mind and Christian worldview, in which they understand how a person is loved by God, dehumanised by violence and the consequences of ‘sewing in the flesh’. That it will make a person harsh, cold and hard-hearted towards Jesus. Paul’s words to the Philippians come to mind: ‘Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things’.
On line safety concerns
Next generation blockbuster titles such as Call of Duty: Ghosts, Destiny and Titan Fall feature a significant shift away from traditional single player games to focus on multiplayer online experiences, inviting gamers to interact with each other over the web. This can add a significant element of fun because you can play competitive matches with friends or new people online. However, the anonymity that online gaming affords players means that it isn’t always a pleasant experience. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been called a cheat, loser, noob (newbie / new inexperienced player) or usually much worse on Xbox Live because I was doing particularly well at a competitive game.
Online bullying is a real concern and we need to help young people be safe in this new environment. If we don’t understand the online world of Xbox Live, Play Station Network or PC gaming and are responsible for young people who use this media regularly, we ought to learn quickly because the internet isn’t going away and we need to help young people make safe, responsible and sensible decisions.
Good use of time?
I remember a friend telling me about the time he told his wife that he was going to have a quick go on Championship Manager (a football management simulator) before going to bed. He recounted to me of how mad she was with him when he casually rolled into bed at 5.00 am and how telling her that he’d won the league with Leicester City didn’t help make things better. Video games are not unique in presenting us with the challenge of making responsible decisions when it comes to time management. How many hours are spent on Facebook, flicking through TV channels or looking at cat videos on YouTube? It is simply another entertainment media we need to handle with care.
I was chatting to a friend (a father of two) about what it means to parent responsibly when considering these issues. He talked about restricting screen time for teenage children to one hour per day. They can choose between TV and games but all screens are used in the family social space and for no longer than the agreed time.
Thinking through the issues
For many, video games are a great source of entertainment. Some people enjoy X-Factoror The Great British Bake Off, I happen to prefer a more interactive media. However, we ought to be discerning, disciplined and apply Christian thought and a Christian mind to all the media we consume, be it Facebook, going to the movies, the music we listen to, what we choose to watch on TV. In the same way, we also ought to think about how we can enjoy, safely and responsibly, the benefits of the new interactive media and how we help those entrusted to our care.
Pod Bhogal is Head of Communications for UCCF:The Christian Unions. Follow him on Twitter @podbhogal for video game and football-related tomfoolery. He sometimes Tweets about student mission.