Why We Shouldn’t Reject the Label “Gamer”

[sorry for the long break guys. I’ll try to find time to update what’s going on in my life in a future post]

Every once in a while, we revisit the issue on the label “gamer”, and usually, the enlightened voices (both within Christian and secular gaming circles) make the very reasonable argument that while they love games and love to talk about games, there are connotations and implications of being called a “gamer” which they reject (e.g. the implication that gaming is the most important activity in their lives). Thus, they feel the need to reject the “gamer” label, distance themselves from self-identified “gamers”, or at the very least, point out how the label is unhelpful. 

Most recently, my esteemed editor-in-chief Zach and Ben Kucherra (over at Polygon) wrote similar articles on this issue. I get what they are saying, and on some level, I agree with them. Yes, a healthy individual who plays games as a hobby should have many other things more important than gaming (e.g. family). Yes, many self-identified “gamers” display behavior which is disturbing (e.g. abusive fanboyism), and I can see why you might want to distance yourself from them. And from a Christian perspective, yes there is a problem with our hearts when we more closely identify with the category “gamer” than the category “follower of Jesus”. I agree to all of these points. But still I think we (or Christians at least), shouldn’t reject the term gamer. This is why:

1. The “Gamer” Subculture Exists. 

I find it more helpful to think of “Gamers” not as a label for individuals, but as a tribe (or more accurately, a collection of loosely-related tribes). Tribes, as explained by Seth Godin, refer to a group of people with similar interests, connected by the internet, who share the same cultural language and practices. I am part of a small tribe of people from the Southeast Asian region who play Hearthstone. Our community leaders are Silfer and Babael. Our champions are zGGleoz, WaningMoon and Kero. We are also part of a larger tribe of Hearthstone Players in general. Together, we discuss over the recent Naxrramus card releases, mull over how it will affect the meta, and experiment with new deck archetypes. We follow personalities such as Trump, Kripparian and Reynad, read websites such as IHEARTHU, /r/hearthstone/ and LiquidHearth, and we all have an opinion over the controversial Dreamhack finals match between Rdu and Amaz. We are a part of a even larger tribe of players of CCGs or collectible card games. Occasionally, we have cross-tribal discussions with the Magic:The Gathering tribe to talk about the use of RNG in card games, and general strategies which crosses both games (e.g., managing your mana curve, the Beatdown vs Control dichotomy). If you are from any of these tribes, you will recognize some of the terminology I’ve used. If you’re not from any of these tribes, you will find what I’ve just described very foreign. That’s precisely the point I will like to make. 

The “Gamer” subculture already exists as a giant collection of many overlapping tribes. We throw names like Kojima, Levine, Molyneux and Miyamoto around. We use terms like “platformers”, “RPG elements”, “tight mechanics”, “non-linear narrative” and know what we’re talking about. Sure, we have tribes which bicker against each other, e.g. the Playstation fanboys vs the XBox fanboys, but these two tribes will collectively band together as one when they feel the need to diss Electronic Arts for their DRM policies. 

2. We are part of the subculture, whether or not we like all it entails

If we not only play games, but also talk about it, read about it, and write about it, we are part of the tribe, because what we do connects with other tribe members. Recently, some people have been replying to my article on Asura’s Wrath, and I was initially shocked by how they failed to understand what I was trying to say. But now I realize that I’ve been trying to write as a member of the “gaming community” but I was only using cultural language, concepts, values and intuitions which can only be understood by a much smaller tribe, i.e. an Evangelical Christian Gaming Community with Calvinist leanings. I failed to realize that as long as I write about games, I am part of a larger tribe and I need to think about how my article would be perceived by the larger tribe (for this very reason, I have much appreciation for the folks at Gamechurch.com). 

Now I am part of the tribe of people who play PS3 games. I may not agree with some of the actions and behavior of people who call themselves PS3 gamers, be it fanboys who diss XBox gamers, people who say abusive things in multiplayer games, and folks who see playing (and defending) the PS3 as the most important thing in their lives. But, as long as I care about some of the same core things they care about (what PS3 games are coming out? Is XYZ game worth playing? What’s going to happen to Sony in the long run?) and I read, talk and write about it, I am part of this tribe. I may not agree with the actions of my other fellow-tribe members, I may speak very firmly against it even, but I may not disassociate myself with this tribe unless I say “enough is enough, I will never play the PS3 again”. 

3. Rejecting the “Gamer” label is at best a lost opportunity, at worst it is poor witness

If someone who proudly calls himself “a gamer”, and he comes across an article explaining why the author of the article refuses to call himself a gamer, and the author distances himself from people who do, what is the reader likely to feel? The perceptive, mature and enlightened reader may see wisdom behind those words, and re-examine their own lives or their own personal relationship with gaming. But more than likely, the reader is just going to feel rejected or worse, condescended. After all, one of their own, a fellow tribe member, has called them out for having “no real life”. By refusing to even share a label with them, we tell them that we are not interested to empathize with them, we are not interested in them as people. 

And that’s a tragedy, because as Christians, Christ calls us to do better. Why are “gamers” so defensive about their favorite game and favorite platform? Why do “gamers” feel like gaming is the most important thing in their lives? We need to think about these issues harder, and think about these issues more pastorally. Instead of trying to distance ourselves from them, can we think about how we can better serve them, love them and point them towards Christ? If I am to serve these people out of the love of Christ I have for them, how am I best able to do so? If ultimately I am to point them towards Christ, how am I best able to do so? I really don’t think the answer is to reject the “gamer” label, which they wear so proudly, because that is tantamount to rejecting them is it not? Sure, we can (and should!) point out that there is something very unhealthy about revolving your entire life about gaming, but outright rejection is hardly the best way to do so. 

Maybe one day we can build relationships and have conversations which go like this: 

Do you play games because there’s nothing more awesome of better in your life? I used to feel the same way too (and even sometimes I still do now)! I used to play games so much, because the rest of my life just sucked. But guess what, I was only delaying my problems, and gaming just made things worse because I delayed things further and further until I couldn’t delay them anymore. Then my life truly sucked. That was when I realized I was playing games not just because the games were great (and they are!), but because I was using it as a substitute to run away from my challenges in real life….

Simple Joys

Back when I was in high school, I studied a poem by William Butler Yeats called “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”, which was primarily about the Irish airman’s love for the thrill of flight. I was always puzzled by this – how can a physical sensation like the thrill of flying carry so much meaning to someone? Isn’t the Irish airman just a shallow hedonist, no better than a sex addict?

Now that I’m much older, I still think some of the critique still stands, but I now have a better appreciation for the simple physical pleasures in life like a thirst-quenching drink or the smooth touch of a dog’s fur. I did not however, expect to find myself playing not just one but two videogames purely centered on such simple joys.

Mirror’s Edge and the Joy of Running

mirrors_edge_21

To be fair, Mirror’s Edge is not merely about the joy running, but rather high-speed-and-very-dangerous-running. The danger factor brings out the adrenaline, and possibly disqualifies it as a “simple joy”. Same reason why folks don’t consider parkour or extreme sports as “simple joys”.

But Mirror’s Edge is still noteworthy because it centers the enjoyment of the whole game around the thrill of a single physical sensation. Sure, the game has a narrative, there are combat sequences and the aesthetic design is very nice, but that’s not what anybody remembers about their experience with Mirror’s Edge. Instead, they will remember the crazy jump in the opening mission (screenshot above). They will remember the blurring of the vision and Faith’s gasping for air when she starts sprinting really fast. They will remember the FEEL and the THRILL of running. Despite the game’s flaws (of which there were quite a few), credit must be given for the game’s creators for accomplishing what (to my knowledge) has not been done before: to successfully simulate the thrill of a physical sensation.

de Blob 2 and the Joy of Seeing Colours

deblob2

Perhaps more unexpectedly, I had great joy playing de Blob 2. Not because the mechanics of the platforming was fun (it was okay), but because the aesthetic design, in particular the use of bright colors, just brought me so much joy. Just like with Mirror’s Edge, the game designers center the game around the concept of colours – even the narrative and mechanics of the game was about colours. Just like Mirror’s Edge, they were centering the game around a physical sensation – the ability to perceive and enjoy the beauty of bright and vibrant colours. I don’t think it worked for everyone, but it certainly worked for me, to the point where I think this game has given me a new-found appreciation of the importance of aesthetic design in games.

But I digress. This article is about simple joys, such as the thrill of running, or the joy in seeing beautiful colours. And while it is surprising that videogame designers choose to center their games around these simple joys, perhaps it is more surprising that we can gain joy out of such simple sensory experiences in the first place. In Popologetics, Ted Ternau describes his simple joy in the smell of cooking onions, and he asks a profound question: what possible explanation could there be that I should have this sense of joy in the smell of cooking onions, other than I was created by an extremely loving God?

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?

(Psalm 8:3-4, ESV)

Indeed. While some may argue that color perception may be an evolutionary trait which helps us to survive on to pass our genes – what can we say about the enjoyment of colour? I think Ternau is right – only a wonderfully loving God would make us creatures with the ability to perceive pleasure. For the greatest gift God can give to us is Himself, and in His great love for us, he has made us capable of enjoying Him. The small joys and pleasures of life, be it the Irish airman’s thrill of flying, or the joy or parkour, or the beauty of bright colors; these all point towards the infinite joy and pleasure we will one day receive when we are finally at home together with Him.

ICYMI: My gamechurch article on DA2

I apologize, I’m in a mood right now where I don’t feel like writing much, which is why I’m putting my 5-6 part series on Mass Effect on hold. I did publish my first article at gamechurch recently (much harder to write there, since the audience is for non-Christians as well) It’s on Dragon Age 2. Link here if you haven’t read it yet.

Cheers!

An Exegesis of To The Moon (Part 4) – A Life Worth Living

[Part 1 here. Part 2 here. Part 3 here. Also, spoilers below.]

to the moon 2

There is a moving scene in To The Moon where Johnny, in the midst of building the cabin overlooking the lighthouse, talks to Isabell about his wife, River. He reveals to Isabell that River is dying of a terminal disease, and they don’t have enough money to both treat her illness as well as build that cabin. Johnny knows that River would insist on building the cabin rather than treating her illness, and he breaks down and cries, upset that his feelings has no say in the matter. It would later be revealed that Johnny had forgotten his initial encounter with River (when he gave her the platypus) and the cabin was part of River’s attempts to help him remember. It appears that River would rather not live if Johnny cannot remember this important precious memory.

At the end of the narrative, where Neil and Eva successfully altered Johnny’s memories such that he goes with River to the moon, Johnny finally dies. The feel of success at this point seems to indicate that successfully altering Johnny’s memories is a big deal, i.e. it is a big deal for Johnny to achieve his aspiration before he dies. For both River as well as Johnny, the game seems to imply that happiness is a big deal, so the point where life is not worth living if you cannot achieve that happiness.

To some extent, this sentiment feels somewhat obvious. If we don’t exist to pursue happiness, for what purpose should we exist for? This attitude may persist in the church even: “surely God wants me to be happy and blessed, Rom 8:28 says so!”. And for some churches (i.e. those who preach prosperity), it is the foundation of their faith. “Come believe Jesus, and you will get wealth, health and prosperity – and won’t you be happy?”

As a teacher in a high school, I find a common sentiment being preached to the students: “Do you want to obtain happiness? If so, then you must work hard to obtain the results you want”. By saying this, we tie our happiness is tied to our achievements, our careers and our possessions. Indeed, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 10:35-39 ESV

Jesus says extremely harsh words here, to the point where a non-Christian might think Jesus to be a lunatic or some kind of terrorist. But this really cuts down to what the Christian faith really is about – is Jesus your most precious treasure? Is Jesus more precious to you than your possessions? More precious than your relationships (even family)? Your achievements? (Your videogames?) More precious than all of these things on earth which can make you happy?

It feels hard to be critical of River because it feels wrong to criticize someone who suffers from Asperger’s, but River was wrong. Her life is not meaningless if Johnny cannot remember how they met. Even if their marriage was never what she thought it to be, Johnny still genuinely loved her and they still had years of memories of married life together. Was that suddenly worthless because of her present unhappiness? Honestly, I thought River behaved in a self-centered and unloving manner to Johnny, causing him to be in much distress and guilt for many years even after she died.

We have many aspirations in life. We want many things, tangible or intangible. We believe that if we obtain these things we would be happy. Failure to obtain these things would rob our lives of happiness, and hence, of meaning. But the cosmic irony is that only if you choose to say “Jesus is more precious to me than all my aspirations” will you truly obtain true happiness. This is the true secret to happiness: you will only be truly happy when you live your life not for yourself, but for the sake of Christ, his kingdom and his glory.

Than to be the king of a vast domain
And be held in sin’s dread sway;
I’d rather have Jesus than anything
This world affords today.

Book Review: Of Games and God

Of Games and GodI told a friend recently: if one day I were to teach a class on videogames and Christianity (oh what delusions of grandeur I have!), Kevin Schut’s Of Games & God would be the textbook of the class. To date, this is the most important book written for anyone who is interested in the intersection between Christianity and videogames, or for any Christian wanting to know more about the videogame medium and the challenges/dangers it pose.  That means, if you’re someone who reads my blog, you would want to read this book too.

The book consists of 2 introductory chapters, 1 concluding chapter and the remaining chapters explore the following topics:

  • religious representation in videogames
  • violence in videogames
  • videogame addiction
  • gender representation in videogames
  • educational impact of videogames
  • Christian videogame developers
  • Christian gaming communities

Of Games & God is extremely well researched, and Dr Schut makes some new contributions to the discussion through his expertise in media studies. The chapter on violence in particular is some of the most balanced and well-researched work I’ve read on this important issue. Throughout the whole book, it is evident that Dr Schut tries hard to be balanced and respectful, yet is underpinned by strong biblical convictions. In particular, his humble and non-defensive attitude when discussing these issues is worth emulating by the Christian gaming community.

It is worth noting that Dr Schut himself considers the book to be a “conversation starter”, and not a conclusive stand on certain issues. Unfortunately, for a book of this length, it would not be possible to explore each of these issues in depth.  I would very much like to see Dr Schut (or others) write longer explorations on some of these issues.

There were also two issues which I would have hoped the book would address but did not: ‘theology of play’ (why should a Christian play videogames in the first place?) and ‘videogame as art’ (if videogames is indeed art, how should a Christian respond to it?). To be fair to Dr Schut, he never intended Of Games & God to be a “theology of videogames” book, but rather a “exploration of videogame issues through a Christian lens” book.

I have only two minor theological quibbles with the book: in the foreward (not written by Dr Schut) I personally felt the exploration of the concept of “play” wasn’t sufficiently rooted biblically, and I also felt that Dr Schut had insufficiently considered the complementarian position in the chapter on gender. Nevertheless, I agreed with the vast majority of Dr Schut’s observations, and greatly benefited from his research and insight.

The Christian gaming community owes a great debt to Dr Schut for writing this excellent book. Hopefully, we can build on his work and have deeper conversations into important issues which can edify all Christian gamers, and help point this community towards Christ.

An Exegesis of To The Moon (Part 3) – Death & Mortality

[Part 1 here. Part 2 here.]

to the moon

Johnny Wyles lay dying on his bed.  Dr Eva Rosalene and Dr Neil Watts rushed to his bedside to fulfill his dying wish – to make him dream of accomplishing the most important thing he failed to do in real life, and thus die a happy man.  [Spoilers] Eventually they succeeded, and Johnny died a happy man.

It is unquestioned by the game that what Eva and Neil do is beneficial and compassionate to Johnny. Late in the Neil had an emotional argument with Eva and said that he liked his job because he found it meaningful to help the dying this way. At the climax of the story [spoilers, duh] when Neil and Eva disagreed on how they should interfere with Johnny’s memories, it felt like a serious and weighty issue because this would be Johnny’s last conscious experience, and how that plays out feels weighty and important.

Here’s an apparently dumb question: why are our dying moments so weighty and important? Should it really be so? What makes them any weightier than any other moments of our lives? Is the middle 30 minutes of our lives less significant than the last 30 minutes of our lives? If so, why? 30 minutes is 30 minutes right?

The answer of course, has much to do with how we view mortality and dying. [It’s also got much to do with what makes our lives meaningful, but we will discuss that further in Part 4, God willing.] It isn’t immediately obvious, but the worldview presented by To The Moon is distinctly humanistic – when Johnny dies, it is implied his consciousness just disappears.  There is no hint of an afterlife whatsoever.  Yet his life is presented as intrinsically valuable and important. His dying moments represent the time just before something immensely valuable and important (i.e. life) is about to go out of existence. This is what makes a person’s dying moments weighty and precious.

Such a worldview is so subsumed into our culture that many Christians might even think it incredulous to be otherwise. Certainly, human life is immensely valuable and important. Certainly, a man’s dying moments are extra precious. Both statements are certainly true, but a Christian’s reasons for believing so are vastly different from a humanist’s. The way a Christian thinks about death has to be vastly different.

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.

(Philippians 1:18-23)

As a Christian, I believe that this earthly life is not my final destination. There is a far greater and much more wonderful place where all my longings will cease and all my desires will be fulfilled. And my death will be the first step there. Yet, like most Christians I suspect, I often forget this. I get attached to this world and I don’t want to leave it.

Christians believe that when we die, we do not go out of existence. Sure, there is sadness when loved ones pass on, but the sadness is not due to their existence being terminated, but because the presence of loved ones will be missed, and only missed temporarily if they also happen to be Christians. Christians believe that we should continue acts of compassion to the dying not because something immensely precious is going out of existence soon, but because we are called to love and comfort those in need – and often the dying are the most in need. Christians believe that human life is valuable not because human life is the most precious and valuable thing in the world, but because humans are made in the image of God, and God is the most precious and valuable entity in the world.

NBA star Dwight Howard and terminally ill Kay Kellog (who has since passed). One of my favorite stories of reaching out to the dying.

NBA star Dwight Howard and terminally ill Kay Kellog (who has since passed). One of my favorite stories of reaching out to the dying.

When Christians lay dying on their bed, unlike Johnny Wyles, they shouldn’t have to seek happiness on their deathbed. They shouldn’t have to seek to live out an artificially created reality where they can deceive themselves into a few final moments of temporal happiness.  That’s because they already have assurance of an eternal happiness which awaits them on the other side.

I hope and pray that if one day I lay dying on my bed, I may be so filled with gratitude of what God has done for me and so filled with anticipation of being with Jesus that I have no choice but to be happy. I hope and pray that each and every day, I can fight to remember that this world is not my home, and that my heart will fight to truly believe: to die is gain.

There is a hope that stands the test of time,
That lifts my eyes beyond the beckoning grave,
To see the matchless beauty of a day divine
When I behold His face!
When sufferings cease and sorrows die,
And every longing satisfied.
Then joy unspeakable will flood my soul,
For I am truly home