Videogames and the Idols of Society

I’m in the midst of doing research for an article on gender issues (since every video game website must have an article on sex and gender nowadays), and while reading through various articles on gender I find myself thinking about a related side issue: how do videogames reflect the state of society?  Let’s explore this issue further.

Not too long ago, Jeremy Parish from 1Up ran an article on “perverted” Japanese games, describing how Japanese game developers, especially in harsh economic conditions, continue churning out such games because they are the most reliable source of income for them, due to the reliability of a segment of society known as the “otaku” to purchase such games.

[Quick side-note: As an Asian, and as someone who had been regularly consuming manga and anime ever since young (much more manga/anime had been translated to Chinese than English, and is much more mainstream in Chinese-speaking countries like Singapore/Taiwan/Hong Kong than in America), I have a great deal of empathy for otakus, but they also sadden me greatly.  Perhaps this is worthwhile discussion for another article.]

“Welcome to the N.H.K” is a great novel/manga/anime for learning more about the tragic side of the Otaku and their culture.

Videogames, like any other economic product, is based on supply and demand, and if there were no demand for “perverted” games, there would be no supply.  But why exactly do otakus demand such products?  The sad truth is that as socially isolated people, these games are often the otaku’s only source of various felt needs: being in power, having a sense of achievement, belonging to a community, being loved and respected, and the feeling of being intimate (emotionally and sexually) with another.  All of which they have difficulty getting access to, outside of videogames.  But even beneath the surface sin of lust is the idol of pleasure: the point of my life is to enjoy myself.  Deep down inside, otaku are unfulfilled hedonists, and as a recovering hedonist myself, I can understanding their urges and the desire for quick fixes available to them through videogames (and over the last decade or so, the internet).

I’m no expert on Japanese culture, but it appears to me that for Japanese there are largely two main philosophies for finding meaning in life: either you find it within the context of emotionally fulfilling relationships (in particular the family) or you find it in sheer out-and-out hedonism.  This, I believe, is why Japanese games tend to have a greater focus on relationships between characters, and strong narratives which develop these relationships.  This is also why I think some Japanese games tend to appeal to our basest (and in western eyes, uncivilized) instincts. Dead or Alive is the obvious example here.

It’s hard to find a DoA image which isn’t objectionable in some way.

But this isn’t really unique to “sexual perverted” games and otaku.  Games everywhere shed light on what that particular segment of society want from their games (again, supply and demand).  For the longest time, I had no idea why the Modern Warfare series sell like they do, until I saw the Extra Creditz episode on ‘the gun‘, which explained how FPSes appeal to the western gamer’s deep desire for empowerment.  I guess this desire for empowerment is somewhat universal amongst all teenagers, but it must be particularly so for Americans and those influenced by the American ideals of freedom, autonomy and independence. (Culturally, we Asians aren’t so big on this, although we’ve no doubt been influenced by western ideals over the past few decades).  But this desire for empowerment, to my Christian understanding, is but a clever disguise for the sins of pride, discontent and rebelliousness – the refusal to be obedient to any authority, even the authority which you should be obedient to (i.e. God).

I have no idea why you Americans spend so much money on these.

Finally, let us briefly consider the use of gender and sex in western games, in particular how relationships work in Bioware franchises like Dragon Age and Mass Effect.  As explained by Tom Dawson, sex with a romantic partner in these games are treated as a reward for courtship, a personal achievement for overcoming a series of obstacles.  Such perceptions towards sex are not restricted to games alone (see also: The Game, American Pie), and perhaps, it is already the global contemporary zeitgeist towards sex.  That said, from the Christian perspective, this view is fundamentally untrue and an extremely harmful attitude. Instead of being a beautiful expression of intimacy between two individuals whom have covenanted with each other, it becomes a individual-centred conquest for pleasure and/or fulfilment.  Fundamentally, this is the idolatry of the self – even in our deepest most fulfilling relationships, we are primarily seeking self-benefit, and not the selfless love towards the other which we were supposed to display.

The mysterious Morrigan of Dragon Age: Origins, fulfilling fantasies for gamers everywhere who wish to sleep with demonspawn-birthing witches (all you need is to give her a few gifts and choose the correct dialogue options).

Honestly, we should not be surprised that society reveals such idols in what they desire in their videogames, because that is exactly what a fallen humankind is expected to look like.  If we don’t worship God, we worship ourselves, and whatever else we feel we need to make ourselves feel “fulfilled”.  Videogames, perhaps more so than any other kind of medium, are the most susceptible to the pandering of our idolatry (due to both it’s interactive nature as well as its relatively young history as an art medium).  It is also important to remember that we are called to show grace and humility to all who are sinful and fallen, because we too were once sinful and fallen as well (and in many ways, still are). The only difference between us and them is that we have been rescued by the grace of God (and not by of our own works).

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5 thoughts on “Videogames and the Idols of Society

  1. This is a stellar statement of position on the subject of sex and idols in games. I’m really curious now about your play of Call of Duty games. Have you spent any time in their multiplayer? I, too, criticize the series, albeit for other reasons. But I also cannot deny the fact that the core mechanics of the games are disgustingly engaging. So, I’m wondering if by being culturally removed from said values of empowerment, rebellion, etc, that you’re not as sucked-into the base mechanics. Also, are you able to play the games on servers with Americans? I can’t say I’m really recommending it. Just really curious about such an experience for you.

    Also? Love your caption under Morrigan’s photo. Made me glad I play RPGs as a woman.

    • On further deliberation, you may be right that I have judged CoD too hastily since I don’t really play multiplayer games (and when I do I strongly prefer co-op to competitive). Lots of folks in Asia play COD and other FPSes as well, especially the younger generation, it’s not just an American thing. I suspect I haven’t been enjoying it as I’m still climbing the learning curve, and once my twitch skills improve I might enjoy the game more significantly. I remember enjoying Counterstrike quite a bit, although I still disliked playing against strangers.

      • Yeah. I still prefer bots over strangers in CounterStrike. It’s always more fun with friends.

        I just got done reading your (deleted?) article about DOA5 and found it to be some of your best work – especially as a work of repentance and self-criticism. Why did you delete it? Because of the included photos? Did you feel it was self-contradictory? My Google Reader latched onto it and kept it for my safe-keeping, in case you’re wondering. I truly thought it was great stuff.

        I think it’s a conversation worth having.

        Also, what stage are you at in life: married, single and happy, etc.? I’ve been married for about 14 months. And it’s been interesting. As somebody who has been deeply involved in games and also fallen prey for the trappings of an Otaku (porn, isolation from relationships, etc.), it’s been a huge deal to get free of those things – and monumentally important that I stay free of them. I can’t emphasize that enough. But all that said, I must emphasize that it is possible. It doesn’t seem like it for many guys caught in that stuff. But it is possible to be as you say, a Redeemed Gamer.

      • Yeah about that…In a moment of weakness, I played some DoA5 last week. After that, I was so angry with myself that I deleted the post – I felt too hypocritical leaving it up there. Not my finest hour. I really should just get rid of the game. Anyways, you are right that the article would probably be helpful to others, and I’ve restored it.

        I’m single, living with my mother. In Asia, it is common to live with your parents until you get married. I’m contented with singlehood (it does have it’s perks), but I’m still open to getting married if God leads someone into my life.

        Just read that you’ve moved into a new house. Life must be pretty exciting for you as a newly-wed!

      • Yeah, but hypocrisy is only when we don’t repent of our mistakes. Get rid of the game and bring that post back if WordPress will let you! 🙂

        Yeah, I once dated a young woman from another nation who thought it was weird that I didn’t live with my folks. It was a bit of a shocker to discover that Americans are weird that way. But that’s becoming less and less and folks move back in with their parents to get on their feet in their career and such.

        Jess and I got married about 14 months ago. It’s a huge upgrade moving into a house with more than two rooms. It’s been fun inviting people over. Hanging out with people is a lot more fun when you can fit them in your living space! 🙂

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