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Helping Teenagers Balance The Immersive Draw Of Video Games

Helping Teenagers Balance The Immersive Draw Of Video Games

I recently was able to spend some time with one of my long-time friends, Harper Cossar. When I first met Harper in college he was young in his faith, but I was always attracted to his intelligence. Both of those aspects of his life continued to grow over the years, especially as he was faced with the challenges of fighting cancer. Harper has his PhD, and is a professor at Georgia State University. He’s been teaching film and media studies for over a decade. He also teaches “faith and film” sessions in churches.

In a recent conversation we had, I shared with him a fact I found hard to swallow: Last year, GameStop generated 10 billion dollars in revenue through their 6500 stores. For comparison, Chick-Fil-A has 1850 stores producing 5 billion. No doubt gaming is a huge part of our culture, especially with students, and even more specifically with young men. I asked Harper if he would share with us a few thoughts related to the challenges of how teenagers (and adults) consume media, especially video games.

Video games are often immersive. They offer the opportunity to go deep into narrative worlds like World of Warcraft, Halo, and Call of Duty. While fun, such narratives can be seductive to the point of binge playing and/or possible addiction. Obviously, any activity humans do to excess is damaging.

So the question is, how then, are we as Christians to balance and understand the intense draw and fascination with video games?

One of the great draws of video games is whether players can beat the challenge set before them, or if the test will defeat them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But, video games can offer a challenge without having to risk anything in the real world. Like pornography, many video games offer an unrealistic, parallel world where players can slip into without actually being there.

Are video games bad? The answer—excluding games that have objectionable subject matter—is "no," when played in moderation. Many video games offer positive skills such as strategic thinking, problem solving, and long-term delayed gratification in support of the “goal.” But anything that involves binge-ing on cultural products is probably not what the Christian life teaches. How do we reach students (and youth workers) who immerse themselves in video games to the detriment of other aspects of their lives and ministry?

--Video game narrative worlds can be complex, beautiful, challenging, and as a result, seductive. Again, most are not sinful in and of themselves. Humans that use them in excess create sinful situations. Thus, players have to use discipline in their engagement with video games and set limits. If you have students who may be excessive in their game play, challenge them to set limits on gaming time in order to be more well-rounded in the other areas of their lives.

--Like pornography, video games do not offer a real-world parallel. Thus, players must understand the separation that video games create between the real and gaming world. Some games reward players for violent or even criminal acts. While such narrative immersion allows for voyeuristic and cathartic activity, prolonged exposure to such acts could potentially warp the player’s worldview that such immoral acts are normative. Ask your students what “rewards” they receive from immersive video gaming. Is it simply to reach the “goal”? Or is it something potentially more dangerous like “escape,” or wish fulfillment?

--Finally, many video games offer sexual and/or fantasy-rich visuals. Just because they are virtual, it doesn’t mean these images can’t affect the spiritual lives of our students. God gave us the 10 Commandments that we might know how to live in line with God’s character. Commandments 1 and 2 deal with worshiping things other than God, and worshiping what we see. While no one would say they worship video games, some students who immerse themselves in games may find themselves unable to disconnect with the content they see. The seductive lure of video games can create in some students an intense and solitary immersion in the gaming world at the expense of the “real” world where they are called to love and serve God and His people.

Video games are supposed to be fun. And when engaged with appropriately, they are. They can be great avenues to build relationships with the students we serve. But taken to the extreme, they can also be harmful. Only the Gospel and Christ’s salvation can fulfill our needs; when we look to cultural products to fill us, we can only attain disappointment and slip into sin-fueled guilt.

A little more about Harper:
Harper and his wife, Heather live in Atlanta, GA. He is available to teach a 4-class series on faith and film and you can contact him at If you would like to hear more from Harper, you can get his newest book Jesus at the Movies: Christianity And Cinema In Conversation, a guide to enlightening Christians to the form, practice, and complexities of cinema, and connecting it with a biblical worldview. He is also the author of Letterboxed: The Evolution of Widescreen Cinema, and has been published in numerous academic journals and anthologies.
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