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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Of God and Games" (Kevin Schut)

TITLE: Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games
AUTHOR: Kevin Schut
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012, (225 pages).

How do we think Christianly about gaming? Is there a "balanced approach" to computer and video games? How do we make sense of video games? Is the purpose just an escape from life? How true is it that violent games are psychologically harmful? How real is the threat of addiction? Should Christians avoid playing games because of occultic or controversial themes they present? If so, what are the guidelines for what can be played and what cannot be played? How do we think critically and constructively from a Christian perspective on electronic games? These questions and many more are meticulously covered and passionately considered by a Professor of media and communications at Trinity Western University. As a gamer-enthusiast himself, Schut covers a lot of ground with regards to the range and the depth of understanding of how games work, why gamers play, and what it means for Christians.

For Schut, gaming is a legitimate form of play, a leisure that human beings need as part of life. With Sabbath keeping, and work, play is a way to help us be healthy people emotionally and mentally. He helps readers to see that games and gamers themselves have been more misunderstood and misrepresented. For instance, most people do not know how to read video games, so Schut goes into some detail on how to understand the purpose of video games, what role the medium plays, and what messages are they communicating. There are games that are simply aim-shoot-conquer, while others enable gamers to tell a story, form a narrative, or to cultivate a whole new gaming experience through innovative play and creativity. Called "alternate realities," games work differently from what we see from day to day. "Angry Birds" is that eternal struggle between birds and pigs. "Tetris" challenges gamers to be quick with their senses and strategic in their playing. "Age of Mythology" may adopt religious figures from the Ancient Near East, but they represent a kind of modern spirituality, using old worlds to represent new media. Other games such as "Farmville," "Super Mario," "Mindcraft," "League of Legends," and "Street Fighter," are interactive and engaging.  More importantly, it frees gamers to do things online, what they often are forbidden to express offline. The trouble is how do we distinguish and keep them separate in the light of some research that appears to support a direct link between violent games and actual violence.

Schut prefers to take the non-committal stance. In a work that is more descriptive than prescriptive, the overall flow of the book urges readers to be more open with regards to critiquing video games in general. For every accusation of addictions, there is a corresponding argument about how legitimate that accusation is. For every remark that the game is an escapist's tool, there is a counter of "why-not," "what's wrong," and "is there any conclusive proof?"

Before one can understand the gamer, one needs to learn to read games. The strengths of this book are summarized as follows.
  1. It invites skeptics and opponents of video gaming to reconsider their stance, to question their sources, and to look at games from a fair angle.
  2. It educates readers on the purpose, the types of games, and the legitimacy of game playing.
  3. It asks tough and honest questions that many Christians have often not gone beyond simply saying games are good or bad.
  4. It probes into the religious domain and makes a case for games that may look religious on the outside, but on the inside, they are not exactly that religious.
  5. It calms people's nerves by saying that the more we understand games, the less we will resist it. 
  6. It raises good questions for us to think more intelligently and more fairly as Christians.
  7. It shows us how to be well-minded Christians by learning how to critique well and fair, ask reasonable questions, and distinguish virtual reality from real world situations.
  8. It points out pros and cons in a manner that readers can learn.
The strengths outweigh the weaknesses of non-committal answers. After all, teaching professors ought to cultivate critical thinking rather than dishing out pet answers. Schut has done this very well. Games cannot be easily classified into "Christian" or "non-Christian" categories. In fact, I will argue that such a notion of "Christian gaming" is itself misleading. What is "Christian?" What is the purpose of sticking in a "Christian" label and sanitize it from real life? Maybe, better than just the label, is the effort to engage people where they are and who they are. There is a place for escape. There is a place to relax and forget about life. There is also a place in which one can just hang loose, be free, and enjoy the liberty of safe online play, without the threats of control and suppression. God has created us to be free people. We are indeed free to play. It is only in love that we play, and only in love that we choose not to play. Such a journey toward knowing how to play, what to play, who to play with, and the contexts of our play, will be a constantly evolving part of us. Do not dismiss games outright without understanding what it all means. Do not criticize just on the basis of some partial research or inconclusive news. Truth is to be earnestly sought after. Do not curtail the pursuit of truth, by clamping down on things that reflect more of our personal preferences. Instead, adopt Paul's guideline.

“Everything is permissible for me”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me”—but I will not be mastered by anything. (1 Corinthians 6:12)
Those who have played the games described in this book will be most intrigued by the thoughts of Professor Schut. Those who do not know the games will find it harder to grasp what the author is trying to say. This rare book is worth reading for anyone desiring to understand a little more of what games is about, and how to connect better with gamers. Perhaps, by that, we can understand more of what the younger generation in society are doing. With understanding comes maturity of thought. With maturity of thought comes greater and more meaningful acts of love. Is that not what loving our neighbours and our gamers all about? Maybe, the uninitiated reader may want to try out some of these games themselves?

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Brazos Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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