I am a Christian, and I choose to game. For some, this is obvious; for others, it requires a little more help. To many Christians, the response is “of course.” I praise these people for being where I am, on my side of the tracks, but the elephant in the room is that many Christians simply don’t approve of gaming. Perhaps they were raised in a household or a culture that doesn’t approve of it, and they view themselves as simply holding up tried and tested values that have worked for decades, if not millennia. Perhaps they think games foster or promote violence, or that they tempt our youth into following other paths such as drinking or drugs that we can sometimes see promoted in our video game heroes. I won’t claim to know whether this is true – there are researchers for that, and they are much smarter than I am. What I will claim is that video games have changed my life, saved my life, and helped me to encounter God. And if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that those last two things aren’t mutually exclusive.
For me, playing games has always been a part of life. I’ve literally been playing them so long that I remember when bonus.com was a games site instead of whatever it is today. Back then, all we had was asteroids and ships, folks. I’d plug a physical CD into a computer and let it spin up, waiting minutes instead of seconds to initialize a game, then happily playing it while my parents did other things. I learned a lot from games, because they were educational. I figured out how to read, how to do basic mathematics, and a lot of other skills at least in part from those early games, which more often than not were educational. For me, back then, games were something I was only allowed to play an hour of a day, and educational games were a place where that was sometimes extended. I still remember the way my mother would make me read for an hour first.
If you can’t hear my nostalgia, it’s there. But nostalgia isn’t what this post is about. This post is about what it means to be a gamer, in a real and unadulterated way. I was fifteen when I built my first gaming computer, and it was shortly thereafter that I discovered Batman: Arkham Asylum. A friend of mine had been playing Arkham City and introduced me to it, and soon I was hooked. For hours at a time, night after night, I could become Batman, and his problems were a lot simpler than mine. Gone were the days of asteroids and fighters. Now, I could believe. And just for that moment, that precious moment, I could be alive again. In the midst of a high-school career plagued by doubts and insecurities, I could become someone else. Something else. I could become someone who was sure of who they were, someone whose place in life was well established. Batman was security for me. He was diversion. He could be something I never could, and that was indescribably healing for someone who wondered if they would ever amount to anything. So much angst, so much uncertainty, so many tears over assignments left uncompleted and things turned in late, were alleviated by becoming Batman. It was an escape, and it was cathartic. I’ve often heard people say that video games promote violence, but for me, the opposite was true. Video games were a way to get it out, and get it out safely, in a way that didn’t risk damage to my relationships. I could punch the shit out of people as Batman and it made it all better – I didn’t have to fight with my parents or my siblings to release the tension. Batman, after all, only punches the shit out of people who deserve to be punched, and that makes things nice and simple. Bad guy, good guy, and you’re the latter. You never kill anyone, and you never break anything that can’t be fixed. That’s the staple of the genre, and for me, that was safety. I could rely on Batman to always do the right thing in the end, and maybe that meant I could too. Maybe it meant that because if I could be him for a couple of hours, maybe I could carry that back into my real life. Maybe I could stand for truth and justice and have something to live for more than history midterms and chemistry finals. Maybe I could make a difference. Maybe I could mean something.
I won’t lie to you. Batman got me through my senior year of high school. Now don’t get me wrong – I have a good family, and I’m still on good terms with them. I’m lucky there. But Batman was a way for me to go to something that could alleviate the pain, and do so in a way that was far less destructive than drinking or drugs that I saw my peers turn to. It was an outlet for natural aggression and frustration in the same way that sports were. It was something I could do to clear my head without getting into something I shouldn’t or having a fight with my parents I didn’t need to have. It was safety. Batman kept me safe, as he kept a lot of people safe before me. That’s what he does, after all.
When I got to college, I discovered that I didn’t have the same kind of time for gaming that I used to have, and my hobby soon fell through. I would play games occasionally, but it wasn’t until I discovered a new kind of gaming that I would go back to it regularly. Gaming for me had always had a story, and being unable to commit night after night to that story meant the stories soon drifted away, and that’s something that has always been a problem for me. Even still, I don’t play story-based games regularly. I just don’t have the time. But what I do have the time for is eSports. Let me tell you how it started.
My sophomore year of college, I had no friends on campus. I had people I knew, but I wouldn’t call them friends, and we didn’t interact regularly. Spiritually, I was hurting. I didn’t have a Church home. I didn’t really associate strongly with the faith groups on campus, and I was drifting away. In a lot of ways, I still am. But that Fall Quarter, on the Tuesday of the week in which we would take our finals, I met a man named Eligh. He asked me a simple question: “Do you know what League of Legends is? Come play with us.” Come play with us. It was something that hadn’t been uttered to me in years, if not a decade, since I had never really had a lot of friends growing up. There had never been an us to play with, just a singular person, and now, this invitation, in this moment, when I had time to follow up on it, was extraordinary. It gave me two of the people, Will and Eligh, who I consider to be some of my best friends to this day. It gave me access to a sport and a way of spending my time. It gave me something to be good at, to pour time and energy into, to enjoy playing and to continually become better at. More than that, it gave me a microcosm that showed me a lot about who I was – a microcosm that still gives me insights into who I am today. Because, you see, in League, you are never really just reacting to a game. You are reacting to your life, and to who you are. How you act in League tells you about who you are as a person. In that aspect, it has helped me not only to grow in my relationships with people, but also in my relationship with God, showing me where I need improvement most of all, and also where I am strong, and where I am neutral. Every time I rage, every time I am defeatist, every time I am triumphant in victory, it tells me about myself as a person, and that tells me about who I am in the presence of God. It’s a remarkable thing to look at, really.
Throughout my life, gaming has brought me friends. It has brought me excitement. It has brought me escape. It has shown me who I am, and where I am flawed. It has shown me who my friends are, and that I can trust them with my life, because they always have my back. It has shown me who people are by what they play, and it has shown me how to become a better person and a stronger Christian. It has given me countless missional opportunities and continues to give them still, and it is by far the most interesting area in my life for relational evangelism. That’s what gaming is to me. It has changed my life. So when you tell me you don’t think Christians should game, I try to respect that, but understand that for me it is hard. I believe so strongly in the power of games that I think they can only come from God. And I know there is brokenness in the gaming world and in the gaming community but I know that there is brokenness everywhere, and this is no different. Here there is also strength, and beauty, and joy, and light, and life. And I have found it. So don’t tell me that games have no value, that they only promote death and violence. I know better, for I have seen it. And maybe, just maybe, ask me to share what they mean to me. I think we’ll both be better off.