One of the most significant popular culture texts today is gaming (console and computer). Video games pervade adolescent culture and significantly influence the U.S. economy as well as the global economy. Consider these statistics:
In 2002, 60 percent of U.S. residents age six and older played computer games, and over 221 million computer and video games were sold that year in the U.S. 90 percent of U.S. households with children rented or owned a video or computer game. U.S. children spent an average of twenty minutes each day playing video games.81 percent of teen internet users play games online. That represents about 17 million people and signifies growth of 52 percent in the number of online gamers since 2000.1The total U.S. computer and video game sales in 2005 were approximately $7 billion.2In 2006, the value of the global gaming industry was $27.5 billion. This is expected to rise to $46.5 billion by 2010.3
With these statistics in mind, we have reviewed the impact of gaming culture on adolescents, noting the potential benefits and risks of gaming in light of adolescent identity formation. In hopes of increasing adult-adolescent communication in the church, we have set forth points of connections between theology and gaming.
Within many forms of gaming, the first task is character selection, a virtual identity formation of sorts. Many games offer significant flexibility in creating one’s character. Gamers choose from a variety of characters or create their own. These characters may be human or non-human (dwarves, elves, aliens, etc.). Gamers then determine the moral status of their characters, i.e., whether they are good or evil, their socio-economic class, level of intelligence and inherent skill sets.
According to Erik Erikson, founder of developmental psychology, the primary task of adolescence is identity formation. It seems accurate to surmise that character creation provides a safe space in which to experiment with identity, enabling adolescents to take on and off a variety of character traits. Moreover, it may facilitate a sense of order or control over the developmental upheaval experienced by teens and the bewildering amount of choices placed before them in terms of vocation.
Thus the decisions required in the gaming world connect with adolescents’ vocational development. Gaming is all about choices–“weighing evidence, analyzing situations, consulting your long-term goals, and then deciding. No other pop culture form directly engages the brain’s decision-making apparatus in the same way.”4 Gamers practice the scientific method. They explore options, make hypotheses, test them, and explore them further with feedback. This aptitude may help to develop adolescents’ capacity to navigate the multiple and often complex decisions required in real-life jobs.
As part of their natural development, adolescents form their primary community with each other. Gaming contributes to the social networking typical of adolescents. While many games are played individually, others are played collaboratively, refuting the common misperception of the gamer as a disconnected loner. Game culture does have the capacity to develop and sustain interpersonal relationships. The Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that among college students “one out of every five (20%) gaming students felt moderately or strongly that gaming helped them make new friends as well as improve existing friendships.”5 Collaboration occurs through swapping games, sharing/giving advice or cheats, and participating in online forums during game-play. Potential negative effects of this social interaction, not unlike face-to-face adolescent relationships, include bullying, hierarchically-based competition, and inequality.
Gaming culture embodies a number of other risks related to adolescent identity formation. For instance, games often sexualize female characters. Breasts and buttocks are exaggerated and scantily clothed–think Barbie with risque attire. For girl gamers, this reinforces cultural stereotypes and reduces their personhood to their sexuality. For boy gamers, this encourages objectification of women.
A second risk in gaming is addiction, as Steve Johnson describes in his book Everything Bad is Good for You. In the human brain dopamine serves as a system of checks and balances. High levels of dopamine get released in the brain when we are rewarded, resulting in a feeling of gratification. The opposite lowers dopamine levels, resulting in a longing for the previous high. Rewards abound in gaming–i.e., allowing characters to move through levels, gain weapons/skills, and reach goals. For at-risk adolescents, this may lead to countless hours of playing. Interestingly, online game addiction is a current concern in China. The country has even established several addiction treatment centers. Latest reports indicate that the Chinese government is going to require online gamers to register so that their hours of play can be monitored and controlled.
While parents may struggle to get their adolescent to church, little do they know that allowing their adolescent to play video games may open the door to significant theological encounter. The narrative aspect of games draws teens in, allowing them to become part of a story. This translates to the metanarrative of Scripture where all are part of God’s story. A teen’s experience of being an agent within a game can be connected to the notion of being an agent within the Kingdom of God. Within gaming, teens are able to navigate a chaotic game world, finding the rules and order necessary to govern that world. Perhaps this can point adolescents to the theological insight that God is the foundation and law-giver of the universe. Perhaps this would open up questions about providence and the sovereignty of God.
The game narrative also consists of key elements or structures. Unpacking each of these structures connects with a significant theological insight. A key structure of a game is its goal. However within games there are often many sub-goals that lead to the ultimate goal. A necessary skill in moving towards the goal is holding a long-term plan/vision while being active in the present. Within the church there is a specific vision to which God is calling us–to act in mission. Through gaming, players experience a sense of mission–being called, built up and sent for a specific purpose. Analogous to the way that games hide the entire goal at the outset, so God does not reveal a clear sense of calling from the beginning. Rather there is a gradual revelation throughout one’s faith journey.
A second element of games is the provision of resources–weapons, skills, life, food, money, land, experience, etc. Within games players look for and obtain these resources in order to move through various levels and to reach their goals. Part of discovering one’s identity revolves around questions of giftedness and skill. The theological connection comes with a God who knows us intimately, who provided more than we could ask or imagine. It is evident in the Christian life that much of what God bestows upon humanity has been freely given since the beginning. Humans’ response involves opening our eyes to see and accept the provision.
Rewards also play a large part in gaming. While resources are sought, rewards are received. As players remain faithful to the game they are rewarded for their time and effort. The reward system in gaming might meet the adolescent’s needs for affirmation and competence. On the one hand, this might point to God’s gifts bequeathed upon us, skills and talents that equip us for the journey of life. On the other hand, we do not earn God’s gifts. We do not earn salvation. This tension might open up to a discussion of the distinction between gift and reward. It might provide a means for emphasizing the gracious and abundant love of God. Moreover, such a discussion might inspire hope for the ultimate, eschatological gift–fully actualized union and communion with Christ and each other.
1 Pew Internet and American Life Project, “Teens and Technology” Report of July 27, 2005 and “Let the Games Begin” report of July 6, 2003; available from www.pewinternet.org; Internet; accessed 22 April 2007.
2 Entertainment Software Association, “2006 Essential Facts”; available from www.theesa.com/ archives/files/Essential%20Facts%202006.pdf; Internet; accessed 1 May 2007.
3 CNBC Special, “A history of video game industry” from November 2006; available from www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15734058; Internet; accessed 29 April 2007.
4 Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), 41.
5 Pew Internet and American Life Project, “Let the Games Begin” report from July 6, 2003; available from www.pewinternet.org; Internet; accessed 22 April 2007.