Wednesday, October 10, 2007

No Halo for Halo 3

I have had an interesting exchange with my son this week, who has indeed played Halo 3, though he is hardly seems enamored with it. But he knew so much more about gaming and provided so much good information that I thought I would post our discussion, at some length---
Please excuse the squiggles which I could not get rid of when I did the cut and paste from Hotmail.

DAVID:
I see you've already blogged away about this, so i thought I'd add some thoughts, being not registered to Blogger.
First an unscientific survey:
- Gaming blogs and their users posting there are largely decided that this is not a great idea, mainly due to the religiously-motivated aliens which are engaged en masse.
- - A large number of those posters which also go to youth groups and have gaming nights fall into two categories: A. "who cares? it's cartoonish enough for the action to be unoffensive" or B. "Shooters aren't the best games to be doing fellowship." Shooters ARE overwhelmingly the most popular, however. Among ALL our youth. Halo is bigger than football on many college campuses I can tell you. I can also personally attest to this... but that's for another email.
The big pull of "Halo" isn't just that it's a star wars save-the-universe type story. What we REALLY have is "The US Army (the UNSC) saves the world once again from religious extremeists (the alien Covenant) who have control over a WMD (the Halos)" Sound familiar? That said, Halo can be and IS used as an army recruitment tool. It's advertisements are used almost in tandem with Army commercials. Master Chief is 100% GI JOE American hero idol worship. Playing online, you will run into gamers who are serving in Iraq. People are joining because of Master Chief. In the minds of middle-american youth organizers I think i can hear the tune of: "Are American soldiers not the champions of Righteousness?'


DAD

I am so glad you sent me this as I need an inside perspective, and I know you have played this. I would like to understand better what the whole appeal of this is. Am I being too negative and harsh about this? I ask because I got a call from FOX today to come on national TV and talk about this--- so I need a crash course from you about all this--- can you help? Can we talk tonight after you get home? I would like to post what you said with your permission on my blog. It will help.

DAVID
Fox wants your input? Well we all know how much they love overreactions ;)

1. Adult Content: Definitely overblown!

About that M rating (The R rating of the ESRB)...usually they're given to shooters like Halo on merit of "violent conflict." It cannot be legally sold to minors in software stores. Playing is

Another matter.From our perspective (any any kid of ANY AGE paying attention to games, namely most of them), aliens being blown up with purple blood is pretty average fare--remember

Independence Day? That's PG-13 and I would call it more graphic in terms of realism. I don't know anyone who thinks Halo has "adult content" other than the theme of war. Swearing? I think I

heard "damn" once or twice--which slips into PG fare. A typical unsheltered kid's life has far more "adult" content than this. But obviously not this much shooting. Nobody thinks much about violence in movies much...


2. Violence vs the Church: Should God's children be playing violent games in church? OR at all??

I can't answer this, but considering how popular this game is...Check out a few comments on gaming blogs here:

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/7.49974
http://www.bit-tech.net/news/2007/10/08/halo_3_used_to_recruit_christians/1
http://kotaku.com/gaming/path-to-salvation/master-chief-goes-to-church-307935.php


While I wont presume to be a definitive voice of gamerdom, I know most gamers find it humorous and dismaying when media hype finds a game--usually a shooter.
Don't forget this is more popular than comic books ever were. And the players are no small segment of our culture. The next generation is already immersed in it.
So what do we do? None of us see the games themselves to be an inherant problem--but when it or any other piece of our culture being used as a political or religious tool?
Not so good.

Personally, I don't think youth pastors should be TAKING THEMES FROM THE HALO STORY and trying to apply them to matters of Heaven and Earth.
Then again, popular culture is used all the time for ministry... Should we play them at all in church? The truth is, we've all been playing racing, sporting, fighting, shooting games around
youth groups for some time now. No less than table tennis, air hockey, gymnasium activities. 10 years ago we were all playing Goldeneye (the Nintendo 64 game based on the Bond movie), which pitted Bond against, well, the usual people to shoot. And then we shot up each other in multiplayer matches. Why? It's a social glue. I will say it's been a majority male activity, but girls are starting to join up too. We treat these games as the same fantasy thrill of any other type of game--Halo 3 just happens to be a lot prettier.

4. Overarching relevance:

Here's an interesting tidbit: The supersoldiers of Halo are code-named SPARTANS. Not an accident: What I see is an ingrained attraction to "conflict and glory" dating back to antiquity. And
I say our Master Chief is our next Odysseus. His stories are definitely not PG-13
5. Most importantly, you will want to educate yourself on the game, and heres the wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halo_3

DAD: My biggest concern, besides the effect of acted out pseudo-violence, is really the way this sucks a person into a virtual reality that becomes all consuming in terms of one's time, money, interests--- its absolutely addictive for those who are already OCD. Meanwhile the real world suffers, and people do not learn more skills for dealing with the real world. Of course it is more than a form of escape, but it certainly is that as well.

DAVID:There are cases of internet, gaming, and online gaming addiction. I think the medical view is they are the same as any other addiction. I would argue gambling addiction is more destructive just with its quicker spending potential. Then you have online gambling games...you get the point. There's the hardcore crowd and the casual crowd. I actually have more casual games on the xbox than hard-hitting epics like halo, as it gets pretty intensive. I'm currently checking out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carcassonne_%28board_game%29 , adapted for the xbox. I'm also working on a respectable score in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pac_Man_Championship_Edition .

You seem to be concerned about the question: "What are we learning from all this?"
Well.... I've learned that when you play with random, anonymous guys online, there's no shortage of foul-mouthed jerks and jocks. So I prefer to play only with those I know. Not much different from real life. I've also discovered that for the same reason, loyalty, teamwork and generosity are highly sought after in organized gaming clans. Brothers in arms indeed.

So are you saying gaming is preventing the progression of human society, like opium destroyed China?
Can't really argue that people should be out looking for the cure for cancer instead of thrill seeking, or that games are a time and money sink. Idle hands and all that.

DAD:
Well, let's discuss the time factor for a minute. On average, how long does it take to play a full Halo game in the Versus mode (or is there no limit to how long it could go on?).

DAVID:
The average say, "team slayer" (usually 4 on 4) match lasts 5-10 minutes, depending on variables. Then you start another match. And another. Gotta warm up first of course.
There's also the option of playing the single-player campaign cooperatively with 3 other people, which you can play for several hours on end if you're trying to make progress and finish it together.

DAD:
O.K.... Best guess scenario--- how long do these games go on when people get together to do this-- one hour, two hours, more--- all night??? What seems normal?

DAVID:

I guess it depends how serious a gamer you are. You can get together with the guys and make it an all night or all weekend LAN or online type deal, just like with the PC. Or jump in and play a match online and quit...a couple hours or more a day seems average for serious players, who are very competitive.

Halo3 isn't necessarily "all consuming" of time. That behaviour is considered to be reserved for MMO (massively multi online) games like World of Warcraft, which is a persistent world and doesn't really have an "end," you just quest and quest and quest alone or with a guild to build up your character for days, months on end. That certainly has potential for destructive behavior physically and socially. The community is well aware of it.

An interesting note: There are actually "healthy gaming" initiatives at Microsoft and Nintendo... for example: http://www.xbox.com/en-US/support/familysettings/healthygamingguide.html

DAD:
O.K.. that gives me a pretty clear picture of things. How much of a game like Halo requires actual thinking, or is it more a matter of manual dexterity and quick reaction time....rather like being defensive back in football, not sure of what's coming?

DAV ID:
Hmm... There are several modes that require more strategic teamplay, and planning out moves, like in capture the flag mode with defense and offence. Not as popular as run-and-gun slayer to be sure. However, good teams have to think about several things, at least before the game starts: knowing the multiplayer levels (referred to as maps) for navigation, paths of approach, and where items are placed. Locations of teammates and opponents on the radar, using defensive and offensive items to assist yourself and the team. Underlying all of this is your skill in tracking the opponents and aiming in fairly chaotic battle. So the core of the game is reactive, but in any other mode than basic free-for-all slayer, you will fail as a teammate without thinking strategically like one.

DAD:
One thing I am trying to assess to what degree this really is like 'real' physical games which involve both team play, preparation in advance, practice, and also read and react skills.

DAVID:
That's a good question for the Pro Gaming League or Cyberathlete Pro League or the other "major league" gamer groups. They play for cash, have coaches, and even drug tests.
I can say there are plenty of people who treat this like real sports, such as this guy in the CPL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnathan_Wendel I would say that in your mind, you really can apply "real world" team skills, if you are a team player. These games--especailly shooters--are very, very intensive as I've said. Heck, in South Korea, Starcraft (a strategy game) is practially the national sport. It's HUGE! Their Pros are media celebrities, and the winnings go to the $100,000s. The pro gamers practice hours every day as if its the "real deal" for percision and teamwork. That all said, pro gamers are not a large group of people, but there sure are a lot of wannabes!


DAD:
O.K.--- I am on information overload now, so I will have to process all this. Thanks so much for the education, your a fine son :)
Love,

Dad










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11 comments:

TheGreatSwalmi said...

thanks for the little glimpse into your familial "chatter", dr. witherington. Your son sounds like he knows his games, which i think will be a big help for you. I am a college and career pastor (among other responsibilities) and while i play halo (2) with the guys (and gals) every once in awhile, it's certainly not the be all and end all that so many make it out to be. playing halo actually reminds me very much of paintball. is it violent? well, kind of. but i don't feel i'm training to be a soldier or anything. it kinda hurts, but not too bad. and it's a great bonding experience, working with team play and strategy. plus usually we get free hotdogs at paintball.

Anyway, thanks for the post.
mike

John Meunier said...

Thanks for posting this exchange.

The first-hand info is helpful. the real issue - it seems to me - is when the 'play' becomes the point of youth group you are moving the focus to the wrong thing.

Is a video game - even an R-rated one - per se a bad idea? My instinct is yet. The kids might think the blood is cartoonish and the violence no big deal, but I'm not sure that is an argument in favor of the game.

Yes, I've read all the comments from people who ask if youth groups should allow Risk or football games. My response is that I think youth groups should talk about those very questions.

Is what we are about compatible with this or that activity? Now, that would be an interesting conversation - as long as the youth minister and youth did not settle for the easy answers the market would push on us.

You don't need my advice about going on FOX, but the news shows are not interested in illumination, only heat.

Myron said...

Interesting discussion--thanks for posting it. I've never played Halo 3 or 2, and only played the original once...but I've never thought they were drastically different from games like Goldeneye 007, which was used in my youth group a decade ago, when I was in junior high and high school.

You were asking about the strategic/thinking aspects of Halo--first person shooters have never excelled in this area, but there are plenty of other games that do--and usually these have been my favorite games. Games like Zelda and Civilization.

TheThinker said...

I'm another David, and I agree with your son

Gamers like to stress the fact that there can be strategy to first-person shooters...however, this is almost ONLY the case at very high levels of game-play...meaning it almost never happens...not in a way that would be constructive to one's mind and increase one's use of strategic thinking...

In contrast to this point, however, I would say that RTS (real-time strategy) games like StarCraft are very useful in increasing one's ability to micro and macro manage, and also to allocate scarce resources well. Your son could probably explain this also.

The way I've seen it - I have friends who play regularly, all the time, and even one friend who is on salary as a professional game player on X-Box's Gears of War video game (much more graphic than H3 and truly deserving of the M rating) - is that strategic thinking in first person shooters is a lot like the prisoner's dilemma in game theory...everyone sets a plan ahead of time, but rarely is it executed well or even at all...

Matt said...

Ben, in regards to the time issue, I have this to add. I know that at the university I work at there are several students in our ministry who have consistently missed classes because they were playing Halo 3 online with others. I also know of others who have spent their last money on Halo 3, even before a car payment that the person wasn't guarenteed to make without the money spent on Halo. All this to say that serious gamers devote serious time and effort to playing.

Peace,
Matt

Diane said...

What an interesting dialogue. I just finished watching a discussion on a morning news program regarding Christian Halo Parties. My initial response to hearing that this is taking place...is WHAT???????

To recruit teenagers to Christ using the repetitive violence found within this game is an astonishing and from my view point, an ill-conceived idea. After listening to the discussion between a panel of experts, it is clear that the American Psychological Association has firmly identified the very real fact that a teens brain is still developing; it in fact, is not mature until the mid twenties.

Studies have shown that an introduction to drugs, alcohol, sex, and/or violence during this maturing time influences the outcome and dare I say output of their future behavior and thoughts. In fact, it has been discovered that Lee Boyd Malvo used this game to train to kill.

Secondly, a point I did not know, the United States Military uses Halo to train their snipers. I don't have any supporting sites to back this up, but the attorney on the panel seemed to state that if our Defense Department has found this game to be useful in programming our snipers to be able to shoot at will, it seems enough evidence to me that this game is dangerous--whether at home or in a church.

I come from a perspective of moderation and will not dramatize by stating this game is evil. However, putting this into perspective, would a Youth Pastor provide couches and beds in their Youth Room because teenagers are sexual? Would they provide alcohol or drugs to recruit because teenagers experiement? I think not. How is providing a means to play this game under the guise of Youth Ministry differ from offering other forms of teen activity that is dangerous?

I am shocked that Churches across the nation are stepping into this realm and causing further disunity in the Body of Christ. It seems our postmodern thinking has entered the Church; do we really think that God's absolute truth cannot reach unsaved souls without our creativity, without our cultural perspective, without our intervention?????

Hmph! Makes this middle-aged, midwestern Mamma riled up! I believe their intent is good and right and to be respected. However, I hope that as this debate grows (I'm a latecomer!), it will shake out and fall on the side of God's Truth....not our limited understanding and need to create the power we think is necessary to fulfill the Great Commission. I'm having trouble aligning "Go and make disciples" with "Go and practice warfare." While it makes some sense that our Department of Defense would use a violent video game in training snipers....as Christ followers we are to train diciples--not defensive military men and women. In fact, God provides the only armor we need.....and I could go on and on. Seems an old adage covers it best, "When in doubt--don't."

But I won't. Simply intended to stop in and say....GREAT...and necessary discussion.

Diane

CoolHand said...

Great dialogue with your son. As a Halo player myself, I would say that your son paints an accurate portrait of the situation.

One thing that I wanted to mention, that he didn't really get into, is the culture and environment of these online XBox-Live hosted matches. To explain, you can play Halo in multiple ways: 1) alone 2) on a local network by linking multiple systems together manually 3) on the World Wide Web with people from all over the world.

I quit playing Halo 2 online because I didn't want to spend my time with the kind of people that I was getting matched up with. This is a much more pervasive problem than the game content itself, in my opinion.

When I would sign onto XBox Live, if I didn't have any Friends online I would typically join a randomly-assigned group in a random game-room. I would then be forced to listen while we played to everything that these people wanted to talk about (or scream about in a lot of cases) and that's where the problem was. I heard racist epithets and vulgar threats of violence multiple times a game. Granted it is online and I'm not worried about these threats being actualized, but hearing someone who sounds like a 14-year-old boy scream "F$&@ you, N$%#ers!!" over and over for 4-5 minutes at a time is not my idea of fun. You can learn a lot about a person or group by their choices when placed in a situation where their words and actions are largely anonymous. I would, after awhile, just leave my headphones unplugged so as to avoid the offensive behavior, but why should I have to? And would an impressionable 10 or 12 year old do the same? Or would they listen, absorb, and repeat the things that they hear in such a situation?

Now Microsoft and Bungie (Halo's creators) have tried to fix this issue by making it possible to report this kind of behavior (multiple complaints leading to suspension or expulsion from the game), but that won't change the fact that until the culture of the gaming community is changed, these problems will not disappear completely.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks for all these comments and suggestions. I think we have struck a nerve with this discussion.

BW3

Carrie Ann said...

The question that keeps coming to my mind is "do the youth pastors who are using this game have a philosophy of ministry that they follow and if so, how and the heck does it revolve a video game?" As far as I'm concerned, youth group isn't about entertainment. It's about being a shepherd to God's sheep.

Benjamin said...

Perhaps one of the most important questions that remains unasked is this...

Just as one might ask of nudity in art, it is not so much whether the content disturbs us or tempts us to sin but whether we have lost something vital if it doesn't?

Todd H said...

Your son is a pretty smart guy, that much is for sure. If you want to understand the game though, you should just take about an hour and play it with some people. Then you can see for yourself what it is all about.