Sunday, October 07, 2007

What Price Relevance, What Effect Effectiveness?

The latest event in the world of video games is the appearance of Halo 3-- a violent star wars sort of game which has a rating of M, as in for mature audiences only. Now normally that sort of rating would result in Christian parents making sure their under aged children had nothing to do with this sort of time consuming mayhem on a screen. But NOW we learn that many youth ministers are using it in churches to recruit teenage boys (especially) to come to their youth groups. In my view, it's time to ask--- What is wrong with this picture?

Here is the link to the story in this weekend's NY Times. Read it and weep:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/07/us/07halo.html?th&emc=th


The headline in the Times reads 'Thou Shall not Kill, except in a Game at Church'.
If even a Times reporter can see there might be a two fold contradiction here, then it shouldn't be hard for those of us involved in the church every week to recognize the danger here as well.

Let's start with the fact that the maker of this game has quite specifically told everyone it is for adults, and has adult content. Imagine if you will using the tactic of show skin flicks to attract young men, or offering beer blasts in the church back yard. Doubtless you would attract a crowd, but would you have just vitiated your whole credibility as conveyors of the Good News of Christ in the process? The answer is yes.

If you read the article closely what you notice is the 'ends justifies the means' kind of arguments by the youth ministers in question. But frankly if the means are unethical, and indeed contradict the ends you are trying to achieve, aren't you guilty of using unethical tactics to attract people to Christ? Aren't you sending an enormously mixed message to youth--- "come to church, and after you've blown the brains out of the enemies, we will tell you about the Prince of Peace and how God so loved the world (even the enemies)!"

I'm sorry but this whole sorry approach to youth ministry smacks of absolute desperation and fear-- fear that if we are not relevant, we cannot attract a crowd. Is this really what Jesus would do? I don't think so.

Nor Paul for that matter-- in his 'garbage in, garbage out' speech he urges his audience in Phil. 4.8--" Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-- think about such things." There is frankly nothing admirable about this whole approach to youth ministry. If you have so little creativity or imagination that you imagine that the only way to appeal to youth is by appealing to their most base and basic fallen instincts, then get out of youth ministry-- you haven't got the tools for the task, and your means betray your message. If you want creativity and effective appeal to youth, look at some of the things Rob Bell is doing in his Nooma videos (about which we have commented before on this blog).

I must say that I am stunned that Focus on the Family has not come out and said something against this whole debacle. Even the Southern Baptist Convention hasn't managed to completely condemn it yet. Why not? Perhaps because they do not see the inherent contradiction between violence and the Gospel of peace, or vengeance and forgiveness. But log in and tell me what you think.

60 comments:

Lisa said...

I'm a reasonably avid gamer, though I've never actively played any of the Halo games. I must admit, my first reaction to this article is, "Churches embracing video games? Awesome!"

That being said, I see your point in the whole violence theme. Actually, the game's M rating surprises me--I figured it would be rated T for Teens at worst. I have to wonder where the rating comes from. My guess is that some of the truly adult thematic content is in the Story mode, while probably more people play a Versus mode, especially in this context. Will there be stylized violence? Yes, but the way most of these games work is that a dead character regenerates about five seconds after death. I'm also pretty sure the characters are heavily costumed so they don't look human (Master Chief, I know, wears full-body futuristic armor), thereby taking some of the realism away, even if it is still graphic. (Playing, say, Grand Theft Auto in a church would be a vastly different story).

So what specifically is the problem? Is it the M rating, or is it the violence? If it's the M rating, then the pastoral committee, and probably the parents, should review the game before the youth group members play the game. Again, I suspect most of the adult content is in the story mode. If you're concerned about the violence, then you're severely limiting the number of games you can play (even Nintendo's highly cartoony Super Smash Brothers series, which pits characters like Mario and Pikachu against each other, is technically a player-versus-player game). If a church has specifically made it its mission to be culturally relevant to today's youth, if you're eliminating video games as an option, you're highly limiting the tools you can use to reach out.

Personally, I'm more concerned with how the game is being integrated into youth services. I'm not entirely certain I'm comfortable with it being used as a tool within a service itself--but I certainly appreciate churches using the game as an object lesson. ("Now how would Jesus handle this situation?") Personally, I see the game as more of a Friday night, bring-your-friends group-building activity, with maybe a little devotional built in.

John Meunier said...

I think we exult 'fellowship' and 'community building' so high that we forget why we have a community. Anything that can build a community is justified.

Then we tack a Bible study or devotion on the end (or beginning) and think we've done youth spiritual formation. Same model applies for adults, too.

I have a much less thoughtful blog post than yours over at my Wordpress blog site.

Jake said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thanks for your post. I really enjoy reading your blog and appreciate your scholarship.

I have a question regarding your post. Your application of Phil. 4:8 to the Halo game franchise seems at odds with your endorsement (if that's not too strong of a term) of movies like The Bourne Ultimatum elsewhere on your blog. I'm curious why you feel that verse applies to the violence in the game, but do not apply it in an equal fashion to the film.

I can see several possibilities. One is that you're judging video games as a medium more harshly than films - which I think occurs quite often. A second possibility is that you are equating the violence in Halo with vengeance or senseless violence - which is debatable given the narrative the game follows. A third possibility is that you have issues with the interactivity of violent video games as opposed to films, with which our interaction is more passive than with video games. Even here, however, I wonder if it isn't a mistake to draw too sharp a distinction between video game and film violence.

Of course it is possible there is another reason, and I'm interested to hear your further reflection on this issue. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm a Christian pastor (not a youth pastor) who does enjoy the game - but to my knowledge we do not utilize it in our youth group. I'm not sure if I would view that as problematic as you seem to - there are certainly questions regarding the violence that should be considered, but I'm not convinced that the simulated violence here is worse than simulated violence in film and television.

Lisa also raises a good point - this is not human violence in the same way that a game like Grand Theft Auto or Hitman. All playable characters are in heavy armor or are alien characters that don't look human at all. I don't want to excuse violence simply because of appearance, and concerns could potentially be raised about our view of "the other" based on a game like Halo. But I do think there is a qualitative difference between a game like Halo and some of the ultraviolent games currently on the market. And the fact that characters respawn almost immediately does seem like it might be relevant as well.

Again, I am very interested to hear your further reflection on these issues.

Ben Witherington said...

This could be a good discussion.

Firstly, in regard to the points made by Lisa, I am afraid I must disagree. When you play a 'Versus' sort of game, or in that sort of mode, you are in the first place setting up a scenario for individual winners and losers. There is nothing about this that builds community. We are not talking even about a 'team' sport here.

Secondly, while I do not in principle have a problem with video games as a form of entertainment, I do have a major problem with a game that takes endless hours to play, or win, and is so absorbing that it encourages the worst sort of narcissism, and ignoring of the rest of reality, including numerous important sorts of interactions that should be going on at a Christian youth event. Bringing such all absorbing games into a youth ministry event is just encouraging self-absorption and even egotism.

Thirdly, there are numerous studies out there to be had about how these games affect and indeed encode violent images on young brains in various ways that going to a movie that lasts an hour or so would not do. Why? because of the endless repetition of the ultra fast violent scenarios, often without there being any redeeming features, plot, character development involved.

One can't say that about a movie like the Bourne Ultimatum. The violence is not only secondary to the character development in that movie, there is actually a negative commentary on the sort of abuse inflicted on Bourne and a revelation of the devastating consequences it had on his life--- he did not even know who he was for a long time. In short, there are no redeeming features at all to a game like Halo that comes close to this.

Ask yourself these questions: 1) could this game encourage me to be a more compassionate person,; 2) a more loving or forgiving person; 3) a less individualistic and more community oriented person; 4) a person less prone to anger, less prone to resort to certain inappropriate ways of resolving conflict? These are the sorts of questions one needs to be asking when evaluating such games.

Blessings,

Ben

JohnO said...

"Why not? Perhaps because they do not see the inherent contradiction between violence and the Gospel of peace, or vengeance and forgiveness"

I think it strikes close to another closeheld belief that war can be "just". So if Master Chief is a marine - and we support our current marines in war, why not support Master Chief? Christianity has long supported nationalistic efforts of war, and wrongly so. If the Christian churches denied that war had anything to do with Jesus, I think making the statement that we shouldn't be shooting one another's characters at youth group, and entertaining ourselves with evil is an acceptable thing to do.

Steve said...

I'm a former youth pastor and currently the solo pastor of a small church in a small town (population 2000). Our community lacks a strong youth ministry of any kind. But our community is full of Halo 3.

I have used Nooma videos, Super Bowl parties, scavenger hunts, free food, free concerts, etc. to attract a crowd of high schoolers. I have yet to try a video game. But I must say it would be the most effective by far.

Youth ministry in America is incredibly tough work. In my opinion, it is one of the most challenging mission fields. Just look at the recent Barna surveys. People under 30 in America believe evangelicals are judgmental, hypocritical, old fashioned, and out of touch. Only 3% of 16-29 "felt favorably toward Christianity's role in society."

So how do we change that? We play Halo 3. Which brings judgment, looks hypocritical, but at least isn't old fashioned or out of touch.

I don't know the answer. I do know that the ends don't justify the means. Is it troubling to play Halo 3 at youth group? My gut reaction is yes. But honestly, I don't know since I have never played it.

And just for further reflection:
if we apply Dr. Witherington's questions to other things, like say NFL football and holding a Super Bowl party, I don't know if a youth group should. Does watching football (or playing for lots of high school guys)"encourage me to be a more compassionate person?" (Hard to think that's the case after the taunting of Trent Green, lying unconscious on the ground today) If we apply these questions to football we may need to rethink Christians' relationship to football and perhaps many other things!

Jacob Paul Breeze said...

Very good post.

I was a youth pastor for 4 years and now serve as a volunteer in our congregation's ministry to students.

I've been amazed at how parents (and other leaders) will decry any movie or game that has "cuss words" or any hint of sexual inuendo...yet to even consider violence as equally (if not more) destructive is a big stretch for many!

It seems strange that we would never show a movie in church that has nudity or bad language, but, we'll take students to see movies that are Rated R for violence, like, Gladiator. I'm wondering if we should not broaden the category of "pornography" to include the violent misuse of human bodies as well.

Here's my thought regarding language, sex and violence in media:

At least there ARE TIMES when "damning" something is the right thing to do as a Christian. At least there ARE TIMES when sex is the right thing to do as a Christian. But, as a follower of the Crucified and Resurrected Jesus, I'm having a hard time finding ANY TIME when violence is the right thing to do.

Jake said...

Thanks for your reply, Dr. Witherington - this is an interesting discussion. A couple of thoughts:

I agree with Steve - there are an awful lot of things that Christians affirm that would not pass the test of the questions you suggest. Perhaps that means things like football and other sports need to be reconsidered from a Christian perspective. But I don't think that creating Christian compassion (certainly a worthy goal) is the purpose of every activity we engage in.

I disagree completely that community cannot be built around a game like Halo. Yes, there are winners and losers. But just like community forms around other games (be they competitive sports or even competitive board games), community can absolutely be formed playing games like Halo. I've played for about 3 years now, and have formed friendships with people online as I've played, as well as enjoyed the community when I get together with friends in person and play. Unless you discount the possibility of community in competitive sports, you really cannot discount the possibility of community in a "versus" game like Halo.

Your point about the Bourne Ultimatum is well-taken - I agree with your analysis, and appreciate the fact that you look at movies on a deeper level than simply noting there is violence. Sometimes elements of violence are included in a narrative for a purpose that is worthwhile. It is important to note that there is a strong narrative aspect to Halo as well - at least to the campaign mode. I'm not going to argue that its violence is subversive as in the Bourne Ultimatum. However, someone who accepted a "just-war" perspective would find little in the narrative itself to be problematic.

I would be careful making a blanket statement that there are no "redeeming features, plot, or character development" involved in video games. Games have come a long way since "Donkey Kong" and "Super Mario Brothers". Many have a very significant narrative component, and deserve to be analyzed with the same care we bring to analysis of other narratives (film, literature, etc.).

Marc Axelrod said...

My Super Nintendo helped me through a lot of seminary nights when I just didn't feel like studying. I'll always have fond memories of Contra 3, Donkey Kong Country, Street Fighter II Turbo, etc.

As a pastor, I've had great times playing NFL Blitz and other games with the young people. I treasure those memories.

But I wouldn't feel right playing a game with gratuitous violence. I don't know if Halo 3 is a case example or not.

I did play Virtua Fighter 4 at church with a couple of my confirmands last Sunday night. Maybe that was a borderline call ...

Marc

K.W. Leslie said...

I haven't played Halo and don't know how violent or appropriate it is. I'm sure the pagan invitees have played much worse games. For that matter, so have many of the Christian kids, some even with parental consent.

Despite that, I take issue with a lot of the tactics youth pastors will use to get kids into the church. For that matter, I take a certain amount of issue with youth pastors.

I grew up in the church. Because I didn't find the children's Sunday School classes intellectually challenging enough, I opted (with my mom's permission) to attend adult Sunday School classes. I got to study scripture -- sometimes in depth, sometimes not, depending on the teacher. In general I was learning stuff. But when I reached 8th grade, Mom was prodded into convincing me to go to the class that had kids my own age -- the junior high and high school youth group, headed by the youth pastor.

My youth pastors -- I had five, serially, throughout my teenage years -- invariably were trying to keep the youth group "cool" and "fresh" and "exciting," and tried to keep up with the latest trends. Some were Christian trends of worship songs and the most novel way to present the gospel to your kids. The rest were the trends of pop culture 'cause the pastors wanted to stay "with it."

But all this emphasis on trendiness meant that there was little to no emphasis on the gospel. Or biblical knowledge -- I regularly creamed the competition in bible trivia events because the kids were just so ignorant of some of the most basic scriptures. And holiness? We'd only hear of it when we had done something obviously wrong; something the pastor had to rebuke us for with, "Dude, don't do that. Christians don't behave that way." We were some of the most awful hypocrites. You would fear to put your kids in such a group if you knew what we were really like; we were awfully good at hiding it, and the pastors were too good at tolerating it.

The pastor's job was to have a large group. That way, he could justify his job. He was also to babysit the kids of the church members -- myself included. If he had done anything so controversial as to preach against sin he wouldn't be "cool" anymore. He'd be "judgmental" and "self-righteous." Plus, parents who were sinning would hear about it from their kids, and they couldn't have that.

You may well say that was just my church. But I have since been to a lot of other churches -- and studied a few in my college courses, had students at my Christian school from a variety of churches, and worked with teens who came out of such youth programs. My evidence may be anecdotal, but there disturbingly is a whole lot of it.

What I find, more often than not, are rec rooms instead of chapels, mini-concerts instead of praise to Jesus, and ignorant kids. (Really ignorant -- I taught their bible classes, and head-smacking horror stories abound.) For every youth group that actually preaches the gospel, fifteen are nothing more than breeding grounds for hypocrites. (Hypocrites like me. I was as bad as any of them.)

And people wonder why church-raised teenagers keep falling away from Christ. They never belonged to Christ in the first place. They were never discipled. They were only entertained.

Youth pastors may argue that if all they did was disciple, their youth groups would be tiny or unattended. I firmly disagree. I have seen youth groups full of kids on fire for God and solid in their faith, and their pastors never once bothered with trendiness. They focused on evangelism, on treating kids like disciples rather than entertainment consumers, on making the scriptures relevant to real life, and on teaching their kids to be the church.

This kind of group takes a good education, a firm commitment to slog it out despite the occasional under-attended group, the guts to counter parents who think of youth pastors as babysitters and want to know why their pagan kids call the youth group "boring," and solid support from the church's leadership. Sadly, not every church would support such a thing. Nor would they hire a youth pastor based on training; most of them go with someone "cool" whom the kids like (and whom the deacons can more easily intimidate).

Sorry for the long post. The Times piece doesn't surprise me in the least; if you read through all the above, you can kind of see why.

Mitch said...

I grew bored with video games sometime in the 1980s, so I have no first-hand experience with Halo 3.

I am a soldier and find retired Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman's (On Killing) comparison of "first person shooter" games to modern combat training techniques compelling. Soldiers and police officers use these training techniques to develop the automatic mental and physical respsonses they will need in combat. Training enables them to control their weapons and pull the trigger at the right time in very stressful situations. I don't think that it's a good idea, however, for children use these same techniques for recreational purposes. Games impart skill and the psychological ability to pull the trigger, but lack the context of lawful purpose, discipline and oversight that comes with police or military service. When the situation demands it, police officers and soldiers need to be able to overcome the natural human reluctance to kill. Teenagers don't.

Tom Goodman said...

"I must say that I am stunned that Focus on the Family has not come out and said something against this whole debacle. Even the Southern Baptist Convention hasn't managed to completely condemn it yet."

Um . . . maybe because the article about the youth group playing video games, like, just came out?

Ben Witherington said...

Thank you Mitch for your thoughtful reminder that the games we play mirror the world we live in, and what society sees as permissible and not permissible. Let's train less children for killing please-- we don't need any more Columbines.

Some of these posts have helped us see the pros and cons of such games as Halo 3, but I have to say that more than such a debate it reveals the sad state of youth culture in America, where it is always about entertainment, and if people aren't entertained, well then, it must not be relevant, even relevant to the Christian faith.

Having just come from Hong Kong and visited an island where there is a Christian rehabilitation program for teens who were trapped in the drug or sex trade or other abusive situations, and now are working hard making useful things, cleaning their own houses, building their own basketball courts, washing and cooking their own stuff, it seems such a contrast. These Chinese teens now know what is important in life--- but so many of the teens we are trying to attract with Halo 3 need to get a life, and frankly need to be less pampered, catered to, and entertained, not more.

And when the church becomes a purveyor of such catering and coddling and trivializing of what youth ministry ought to be about, its time to say shame on us. Our youth ministries ought to involve youth in ministry--- doing Katrina relief and that sort of stuff.

As for the comment about the NFL, the analogy is only partially apt. There are rules against taunting, and misconduct, and the wrong sort of tackling. That is hardly the case in Halo 3.

As for just war, just in case you haven't noticed, neither Vietnam nor Iraq come close to meeting the criteria for being called a just war, and its doubtful they meet any criteria for even being called justifiable.

Blessings,

Ben

Ben Witherington said...

No Tom... in fact Focus folks have known about this phenomena for a very long time.

Ben

Falantedios said...

As long as we are expecting pagans to come to the temple, we will have the same struggles that the Jews suffered.

Until we reject that evangelistic strategy in favor of the one taught by the narratives in Acts, we will struggle to "get kids into church."

in HIS love,
Nick Gill
Frankfort, KY

PS - Anyone else going to the NT Wright lectures in November?

Dj said...

I think the issue here is purely generational. We have one generation who sees Halo as violent and another generation that sees Halo as nothing more than an item of entertainment.

I'm a youth minister and a fan of games, especially Halo 3. Do I use them in our youth ministry? No, because of this exact discussion we're having here (except for Wii sports, that seems to be a hit). Not everyone understands it, so I tread lightly.

I can understand the arguments against Halo, I really can. However I believe that this is an issue that will never truly be resolved. I have personally witnessed a youth group go from a handful of guys, to exploding in growth just because these guys were able to bring their friends. These kids came into a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ simply because a friend invited them to come play Halo at church. I don't know, to me it seems like its worth it. Then again, most would consider me a 'young man'.

I still don't buy the arguments about how we're conditioning our kids to become violent. I just can't accept that. I grew up with a game called Hogan's Alley where you used a light gun to shoot the 'bad guy' or even the cop if you wanted to. Our generation never had problems with school shootings. I think video games have become the scape goat. Modern movies are hands down way more violent than video games. Just look at the previews of Saw 4 coming out soon. It's absolutely disgusting.

Why do video games get hammered on and not movies? Because adults enjoy them more than they enjoy video games. We wouldn't want to feel guilty.

We're looking for something to blame for school violence, shootings, etc...when we really need to blame ourselves when we fail to be good parents or fail to hold other parents accountable.

Bryan said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thank-you for this post. I was a youth pastor in Canada for the last two years.

I sometimes think we feel that the message of the cross is so weak on its own that we need to attract kids to church with fun events, and then once we have them, pull a bait-and-switch and tell them about Jesus. Often we don't even think twice about what our methods are communicating about the power of our God.

My challenge to youth leaders would be this -- the most powerful drawing card you could possibly have is a youth group in which the Spirit of God is moving with power. We need to be seeking that first, above any gimmick or idea. I am all for cultural relevance. But I fear that in our generation, cultural relevance has often become an excuse for being like the world. It's like we are trying to draw people to Christ by saying "Hey, come to Christ and you can still be cool and still be like everyone else." I don't profess to have a lot of answers about youth ministry, and yet I am quite sure that this is NOT the answer we should be looking for.

Jake said...

Ben,

Thanks again for your response - and I've enjoyed the other comments from people as well.

I still think the comparison with sports like football is more appropriate than you allow. There may not be officials involved who can enforce the kinds of rules you have noted in the NFL, but creators of games like Halo 3 have introduced other means of trying to deal with those issues. They are fairly, if not completely, successful - much like similar rules in the NFL. Measures they have introduced include the ability to quickly mute other players, and more importantly the ability to leave feedback regarding player behaviors. Such feedback can lead to people being removed from the online community (membership to XBox Live being suspended or revoked) and also makes it less likely that you will play with the person again. The system takes a little time because the group of people is larger and more diffused, but steps are taken to ensure "good behavior", and I've found that they're generally successful.

I do share the concerns of some commenters that sometimes the church tries too hard to be "hip". At the same time, I think balance is key. Issues of violence and specific games aside, I don't think it is harmful to have times when young people gather together and have fun - even if that fun involves playing video games. Of course, any good youth program should also (and primarily) focus on discipling youth and involving them in service. Extremes are bad - if you focus too much on fun, we all know the obvious problems. If you focus only on the other side, however, you likely are limiting your ability to reach youth. You have to draw them in first, and if video game activiites work, I say great. Obviously you need to give them something much more concrete once you draw them in - but the reality is that Bible studies just aren't initially appealing to most unchurched youth. So just because some youth ministers have an undue focus on entertainment doesn't mean we should swing to the other extreme.

As an aside, Ben, I completely agree about just war and Iraq.

Jen said...

Ben,

Do you think it is ever ok for Christians to play a game like Halo 3? Or do you think Christians in general should avoid violent video games (realistic and cartoonish)or video games where player compete against each other.

BTW the comparison of Halo to movies like Bourne Ultimatum are valid. The movie attracts viewers not with it's story or it's commentary on violence and it's effects but by giving us graphic stylized depictions of violence that entertain us. If they blacked out all of the violent action scenes or or just inferred that something violent happened most wouldn't care to see the movie. You average person doesn't walk out of a movie like that commenting on it's story or its character development, they comment on the action and special effects and how Bourne kicked someone's butt.

Blessings,
Bryan L

Daniel said...

Great discussion. Thanks for bringing this up Dr. Witherington. In general, my experience of youth ministry has largely been just that: entertainment. And though I think it'd be far more faithful for 'youth groups' to 1. focus on work and 2. be more integrated to the rest of the Body... I think the biggest problem is that many evangelical churches offer entertainment to their ADULTS. So then of course we shouldn't expect their treatment of children to be any better.

Parents in white suburban megachurches (painting with broad brushstrokes here, I realize) don't have to share resources, don't have to sacrifice, don't have to suffer... they're too rich!
And so their kids live the same kinds of lives, celebrating violence, accepting the culture's forms of entertainment uncritically and so on...

An invitation to all of us to examine ourselves and make sure we aren't those kinds of kids or parents. Discipleship is costly.

Peace,
-Daniel-

United. Committed. Reaching. said...

I have spent the last 8 years in youth ministry. I have entertained the idea of having a Halo night (for high school guys only) over the past few years. I have never felt a true peace about it, never felt good about it in my gut- so I have never pulled the trigger on the idea. My conclusions have always been that the cons outweigh the pros of holding an event like so with our teenagers. One thought in particular, "If a student cannot play the game at home because his parents won't allow it- why should the church be an avenue for him to play it?" And if the church allows it, aren't we somewhat betraying the intentions of parents who are seeking to raise their kids in a manner that promotes peace and goodness?
I believe that relevance is great. But I also believe that Christianity is also counter-cultural in so many respects. A Christian student's behavior should reflect both.

Mathew said...

As an avid gamer and born again Christian I have to completely agree with Ben... Just like I would not want to have an outreach say using an R-rated film. I would not want them to use an M-rated video game. Within my home I follow the ESRB fairly strictly but thats because I know these games and I really don't want my Children exposed to these things. The purpose of an outreach is to reach people for Christ... not have a great match of Halo 3. Honestly though I would take issue with any game or movie unless it is Christian themed again because the purpose is to bring people to Christ. You don't need anything else. Are we more concerned with entertainment or actually bringing truth. This smacks of despriation and deception. Personally I love playing games, especially with my children, but this is not right. Even outreach aside... The church should be supporting the ESRB in that this is a M-rated title. No one should be using this as a tool. Maybe Wii sports would be a better tool if at all, but I'm old school. All I want is Jesus, not necessarily entertainment.

kim said...

> When you play a ‘Versus’ sort of game, or in that sort of mode, you are in the first place setting up a scenario for individual winners and losers.
> Secondly… I do have a major problem with a game that takes endless hours to play, or win,

...I guess that would also rule out Chess.

I make the point that it's neither of these that Witherington has issue with, but rather the video game medium itself.

Galen Rice said...

I am not a regular reader of your blog, nor am I a practicing Christian of any kind (I consider myself deist, though I believe a God exists: just iffy on the rest of the gospel). I am, however, an avid video game player, a college undergraduate hoping to become a part of the games industry, and a writer on game-related topics for my college newspaper as of late. I was forwarded here by the blog GamePolitics.

Introduction aside, I am a member of a fraternity at my university. We have held gaming nights in the past, almost always with great success in helping us to meet new people and make new friends, whom we would later invite to join our organization. From my personal experience, even if the video game is set up in a way that pits players against each other, either free-for-all or in teams, every player is enjoying the same experience. There are no grudges held, there is no hierarchy, and there is never a time when someone seriously complained of another cheating or not following rules.

I believe holding game tournaments for the purpose of recruiting for one's organization harkens back to holding a pickup basketball tournament in the park. There are several key differences, of course:

- Physical ability does not play a factor in playing Halo 3: all the players are on an equal playing field with the only exception being their prior skill in playing the game.
- There is not as much arguing about cheating or playing unfairly when playing Halo 3. The game simply does not allow you to do things that the designers of the game did not intend, and so the argument that someone is cheating is almost always a moot point. Thus, no one tries to focus on who has an unfair advantage: instead they focus on playing.
- Players don't have to play the same way anyone else is playing. In fact, no one has to play the same way anyone else is playing. Once when a couple of players ended up with no ammunition left in any of their weapons, they just started jumping around the map trying to find other people who would shoot them and make them spawn, resulting in everyone following suit in one of the most hilarious fake dance competitions I have ever seen. It was unplanned, but not discouraged.

In regards to the latter of those points, who says that a 'versus' video game can't build a community? Sure, the players are facing each other, but they're not so focused on trying to 'win' the game that they stop having fun. No one cares if they lose, because they had a good time losing. Once, a player was being beaten by the other players so badly that he started killing himself as soon as he was being shot at, just so other players wouldn't get the points. All the while, I could hear him laughing from the next room, having a grand time blowing himself up. He surely could not win this round, so why bash your head against the wall figuratively when you could bash it literally for kicks? :)

Is it acceptable to use Halo 3 to recruit teenagers into the church? I honestly can't decide that: The purpose of people like me is to travel about, trying to inform others of what it's like in worlds they haven't explored. From where I stand, there are three distinctive groups supposedly at odds over this: the gamers who applaud those churches for having the open-mindedness to condone Halo 3 as a way to reach teens; religious scholars and leaders who do not understand video game culure and simply have knee-jerk reactions to such news; and those who are informed of the mindset of a gamer, but do not wish for their young to assume that same mindset when speaking about the church. That's my take, at least.

And, I must point out: your original posting, Dr. Witherington, reads to me the same as if an atheist who knew nothing of the Bible told someone they were going to hell. Those who play video games are not merely slaves to pixels, flashing lights and obscene gore, as many would assume: that group includes people who can disconnect, walk in the park, read a book, do some homework, hold a well-paying job, raise a family, and themselves contribute to a church or church group.

I dare say that, though a church does not necessarily need to be 'hip' and 'with it' to understand and connect with youth, it is important for those in a position to teach and shape youth to understand what exists in their culture today by diving into it themselves, rather than blast it as pure evil or wrong from an outside perspective. The main issue with youth leaders - in all organizations, not just churches - is that they have no way to connect with the youth because they do not know how to talk their language.

And no, I don't mean "yo yo, Jesus was pimp": you must build on a child's previous knowledge to be able to form new understanding and wisdom. If all they know before you reach them is TV, movies and video games, then you relate your material to TV, movies and video games. There are so many glaring examples of media in all three of these formats that have narratives echoing the Bible itself.

After all, game developers are human, as well. Their ideas had to come from somewhere, did they not?

On that last point, think on this for awhile: Master Chief is a super-human fighting the Covenant as they attempt to destroy humanity with the use of giant space rings called "Halos" controlled from the Ark. His role is almost messianic, trying to protect the relatively small and vulnerable human race from a never-ending flood of aliens (indeed, one of the alien races is called the Flood).

Master Chief as Jesus, perhaps? The Ark of the Covenant? Tie-ins with the story of Noah? I suggest you look for synapses of the story of Halo itself and then decide if the violence in the game is senseless.

Galen Rice said...

I am not a regular reader of your blog, nor am I a practicing Christian of any kind (I consider myself deist, though I believe a God exists: just iffy on the rest of the gospel). I am, however, an avid video game player, a college undergraduate hoping to become a part of the games industry, and a writer on game-related topics for my college newspaper as of late. I was forwarded here by the blog GamePolitics.

Introduction aside, I am a member of a fraternity at my university. We have held gaming nights in the past, almost always with great success in helping us to meet new people and make new friends, whom we would later invite to join our organization. From my personal experience, even if the video game is set up in a way that pits players against each other, either free-for-all or in teams, every player is enjoying the same experience. There are no grudges held, there is no hierarchy, and there is never a time when someone seriously complained of another cheating or not following rules.

I believe holding game tournaments for the purpose of recruiting for one's organization harkens back to holding a pickup basketball tournament in the park. There are several key differences, of course:

- Physical ability does not play a factor in playing Halo 3: all the players are on an equal playing field with the only exception being their prior skill in playing the game.
- There is not as much arguing about cheating or playing unfairly when playing Halo 3. The game simply does not allow you to do things that the designers of the game did not intend, and so the argument that someone is cheating is almost always a moot point. Thus, no one tries to focus on who has an unfair advantage: instead they focus on playing.
- Players don't have to play the same way anyone else is playing. In fact, no one has to play the same way anyone else is playing. Once when a couple of players ended up with no ammunition left in any of their weapons, they just started jumping around the map trying to find other people who would shoot them and make them spawn, resulting in everyone following suit in one of the most hilarious fake dance competitions I have ever seen. It was unplanned, but not discouraged.

In regards to the latter of those points, who says that a 'versus' video game can't build a community? Sure, the players are facing each other, but they're not so focused on trying to 'win' the game that they stop having fun. No one cares if they lose, because they had a good time losing. Once, a player was being beaten by the other players so badly that he started killing himself as soon as he was being shot at, just so other players wouldn't get the points. All the while, I could hear him laughing from the next room, having a grand time blowing himself up. He surely could not win this round, so why bash your head against the wall figuratively when you could bash it literally for kicks? :)

Is it acceptable to use Halo 3 to recruit teenagers into the church? I honestly can't decide that: The purpose of people like me is to travel about, trying to inform others of what it's like in worlds they haven't explored. From where I stand, there are three distinctive groups supposedly at odds over this: the gamers who applaud those churches for having the open-mindedness to condone Halo 3 as a way to reach teens; religious scholars and leaders who do not understand video game culure and simply have knee-jerk reactions to such news; and those who are informed of the mindset of a gamer, but do not wish for their young to assume that same mindset when speaking about the church. That's my take, at least.

And, I must point out: your original posting, Dr. Witherington, reads to me the same as if an atheist who knew nothing of the Bible told someone they were going to hell. Those who play video games are not merely slaves to pixels, flashing lights and obscene gore, as many would assume: that group includes people who can disconnect, walk in the park, read a book, do some homework, hold a well-paying job, raise a family, and themselves contribute to a church or church group.

I dare say that, though a church does not necessarily need to be 'hip' and 'with it' to understand and connect with youth, it is important for those in a position to teach and shape youth to understand what exists in their culture today by diving into it themselves, rather than blast it as pure evil or wrong from an outside perspective. The main issue with youth leaders - in all organizations, not just churches - is that they have no way to connect with the youth because they do not know how to talk their language.

And no, I don't mean "yo yo, Jesus was pimp": you must build on a child's previous knowledge to be able to form new understanding and wisdom. If all they know before you reach them is TV, movies and video games, then you relate your material to TV, movies and video games. There are so many glaring examples of media in all three of these formats that have narratives echoing the Bible itself.

After all, game developers are human, as well. Their ideas had to come from somewhere, did they not?

On that last point, think on this for awhile: Master Chief is a super-human fighting the Covenant as they attempt to destroy humanity with the use of giant space rings called "Halos" controlled from the Ark. His role is almost messianic, trying to protect the relatively small and vulnerable human race from a never-ending flood of aliens (indeed, one of the alien races is called the Flood).

Master Chief as Jesus, perhaps? The Ark of the Covenant? Tie-ins with the story of Noah? I suggest you look for synapses of the story of Halo itself and then decide if the violence in the game is senseless.

Nick said...

I'm not a fan of using any sort of gimmicks to draw people to Christ. But I blogged about the Youth Ministry, Video Games, and Violence in response to this post over at my blog. In the end I don't think it is that big of a deal.

D. Lynn said...

Well, yes, the NFL is probably off limits if we use BW's questions. Your shock just shows how enculurated the church has become. Walter Wink has a nice trilogy on the powers in which he forcibly posits that we, as a culture and, sadly, church, follow Babylon's myth rather than the Christian myth. Bablyon: violence in the answer; example: the movie Shane. Christianity: non-violence triumps; example: Christ on the Cross. Try BW's guidelines for a while and you will discover large chuncks of culture off limits.

Nice discussion

Yours,

Mathew said...

I just wanted to say one thing quickly. I realize part of this discussion is going on the "violent games" are bad for kids route, etc... but I think the crux of the issue is it should not be used for an outreach. Honestly the box tells you who should be playing this game and at that point you can make that determination if you approve or disapprove of the material (I personally played halo 3 but I won't play any of the GTA titles). Of course I'm 36 so I think I can make that determination for me and my family (and no my children are not even allowed to play T for Teen titles yet). I think to the key point here is why are we luring people to studies with entertainment. It's disengenuous and quite frankly if it resulted in fewer people at an outreach so be it. I don't think you should sacrafice the Gospel for the sake of entertaining people.

Alan said...

I do read and weep. But then I am a Church of the Brethren pastor who is grateful for my church's nearly 300 year commitment to Jesus' way of peace.

Thanks for the post.

Alan Miller
Conestoga Church of the Brethren
Leola PA

Dave said...

This post has struck a chord with me.

I have to agree with the self-absorbed aspect of video games. I personally never got that into Pac-man and the other Atari 2600 games like my friends did, and that was 25 years ago. (Was it really that long ago? lol1) Now I have teens, and the boys are REALLY into it. The do become self absorbed and addicted to it. While there is some bonding going on with XBOX Live aspect, it’s like internet chat of sorts, and not fostering real world communication. The boys get in their game mode, and act and talk a certain way, safe behind the wall of their game, and in their house. Again a big issue should be time. I think most people would be surprised how much time teens spend on video games. When I was a kid, we went to bed when our parents did, if not before. These days kids aren’t going to bed until midnight or later so they’re playing games 3 or 4 hours a day, and that’s the norm.

Interesting idea on the subject of story and redemption. I have always loved movies that have redemption. When my kids play Halo, I see nothing but bloodlust. The teen boys play it in a way to not just kill, but also humiliate their opponents. What “team work” there is more like gang-violence or gang-rape if you will, than the camaraderie of a football team.

As far as youth ministry, I don’t know much other than I have taught the confirmation class, and I have 4 teens of my own. But I seldom hear the WHOLE GOOD NEWS… usually only a small portion is preached and seldom very enthusiastically like some youth pastors and adult pastors are ashamed to proclaim that Jesus dies for our sins, we are forgiven, we can be reborn, we can change into the likeness of Christ, we will be raised from death and live in the New Earth.

my name said...

Ben said,

"Thirdly, there are numerous studies out there to be had about how these games affect and indeed encode violent images on young brains in various ways that going to a movie that lasts an hour or so would not do. Why? because of the endless repetition of the ultra fast violent scenarios, often without there being any redeeming features, plot, character development involved."

Actually, there has never been any conclusive proof linking video games to violence. These 'studies' have been debunked time and time again. In fact, the methods used are often poor at best.

In addition, while some claim that video games cause aggression, that makes them no different from an activity like basketball or football. Of course they can cause aggression - but that's not bad by any means. Competition breeds aggression but that can be quite healthy.

Ben also said,

"When you play a 'Versus' sort of game, or in that sort of mode, you are in the first place setting up a scenario for individual winners and losers. There is nothing about this that builds community. We are not talking even about a 'team' sport here."

You demonstrate a lack of knowledge about video games. Anyone who is familiar with Halo knows it's an excellent community building activity. I can't even begin to name off all the friend's I've met through video games (Halo and others). Playing against another person doesn't make you mortal enemies or foster egotism. Often you'll get to know your opponents (as long as you're both in the same setting) and have the chance to build friendships. Hardly the sort of thing to shun from youth groups. This is part of the reason LAN parties are so fun.

Ben also said,

"Let's train less children for killing please-- we don't need any more Columbines."

Please. I thought that myth disappeared years ago. People need to stop blaming video games for the fact that there are indeed morons out there. People like to be comforted by easy explanations and that causes them to scapegoat things such as video games and music. There has never been any evidence to link Columbine with video games and you only make yourself look less intelligent by saying such things.


Now, I think this topic is extremely interesting. However, I'm bothered that some are willing to pass up video games such as Halo 3 for youth group activities. Let me state this clearly: Halo is not a bad game. It does not promote violence or glorify killing. Players engage in a storyline that happens to involve shooting. I think I speak for nearly every Halo player when I state that nobody plays it because they think killing is fun. It's a game and players understand this clearly.

As I stated earlier, Halo is a wonderful community building activity. If you allow a youth group to have "Halo Nights" and moderate it accordingly, you'll be amazed at how well the youth begin to bond. Video games are also very social. It will give them time to get their fill of social activity in the youth group setting. This is far better than many of the youth groups I used to go to where people would stand around during the social time before and after and hardly talk to each other. Video games help break the ice and the aggression some people experience helps them break their shyness. I've been playing video games since I was 5 and I can assure you it will help a youth group bond. The burden of proof here should be on the Youth Pastor, not those who support the game. There is far more evidence in support of the games.

Anyway, if you can't get past this idea of 'violence' in Halo 3, then I'm afraid you really don't understand the game itself. I don't fault you. This is far too common in many who aren't familiar with video games and you're not alone. However, instead of being afraid that Halo 3 is going to cause more Columbines and Virgina Techs, educate yourself about video games from the viewpoint of a GAMER (important) and realize that you have one of the best opportunities ever to bring in youth to your church. Only a fool would avoid taking advantage of that.

jeremy zach said...

Hello all! I am a youth pastor in Laguna Beach, CA who does not subscribe to importing the use of video games to attract students into walls of the church. Here is why:

To be honest video games, especially Halo 3, does not facilitate ANY good conversation and/or intentionality that can be Kingdom focused. Why would we want to force and encourage more TV and video games on our students, when in reality they are already doing 3 or 4 hours a night? (this is assuming the latest statistics are accurate about teenagers in front of the TV) Simply, the student moves from the "home" video game control to the "church" video game control.

In addition, video games only fuel this idea of competing. Students of the 21st century do not need any more performance based influences in their life. Most of the activities/sports/events/programs/video games a student engages in, is performance and competition based.

For example, in order for a student to make the varsity football team, he needs to "try out" to see if he has what it takes to be apart of the team. If you can perform and compete up to standard, then you are accepted and on the team. Suzie is playing Halo 3 and she is darn good at it. She can beat anyone and everyone without getting dizzy. Suzie high success rate in Halo 3 only adds more to the competition spirit. And also, all of the boys dislike Suzie because not only can she bet them, pretty bad, but she is a female.

The problem is that our American culture still uses the rhetoric that a lot of the activities/sports/events/programs/ build character, yet in reality we are only teaching our students nothing but arrogance, self centeredness, and a performance ethic that is destructive to the adolescent cognitive development.

My point is: we should not be using video games regardless if they are violent or non-violent because they do not facilitate any great communal good, unless sore thumbs and frustrated "Halo losers" count.
It is the Youth Ministry's goal to create safe, comfortable, and non-performance environments that teach and reflect Jesus. We as youth ministers need to get more creative and think outside of the box and tap into the Holy Spirit so He can reveal to us how to better connect to this generation of students. I am sorry but importing video games do not work and it is a very lazy programed activity and a very competitive activity. The goal of youth ministry is not to make winners or losers, but make authentic followers of Christ.

Importing video games in our YM:
1. is lazy
2. fuels the competive spirit
3. does not facilitate conversation and/or connection
4. only contributes to the multiple hours teenagers spend in front of the TV


This why I only laughed when I saw this article in New York times. Not only does it give society negative leverage about the church, but it makes the church look kind of silly. Just another opportunity the media can make the followers of Christ look stupid. Yet, the New York times neglects the fact how the local church raised 12000 for an intended event with a particular cause. Ohh well.........

In HIS grip,
Jeremy

jeremy zach said...

Steve,

I hear you about the state of YM. Yes, LAN or video game parties may be your best bet for ministry events, but you need to look at why these students are so attracted to the video games.

The reason why these students find such an attraction to video games is because is is there longing to connect and be accepted in reality. What a video game does is give student full access to be in "their own world", which in turn takes them out of the "real world." In a sense video games entrance a student into this false world and takes them out of the true world. Every student has this deep longing to feel: Valued, Accepted, and Connected.

Why do you think Myspace is such a huge thing amongst teenagers? Myspace gives teenagers, possibly for the 1st time in their life, a sense of belonging, value, and connection to people who are like them.

Video games contributes to the idea of being individually focused, and not collectively focused. Video games is what students do at home, not at church. Church needs to be a place and space that allows students who are insecure in their identity to step into the secure identity of God. The church needs to be a place where the student is always accepted, connected, and forgiven. The church and youth group is a space where we can pull the students out of their false world into the real world, allowing them to deal with real problems in the presence of Jesus.

JR Miller said...

Dr. Witherington,

I would like to withhold my thoughts on this topic as I process your post/subsequent replies and the comments of others first.

However, I am very curious as to whether or not you have played Halo 3 or watched it being played, for an extended period of time, by others.

AG said...

Well Said BW3!
Perspective is a big factor that has not been touched upon in this discussion. It is very difficualy for teens to realise there is a world outside of their own (american) culture. Only when 'young people' are exposed firsthand to the realities of how most of the world lives outside of the USA, can there be a chance to genuinly change their perosnal life systems. Many live in poverty with hungry bellies and the threat of death, slavery to the sex trade, and many other forms of horrific conditions.
My suggestion is that maybe our youth groups could take a leaf out of Bono's book and begin to promote social justice and other 'hippie' values(as some would call it, i would suggest they are more christian than hippie), maybe only then will our Youth groups be an agent of change.
You want a 'radical' youth group? try selling feeding the homeless, saving the environment, clothing the poor, being agents of kindness in society. Sure not many kids will 'think' its cool, but i am sure there are some that think the campaign 'make poverty history' is a waste of time as well.
Halo3 is a game we will not stop youth groups playing, nor our church boards wasting another meeting deciding if they should let the youth minister 'use it' in youth group. If the church modelled true social justice, true environmental stewardship and true compassion and grace, then dare i say we may find more for our youth group to participate in other than playing games and eating pizza.
The deeper issues is that we are too scared to be seen as 'radical' or 'left' that we wont get up and change the world we live in and seek to make a difference that matters, instead we choose one that looks good on paper. and the finally we blog about our concern over a video game, rather than our concern that people are starving, kids are being abused, and the environment is getting destroyed and grace is a dirty word etc.
Shame on us.....if you need to use Halo 3 for your youth group, by all means go ahead, but if you want real change in young people...i would suggest we give them something to live for and something to be apart, something that will chnage there world forever of other than trivial video games.
Peace my friends

AG said...

Well Said BW3!
Perspective is a big factor that has not been touched upon in this discussion. It is very difficulty for teens to realize there is a world outside of their own (American) culture. Only when 'young people' become exposed firsthand to the realities of how most of the world lives outside of the USA, can there be a chance to genuinely change their personal life systems. Many live in poverty with hungry bellies and the threat of death, slavery to the sex trade, and many other forms of horrific conditions.
My suggestion is that maybe our youth groups could take a leaf out of Bono's book and begin to promote social justice and other 'hippie' values(as some would call it, I would suggest they are more Christian than hippie), maybe only then will our Youth groups be an agent of change.
You want a 'radical' youth group? try selling feeding the homeless, saving the environment, clothing the poor, being agents of kindness in society. Sure not many kids will 'think' its cool, but I am sure there are some that think the campaign 'make poverty history' is a waste of time as well.
Halo3 is a game we will not stop youth groups playing, nor our church boards wasting another meeting deciding if they should let the youth minister 'use it' in youth group. If the church modeled true social justice, true environmental stewardship and true compassion and grace, then dare I say we may find more for our youth group to participate in other than playing games and eating pizza.
The deeper issue is that we are too scared to be seen as 'radical' or 'left' that we wont get up and change the world we live in and seek to make a difference that matters, instead many choose to take an option that looks good on paper. Finally we blog about our concern over a video game, rather than our concern that people are starving, kids are being abused, and the environment is getting destroyed and grace is a dirty word etc.
Shame on us.....if you need to use Halo 3 for your youth group, by all means go ahead, but if you want real change in young people...I would suggest we give them something to live for and something to be apart of, something that will change their world and our world forever other than trivial video games.
Anyway food for thought…..
Peace my friends

Phonograph Alley said...

I graduated high school in 2003 and this sort of church phenomena was a contributing factor in my avoidence of youth-groups, church, and Christ, for far too long.

I was raised in a luke-warm Christian home-- I remember being read scripture since I can remember the sound of my father's voice, but can count the times the family went to church on both hands.

As a teenager I found it increasingly difficult understanding Christianity in a public school where every lesson seemed to rule out the will of God-- when I asked about religion teachers would avoid the subject with an "to each their own" type statement. One can imagine the confusion and doubt.

Church youth groups like the ones mentioned in your post confused me even more.

Why would I want to come play Halo with the youth group at a church whose God seemed to be everything Halo wasn't? Of course, I played the games (they were cool..) but I was even more turned off from Christ by what I felt was hypocrisy.

I understood, and still understand, these kids were having a good time together, and everyone would much rather them be at church than at the mall, but I could not understand how a God that they sing is lifting them higher and filling their souls with song is exalted by playing video games.

I had serious questions, serious doubts, and all everyone wanted to do was play video games or ride roller coasters. I loved playing video games, but they didn't bring me closer to any truth, they didn't answer any of the questions that kept me seperate from the church.

It felt like the youth leaders were just keeping us occupied as much as possible so we didn't slow down and demand something more. Unfortunately though, things eventually do slow down, and we need real answers and less distractions.

Gallagher said...

From my simple mind....are we allowing our young people to be drawn into church by the blood and gore of a video game instead of the blood Jesus suffered on the cross?

Think about is, Halo 4 will come out soon, but the blood of Jesus lasts forever.

Just my thoughts...

Bill Barnwell said...

There is an interesting distinction in how the majority of Christians respond to violence vs. sex or even profanity in the media. For instance, the average Evangelical flips out over music, TV, or movies that contain sexual images or even just innuendo. But many of these same people would have no problem with the latest shoot em' up action flick or video game (and the majority of Christian teens I know love Halo). Janet Jackson's single bare boob caused traditionalists to go ballistic and was a much bigger concern than the desensitization to glorified violence and murder. Of course many pockets of Evangelicalism were and remain the most dedicated supporters of the Iraq War. So it's not just fake violence that we aren't too bothered by.

The same happens with profanity. The typical Christian parent would go nuts if they heard their kids listening to music with swear words. Also, I've noticed that when I'm in social settings with other Christians and we are watching a movie, there is an uncomfortable social awkwardness in the room when there's swearing in whatever program is being watched. But there is not the same awkwardness when the latest gore video game or action movie is being played.

I'm not saying that since are inconsistent that we need to lighten up on these other issues (nor am I saying that all or maybe even most are inconsistent like this, but many are). I just find it an interesting contradiction to point out. By the way, I'm part of the problem too. I've watched every episode of "24" and I'm pretty sure somebody dies and/or is murdered in every episode. The shows promotion of torture, aggression, and violence stand in stark contrast to everything I stand for. Yet I still eagerly await the next season and am captivated by each season's plot.

The fact that Jack Bauer has killed probably over 100 people just by himself on the show hasn't fazed me much. Certainly not as much as I'm bothered by the occassional profanity on the radio or network TV. Yup, I'm a hypocrite too.

Alec said...

Ben Witherington said: "Thirdly, there are numerous studies out there to be had about how these games affect and indeed encode violent images on young brains in various ways that going to a movie that lasts an hour or so would not do."

This is a shaky argument to try and stand on, mainly due to the terribly divided opinion among the medical community. A quick Google search will turn up several dozen studies saying that violent videogames encode violent behavior in children, and an equal number of studies picking apart the methodologies and conclusions of the first group of studies. To say the issue is decided is to base your conclusion on bias, not fact.

Quote: "Why? because of the endless repetition of the ultra fast violent scenarios, often without there being any redeeming features, plot, character development involved."

This is an excellent example of an argument based on hearsay, not direct, unbiased exposure and evaluation. The story arc of the Halo series centers around a genetically-engineered super-soldier, taken into this program without his consent, who was trained as a mindless killing machine and ends up in a war against an alien aggressor. During the course of the story, the main character changes immensely. He begins as someone who is "fighting the good fight" without question and with a definite "there are acceptable losses" attitude. As the story progresses, he changes to someone who places himself and his mission in grave danger to rescue individuals as he realizes that every life is important. He also begins working with a previously hated enemy when he realizes that the enemy has been misled and lied to and that the enemy now wishes to assist both humanity and his own race against their mutual aggressors.

Quote: "One can't say that about a movie like the Bourne Ultimatum. The violence is not only secondary to the character development in that movie, there is actually a negative commentary on the sort of abuse inflicted on Bourne and a revelation of the devastating consequences it had on his life..."

There are several such commentaries in the Halo series, especially at the end of the third game which closes with a nearly five-minute cinematic where the commander of the human forces gives a eulogy for the troops lost in the war and thanks (though doesn't quite forgive) the main alien protagonist.

Quote: "In short, there are no redeeming features at all to a game like Halo that comes close to this."

In short, individuals who are not willing to expose themselves to the media they are attacking should be certain to at least collect as much data as possible on their foe. Otherwise their assertions ring hollow and their arguments are easily countered.

Josh said...

I'm a youth minister. I've allowed kids play Halo in our youth room. I must admit I'm struggling with this happening and the message I'm delivering. I don't know the answers but I know I've been moved to prayer and meditation. I may be setting some new norms. Also, I've noticed that my kids throw on their iPods every time they come together. I have thought for awhile that action doesn't promote community.

Thanks for stirring my thoughts.

Josh said...

I'm a youth minister. I've allowed kids play Halo in our youth room. I must admit I'm struggling with this happening and the message I'm delivering. I don't know the answers but I know I've been moved to prayer and meditation. I may be setting some new norms. Also, I've noticed that my kids throw on their iPods every time they come together. I have thought for awhile that action doesn't promote community.

Thanks for stirring my thoughts.

Alec said...

One other point of note:

Quote: "When you play a 'Versus' sort of game, or in that sort of mode, you are in the first place setting up a scenario for individual winners and losers. There is nothing about this that builds community. We are not talking even about a 'team' sport here."

It should be pointed out that there are multiple team modes in the Halo multi player experience, from simple team scoring to "capture the flag" scenarios that require a lot of communication and cooperation.

Again, having all your facts straight about the medium you're against would significantly strengthen your argument among the people who actually play it.

Travis said...

Violence is wrong. I mean, it says that right in the bible. Right after it tells us why we should kill homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13 NAB), kill women who aren't virgins on their wedding night (Deuteronomy 22:20-21 NAB), and in the story of the flood God drown the entire human race except for Noah and his ilk (but we're expected to believe God loves us anyhow. Even though he drowns us.)

You're right. Hypocrisy like playing videogames that are violent would be TOO MUCH for the church. Because there is NO hypocrisy in anything else they say.

I think the real problem is that you can't bullshit kids like you used to. Now when someone says, "Christ was a good man..." anyone with a computer can google Christ and come up with Bertrand Russell's 'Why I am Not a Christian' and get opposing viewpoints, which is something you can't do in a cloistered community. Also, the 'mankind is evil, selfish and wrong from birth' (original sin) has so many philosophical points to argue that it can lead to people rejecting it, and it's a cornerstone of the faith!

In the end, I agree. You shouldn't teach Christianity with Halo. Don't ruin Halo, and we don't need any more brainwashed people.

Also, if you pray for me, I'll use my power as a witch doctor to drag your soul straight to hell when I go, so don't do that either. Well, if you do it you just make me more powerful when I get there. Now that I think about it, I'm so lost, please pray for me? (Muhahahahah)

Steve said...

Thanks Dr. Witherington for your continued thoughts on this issue.

I must say that I do think the analogy of football (NFL, college, high school, etc.) is appropriate when applying your questions.

Consider the questions again: "Ask yourself these questions: 1) could this game encourage me to be a more compassionate person,; 2) a more loving or forgiving person; 3) a less individualistic and more community oriented person; 4) a person less prone to anger, less prone to resort to certain inappropriate ways of resolving conflict? These are the sorts of questions one needs to be asking when evaluating such games."

How does playing football lead a person to answer these questions? More compassionate? Hardly. In football cut blocks are legal and Trent Green cut block the man who became furious with him. He became furious because his livelihood is based on healthy knees. Does the legal practice of blocking an opposing player at the knees when they are not looking encourage compassion? Does the legal practice of hitting other players as hard as you can when they are not looking encourage compassion?

How does this sort of behavior encourage us to become more loving or forgiving? It gives us ample opportunity to forgive perhaps but if we do not play there will be no need for forgiveness.

Playing football can help people become less individualistic and more community oriented but it can also work against this. Just look at the many prima donnas in college and the NFL.

Does playing football make me less prone to anger and inappropriate ways of dealing with conflict? Check out the list of suspended NFL players for off the field behavior.

No to be fair: are these men this way because they play football or do they play football because they are this way? Either way you answer the question, it appears that playing football fails all of your questions Dr. Witherington. Even if you play by the rules, which are strictly enforced, it appears to me that playing football does not meet the criteria set forth in the questions suggested by Dr. Witherington.

By the way, I love football but studied under Dr. Groothuis at Denver Seminary who believes that football is an unethical game for Christians to play and watch.

Dan said...

This need to stay relevant and hip in order to reach teenagers has been endemic to youth ministry for the last 30 years, at least. And until maybe 10 years ago, there wasn't much evidence to prove its success, or lack thereof. Now all the stats seem to say that, in spite of the enormous time and energy spent trying to create Relevant and Cool youth ministries, the majority of kids are wandering away after they finish high school. Maybe that ought to tell us that IT ISN'T WORKING! But, instead of going back and rethinking the premise, youth ministries just keep doing the same thing, quoting the same mantras: "We're losing kids, we need to be more relevant!" What if it's the drive to be relevant that is the actual cause of so many kids wandering away? Maybe it's time that we let things like Grace, Community, Unconditional Love, Forgiveness, and Hope be the things that attract kids to our youth group, instead of our cool youth room and video game parties.

Nathan Brasfield said...

I would say I have to agree with you, Dr. W.

In my college & career group, Halo has become pretty much all that the guys in my group (excluding myself and maybe one other) do with each other. My college pastor invites everyone over, but then they spend all their time trying to see who can kill each other the most times. It was a very sad thing at our Destin trip this past summer where we had two TV's in the condo. I was walking around and in the living room, 5 or 6 guys were glued to Halo. I walked into the bedroom where the other TV was--and that's where the remaining guys were glued to Halo on that TV. There was time for us guys to actually talk to one another, but not all that much. It is something that does no good for the group at all as far as I can see, since it takes away from REAL fellowship with one another and may even irritate what fellowship there actually is; the competitiveness resulted in one guy using the f-word, among others.

This past Sunday a visiting guy to our young adults Sunday school class got up and left his small group because he got tired of talking about Halo and not having everyone's participation in that instead of discussing the lesson at hand.

I have no problem with the video games themselves; my college pastor explained the good vs. evil story and it seems like a good game to play if you're going to play video games. I also believe a Christian can responsibly view violent movies. However, when it comes to the point where it is what receives the majority of guys' free time, energy, concern, etc., then that is quite an example of idolatry--which we all struggle with but when there is a case of it that many people share with each other, it should be addressed openly.

The Burdman said...

Last year I lived in the dorms of a Christian College, and spent many a night that probably would have better been spent studying playing Halo with my friends. While it does have futuristic warfare, there isn't really blood or gore. I really don't know why it was rated "M" either, but I don't think it is appropriate to be using that video game in youth groups unless there is parental consent, strictly because of the rating.

However I do think a couple things about the article are very interesting. I think, it is firstly interesting how the article singles out males as the ones playing these video games. While it is mostly males who do play these types of video games from my experience, it isn't strictly males. The other thing I noticed was in the article was the mentality of the youths, that it is "just fun blowing people up." I really don't think most people equate video game violence of this type with killing in real life. The article seems to suggest that they are quite similar.

I think that this debate on video games stems not just from trying to make churches culturally relevant, but from trying to make churches more masculine in nature. It is trying to appeal to young males, rather than any other demographic. There are other types of ministries related to other demographics and their subcultures, but this one has more of a potential for controversy because of the material.

I think the reason for the inclusion of modern culture in churches has to do with widespread mainstream culture, and a weaker Christian culture, which is considered by some to be 'effeminate.' It is a reaction to the cultural forces. I think the greater question is one regarding how influential certain cultures should be in churches.

Page said...

To me, the issue we should be concerned about is not the violence in these games, but the use of these games to lure people in. This mentality is typical of the "seeker-friendly" churches.

What this issue fails to address is the hostility of the unsaved towards God. Putting Halo 3 into a church and presenting it along with a Bible study isn't going to help anyone, because such a move is only appealing to people's flesh. The Bible clearly teaches that no one comes to God through Christ unless they are called by God first.

Page said...

To me, the issue we should be concerned about is not the violence in these games, but the use of these games to lure people in. This mentality is typical of the "seeker-friendly" churches.

What this issue fails to address is the hostility of the unsaved towards God. Putting Halo 3 into a church and presenting it along with a Bible study isn't going to help anyone, because such a move is only appealing to people's flesh. The Bible clearly teaches that no one comes to God through Christ unless they are called by God first.

Drew said...

Dr. Witherington,

I find your post on the video game Halo 3 to be quite interesting, almost compelling.

I am a college-going Christian that has spent a good part of my growing up playing video games. My parents did not let me play Mature rated games until I was old enough, and even then, as with movies, there had to be discussions about the content. I soon joined a Christian gaming site, CCGR.org, and post reviews there under the name of iamscott. I also work at a video game store (being a child of the techno-era), and am routinely in contact with violent video games and the people that play them.

I've got to say, though, I was tracking with what you were saying (not necessarily agreeing with, but following) until you hit your comparison with the recent movie The Bourne Ultimatum. You compare a video game, which it seems is quite evident that you have not played, with a movie. They are two wholly seperate mediums that are, slowly, coming together; yet individual films and individual games cannot be compared. Granted, Bourne is a very well-made movie, and director Paul Greengrass is excellent as well, yet you fail to realize that video games are beginning to follow films.

In the early years of film, what did we see? Simple things: a train, moving. A crowded street. Slowly, there was an evolution of sorts. We started seeing epics, films that ran longer than ten to fifteen minutes. Classics were born: here you have Gone With the Wind, there you have Rear Window. And slowly, film became accepted as art. Directors such as Richard Linklater (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly), David Lynch (Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr.), and Martin Scorcese have proved this.

Conversely, games are going through the same stages. Initially, we saw blips on a screen: Pong, Space Invaders and Asteroids. Slowly but surely, games started coming out that redefined everything: The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros., and Prince of Persia. And now we're beginning to see epics, modern classics that will show what can be done in an interactive medium: the Halo trilogy, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and Final Fantasies VII-XII.

The point being that Halo most definitely does have a defined character arc, growth that occurs beyond simple revenge ploys and schemes to kill the alien menace. Granted, many games do it better; the aforementioned Final Fantasy games, the new Prince of Persia series, and the God of War games. But those games don't sell as much as Halo does.

In regards to Lisa's comment, Halo 1 was originally going to be rated T; it was released in late 2001, and as we all know, tensions were high, and reactions to violence were, as should be expected, a little more than they should have been. Many games were revised or delayed.

Dr. Witherington, Halo 3 is a violent game. There is no doubt about that. Adult themes do not necessarily run rampant through the game, as has been implied, but violence is most definitely there. Are the "versus" modes, as you put them, intended as a sort of bloodsport? Perhaps. That's a question I would need to think about a little more. I know that I, and a few friends (including other Christians) go and play Halo 3 en masse. It doesn't make us any more violent than we are in day to day life (which is not violent at all), but it does get the testosterone flowing.

I do need to say that the thought of a pastor being so in tune with the youth as to start an outreach with this game is awesome. Dr. Witherington, there are Christian gamers. And some, including myself, play violent games. We watch violent movies. But we also love Christ, and we try to walk in His steps. If that sounds like a paradox, I'm sorry; I really can't explain it any better.

I urge you to please, visit the website I listed above, and read some reviews, or even talk to some of the people there.

Thanks a lot.

Drew

JR Miller said...

Dr. Witherington-

This is a very intriguing article and discussion on your blog. I'm very curious to know whether or not you have personally played Halo 3 (or either of its predecessors). If not, have you watched others play any of the Halo games for any significant amount of time?

To be honest, I'm most interested to know if you are basing your opinion on playing a game like this on your personal convictions drawn from your own interaction w/this game, those you know and trust and their interaction w/the game, an article in the NY Times or the rating (M for mature) given to the game by the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

I personally don't base my opinion or convictions of a movie (or video game) solely on the rating system b/c I have seen MANY PG-13 movies that definitely should have been rated R. I have seen MANY R movies that should have been NC-17, if not rated X. On the same note, I have seen many R movies that I personally would have rated PG-13, and many PG-13 movies that could have been rated PG.

I truly respect your thoughts, opinions and insight as I've read your blog for quite some time, but I was somewhat surprised at how adamant you are against games like this. I also found it somewhat surprising that you would essentially say that under no circumstances is a game like Halo an appropriate tool to use to get into the lives of young teenage boys.

I don't regularly play games like Halo, but I have played Halo for more than a total of 2 hours, and really don't see the same dangers that you do w/this game or games like it.

Very interested in hearing your reply...

JR Miller said...

Dr. Witherington-

This is a very intriguing post, article and discussion on your blog. I'm very curious to know whether or not you have personally played Halo 3 (or either of its predecessors). If not, have you watched others play any of the Halo games for any significant amount of time?

To be honest, I'm most interested to know if you are basing your opinion on playing a game like this on your personal convictions drawn from your own interaction w/this game, those you know and trust and their interaction w/the game, an article in the NY Times or the rating (M for mature) given to the game by the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

I personally don't base my opinion or convictions of a movie (or video game) solely on the rating system b/c I have seen MANY PG-13 movies that definitely should have been rated R. I have seen MANY R movies that should have been NC-17, if not rated X. On the same note, I have seen many R movies that I personally would have rated PG-13, and many PG-13 movies that could have been rated PG.

I truly respect your thoughts, opinions and insight as I've read your blog for quite some time, but I was somewhat surprised at how adamant you are against games like this. I also found it somewhat surprising that you would essentially say that under no circumstances is a game like Halo an appropriate tool to use to get into the lives of young teenage boys.

I don't regularly play games like Halo, but I have played Halo for more than a total of 2 hours, and really don't see the same dangers that you do w/this game or games like it.

Very interested in hearing your reply...

Sarah said...

What I find most disturbing about Halo in the youth ministry is the church's willingness to become "relevant." I think the church is called to be a witness to the world through its very lifestyle. Attracting as many youth as possible for the sake of "the ministry" does not encourage true discipleship in Christ. The use of mature games such as Halo for entertainment should be weighed carefully by members of a church based on their own conscience--- for themselves and for those they influence. But attracting non-Christians by publicly endorsing a product like Halo not only undermines the Church's witness to the world, it contradicts Christ' very message of sacrificial love.

DAVE N said...

Very interesting post. I appreciate this. As a parent to a young "gamer", I realize that I will be faced with shepherding my child into making what choice would honor Christ most in his choice of games. I try to encourage his gaming towards sports games, but he is drawn towards the "shooters". Why is that? Not too long ago I was "hooked" on Socom - playing online. I had to give it up. The standard I set for my son, was different than the one I was living. Initially, the most disturbing part of playing an online game is listening to other players, many of whom are teenagers, talk. Their obsenity, profanity and the like were both shocking and offensive. I had to play without any volume. The whole anonymity of it, I think somewhat appeals to the youth. I believe they can act and talk in a way that they NEVER would be able to otherwise is an overlooked issue. If you have kids who play online games, particularly games with headsets - their minds are being filled with sin. If you don't think these things effect your children, you should re-think this.

John Correia said...

This is an excellent discussion. I appreciate the courtesy and tact.

I am a solo pastor of an SBC church and ran a video game store as I attended seminary.

Ben, I think that your comment about rules against taunting or excessive aggression in football is apt, but certainly those rules could also be instituted at youth meetings. Men thrive on competition, and build community by mutual achievement. Certainly video games can be an avenue for that, and we must also admit that there are other avenues that can be used as well.

My only caution would to be to resist the urge to make blanket assessments of video games. Take each game as it comes and make intelligent decisions about what is acceptable and what is not. In my life, life-like graphic violence, nudity, or sexual themes are not acceptable to present to my kids or by extension my youth. I'm okay with a Madden tournament; I'm on the edge with Guitar Hero (lyrics can get over-the-line); no-go for Resident Evil (lots of occult, reincarnation, living-dead, lots of language...). I would probably err on the side of caution with Halo for youth.

Jesus is incredibly concerned with the holiness of his church, but also took His message to the homes of tax collectors and prostitutes. He took Himself to the world rather than making the world come to Him. I understand the heart of the pastor who is trying to reach out to kids and give themselves an opportunity to speak into those kids lives.

I take what I would see as a balanced approach to gaming. My rule is that the more realistic a game is, the more controls I place on it. If I tell my son that he can't play any video games (like a Star Wars game) because there is violence, I should be consistent and also disallow my young daughter's playing dress-up fairy princesses because the magic wand she uses could be construed as magic.

We play Halo for adults (I'm terrible at the game...); with kids I am a little more reluctant. However, if it is done correctly (parental permission, controls for over-competitiveness, a redemptive reason for the event) then I would allow another's conscience to be their own guide.

Serving Him with you,

John Correia

Pastor Jon said...

We allowed video games at Church lock-ins but required that they all be general audience acceptable. No killing, nudity, etc... We teach though everything we do, not just in the devotional tagged on a violent game playing session. What do we teach by playing Halo? Do we show that we are cool or desperate?

Alvin Grissom II said...

I'm a gamer. It's a hobby -- even an academic interest; so I thought I'd add some thoughts.

As with any medium for entertainment and artistic expression, there are all different kinds, and they can be abused. I personally don't care for Halo, because I find first-person shooters to be boring.

There seems to be a great bit of concern here about the amount of time that one spends playing these sorts of games. I honestly don't think that this is an issue for most normal people. I play RPG's (role-playing games), such as Final Fantasy, Shenmue, and the like, and those can 30-60 hours to complete. One does not generally complete such games in one or two sittings. It usually takes me weeks, or even months, to complete such a game. RPG's, in particular, are more like interactive stories. Few people will criticize someone for reading too many fiction books. It's similar. The focus in such games is typically on story and presentation, with some "battles" thrown in and interaction. Often games, especially the more modern, story-based ones, are amalgams of disparate media.

Someone here mentioned Virtua Fighter 4, a game which I've played since 2001, I believe. This game, in particular, while it might seem to the uninitiated as mindless violence, is actually very deep and skill-oriented. The people who play such games are focused on improving their skill level, not the act of beating up a character, per se.

As for the competitive aspects of games, I think that the social dynamics are a bit more complex than most people realize. Yes, competitive videogames have winners and losers, but, in general, I have found that it is all in good spirit. It is a means by which people gather to do something which they mutually find to be fun. It isn't necessarily about one person's asserting his supremacy over others, though that, of course, can occur in anything, depending on the attitudes of the people involved.

Finally, I don't think that due credit is given to videogames as being a legitimate means of artistic expression. Today's "games" have complex storylines, literary and religious allusions, overarching themes, psychological premises, and a whole host of sophisticated forms of expression which a segment of the gaming population -- as with certain subsets of those who appreciate other artistic media -- can appreciate. The game Shenmue II, for example, is designed to give one the experience of living in a different culture, while being confronted with tidbits of philosophy from that culture; the game Rez is an attempt to simulate the effect of synesthesia.


As with anything, we should be careful with how much time we put into it, relative to other activities. Anyone who watches television, does work, or even reads the Bible, to the exclusion of everyone else should stop and look around. But videogames aren't special in this regard.

B Johnson said...

Interesting discussion, there is further debate at Game Politics and the venerable Slashdot.

The commentary (particularly at the sites above) is sometimes quite openly hostile toward Christianity - this is not uncommon amongst the youth community today. I wanted to write a little about why I think this is the case.

I believe society has become far more cynical of "messages of goodwill" and young people - quite rightly - demand more concrete evidence and credibility before committing to a belief.

This cynicism has developed out of necessity and I believe it is "a good thing". One only has to look at the widespread "good will" messages (with hidden motives) and false promises that we are bombarded with every day from marketers, politicans, et al to see how this cynicism has been nurtured.

- "Our product/service will make you a better person!"
- "Vote for X and build a better Britain!"
- "Catch the monkey and win a FREE iPod!"
- "There's something for everyone at Mecca Bingo!"
- "If you download MP3s, you are funding terrorism!"

When a young person rejects Christianity, they are not saying "I do not wish to be a good person" or "I do not believe in God". They are simply applying the same level of cynicism and questioning to something often promoted in a very similar way to - frankly - a miracle cure, a politician's manifesto or a bingo club.

Personally, I attended Sunday school in the UK until my mid-teens and maintain a strong interest in religion as a humanitarian subject. When asked to Confirm, I chose not to. My reasoning was that I believed in the common-sense principles behind Christianity, but was put off by the inconsistencies and uncertain history of the Bible. Therefore, I decided to live my life by commonsense, hold respect for Christianity as a belief alongside others, but I couldn't commit to unquestioning adherence.

Were I to make my decision now, as young people today must, I would also be strongly influenced by the examples of extreme negative effects of all-consuming belief in a particular religion that we see today. If my faith in particular teachings were so strong that I was prepared to detonate myself in a public place, killing hundreds, was commonsense not a better way to live my life?

Take Scientology too as an example of a vile cult that is marketed using the similar methods to Christian preaching. How is a young person to know with conviction the difference between your typical friendly-friendly leaflet-brandishing youth group leader and a smiling face offering free "personality tests"?

Without a means to prove credibility over the sea of other "believe me!" claims that young people are exposed to and must weigh up every day, Christianity will face the same scrutiny, suspicion and sometimes outright hostility as any other idea.

I hope this is a useful insight into the rise of Agnosticism?

Phillip said...

This article and it's comments are both interesting and controversial (for some). I'm currently in Youth Ministry and found the most educated and well thought out response to be from Galen Rice. His answer begs the question Dr. Witherington, Have you played Halo 3, me thinks not. My friends and I have used video games inside and outside the church. They have helped connect me to an individual who has no relationship with Christ but through playing Halo 3 with him . I have also been able to connect with one of the parents of my students, a very rare and hard feat to accomplish in youth ministry, in my opinion.

Another advantage of using video games in ministry is it gives students the chance to shine. Some don't shine on they football field or volleyball court but they can play the heck out of some Guitar Hero and it gives them a chance to connect with and be admired by the "jock" or "brain" because they're amazed at what they just saw. If you really want to be amazed go to your local arcade and watch some kids play DDR, it'll blow your mind.
Dr Witherington you stated "I do have a major problem with a game that takes endless hours to play, or win, and is so absorbing that it encourages the worst sort of narcissism, and ignoring of the rest of reality, including numerous important sorts of interactions that should be going on at a Christian youth event."

Have you ever played Monopoly, Risk, Chess? These also take hours and can get very competitive.

We lived in a messed up world, where students are bombarded by images that tell them what to do and who to be, but if I can use a video game to get someone who might otherwise not come in a church and tell them Jesus loves them just the way they are and I do too, I think it's worth it. In the end it's a way to connect, have common ground
and share the love story of Jesus Christ.