We’ve all had it done to us. We sit down at the kitchen table to eat dinner, grab a fork in one hand and a knife in the other, then “ding dong!” – a door-to-door salesman interrupts dinner. You grunt in frustration, assuming that all they are going to do is try to sell a useless trinket. You answer your door nonetheless. The salesperson greets you with an energetic smile. They hold up the product they are peddling and gleefully tell you all about the “really cool” things it can do! What goes through your mind at this point? Perhaps what goes through your mind is an internal debate about whether or not you should tell them off using several “colourful” words and then slam the door in their face. Let’s assume that this time is different. You are not tempted to slam the door in their face because they actually have your attention with the new toy they are offering to sell to you. You may be thinking of two questions:
- What benefit will this object give me?
- What is the company trying to sell me?
A recent discussion with a friend made me realize that the entertainment industry and the sales trade share a similar relationship. Television and movie producers, stand-up comedians, novelists, video game developers and many others produce various forms of entertainment. The salesperson tries to sell you what they want you to have and, generally speaking, so does the entertainment industry. From here on in let’s narrow our focus to video games, but let us never forget that this philosophy applies to all forms of entertainment.
One major question that is often asked by Christians regarding video games is whether or not they ought to be playing a certain kind of video game or even a specific video game. Questions like: 1) “should Christians play violent video games?”, or 2) “should Christians play video games like Grand Theft Auto (GTA)?” are often asked.
The topic that my friend and I were discussing was a question in the second category and it was, “Is it a sin to play Grand Theft Auto?” Needless to say, GTA is infamous for the act of giving the player the chance to role-play the life of a criminal. GTA also makes light of justice for acts of injustice, such as mass murder. In each of the instalments of the GTA series there is always a law enforcement agency. In the wake of the most horrific crime committed by the character, but at the will and sovereignty of the human player they will suffer a consequence. This consequence however is only getting sent to jail for the night, and then having their guns and money being confiscated for when they are released back into society!
As a result, when a Christian says that they play GTA many other Christians may be tempted to quote the first part of Isaiah 5:20, namely: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil.” Is the mere act of playing video games like GTA the same as calling evil good, and good evil? The question depends on the person. Is the player of GTA promoting, in their heart, the antics performed by the character? Are they also unhappy that they do suffer a consequence for their actions? Are they happy however that only inconvenience they do suffer is to have their character spend a night in county-jail and the confiscation of their guns and money? If so, then they are indeed calling, at least, evil good. What exactly is GTA, the video game, trying to sell the player? Is it trying to sell the message that the antics performed by the character are good? Is RockStar Games, the developer of GTA, trying to sell you the message that those behaviours are good? I can’t say with 100% certainty, but until I have evidence to the contrary I’ll assume that RockStar Games just had one agenda for making GTA and it was not to promote evil as good. Instead, it was simply to tell a riveting dramatic story. And, I’ll assume that since GTA is not a sentient being it has no message, be it positive nor negative, to give. Questioning the hearts of people, especially the ones we’ve never met, is indeed a daunting task; and since inanimate objects, such as video games, are not sentient beings it would be impossible to question any intention. As a result, it is better to concentrate on the first question, namely, “what is the player taking away from video games like GTA?” rather than asking the second question, “what are video games like GTA trying to sell the player?”
However, the second question cannot be ignored. Regardless of intention by RockStar Games for developing the fifth instalment of GTA, namely Grand Theft Auto 5 (GTA5), the spirit of GTA5 does make light of evil acts. The story is about a trio of protagonists who are, in heart and mind, evil men. One of these men considers criminal acts, like bank robbery, a mere skill. Another considers bank robbery and running a meth lab to be great way of life. The third protagonist however does want out of the thug-life. He simply wants to live with some semblance of happiness. The morals and values that are held by this character regarding crime are unclear. What does GTA5 end up selling the player? A story of evil via violence, sexual debauchery, disrespect for law and order, disrespect for human life, disrespect for one’s parents, disrespect for the commitment of marriage, and the list goes on. The question that should be asked is not, “Is it a sin for someone to play video games like GTA5”, but rather, “is it a sin to play a video game that has a story that advocates the morals that GTA5 promotes?”
One may try to answer this question via another question, “Why would a Christian want to play such a video game when Christian morals and values are supposed to be the polar opposite?” This is a good question and one that needs exploring, but its answer won’t answer the initial question. Why? Whether or not a Christian wants to play video games like GTA5 doesn’t negate the fact that it may be a sin to play them or that it may not be a sin to play them. If it is a sin to play video games like GTA, it is a sin on the face of it and vice-versa. One’s views or preferences on the subject don’t matter. So let’s ask the same question in another way, “Is playing video games like GTA sinful on the merits of the video game and not on one’s disproval or approval of the values the game promotes?”
The answer can be found by returning to the question, “what is the player of GTA taking away from the game?” What if the player takes away the chance to dwell on the evil acts that are mimicked in the game? The answer would be “yes”, it would be a sin for that person to play GTA. If, however, the player has a clear distinction between their Christian morals and the worldly morals held by video games like GTA, and they actively hate the latter and see video games like GTA to be a mere riveting drama, then no, it isn’t a sin to play video games like GTA. The player is not endorsing the morals presented by games like GTA, but hates them. They are enacting their freedom in Christ and freedom from religion to enjoy riveting dramas like GTA.