I’ve been making video games for about 25 years. I’ve been a gamer since long before that, and a Christian since before that.
Games have changed a lot over the years. Prior to about 2005, there were a very limited number of good games, certainly a very limited number of “big” games that would take hours and hours of play. They tended to cost a lot of money: you didn’t get a lot of good gameplay for free. To be a gamer then meant to binge on a game for 20 or 40 hours, then wait several months for the next big game to come out. Therefore to be a “gamer” meant spending a lot of time not playing games. You’d get addicted to a game for a week or maybe a month, but then your sources would dry up and you’d go back to real life.
That’s not the way it is anymore. There are tens of thousands of “good” games—”good” in the sense, at least, that they’ll keep you hooked for many hours. Many of them are absolutely free. You can play them anywhere and everywhere: at school, in the car, in bed. Therefore, a gamer today never has to wait to play another hour of gaming. If you played 1,000 hours every day (given some sort of time machine, presumably), you would still never run out of very enjoyable, compelling entertainment, and it would never cost you a dime.
The consequence of this is that a pasttime that is basically innocent, rewarding, and even in some cases edifying has become a parasitic force, a black hole consuming the hours of our lives, often at least subtly destructive to relationships, intelligence, creativity, productivity, and happiness. This is a troublesome trend throughout our society, all over our world. But my concern in this article is with Christians, and I want to focus on how Christians play games, whether we should, how we should.
What place do games have in a good Christian life? Do we even want to know the answer to that question? Are we prepared to accept it?
Let’s think it through carefully. I’ll use a Question-Answer rhythm to frame the discussion, making this something like a catechism. It’s possible you’ll find this heavy reading. But I’ll hope you’ll endure it, because there are important decisions to be made.
Q1: Can a Christian play video games?
Yes. Video games bring good things: pleasure, rest, challenge, and in some cases togetherness and creativity. There is no law in the Bible, tradition, or reason to prevent all enjoyment of video games. As a general and foundational rule, Christians may play video games.
A person who wished to argue that Christians should never play video games would have to show that Christians should never partake of entertainment of any kind. They would have to prove that we should never see a movie, watch TV, or read an enjoyable book—that we should, in fact, work tirelessly from sunup to sundown for the evangelization of the world and nothing else. There are, as it happens, Christians who have argued this way, but I doubt they trouble the consciences of most modern gamers, and we need not disprove them here.
Video games do bring dangers that we need to pay careful attention to, but let’s be clear from the outset that they may at least have some role in the Christian life.
Q2: When shouldn’t a Christian play video games?
A Christian shouldn’t play video games when: (1) the game dishonors God; (2) playing becomes compulsive; and (3) playing detracts from other opportunities and duties.
Q3: When does a game dishonor God?
A game dishonors God when it leads you or others into temptation, sin, or unbelief.
A game that features nudity or sexual content obviously offers temptation and promotes sin.
Games that dishonor God directly, for example by portraying God as non-existent or believers as stupid, must be avoided. They do no one any good.
Questions of violence are more subtle. Much—though not all—video game violence is cartoonish, even silly, rather than realistic or believable. Some people are more sensitive to violence than are others. You must judge yourself. If you find yourself thinking more violent thoughts in the hours after playing a game than you normally would—imagining firing a gun, for example, or picturing a body being damaged in gruesome ways—then the game is bringing darkness into your mind that adds nothing of benefit to you.
Judge carefully: these violent impressions may be subtle. Desensitization means that you quickly forget how your mind used to work before it was darkened. If you ignore the changes of your mind, you quickly lose the capacity to realize your mind is growing darker. Your compulsion to play the game makes you want to return to it even if you know in your heart that it isn’t suitable. For all these reasons, judge yourself.
The easy rule to put in practice is also simplest: There are thousands of wonderful games out there. Play the non-violent ones.
Q4: When does playing games become compulsive?
Play becomes compulsive when you can no longer control how much you play. This tends to be accompanied by a kind of blindness: you can’t stop playing, but you don’t know you can’t stop playing because you are no longer motivated to try. When that happens you are no longer playing games: the games are playing you.
If any one of the following statements are true of you, then games have become a compulsion.
- you play games every day, seven days a week
- you play games more than two or three hours each day
- game playing has led to significant procrastination in other duties
- someone has said to you that they think you’re playing games too much, or asked you to play less
- you feel uneasy, bored, or directionless when you go without games for a few hours
- you feel depressed when you’re not playing games
- you play games to avoid irksome tasks or assignments: you think, “I really don’t want to do that; I’ll just play a game for now”
- the thought of giving up games for a week makes you feel uneasy or anxious
- you have felt guilty about spending too much money on games or gaming equipment
- you have neglected church or other spiritual opportunities while playing many hours of games
- you have failed a class during the weeks in which you were playing many hours of games
- you have lost a job during the weeks in which you were playing many hours of games
- you have lost a friendship as a result of playing games
- you hold back from romantic relationships, dealing with loneliness through games rather than through real relationships
Any one of these situations indicate that you have become dependent on playing games and can no longer control your play.
Although gaming compulsion is fairly common today, it remains profoundly unhealthy and destructive. The fact that many people are entrapped by games makes the entrapment no less tragic. When you are compelled by games, it brings nothing good to you, hurts relationships, builds laziness into the very fiber of your being, and dishonors God.
A compulsive gamer doesn’t realize anything is wrong. You may feel like you’re controlling the games, but they are controlling you. It’s no secret that developers devise games to be addictive. You are a fly caught in a spider’s web. Like the fly, you must get help, wrench yourself free, and escape. There is no reasonable response to this situation but to give up games entirely for a long time.
If you are not sure whether games are a compulsion for you, then they are. It’s obvious when something isn’t a compulsion. If it might be, it is.
Q5: When does playing games detract from other opportunities and duties?
Even when games aren’t a compulsion, when they pull us away from more valuable uses of our time, they are problematic and we should avoid them. A married man, for example, might play only one hour a day; but if this is the hour in which he could be reading his children their bedtime stories, he had better give up the games. A person might only play on the weekends; but if this distracts them from taking care of their house or yard, being with friends, or attending church, then he’d better reduce the time he plays.
This leads us to an underlying principle in how Christians should relate to games.
Games are good in their proper place and time. But they must not encroach on the many good things that God offers for our lives and requires of our lives.
When they do, we must get rid of them. The difficulty so many people have in doing so shows how dangerous they can be.
Q6: What happens when a Christian fills his life with games rather than better pursuits?
A Christian fills his life with games in order to avoid the difficulty of life; and, once he has begun, because the games compel him to.
Life is difficult. This is an inevitable truth. Life is not hopelessly difficult: a great deal of the difficulty we must encounter deepens us, strengthens us, and broadens us. But of course it’s easier to avoid difficulty than to face it (by definition). Games offer the illusion of ease, challenge, and success, and so long as we can remain in that illusion, we can enjoy an easy—though enfeebling—life.
Many Christians feel deep down that life is meaningless. They have little hope that if they pursue something they will succeed in achieving it. They fear that if they do achieve it, it will bring no satisfaction. This is a false belief, a trap of Satan. The only way to escape the trap—the only way to see that life is full of meaning and that pursuit brings good results—is to risk disappointment by working hard at service, relationships, and study. Those who take this risk find that even when the results God sends are unexpected, they are good and satisfying, and the pursuit itself—the actual exertion of striving—brings wonderful benefits.
Therefore, Christians entrapped by games disobey God by avoiding the duties and opportunities he offers them in the real world. Games bring bogus success and counterfeit satisfaction. But entrapped gamers prefer the illusion to the reality.
Reality catches up with them eventually and they must face it. When they do, they find themselves physically, mentally, spiritually, and relationally weak, stunted by a life of what essentially amounts to sloth. The difficulty they then discover is even more repugnant than before, and so the temptation to hide again in games returns. This cycle is difficult to break.
To break the cycle, the Christian must recognize that: (1) God offers wonderful things for their lives in the real world, and (2) God requires high demands of their lives in the real world.
Q7: What does God offer the Christian life?
Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). This “life to the full”, or “abundant life”, is what we miss out on when we lose our lives in games. God offers
- forgiveness, peace with God (Rom 5:1)
- righteousness, the joy of restored purity (Phil 1:9–11)
- love, joy, peace, and patience (Gal 5:22)
- the opportunity to help others (John 15:12–13)
- meaningful work (Eccl 2:24)
- participation in God’s own work of building the kingdom (Luke 10:2)
- the use of our gifts and talents (Exod 31:1–5; 1 Cor 12:28)
- romance and partnership (Gen 2:22)
- deep friendship (Prov 18:24)
- often, physical and financial blessing (Psalm 37:4; Matt 6:33; Luke 6:38)
When you consider both the abundant promises God makes in Scripture of the goodness he waits to pour out on us and the testimony of Christians through the ages who have experienced his goodness, the petty thrills of games are revealed as flimsy and pathetic. Games have their place in an abundant life, but only a small place—not because they’re forbidden, but because they offer so little by comparison.
Q8: What does God require of the Christian life?
Your life is not your own: it is a gift that God gives you, on loan from him. He may take it back at any time.
It is not yours to use as you wish. God demands that he see a return on his investment in you. This is true for all people; it is equally true for the Christian.
A danger of playing games is that they may distract us from working for the fruit we are required to bear. The hours we spend on games daily represent hours lost to pursuing God’s demands on our lives.
In Christ’s Parable of the Talents (Matt 25), one of three men is entrusted with a single talent. Rather than using it wisely, he hides it in a hole in the ground. When his master returns, he condemns the man.
You wicked, lazy servant! … Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This parable shows that we are God’s servants and that we are on notice to bear fruit for God. He has given us a command: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19–20). How have you worked to obey his command today?
We have been entrusted with the gospel, with faith. We cannot simply hide that faith. We must work to share it, to make it fruitful in other people’s lives too. We dare not clap ourselves on the back, applauding ourselves for “having faith” and “being a Christian,” if we invest our days in playing games, which is of no use to anyone. “At least I didn’t lose my faith,” we say. But a faith buried under a pile of gaming equipment and game boxes is of no use to anyone. God requires obedience leading to fruitfulness, not mere assent. As James says, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (James 2:19). We must do more than believe privately, quietly, while our thumbs twitch over a gamepad. We must get up, put down the controller, reach out to those around us, and use our gifts to bring God glory in their minds and hearts.
Every man must stand before God at the Judgment and account for his own life. “Each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Rom 14:12). How will you explain how you are spending these days to your King? If you don’t know how to answer, make it your sole mission to figure it out. Let nothing distract you. What could possibly be more important?
In the book of Revelation Jesus gave this message to the church in Sardis. “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God” (Rev 3:1–2). There can be no question he gives the same warning to many of us today.
Q9: How can I ensure that I relate to games in the right way?
You relate to games rightly through (1) Limits, (2) Accountability, and (3) Abstinence.
Q10: How do I use limits to relate rightly to games?
Simply limit how much you play.
Sounds easy, right? And yet because of the entrapment of compulsion, you may have to fight to achieve this.
Write down a policy for yourself that defines the limits on when and how you will play games. Considering all the things you believe should occupy your hours, what place should games hold? Each day, you probably want to
- sleep and wake at good times
- read the Bible
- experience nature, spend time outside
- read, listen to other stories and perspectives
- study hard, learn
- create things
- reflect, think, keep a diary
- be with people
- sing, worship
- serve others: cook, clean, fix, make, give, listen
- earn money
All of these are good things with an ancient history in Christian practice. And many believers have proven that there is time in every day to do all of these things. Reclaim your days and make them fruitful in every area of life. That’s more than possible: it’s available: it’s required. What place, then, does playing video games have in a day full of good things? Answer this question by your own conscience, and write a policy to capture what you intend to do.
Publish this policy to your friends and relatives.
Then stick to it.
Q11: What are reasonable limits for playing games?
For an adult, some reasonable limits are
- at most two hours a day
- at most six days a week
These are generous limits, but not out of keeping with other hobbies—reading books, watching TV, exercising—that people may pursue or other duties—studying, working, cooking, reading the Bible, tending house—we must pursue.
For teenagers or older children, two hours a day for three days a week is more than enough.
As a game designer and parent I say with confidence and urgency: no child under the age of 8 should ever be allowed to play video games. They should never be allowed to use a digital device (computer, phone, tablet) for more than 5 minutes at a time, and never unsupervised.
It would by no means hurt a child to make them wait until they’re 12 before they’re allowed to play video games. Life is made to be lived. Don’t train them to hide away in virtual worlds: teach them to live it. The correct parental answer to a child’s, “But all my friends play video games!” is: “Whatever. Go outside and make something.”
Q12: How can I overcome the temptation to play games beyond my limits?
Use accountability. Enlist the help of people who know you, people you trust to have your best interests at heart, and people who understand the value and danger of games. Ask them to hold you accountable. Give them access to your digital life; find a way to show them how much you’re playing. And empower them so that if you break your limits, they can switch off games completely for a long time.
Does this seem extreme? If games didn’t have the power to enthrall us, to keep us locked into them far beyond any healthy or reasonable limit, then we wouldn’t need accountability. They do. And the best evidence that they do is the fact that without accountability, you will return to excessive game playing but won’t feel like it’s a problem even when it clearly is.
Q13: What should I do if I can’t control games in my life?
The same thing you do with any dangerous, out-of-control thing: get rid of it.
If you owned a gun that kept firing at random times, you wouldn’t tolerate it: you’d get rid of it. If you drove a car in which the steering wheel kept popping off, you wouldn’t “hope it got better”: you’d get rid of it.
If a dangerous thing can’t be controlled, that’s what you do: you control it through abstinence, separating yourself from it completely.
If games are making your life less fruitful than it should be, or if you can’t keep games within their proper limits, just get rid of them. Stop playing them completely, for a year or more at least; maybe forever.
If any of the signs of compulsion mentioned in Answer 4 apply to you, then games are a danger. Get rid of them. This is not a hard decision; just get rid of them. What good are they doing you? What verse of the Bible, what part of God’s vision for your life are games fulfilling? None. So get rid of them.
No one will wish on their deathbed, “I wish I had played more video games.”
When games are a healthy force in a person’s life, they provide a mild, occasional distraction for a short part of the day, some days. Even then, they’re not a need; they’re just not a harm. But they are never a significant good in someone’s life. Thousands of years of human history have passed without games. We don’t need them. Neither evolution nor God’s design has made us so that we need games. If you never play a video game in your life it will do no damage to your life whatsoever. They are, at best, an occasional, harmless amusement.
Therefore, if they’re causing trouble for your life, or if they’re limiting your pursuit of God’s kingdom, just get rid of them. Easy, right? You have no problem with that do you?
But of course, if you do, then you have a problem with games, and with God. And all the more reason to push through the resistance you feel and put games in their proper place in your life: either very limited, or outside of it completely.