My Xbox 360 had been collecting dust, so I sold it on Facebook Marketplace this week. Memories flooded back from when I unplugged that same Xbox after becoming a Christian in high school. Then, earlier today, I heard someone remark that the greatest sins of Bible college guys are video games, pornography, and immaturity. Girls face these issues too. How should Christians think about video games and other “innocent” amusements?
Since I spend most days reading and writing, people are usually surprised to learn that I read practically nothing for the first sixteen years of my life. I became a reader when I became a Christian. I read because it’s important, not because I’m a natural reader. For most of my life, I just played video games. My teenage years were simple: Go to school, go home, play Xbox until 2 AM, do my homework and eat dinner between matches, fall asleep, rinse and repeat. I passed through all the prestige levels on Call of Duty and even played a sponsored gamer in PvP.
The reason for my video game addiction was simple. I was bullied, felt worthless, and didn’t have many friends. Xbox was an escape, a place where I could do something well, however meaningless, and connect with people who would never hang out with me in real life. Because I was the best Call of Duty player at my school, the football quarterback and star soccer player would join my COD squad and talk to me over Xbox Live. It curbed my loneliness and sense of purposelessness.
Looking back, it’s still hard to believe that I went from playing Xbox around 10 hours per day to quitting “cold turkey.” But sometime in my sophomore or junior year, I picked up a Bible, knew I should read it, and prayed my first prayer of sincere dependence on God: “If I’m going to read this book, you’ll have to help me.” God worked a miracle, giving me an insatiable desire for his word. My life was transformed, and I soon realized that I would have to quit Xbox if I was ever going to persevere in Scripture, Christian books, and prayer.
Soon after I became a Christian, I stumbled onto ccel.org and read Power from on High by Charles Finney. Setting aside my theological frustrations with Finney, God used his chapter on “Innocent Amusements” to convict me about my Xbox addiction and general slothfulness. Finney lays out various criteria by which we are to judge so-called “innocent” amusements like fishing, hunting, and expensive vacations—to which we might add, playing video games. While I’m not convinced by all of his arguments, several points are noteworthy.
First and foremost, there are the great commandments to love God and neighbor. Finney insists, “No intelligent act of a moral agent is innocent or right unless it proceeds from and is an expression of supreme love to God and equal love to man.” Moreover, the gospel calls us to be wholly devoted to God. Finney cites 1 Corinthians 10:31, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God,” and Colossians 3:17, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” The only truly innocent amusement, says Finney, is “that only which not only might be but actually is engaged in with a single eye to God’s glory and the interests of His kingdom.”
For most people, most of the time, video games hinder spiritual growth and perpetuate immaturity.
If you play video games, does it reflect a love for God and others? Can it be done in the name of Christ and to the glory of God? I can imagine a situation in which the answer is yes. The most pious Christian needs to find things that help them relax, unwind, and decompress after a stressful day. If that’s playing Minecraft for 30 minutes, okay. On vacation or at someone’s home, I’ll still play a game if I’m invited. But for most people, most of the time, video games hinder spiritual growth and perpetuate immaturity.
Ordering Our Loves
Everything that we do has an effect on our spiritual lives. Augustine taught that all things are to be enjoyed or used: “Those which are to be enjoyed make us happy; those which are to be used assist us and give us a boost, so to speak, as we press on towards our happiness, so that we may reach and hold fast to the things which make us happy” (On Christian Teaching 1.7). We were created to enjoy God, to hold fast to him in love for his own sake. Unfortunately, we are often “hamstrung by our love of lower things.” In my experience, video games are likely to hinder our pursuit of happiness in God for at least two reasons: they are addicting, and they are desensitizing.
First, video games are addicting. They are designed to suck us in and waste hours of precious time that we have been called to redeem (Eph. 5:16). They are often played late into the night, resulting in burning eyes, dull headaches, sour tempers, and susceptibility to temptation. In fact, excessive video game use often goes hand in hand with pornography addiction.
If you delight more in video games than reading God’s word or spending time in holy fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then it’s time to pull the plug.
Second, video games are desensitizing. They tend to take our relish off spiritual things, sapping our desire for what is good. The picture of slothfulness in the Christian tradition is not of an obese teenager pounding a controller and devouring potato chips; it’s of anyone who is apathetic and neglectful towards what is good. As Aquinas put it, slothfulness is “sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good” (ST II-II, q. 35, a. 1). If you delight more in video games than reading God’s word or spending time in holy fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then it’s time to pull the plug. As Susanna Wesley famously wrote,
Take this rule: whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish of spiritual things; in short, whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself. (Letter, June 8, 1725)
This is all assuming that Christians aren’t playing those video games which are blatantly immoral. For example, Common Sense Media reports that Grand Theft Auto V, one of the most popular video games of 2021, is “brimming with gang violence, nudity, extremely coarse language, and drug and alcohol abuse,” including a strip club mini-game.
Video games are likely to hinder our pursuit of happiness in God for at least two reasons: they are addicting, and they are desensitizing.
Can you use video games to promote your joy in God? We pursue holiness by choosing the holy joys that always last—setting aside lesser joys for that which tends towards our ultimate happiness in God. To quote one last time from Charles Finney,
The highest and purest of all amusements is found in doing the will of God. Mere worldly amusements are cold and insipid and not worthy of naming in comparison with the enjoyment we find in doing the will of God. To one who loves God supremely it is natural to seek amusements, and everything else that we do seek, with supreme reference to the glory of God. Why, then, should this rule be regarded as too strict, as placing the standard too high, and as being a strait-jacket and a bondage? How, then, are we to understand those who plead so much for worldly amusements?
Whether it’s playing Xbox, watching TV, following sports, going hunting or fishing, or browsing social media, Christians who are serious about holiness of heart and life should be careful to do everything from a heart of love for God and others.