Is heaven a video game free zone?

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I WONDER if there are video games in heaven.

Janelle at TGS selfie
Showing off my press passes at Tokyo Game Show

Before dismissing this notion as blasphemous or impossible, let’s explore the thought for a moment. It’s not unusual to picture musical instruments, art and architecture as a part of the heavenly environment – not to mention your pet cat Fluffy – so why not video games?

Theology of the afterlife aside, some may respond that video games have no place in heaven because they don’t glorify God. They’re violent, self-focused, time-wasting – and downright bad for you. Society has become inundated with video games, and look what it has become.

There are others, though, who can imagine the possibility of actually bringing God glory through gaming. Join two of these gaming heroes in a quest to discover what (if any) hope there is, for playing video games on the other side of the pearly gates.

Video games aren’t the devil

Our first hero is Michael Nicanor, a self-proclaimed video game guru who owns more than 15 consoles, 200 games – and plays video games for four to six hours a day on his days off.

Nicanor dwells in a colourful den, his walls plastered with posters and paraphernalia of favourite video game moments. The centrepiece is a large TV surrounded by consoles and stacks of games, Wiimotes and Donkey Konga drums, with couches and comfy chairs to accommodate large groups of people for gaming parties and family events.

Nicanor, a recent university graduate, takes on the challenge of defending video games against common criticisms. He also highlights many of their benefits – as he researches what he terms “the Christian perspective and the positive aspects of video games.”

Video games, he told Options, “are the universal scapegoat.” He discussed how games are blamed for everything from addiction to aggressive behaviour to poor health. While these criticisms may hold an element of truth, they are often blown out of proportion and not supported by reliable research, according to Nicanor.

“If Super Mario Brothers make you wanna kill people, then a lot of people should be dead right now,” Nicanor said, referring to a case where anti-gaming activists blamed games for motivating the Virginia Tech shootings. It was later discovered the suspect was a big fan of Sonic the Hedgehog.

Nicanor maintained that games can increase cognitive spatial capacity, improve hand-eye coordination and develop selective attention spans. Video games, he contended, can even save your life:

“If you go into surgery, ask your surgeon if he plays video games,” said Nicanor. “It’s been proven that surgeons who are video game players are 20 percent less likely to make an error during surgery than surgeons who are not.”

Ultimately, Nicanor stressed,  the positive or negative impact of video games all comes down to personal, and parental, regulation – both of the types of games played, and the time spent playing them. “You have to know your boundaries,” he said, adding:  “Any kind of hobby, if you become obsessed over it, becomes a problem.”

Nicanor ended the interview by quoting Nintendo’s top game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto: “Video games are bad for you? That’s what they said about rock ‘n roll.”

It’s a time-honoured quandary: humans blame things made by humans for being evil, when really it’s what humans do with them that imbues moral meaning. Any kind of medium, from music to video games and beyond, can be used for great good or great evil; it’s up to us to decide. Video games aren’t the devil, we are.

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Games worthy of glory

If there are video games in heaven, our second hero will be teaching about and making them. Kevin Schut is a communications professor  – aka professor of video games – at Trinity Western University (TWU).

He researches, teaches, and is currently writing a book on the relation between video games, communication, Christianity and culture. He has also spearheaded a project that enables students to create their own video game.

What attracts Schut to studying video games – aside from his own personal love of gaming – is their uniqueness and potential as a medium. “The way that you play games is different than the way you engage other mediums,” said Schut. “That difference is positive or negative: it can be used for good or ill.”

Part of what sets video games apart and makes them fascinating to Schut is their interactivity with alternate worlds and systems. He relates this to discussions C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein had about the nature of fantasy and myth. “The idea of creating secondary realities is what Tolkein saw as being the most powerful aspect of fantasy and myth,” said Schut.

Games have much greater potential to utilize the idea of secondary realities because of their interactive nature, Schut continued. Most traditional media, he said, are “like being in a glass tour train; you can look but you can’t touch. You can drive through this world and you can see what’s been prepared for you, but you can’t even get off the rails.” In contrast, a video game world “is very tangible. You can touch it, you can play with it, you can move around, you can get involved.”

In leading the project to create a video game at TWU, Schut – with another prof, and a team of 24 students – experimented with the idea of inventing a secondary reality. They created a turn-based strategy game called Label: Rise of Band, available online for free download.

Though the game is not overtly spiritual, Schut believes this doesn’t detract from its value. The team utilized the idea of secondary realities to promote a way of thinking and challenging assumptions about culture. “With games,” said Schut, “you can do cultural critique – and cultural critique, in my mind, is an avenue where your beliefs, your spirituality [and] your commitment to the kingdom of God can actually come to the forefront. So that’s part of what we’re doing.”

Another benefit to the game project is the experience it gives students interested in the video game field. “We need committed Christians in the gaming industry. There are precious few of them that are self-identified,” said Schut. “So giving them this experience is hopefully something that will help them move into the professional games industry.”

Schut plans to run the project every two years, with the next one starting in 2011.

Whether it’s playing, studying or making video games, our heroes have shown it is possible to interact with them in a way that can bring God glory. Perhaps there will indeed be video games in heaven after all.

Originally published in Options Magazine, Fall 2009.

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