You may have seen the commercials: daring soldiers dodging blasts and gunfire, brothers in combat slaying dragons and flipping cars, or maybe a shadowy figure parkouring over rooftops in an ancient land…all of these images accompanied by explosions because, well…explosions are cool.
“Greatness Awaits,” is the final slogan. Greatness awaits…in video games.
Ah, now I see.
It’s amazing how that call of “greatness” stirs something within the soul. I hear the names Winston Churchill, Maximilian Kolbe, or John Paul II and my heart beats a bit stronger in the hope of one day measuring up to these men. But without a “Great War” happening, or any evil to actually fight against, it’s easier to pick up a controller instead.
Now, I grew up with the likes of Super Mario, Zelda, Goldeneye, and those delightful games where you shoot zombies, and I think I turned out alright [crickets]. I’m not anti-video game. As a medium, they aren’t intrinsically evil. Many games nowadays, such as the Bioshock series, are borderline works of art, while many others are simple brain candy.
But I also see how many hours that I sunk into these games that could have been put towards reading novels, mastering a musical instrument, or writing that long-awaited book on arctic ferrets that the world desperately needs.
I think we’re hijacking our true call to greatness—and heroic sanctity—when we settle for virtual valor only and negate the everyday adventures all around us.
An Ache for Adventure
I can only speak from the male perspective on this, but I have known from an early age that I was made for adventure. I’ve always ached for it. It’s as if in my bones I knew that trees needed to be climbed, capes needed to be donned, and little brothers needed to be demoted to sidekicks.
All of creation sings a similar song. Mountains call out “climb,” wildernesses say “cross,” and oceans deep demand us to “dive.” Perhaps God willed it all for our sake to go exploring. We rebel at descriptions such as “sedentary” or “flabby,” knowing that we’re meant to leave the cubicles and recliners to run through the woods. We need adventure.
Every person has restless energy that prompts them to be competitive and push through fear into something great, whether that be an artful composition, a physical feat, or a journey into unknown territory. But we sabotage our strength by never offering it to the world in the first place.
Virtual Valor and Vice
Video games play with the dopamine reward levels in our brains, which fire off every time we level up, acquire a trophy, or stomp a goomba. The pleasure is brief, but can be rapidly triggered. For the city dweller or child of suburbia, video games offer the only hope of sailing pirate ships, climbing mountains, or throwing a banana peel safely at a friend’s go-cart.
Sure, video games can channel that ache to be heroes in a world that no longer seems to desire anything heroic of women or men. But it’s too easy to get stuck at that virtual level, and heroic virtual acts don’t translate into everyday selflessness, chivalry, or attentiveness to others. I can save the princess from a castle, but that doesn’t mean much if I cut my neighbor off in traffic or turn away from the poor person in need.
(Bonus: check out this timely article where 10 priests weigh in on the effect of video games on our generation).
Some people quickly demonize video games for all the ills of the world. Games, like movies, are not intrinsically evil—the content varies to make it such. One won’t jeopardize his soul by playing Super Mario. But I do agree that you can only play games that specifically reward vice for so long before it starts affecting your worldview. As discerning Christians, games that glorify stealing cars, dehumanizing women, or display needless violence aren’t building up our moral character and aren’t excusable just because they’re “not real.” In 1936, Pope Pius XI wrote the following words concerning film, and I would argue that one could easily replace “motion pictures” with “video games”:
“Everyone knows what damage is done to the soul by bad motion pictures. They are occasions of sin; they seduce young people along the ways of evil by glorifying the passions; they show life under a false light; they cloud ideals; they destroy pure love, respect for marriage, affection for the family.”
He wrote that in 1936.
Crazy, huh? Every book, movie, TV show, or game we put into our bodies either forms or deforms us. We are either degraded as human beings by art or elevated by it. And the quicker we are to make excuses for crude films, or dismiss and rationalize undue violence or sexuality in art, the more blind we are to the false light in our eyes.
Reimaging the Quest
“Meh.” “I don’t care.” “Whatevs.” Our generation’s catchphrases signal a deeper malaise and overall boredom towards life. We want to be entertained at all times, and “real life” can’t compare with the hyperactivity of flying robots and ninjas blowing everything up. Our spiritual capacity, appreciation of silence, and openness to the sacred all suffer.
“Why is Mass so boring?” is the oft-heard complaint that drives youth ministers up the wall. “If you’re bored at Mass, it probably means that you’re boring,” a priest once bluntly told our youth group. He went on to tell us to stop expecting a performance and begin learning how to participate. I learned some valuable insight that night—most notably, if you’re unable to approach the Bread of the Angels (the Eucharist), the touching of Heaven and Earth, without any sense of awe and wonder, nothing will awe or wonder you. For Mother Teresa, the Mass provided the spiritual food that, as she claimed, she could not survive one day in her ministry without. If we can go through Mass—or even one day on this earth—and not take in any beauty, truth, or goodness, we’re likely still asleep.
It’s the Christian imagery of life as “The Way” that gives me the most peace and excitement, and is the true invitation to greatness. I reimagine my life as a story—a quest, even—to stay the course through the earthly longings and this “vale of tears,” encountering fellow travelers with whom I share conversations and powerful experiences, all of life leading to the apex and end, Jesus Christ. We are all pilgrims. May I be so fortunate to run this race to its finish.
We have to reimagine what heroism looks like. Heroes aren’t punching out ninjas, but punching the clock to support their families. Heroines are lifting the lowly out of gutters, not lifting blocks in Minecraft.
I don’t demonize video games themselves, but I see more and more a generation of young people addicted to their tablets, unable to make eye contact or carry casual conversation with others, and too immersed in a virtual land to appreciate the real beauty of each waking, God-given moment.
Let’s look up and be real heroes, not mere virtual ones. Heroic virtue will be the antidote to hedonistic vice.
Greatness awaits, but outside of leaderboards, consoles, and tablets. Greatness isn’t in the worldly wealth, fame, or strength we acquire, but in God Himself, our beginning and our end. Greatness awaits us out in the face of the poor, in the ache of addicted, and on the Cross of Christ.
Put the controller down. Open the door. Go be great.
“The ways of the Lord are not easy, but we were not created for an easy life, but for great things, for goodness.”
— Pope Benedict XVI