Video Games and the Wisdom Literature
We are quick to label gamers (both teen and adult) as “other.” We tell them to grow up and to stop “escaping reality,” in favor of more real pursuits and relationships. But gamers are just like everyone else – sinners trying to purchase their own salvation in a world that doesn’t always follow the rules.
Our parents taught us that if we try hard we will succeed. But that’s not always true. Girls don’t always go for the nice guys, good grades don’t guarantee the respect of your peers or a good job, even the best athletes are benched by prejudiced coaches and freak injuries.
Part of what makes most video games so compelling is that they offer the fair world our parents told us to expect; a perfect meritocracy. One where relationships, power, self-actualization, and identity are offered in perfect measure to your merit and efforts. The gospel of every video game is that we can be alright, we can have it all, we can be successful, and that we will win if we follow the rules, put in the hours, level up, and defeat the dragons, giants, and monsters by the sweat of our palms.
Far from being neutral devices, video games teach a worldview. The dissonance between what our parents taught us and the unfairness we see play out in real life can be solved by our own efforts of world-building and prestige-gathering in a virtual space. While the prophets of Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo sell this gospel, Scripture offers another from the pages of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job.
Each form part of a prolonged canonical narrative. Proverbs repeats our parents’ wisdom – the good succeed and the wicked always get what’s coming to them. Ecclesiastes teaches us a what we all actually experience – that sometimes (often) evil wins, and the oppressor succeeds on the backs of the marginalized. Ecclesiastes also introduces the first voyager into virtual reality. A man so disillusioned with the real world he seeks to escape it.
In Ecclesiastes, both casual and hard-core gamers alike can see themselves in “The Teacher.”
He builds whole worlds, gardens and palaces just as we do in Minecraft.
He collects harems of women, just as we have collected hard drives full of pornograpaphy.
He is always victorious in battle just like every game of Halo and Call of Duty.
His relationships, trophies, and precious gear are stored and neatly catalogued in warehouses, just as our Twitter friends can be searched alphabetically and our inventories in Destiny and World of Warcraft can all be browsed digitally.
In whatever arena of life, “The Teacher” is able to create an alternate reality that should counter-balance the world’s unfairness. But it doesn’t. He learns that a harem full of women didn’t bring him love; that personal romantic conquest didn’t really undo the hatred in the world; the ability to build palaces and gardens, without the hard work of earning them wasn’t really enjoyable. More than that, all the Teacher’s success would eventually be forgotten. Victory in battle would be overturned later, as people with more accurate guns, and better head shot percentages pushed his moniker further down the leaderboard. Ecclesiastes ends by saying that nothing in life is really worth collecting, and none of it really overturns the world’s injustice.
So if the gospel of Nintendo, of escaping into the digital world, and the solutions of “The Teacher” don’t solve the tension between the fairness we are taught and the unfairness we experience, what will? Job is the Old Testament’s answer. The story begins with Satan accusing Job of swearing loyalty to God just to get gifts from him. He proposes that if all Job’s wealth was taken then he would curse God. So a grand experiment begins and everything is stolen from an innocent man.
Here we have the collision of both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. A man who does everything right, and has everything wrong happen to him. Job’s friends come and remind him that good things happen to good people, and bad things only happen to bad people. Job insists on his innocence. But eventually he is overcome. He curses the day he was born, and asks God why he bothered creating him.
God’s response to the world’s inherent injustice and Job’s lament is not the one we expect. Instead of lining out his reasons and offering justifications for Job’s suffering, God whisks Job away and gives him this vision of how broad and wide, and deep God is. God paints this picture of unfathomable sovereignty that extends as low as insects, and stretches as far as the cosmic deeps. He tells Job to consider all these things, to get lost in them, and to meditate on his place in comparison to the Mind who made both molecules and the stars of Andromeda.
It’s fascinating that God’s final word to the unfolding argument of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job is escapism. In a world that’s generally fair, but frequently not – in a world that is marked by the hollowness of pleasure and power and the frequent suffering of innocent men – God’s says that the remedy is getting caught up, lost, and even escaping to the depth of his sovereignty, control, power, and mastery.
The error of the Teacher of Ecclesiastes and the error of self-justifying gamers isn’t that they are escaping, it’s that they are escaping to the wrong thing. We aren’t supposed to escape to the worlds we can build or the achievements we can merit. We are supposed to escape to the one who made the world, and whose achievements are given to us without us earning, meriting, or leveling up to receive them.