Anthropologist Johan Huizinga once called humanity homo ludens, or “man the player.” For centuries, mankind has created various ways of entertaining themselves and each other, whether it be through sports, board games, or even dance. With the advancement of technology, humans have found other, more complex ways to distract or even inspire. Videogames, the latest product of homo ludens, transcend the boundaries between games and art. However, some have misunderstood or mischaracterized the purpose and role of gaming.
Videogames have been attacked for various reasons: violence, mature themes, sexuality. However, some Christian leaders have mounted a new assault against videogames: their apparent purposelessness. Since videogames do not produce goods and are assumed not to enhance the quality of human life, they claim, games are a mere distraction from other more useful endeavors. Why play videogames when you could write or learn or work or create?
Ovid once lamented that people only valued friendship according to its usefulness. Human nature is prone to reject the pleasant for the pragmatic. In a society that continually looks down upon the humanities in favor of the more “practical” STEM subjects, it’s not surprising to hear some quarters denouncing videogames as a waste of time, unproductive, and useless. This argument is most interesting (and disturbing) when it comes from those who often defend the humanities and liberal arts education, such as Doug Wilson and Peter Leithart.
Wilson doesn’t believe that videogames are immoral at their core. Rather, people who play them simply turn out ignorant. “Though [the gamer] is not becoming stupid, there are a number of ways in which he is becoming ignorant—because the time being used on videogames is not being used in other productive ways.” Videogame playing is wasted time because it could potentially be spent on other useful activities, such as “piano and lacrosse practice.”
Wilson’s argument that videogames lack utility fails when one considers videogames as art in the same realm as books and music. Games have come a long way from Pac-Man and Galaga. Since the early years, developers have sought to expand the boundaries of what a videogame can be, combining complex narratives with an interactive experience.
For instance, The Unfinished Swan tells the tale of a little boy coming to terms with the death of his mother through entering a world devoid of color. The player uses blobs of paint as “weapons” against the blank canvas world, symbolizing the child fighting against the depression from missing his late mother.
Cart Life, released in 2010 for the PC, gives players a glimpse into the realities of income equality by placing them in the role of a street vendor. Players must juggle a variety of responsibilities, including purchasing equipment, providing for their family, and even making time to walk their children to school. Papers, Please seems like an innocent puzzle game, but is designed to expose the harsh reality of immigration. Set in the fictional country of Arstotzka, the player acts as an immigration officer, accepting or denying immigrants based on a variety of variables, including their passport, fingerprints, and even through the use of a full-body scan. Players must also make decisions in moral dilemmas, such as allowing in the spouse of a citizen who doesn’t have the proper paperwork and being penalized monetarily for it. Videogames such as these challenge our thinking, increase our understanding, and even have the potential to inspire empathy in players.
Are all videogames created equal? Like movies, books, and television shows, videogames contain a variety of genres, including sports, action, adventure, role playing game, and, of course, shooter. But within those genres are various types and qualities of games. For example, the shooter genre contains both Half-Life, an award-winning science fiction epic, and Call of Duty. The action genre boasts both The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the highest rated video game ever, and Grand Theft Auto V.
Should we abandon reading Anna Karenina because it’s not useful? Is there an issue with watching The Godfather because I could be building a table instead? Are people who choose to listen to Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem ignorant because they aren’t applying themselves to some craft? We would never make that kind of argument for these activities. Why should someone playing Chrono Trigger be criticized for not using their time wisely simply because it does not produce something tangible? Like individual works in other types of media, videogames can be artforms whose value and quality stand on their own merit.
Perhaps Wilson and Leithart could learn from the great film critic Roger Ebert. Ebert famously declared that “videogames can never be art,” defending his statement in an article by the same title.  Many in the videogame industry commented in magazines and on blogs about Ebert, questioning whether Ebert had actually played a videogame. He later admitted that he had not.  I wonder if the entire argument about the uselessness of videogames would disappear if their critics sat down, picked up a controller, and played?
Simply dismissing videogames because of their portrayal of violence and lack of utility is a distraction from the deeper types of conversations we should be having about the role of gaming. The fact that many Christian leaders are speaking out on videogames only confirms that gaming has entered into popular culture in a big way. Gamers shouldn’t blame Christian leaders for their criticisms of gaming but should instead dialogue with them critically and thoughtfully about their merits. Likewise, Christian leaders would do well to listen to the gaming community without hastily dismissing their concerns. Otherwise, these leaders will miss out on fully understanding (and possibly appreciating) a central pillar of popular culture, the newest way that homo ludens is learning to play.
_______________________________________ Ovid, Epistulae ex Ponto, 2.3.8  https://dougwils.com/s7-engaging-the-culture/push-function-quit.html  Peter Leithart argues similarly, suggesting that one could use the time spent playing videogames in a number of more useful ways, including learning French, learning to play the guitar, and playing sports. See http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2015/05/the-most-interesting-man-in-the-world.  https://dougwils.com/s7-engaging-the-culture/push-function-quit.html  Based on an aggregated score (http://www.metacritic.com/browse/games/score/metascore/all/all?sort=desc)  Ebert, Roger, “Video games can never be art,” http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/video-games-can-never-be-art  Ebert, Roger, “Okay, kids, play on my lawn,” http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/okay-kids-play-on-my-lawn