ot long ago, the Wall Street Journal published a review of Gearbox’s new game, Borderlands 2. In the review, Adam Najberg expressed his disappointment in the game overall, but specifically in its dissimilarity from the Halo and Call of Duty franchises. The responses to Najberg’s assessment expressed ire and dismay with his incongruous comparison of games whose genre and design are quite distinct. In many ways, this situation layered several moments on top of each other in which a person (or persons) conceived of an ideal and felt that reality somehow failed to fulfill that ideal. Najberg held up Halo and Call of Duty as an ideal that Borderlands 2 failed to fulfill; Najberg’s readers envisioned an ideal for videogame reviews and believed he had failed to attain that ideal; and I desired a degree of charitable discourse on the Internet that Najberg’s critics fell well short of. A sense of incompleteness, of not quite “getting it”, permeated the entire situation. In fact, this suspicion that things aren’t quite what they could be, seems to run throughout videogame writing and culture.
In a recent interview with CultureRamp, videogame journalist Jenn Frank opined that certain videogame writers (including herself) are concerned with creating “writing that lasts,” because, as she puts it, “Games are about death. Game-makers want to be outlived by something, I think, have a legacy.” Frank’s sentiment speaks to another key human impulse; we desire to live lives that matter–we hope to leave something behind that makes a difference. Yet the paradox of these two ideas, these nagging suspicions that we should create something that lasts, but also that we continually fail to fulfill our ideals, is that they are inextricably linked. Indeed, we find that the long history of Christian thought and theology draws a very specific link between them in the concept of redemption.
Too often redemption is used in a reductive way to mean only the saving of souls; when people hear Christians on TV throwing around the word “redemption,” they may get a bitter taste in their mouths, because the televangelist of the hour seems to say “become more like me,” when he says, “be redeemed.” Fortunately, the Christian tradition is much richer and vibrant than TV preacher personalities often suggest. In his 2008 book Culture Making, Andy Crouch, Harvard’s former Intervarsity campus minister, discusses the Bible’s vision for the future of humanity on a redeemed Earth. Pulling from Isaiah 60, Crouch sees an Earth in which the artifacts from cultures across the globe will see their ultimate fulfillment. Crouch first mentions the possibility for us to experience the grand works of Bach and Herman Melville, but then he completes his list of potential redeemed artifacts with two unusual candidates: the Mini Cooper and the iPod.
What if, just maybe, videogames were important enough for us to consider their eternal heritage? What if that feeling of unfulfilled possibility is a hint, an echo of what might be? A few months ago, I wrote up a list, partially in jest but somewhat seriously, of videogames I would like to find in heaven–in the “life to come” that Christians have looked to for centuries. In my list I included games like the first two Myst titles, whose attention to detail and beauty underscore humanity’s deep commitment to creativity and the responsibilities that come with it. More recently, I have seen in games like Flower, a unmistakable link to the care that we all must have for creation. Flower visualizes in a compelling way the integration of human endeavor through the building of cities with the natural world in which we live. The notion that these games might have an eternal heritage has helped me to appreciate why our pastime might be more than just a hobby. What does this mean for us as both players, creators, and critics of videogames?
First, we should approach our interest in videogames with a degree of seriousness. Our seriousness should reflect a belief that our time spent with videogames can be meaningful. For myself this means spending a lot of time playing Kirby’s Epic Yarn with my daughter; it also means thoughtfully considering each game that I play. This does not mean, however, that we are limited to “E” rated games, or that games that address adult questions like death, violence, sexuality, and injustice are off-limits. The Walking Dead is a recent game that expresses the tragedy of human despair, but still manages to echo the inexplicable resilience of hope. Indeed, by acknowledging that our world is full of this kind of brokenness, videogames can evoke an important level of honesty.
And yet our seriousness should also take delight in videogames. The fullness of videogames ought to engender in us a delighted seriousness. Our delight is reflected in things like the anticipation that comes when starting a new game, and videogames are an avenue for us to enjoy and marvel at human creativity and ingenuity. I like to imagine a world where I could appreciate the intense challenge of a game like Super Hexagon without the temptation of rage-quitting. Altogether, then, my hope is that in videogames we can recognize an emerging form of human endeavor that speaks to eternity. Such is the kind of delighted seriousness we might strive to express in videogame culture.
Of course, the reality is that our experience of videogames won’t always be one of delighted seriousness. Games will at times frustrate us, at other times draw us in until we have trouble putting the controller down. I don’t know if Borderlands 2 would be more like Call of Duty in the new Earth (I hope not), and I don’t want to make a habit of trying to predict what kinds of cultural artifacts we might find in the life to come. Rather, in the midst of the vicissitudes of our lives and temperaments, I find great comfort in the hope that videogames, these great and unique expressions of human creativity, are not limited to our time but have eternal consequence and longevity.