On Video Games: The Good and the Bad

Video games are a staple in our society, and no matter how much ink and venom is spent lamenting their obsession in our culture, short of the apocalypse, video games are here to stay. Therefore, it behooves teachers, parents, leaders, and the like to familiarize themselves with video games and not to settle for mere passing remarks that serve only to highlight the abuse of video games. Moreover, it is quite pertinent that the virtues of video games are brought forward. The following is just two of many good qualities that, if harnessed properly, can aid in the flourishing of the human heart: recreation and music.

In Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales relates a story about St. John the Evangelist taking a break from his mission work so that he might return mentally and physically prepared. St. John likens the break from work to an archer’s bow and the need to keep it unstrung when not in use so as to ensure that the bow will be usable when needed. De Sales does not give a rundown of what amusements and recreations are and are not allowable, but instead, he gives guidelines:

  1. First, recreation of some sort is needed in order to rejuvenate mind or body.
  2. Second, recreation in the form of games and competitions must require skill.
  3. Third, recreation is to be moderated so as to make sure recreation does not become occupation.

Applying St. Francis’s criteria for leisure and recreation to video games, it is clear that video games can be recreational. However, like any form of recreation, it can move from recreation to occupation. Sadly, the addictive side of video games, where games have moved from recreation to occupation, is evident given the treatment facilities in China, Korean, and the United States.

Nielsen reports that people aged 13 and above spend 6.3 hours a week playing video games or 54 minutes a day. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in a 2014 American Time Survey, reported a similar number for people ages 15-19, and all people over 15 years-of-age spend 29 minutes a day playing games or using the computer for leisure. There is no doubt that when honing in on certain demographics the numbers change, as it is typical that teens play more video games than adults and male teens more video games than female teens. Yet, when the stereotype of a gamer is a socially inept, overweight male, playing Call of Duty in a dimly lit basement for eight hours a day, it says less about the gamer and more about the parenting and loss of virtue in our culture, which tolerates such toxic behavior. However, the stereotype does not appear to line up with the reality, and an hour a day hardly seems excessive provided all essential things are accomplished.

In regards to music, patrons have fled the orchestral halls in the United States in exchange for the pale glow and button pressing of video games. The empty halls are not because people dislike orchestral music, and it is not because they think Bach is boring. Besides the assumed disconnect between contemporary music and orchestral music, there are two reason fueled by video games that have led to the emptying of orchestral venues. The first being that video games have just as interesting and as exciting music as Shostakovich and in a very palatable and engaging format without having to go through the perceived hassle of attending a symphony. Second, music composers are not writing, as they once were, for the sole intent of their composition being performed a handful of times in an orchestral setting. Music composers are now competing over contracts to compose soundtracks for video games, which in many cases offers a frame and story line from which the composer can work. Between the 2004 and 2014, there was a 154 percent job growth for music directors and composers making it second only to oil, gas, and mining service operators. When GameSoundCon crunched the data, they noticed a correlation between the mobile gaming industry take off in 2008, with the introduction of the iPhone only one year prior, and the growth in the field of music composition and directing. In other words, GameSoundCon argues that gaming drove the job market for music composers and directors from 2008 to 2014.

Furthermore, video games give the composer the opportunity to have their music heard by patrons for, in some cases, hundreds of hours as opposed to a concert or movie score in which the patron only listens to the music once or twice in their whole life. In an effort, and a successful one at that, to fill the emptying concert halls, to produce a new generation of symphony lovers, and to bridge the gap between Beethoven and Bayonetta, many symphonies and orchestras host concerts featuring video game music. In fact, video game music has developed far beyond the boops and bleeps of the 8-bit days that it has become commonplace for a game’s soundtrack to be sold with a purchase of the game itself.

The cross over between game and orchestral stage is nothing new. Famed game composer Nobuo Uematsu drew inspiration for his One Winged Angel, the music played during the final boss battle of Final Fantasy VII, in style, mood, and tone from parts of Carmina Burana, but he didn’t stop there; he also borrowed lyrics from Carmina Burana. Other examples include Super Mario 3’s Airship theme which has an almost identical thumping and driving bass drum and ominous tone to that of Holst’s Mars. Metal Gear Solid’s Theme drew melodies from Sviridov’s Winter Road so much so that Konami was sued by Russian composers for copyright infringement and stopped using the song in the fourth installment in the series. When a gamer plays through Super Mario Brothers 2, it is like listening to Scott Joplin or Jelly Roll Morton. In the famed Zelda series the music that plays when the protagonist, Link, enters the Great Fairy Fountain is at its core 8 measures from Debussy’s Clair de Lune looped. Lastly, in 2011 the song Baba Yetu from Civilization IV became the first song from a video game to win a Grammy; its lyrics are the Lord’s Prayer in Swahili. The video game music composers are drawing on a rich musical history and all that is needed are the ears to hear.

Apart from some of the goods found in video games, keep in mind that one only has to look to places like China, South Korea, and Japan to see that the slippery slope of gaming isn’t so slippery in terms of its potentially damaging nature to the social and economic structure of those countries when abused for the western world to take warning. Do to political propaganda, laws, economic stagnation, a favoring of male children over female as well as the emergence of a western styled feminism, a generation of boys has emerged throughout Asia that report having little interest in sex and real life relationships with girls to the extent that the boys becomes shut-ins. In short, these boys retreat into games in an attempt to find happiness. Video game producers did not create this problem. The misuse of their product is merely a symptom of a deeper psychosis. This social disorder speaks more to the reality that man’s happiness lies in the infinite and not in the temporal. Also, the American Psychological Association has added to the DSM-5 for warranting further research an “internet gaming disorder,” which is characterized in a similar way to any other form of addiction:

The “gamers” play compulsively, to the exclusion of other interests, and their persistent and recurrent online activity results in clinically significant impairment or distress. People with this condition endanger their academic or job functioning because of the amount of time they spend playing. They experience symptoms of withdrawal when pulled away from gaming.

Then what is a parent to do? Be a parent. Just like with other activities and forms of media, parents must—if they aren’t already doing so—monitor the games and how much and often their children play video games. Also, parents must take an active role in the games played, even if it is simply watching their kids play, and educate themselves on the content, messages, and worldview found in the games that their kids want to play. Know that the target audience for most video games is males between the 18-49 years old, and many games now feature ESRB ratings on the cover to help parents in their decision. Most parents would not let their 12 or 13 year old go to an “R” rated move, why would a parent purchase a game that is made specifically for people a decade or more in age? There aren’t many Christian sources dedicated to quality game reviews, but looking at reviews from sites such as 1up.com, IGN, and Gamespot can be helpful—don’t forget to search Wikipedia for information on the game as well, it is a great source of information on a game’s plot, characters, and collective source for reviews from various critics. Better yet, instead of the parent doing the research, have the child who wants the video game research it and report back on the information and content of the game. Make sure children are having healthy social relationships and are participating in life apart from video games. In other words, parents need to help their children balance life with entertainment and the essentials.

In short, from an outsider’s point of view, a game like football can be seen as 22 men violently smashing into each other, but with the proper guidance, and in an ideal world, a coach or parent draws out the goods of the sport and steer the athletes away from the dangers of the sport. Likewise, parents, teachers, and thinkers must delve into the gaming world in order to help the younger—and in some cases older—generations navigate through an environment less we lose the hearts and minds of future people.


Paul Catalanotto teaches high school theology in the Houston, Texas. His writing has appeared in Gilbert! Magazine and the Homiletic & Pastoral Review,.

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