Parenting in the Gaming Age
A Christian Insider’s Guide to Video Games
The video gaming industry is one of the fastest growing in the world. There are now over 2.5 billion gamers worldwide, generating over $150 billion in annual revenue for gaming companies. And those numbers are growing.
Video games are becoming ubiquitous. They’re on our phones, tablets, PCs, and consoles. And gaming technologies are accelerating in engineering sophistication. They have become popular forms of social media, and they are fast becoming immersive sensory experiences with the rapid emergence of virtual-reality technologies.
Today’s children are growing up in a gaming world. And this means today’s parents, particularly those who are seeking to raise their children in the nurture and fear of the Lord, are facing unprecedented challenges in appropriately guarding their children and helping them discern the good and evil in gaming on multiple levels.
With this in mind, I have asked a good friend of Desiring God who works in the gaming industry to give us a glimpse inside the world of game development and to offer some counsel to parents, like me, who are trying to navigate these tricky waters. Due to factors that will become clear as you read this interview, we have decided to give him a pseudonym to keep his real identity anonymous.
Jon Bloom: Christopher, thank you so much for your time and willingness to help equip parents as we navigate the fast-evolving world of video gaming with our children. Before we jump in, what led you as a Christian to get into the video-game industry?
Christopher: I came to faith in Christ during college, and shortly after my desire was to become a pastor. But as I was pursing the bachelor’s degree necessary to enter seminary, I discerned in a profound way that the Lord wanted me to go back into the workplace. At first, I was pretty upset. But just months later I was recruited into a very influential technology company. I had wanted to leave technology behind, but the Lord ended up calling me as a technologist.
Early in my career, it became obvious to me that technology, specifically interactive gaming, was going to be a long-term dominant force in our culture. Even a decade ago, games were already making more money and attracting and impacting more customers (in longer-lasting ways) than movies and television. Now, with maturing technologies like real-time simulation and emerging technologies like augmented and virtual reality, the power and influence of gaming is only increasing.
Jon Bloom: What’s it like to be a Christian in the gaming industry?
Christopher: Generally speaking, most technology sectors in the West are environments hostile toward Christians, both externally and internally.
Externally, advocates of powerful narratives in our culture are putting significant commercial pressure on technology companies to align their products and brands with those narratives. I’ve seen this move companies to even fire some of their best or hardest-working talent, so as to not run afoul of a militantly vocal minority. In my observation, corporations end up making decisions more out of fear of worldview-association brand damage than of customer happiness with their products and services. And Christianity is increasingly on the short end of the fashionable worldview stick these days.
Internally, I’ve often heard non-believers say things like, “I thought so-and-so was smart, until I found out that they’re a Christian.” And in my experience, this tends not to be an equal-opportunity anti-religious bias. Most other non-Judeo-Christian religious beliefs are seen as interesting accoutrements to brilliant minds, adding depth and well-roundedness. But Christian beliefs tend to connote questionable intelligence and decency to most people in my industry. Because of this, most believers I have crossed paths with are very careful, even reticent, in disclosing their beliefs.
Jon Bloom: So how are you seeking to live out your faith in this environment, seeking not to be ashamed of the gospel (Romans 1:16) while also being, as Jesus said, wise as a serpent when you’re a sheep among wolves (Matthew 10:16), so to speak?
Christopher: Early in my career, I struggled discerning the line between sinful fear of man and missional intentionality. Over time, and through many lessons, I have found a balance that somewhat resembles mission work in more hostile regions of the world.
Inside the office, I do my work as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:23), and while I am not allowed to use explicit Christian terms, I seek to be a peacemaker (Matthew 5:9), genuinely and deeply caring toward my fellow workers, seeking to live the truths of the kingdom, and speak them when I can.
Outside the office, however, especially during moments of suffering or genuinely personal conversation, I seek to be a more explicit ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20). I share the gospel and ask to pray for coworkers, some who, though not converted, have become very close friends.
This is the primary reason I’m using a pseudonym in this interview: it allows me to continue nurturing relationships of trust for the sake of Christ inside and outside the office, while trying to avoid the door-closing anti-Christian bias that exists in my workplace.
Jon Bloom: Thank you for that glimpse into your personal story. I wonder if you could give us a brief history of how gaming became such a dominant force in our society.
Christopher: “Computing” used to mean feeding massive amounts of data into a computer to be distilled down into as little information as possible. When the earliest electronic games came out forty-plus years ago, things like tic-tac-toe, Pong, and digital chess were just experiments and larks by brilliant and bored scientists working with the world’s most powerful computational hardware.
However, those early fun excursions ended up producing major computing paradigm shifts. Those early games were the first time humans rendered dynamically interactive images with accompanying sound, simulating (in a simple way) physical reality. This was (pardon the pun) a game-changer.
In the decades since, the speed and complexity of computing has increased exponentially. We now are able to render virtual images of scenes and objects that appear almost photographically real to most viewers. And we can simulate human behaviors, speech, and the complex physics involved in water, smoke, and fire movement. We can even convincingly replicate how photons of light illuminate a room.
And now the emerging technologies of virtual reality and augmented reality are taking things to a whole new level. By accurately tracking your head and hand movements while simultaneously sending computer-generated images and sounds stereoscopically to your eyes and ears, you can experience a simulation of reality that your brain finds entirely convincing — and these will only improve over time.
Jon Bloom: But what makes these games so compelling, sometimes addicting, for players? Why do they want to keep playing?
Christopher: Today’s video games are no longer the side hobbies of bored scientists, but highly engineered products of applied science. They have been carefully developed according to the latest findings in the fields of human psychology and behavior.
The reason players find them so compelling, even addicting, is because companies have invested heavily into understanding and incorporating what most interests and engages customers and what activities and results release dopamine in their brains. Most users care little about the technologies involved in a game. What they care about is feeling immersed in a game’s “world,” the efficiency of use, and having fun. And these all have to do with how our brains work.
Jon Bloom: Can you give us an example?
Christopher: A good example is a game called Fortnite — an online video game that took the gaming world by storm a couple years ago. It’s a fascinating case study of the culmination of the engineering potency and societal impact of gaming.
The team that developed Fortnite originally was just “kit-bashing” a game — using patterns from other historically successful games to create a new one. The first versions of it were relative failures. Users wouldn’t stick with it; the recipe wasn’t quite right. But the developers kept iterating and borrowing patterns from other games until eventually they hit on an effective recipe and their audience exploded.
Fortnite’s “mastery loop” is a good example of how a game is designed to encourage players to keep playing. A mastery loop is what we call the human desire to acquire new skills or increase in our ability to perform existing skills and the pleasure we experience when we do. Essentially, humans like the sensation of winning. Being good at something makes us feels good; being the best at something makes us feel even better.
In Fortnite, failure is always minimized by design, and incremental success is always celebrated and maximized, no matter how insignificant. This pattern is designed to create an exaggerated perception of the participant’s value and uniqueness. This is why many parents have heard their Fortnite-playing teen say, “I think I could be really good at this, maybe good enough to do this professionally.” This game was designed to produce that outcome because that’s how a player’s engagement is increased.
But Fortnite is much more than just a game. It’s a social network. Friends gather to play together, and new friends are made. They talk over microphones. When your child asks to play a game like Fortnite, Minecraft, or Roblox, what he’s really seeking is to belong to a community of peers, united in a shared dopamine-release ritual, but one that combines elements of Facebook, the phone, the shopping mall, and the sports arena.
Jon Bloom: For most of us who are parents of tweens and teens, these games pose unique challenges to the ones we faced growing up. But we can’t remain ignorant, since we’re called to bring up our children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). What disciplines and instructions would you recommend to help us shepherd our children?
Christopher: The first discipline is an ancient one. We must remember and help our children understand that nothing is without cost. We must count the cost (Luke 14:28). Every yes to one thing is a no to another.
As adults, we need to understand that how often we check the news every day isn’t cost-free. Titillating or shocking headlines are designed to suck us into stories and keep us scrolling and coming back — and they work. But the cost is more than just the time it takes to read the news. It also switches our minds from an active to a passive frame. And since most of the news is bad news, it has the tendency to increase our sense of discouragement or fear, and we often pass this to others. These effects have a real cost we must count. We must ask ourselves, Is this the best use of my time in these evil days? Am I looking carefully how I walk? (Ephesians 5:15–16).
The same is true for our children and entertainment. What they say yes or no to matters. Each choice has a cost.
Jon Bloom: And as Christian Hedonists, we know that choices we make are often indicators of what we believe will make us happy, which informs the kinds of questions we ask about entertainment.
Christopher: Right. Every person is pursuing pleasure in these kinds of choices. The question is, Which choice do we believe will yield the greatest lasting pleasure?
That’s why we can’t only think in terms of more dangerous versus more safe entertainment options. We must consider the happiness cost of entertainment. Like food or books, some entertainment options are better for us than others. But the go-to heuristic for Christians, who believe ultimate pleasure is found in God, should be this: How will this earthly pleasure advance my ultimate pleasure? And we want to help our children learn to do the same.
Using Fortnite as an example then, how will you help your child think about it? What’s the cost of their time? What’s the relational cost with you or the family? Is there a cost to their studies? Is it helping or hindering their spiritual interest or engagement? And as a parent, you might ask if there are ways you could use it to cultivate a contextually compelling relationship with your child.
There aren’t easy answers to these questions, and each family and situation is different, so different families will answer them differently. But the most common temptation regarding entertainment options like video games is wasting portions of our lives. So the discipline Christians must continually exercise is asking, What does an unwasted life look like for me and for my family?
Jon Bloom: You’re a parent of young children. How do you envision guiding them when it comes to video games?
Christopher: I view video games especially, and entertainment media in general, like I view gasoline. Gasoline is dangerous, and very dangerous for children who don’t know how to handle it. But since my children are going to encounter gasoline and other flammable fuels in the course of life, I must teach them the benefits and dangers of gasoline so they know how to use and not to use it.
Given the increasing options for immediate access to effectively limitless media, my children are going to encounter games. I must teach them the benefits and dangers of gaming and how to use and not to use it.
I hope to use the early years with our kids to teach and to model self-observation (counting the time and pleasure costs — am I wasting my life?) and self-discipline so that as they get older, they will gradually assume self-regulation at home in order to prepare them to exercise self-observation and self-discipline when they leave the home.
That said, here is some important, practical information that’s helping me shape my approach.
Not all screen time is created equal in its neurological impact. A letter-learning application has less neurologically negative impact than a passive fictional show. A passive fictional show has less neurologically negative impact than a game designed for a short-cycle dopamine hit. And so on.
Not all brains are equally affected by media. Young children’s brains are rapidly developing, and electronic media stimulation should be increasingly restricted the younger a child is. A helpful rule of thumb for young kids is to multiply their age by five minutes and limit their contiguous media exposure to that amount of time. So, a 4-year-old’s exposure would be no more than 20 minutes at a time, whereas a 10-year-old’s would be no more than 50 minutes.
Not all media within the same type are created equal. The addictive power and passivity of Fortnite, Minecraft, and Solitaire are not the same, though all are video games. The same is true with linear media like television and movies. Just like video games, shows and cartoons have developed to identify and harness patterns of viewer engagement. The intensity of pace and spectacle of a modern cartoon compared to one of ten to twenty years ago is staggering. Surprisingly, most children actually prefer the pace of older movies and cartoons, which are less addictive and tend to have more universally meaningful narratives.
Not all media is beneficial. When it comes to wise media use, children need to be taught not only how to fish, but how to throw back attractive yet poisonous fish. Parents must help children learn to ask good questions about their entertainment experiences and how to notice truth and beauty as well as subtle dangers woven into their favored content and services.
There is no easy way to do this. But through trial and error, we must learn how our children think and ask them age-appropriate questions that seek to get at their hearts. We’re trying to help them see what it is that they are after in what they want to give time to, and what it is about a game that is drawing them, so they become wise and discerning regarding the messages they are being taught by it.
Ultimately, children of today and tomorrow, born into a world of near-universal access to endless media, will be more defined by what they are able to critically ignore or disagree with more than what they manage to seek out on their own. How they filter the living water from the poisonous run-off of the cultural stream that has engulfed them will be of critical importance.
Jon Bloom: From your insider’s vantage point, what do you see as the future of gaming? How much should we heed the alarmist predictions?
Christopher: Virtual reality and augmented reality technologies are going to become increasingly compelling and pervasive. And they’ll also become increasingly necessary to use in order to participate in various kinds of community and even aspects of vocation. VR will consume more of people’s personal time, and AR will become increasingly common in the workplace.
Just as the earliest computer simulations allowed humans to create games where they could redefine physics for fun, these technologies will allow humans to experience a kind of shared imagination on a large scale, altering the experience of reality for a huge number of people at the same time. They will be used in trivial ways and terrible ways, from product marketing to changing the appearance of your spouse to better fit your preferences. And worse. Companies will shape those reality “supplements” based on the ethics and worldviews in vogue at the moment, ones that maximize their economic ambitions.
However, as Christians who trust in the sovereignty of God, we don’t have to be overly alarmed. Technological progression — as with the wheel, the light bulb, atomic reaction, and the Internet — while inevitable, is metered out in God’s own perfect timing. And like the many technologies that came before, there will be redemptive applications and evil applications — this era’s attempt to redefine God’s truth and reach toward the deceitful promise of godhood.
We Christians must be careful not to broad-brush the whole technological shift as evil. Instead, we should soberly engage and help each other and our children discern the good and evil.
And we need Christians in every aspect of this industry that isn’t explicitly forbidden by God, helping shape the products, companies, and communities that employ these technologies. We need God-appointed Daniels in Babylon.
Jon Bloom: The Scripture tells us, “Whatever you do, do all the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). What are ways video games might be used for the glory of God and the joy of a Christian?
Christopher: I could talk about this topic for a long time, but I’ll just name one way, in hopes that it might plant a creative seed in someone. Games, like all entertainment, are a combination of sensory stimulation and storytelling (narrative). Stimulus is an effective hook for our mind’s attention, but narrative holds the key to long-term worldview impact.
Compelling stories have always been a primary shaper of human experience. We think in narrative; we project narrative onto everything — from our pets to our commercials about fabric softener. We’re wired for narrative. That’s why Jesus frequently used parable-stories to make his points understandable and memorable. And it’s why the most impactful and transformative narratives are those that echo the Great Narrative: the word of God.
The power of interactive entertainment like video games is that a narrative isn’t just told to the player; it engages them through numerous senses. I don’t have the space or time to get into specifics here, but in short, even if a few creative Christians were to catch a vision for telling the Great Story through the medium of video games, I believe we could find effective ways to reach the next generations with the life-transforming truth of the gospel.