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Holy play: the ethics of bait and switch

Photo from www.halo3.com

You’re the character in a video game, aliens from another planet are attacking you, enemies from another country are killing slaves, and an evil corrupt ruling power just keeps on sending their troops after you.

Your character Striker needs to fight through the hoards of aliens, bullets, dead bodies, landmines, tanks, smoke and fighter planes in order to save the day and end the game, all by himself.

But instead, completely by accident you figure out that if you make Striker put his weapons away, have him kneel down, pray and ask for guidance there’s a peaceful way to end this game.

Suddenly your weapons disappear and you gain a band of followers, who, like you fall on their knees and ask for guidance and peace, and then more and more followers join you, many of the aliens see you laying down your weapons and kneeling in an act of peace and they too join in on your action.

Suddenly all the army troops killing slaves see this and, instead of getting angry many of them decide not to shoot you, either out of inspiration or out of the decision not to kill an unarmed person.

All of a sudden you hear a deafening silence, most of the shooting ceases and you hear a baby’s crying, you look up into the face of who was your enemy and you realise they look just like you, and the aliens, who your army had just been killing look at you in the eyes and you see that they too are beautiful, even with two heads and nine eyes. You smile at them, and offer them your hand of friendship.

Then out of the blue, all of a sudden you hear a loud bang, you see your lifeline take a huge hit and the screen goes red, you’ve been shot.

As you fall to the ground your character looks up to see one of the rulers is standing there, full battle gear on, holding a golden gun still smoking… You die.

In the closing scenes of the game you read that your followers never took a life ever again, that the rulers who shot you couldn’t seize control any longer as the people had found peaceful ways to resist their rule.

The aliens having seen love and peaceful action in your actions had chosen to work with the peaceful revolution and help solve many of the world’s problems, end hunger, bring poverty to an end and free the slaves.

They even helped humankind deal with issues around salinity, aids, drug addiction and more.

Does this sound like a reasonable ending to a video game? Would you buy this game, would you pay for it, would you play it? Why or why not?

Violent video games

A recent study by the University of Missouri-Columbia has found a link between violent video games and the player’s desensitisation to violent images.

The study revolves around this desensitisation, not the link between violent behaviour and video games, however it still raises a number of difficult questions for us as people of faith and how we work with young people as community and how we live with young people as family.

That being said, the more violent games become the more violent our world seems to be, we live in a world where it’s natural for bombs to kill hundreds of people in one go, a world where landmines still kill and maim people, a world where our governments seem to continually think that peace is gained by having the most weapons, peace through violence.

We live in a world where parents in America are calling for the government, their schools to allow their kids to take guns with them to school in order to protect themselves from other gunmen who might siege the school, or might be a school student planning a rampage.

More to the point, we live in a world where we gasp in shock that young people in some countries are given guns at the age of five; a world where young people are used as soldiers in wars, in revolutions; a world where children regularly die because of violence.

And we in the Western world place virtual guns in the hands of our youth and call it “ministry,” call it “play,” call it “evangelisation.”

Are we comfortable with desensitising people from images of violence? Instead shouldn’t we as people of faith in Jesus become angrier, more sensitive, more upset about images of injustice, violence, famine and oppression?
“Moving on”, a New York Times article back in October 2007 shared that churches across America were using the latest release of a video game titled “Halo 3” (the second sequel to one of the most popular game in the world) as an evangelisation tool.

Churches were getting young people into the church by allowing network games on large screens to be played by kids who might not be able to afford the game, or for kids who just want to get together and shoot stuff up.

It’s the old “bait and switch” that we know so very well. It goes like this: “if we can get the kids in here then we can share the gospel with them, have them accept Christ as their Lord and Saviour and get them saved.”

The Church and our youth ministry has used this type of evangelism for years now. Some might not see an issue with this, others may have some questions about it’s validity and the message we’re sending when we do this type of thing.

It’s about violence

The first issue is what the video game represents, there’s no doubt about it, the game is about shooting people, but I don’t want to just focus on Halo, other games include running people over, killing people with guns, bashing zombies with baseball bats, crashing cars into other cars and more.


There is also the question of what we understand to be the Gospel, and this would mean that we need to re-visit the ministry that Jesus had. Sure, Jesus didn’t have a Playstation 3, or an Xbox 360 in his time, not did he have the data projector, wireless controllers and the like, but that’s not the question at hand.

When we look at the life of Jesus we find a person of great faith, of incredible vision, a person who truly discipled his followers to take over from where he would leave them.

Jesus lead a life of peaceful activism, a life of freeing slaves (of the culture and religion and politics around them) and who preached a time where there would be no violence, where the poor would be blessed, the deaf hear, the blind see, the grieving celebrate.

And when we compare the two, the violent games with the peaceful life and discipleship of Jesus we find a huge discrepancy.

How do we evangelise?

I question the validity of this form of evangelism. As I said before, the Church has used the “bait and switch” for many years, whether it be with video games, dance parties, camping, parties, drop in centres or youth groups, and what percentage of those young people have remained in the Church, how many of them have truly taken up a life of discipleship?

Serious questions need to be asked about how we evangelise, how we speak and live out the life that we are called to as followers of Jesus.

Surely if we were doing something right we would be seeing a radical discipleship spreading across out country, throughout our communities, a radical discipleship that is asking hard questions of our politicians, feeding the poor, blessing the blind, serving the least.

Instead the National Church Life Survey data tells us that our Church denominations are, by large declining, and that mine, the Uniting Church is amongst the oldest membership of the nation. Our forms of evangelism, in particular the “bait and switch” is not, and has not worked.

The search for relevance

In his blog D.W. Congdon asks questions about how the Church tries to be relevant, and whether our search for relevancy has lead us to a place where we play violent games inside our Church ministries.

Can we hold together the conflicting messages of the Gospel of Peace and the Gospel of violent games, can we blend the two gospels together? And if not why then do we use the games in our ministry? In our struggle to be “relevant” do we loose our struggle to be “radical”?

As Congdon says, “If a church wants to be relevant to teenage boys, there are plenty of other ways, including handing out pornography and offering beer-on-tap. You could throw in condoms and cigarettes and call it a night.

“But this raises an important question: Why “Halo 3”? Why are exceedingly violent video games par for the course, but bare breasts on a piece of paper completely out of the question? One could easily argue that the video games are the more harmful of the two.

“All of this leads us back to the same basic problem with American Christianity: we are prudes about sex, but connoisseurs of violence.”

Real discipleship

One of the more important issues for me as a youth worker in the Church is the question of how we disciple young people into the faith.

Often I wonder if our ministries are so focussed on that point of conversion that we baptise or convert young people out of the Church.

If our connections are primarily about getting them there, then when do we find the time to really get into the gospels, really engage the young people with God’s call on their life, really ask hard and radical questions about how they will choose to live and follow Christ.

I don’t mean to become moral and upstanding citizens, instead how do we engage with young people in order to give them the knowledge of the radical call that God has for their lives to work towards the time where Heaven comes to Earth, to work towards the time when the blind can see, the deaf can hear, the slaves are free, where peace reigns?

Our ministries with young people need to move beyond the “bait and switch” and towards a place where young people are confronted with the violent realities of our world, are appalled by it and inspired by the Gospels to do something about it.

Desensitising young people from violent images is taking a few backwards steps, and probably steps that we’ll never get back.

What is “holy play”?

What is the role of “play” in our ministries with young people? In our games, in our relationships with young people are our games “holy” are they games that teach us to be community, do they allow the space for us to learn more about ourselves, about our world, about our God, about our gifts and skills, about our vocation?

Holy play is a play that is centred on God, no I don’t mean “boring” play, I mean Godly Play. Play is about abandoning ourselves to the joy of another. It’s about something that’s bigger than something of itself, it’s always about more than the game, it’s about life, about the kingdom of God.

In the end all I can hope for is that you will think about your ministry with young people, or about how you connect your faith with your children in your family.

I do not want to spread a gospel of anti-video games simply because they aren’t moral. There are much deeper issues than that and we need to discuss them and make some hard decisions about what our standards will be.

Whether the games cause or encourage violent behaviour or simply desensitise people to violence is not is not really the point. Instead the point is that our actions, our ministries, our evangelism needs to connect with the radical peaceful call of the Gospel.

Darren Wright is a Uniting Church Youth Worker serving in the Riverina Presbytery in NSW. Darren has previously worked in congregational ministry, high school chaplaincy. His interests are how the church and theology connects with pop culture, and he facilitates a subject on "youth, culture and mission" for St Marks Theological College in Canberra. You can visit Darren’s work website at www.riverinayouth.net and his youth ministry website www.digitalorthodoxy.com.  

Resources for further reading:

“Play” Volume 5 of Clouds of Witnesses: http://www.ptsem.edu/iym/cow/vol5/  

Thou Shalt Not Kill, Except in a Popular Video Game at Church: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/07/us/07halo.html  

PET VI: Youth Ministry: http://fireandrose.blogspot.com/2007/10/pet-vi-youth-ministry.html  

Violent games ‘affect behaviour’: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4594376.stm  

D.W. Congdon http://fireandrose.blogspot.com/2007/10/pet-vi-youth-ministry.html  

Photo : Photo from www.halo3.com