Movies and video games

A friend recently asked me why I am a fan of movies but an ardent decrier of video games. What follows is an attempt to respond to that sensible question; my thoughts aren’t particularly well-refined, so take them cum grano salis:

I would want to say initially that I believe an excess of movies can be every bit as deleterious to a child’s development as video games. Children tend to view movies as pure entertainment – no thinking required, all the imaginative work is done for you – and a lust for entertainment is not something I want to cultivate at all. That said, I believe film is a completely different cultural medium from the video game; about the only thing they share in common is a screen.

Video games invite children to participate in activities such as exploring, problem-solving, musical performance, competitive sport, fighting, etc., but to do so virtually rather than in the real world. There are two problems with this: (1) I want my children to live their lives in the world God made, not in a man-made virtual world; and I want them to engage the world using their bodies and brains together, rather than just their brains with the aid of a hand-held control. (2) Video games tend to be addictive precisely because they invite an indeterminate amount of activity (you can keep playing, and playing, and playing, because the activity never ends), without a clear terminus and incentive to walk away.

A movie is completely different. It does not offer an alternative reality to the real world, except in the sense that every story invites sympathetic participation in the lives of its characters (if this were unhealthy, God would have written His Bible very differently!). It does not offer a world that competes with the one God made; nor does it not offer a sphere of pseudo-activity where one can “live and move and have one’s being” virtually. Because of this, and because it has a clear terminus, a movie does not present the same temptations to addiction that a video game does.

More positively, I think of film as a subset of the “storytelling” category of human culture, which flows out of our bearing the image of God, the ultimate Storyteller. Viewing a film is arguably less demanding than listening to or reading literature (though digesting a good film is no easy task!); certainly one participates in the story of a film differently from the way one participates in the story of a book (the eyes are more involved, for one thing). But the fundamental activity (engaging a story) is the same. And in this regard, we must ask whether God Himself does not authorize storytelling that appeals to the visual sense: Isn’t this an implication of the sacraments, or of the various enactments in scripture of a word from the Lord (think of certain strange activities of the prophet Ezekiel)?

Someone might want to say that video games are “creative” whereas film-watching is entirely passive. I think this reflects ignorance both of video games and of film: To the extent one “creates” at all in a video game (the whole experience looks a whole lot more to me like stimulus-response), one does so entirely within the boundaries (visual and conceptual) dictated by the creators of the video game. Film, on the other hand, sets a story before the viewer and leaves the viewer’s response (critical, appreciative, or both) entirely to the viewer.

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