There is an apocryphal book titled the "Acts of St. John [the Evangelist]" which was written by pious Christians as a kind of novelized re-telling of the evangelist's life. It was almost counted as canonical, as it was rumored to be written in the 2nd century by a disciple of the same St. John. It at least preserves some oral traditions that the early Christians passed around to give flesh to the life of the Beloved Disciple. The Conferences of John Cassian (a favorite of St. Dominic) recount a very similar story to one found in the Acts that goes like this:
It is told that the most blessed Evangelist John, when he was gently stroking a partridge with his hands, suddenly saw one in the habit of a hunter coming to him. He wondered that a man of such repute and fame should demean himself to such small and humble amusements, and said: Art thou that John whose eminent and widespread fame hath enticed me also with great desire to know thee? Why then art thou taken up with such mean amusements? The blessed John said to him: What is that which thou carriest in thy hands? A bow, said he. And why, said he, dost thou not bear it about always stretched? He answered him: I must not, lest by constant bending the strength of its vigour be wrung and grow soft and perish, and when there is need that the arrows be shot with much strength at some beast, the strength being lost by excess of continual tension, a forcible blow cannot be dealt. Just so, said the blessed John, let not this little and brief relaxation of my mind offend thee, young man, for unless it doth sometimes ease and relax by some remission the force of its tension, it will grow slack through unbroken rigour and will not be able to obey the power of the Spirit. (Collation XXIV. 21)
I thought of this story in the light of some recent criticisms of video gaming that came both from secular sources, but even more directly from some religious and Catholic ones. Their objections were very much as follows:
~Video games encourage violence and violent behavior.
~They encourage retreat from reality into virtual fantasy, decline of relationships, and unhealthy lifestyles.
~They are obsessive in content and lead to addictive patterns.
~They are inane, expensive, and (at best) a waste of time.
I have no desire to enter into a full-fledged defense of gaming as a kind of lifestyle or any other nonsense, nor even to defend all video games. What I do think is important to recognize is that video games of many sorts can have a healthy spiritual dimension that need not be overlooked in the rush to condemn clearly unhealthy behavior.
Perhaps my fondness for video games comes because I play them relatively often. I hesitate sometimes with students or with vocations candidates to say it, because I think people imagine immediately the exorbitant prices on video games in the nearest store (upwards of $50 per new game) or the amount of time people can play games (when done obsessively, it can consume your life). I personally spend about as little on video games as I would on movies and equally little of my free time. I see it, for myself, as a form of recreation that I've not found to interfere with any of my work or with my prayer; I don't really watch television, for example, and this is one such outlet alongside others.
Maybe I'm not the best person to speak, but video games have inspired me and can help form what I think is a healthy moral imagination, if employed well. Perhaps much criticism arises merely from the fact that the people criticizing games are those who do not like or play them in the first place: they consequently only see the repetitive nature of games, extreme examples of people wasting their time, and so forth. But people can say exactly the same thing about sports - and far more money is spent on professional sports than on video games! I find many sports, personally, repetitive and a waste of time. But I try to see it as a thing to have in moderation, like any and all entertainment; one that can build teamwork and camaraderie. I've found people can be equally obsessed with television or novels, and that some programs or writers can be far more diabolical than any video game I've ever played. Most of the criticism leveled against video games can apply to nearly any other form of entertainment - including St. John's partridge! Just think of all the time and feed he wasted on little τυχερός (that's what I imagine he named him).
Even beyond addressing criticisms, I want to go an extra step and encourage video games for young people in today's world. What is overlooked in all of this criticism is the great potential of video games to inspire great nobility in young people. I am not thinking of mindless "Candy Crush" or "Tetris"-type games, or games that might involve bad morals in a clear way (e.g., sexually explicit material), or even of team-based "first-person shooter" games like Counter-Strike or Halo (which I think are about as morally noxious as paintball or lasertag, albeit with often lots of childish online talk by players). I am thinking specifically of story-based games, often of the "role playing" variety (which are all very popular and some of the most of any video game genre), as bearing the potential for much creative and spiritual good.
It's best not to stay on the abstract level; let's consider some of the most popular video games of all time. I want to take four quick examples and make a little point about what each might teach us:
Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Batman: Arkham Asylum
Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Zelda captivated the imagination of many children from my generation. It told the story of "Link," a young child who grows up in the fantastic land of Hyrule. His parents died when he was a child, after prophetic foreshadowings, but left him in the care of kind elves in the forest. In ordinary life, he encounters a grave evil - the power-hungry Lord Ganondorf, who is attempting to kill the king, take over Hyrule by force, and turn everyone into his slave by using a magical artifact called the "Triforce." Ganondorf uses the unwitting Link to help him get this object, kill the king, subjugate everyone as slaves, and take the princess Zelda as his hostage. While Ganondorf achieves his aim, the Triforce splits into parts representing courage, wisdom, and power - the piece of courage going to Link himself. Link has to travel through time, using this power and his knightly resolve, to help the helpless escape slavery and oppression. Ultimately, he has to save the kingdom and the princess Zelda from personified evil.
There is much to be said in honor of the heroics of Link and the many ways he sacrificed himself throughout the story, giving up love and home for himself to save his world. It is a classic story in the spirit of Sir Galahad or any other great knight hero, alongside depictions of the evil of slavery, greed, and hunger for power. While seemingly strange, a great illustration of the spirit of the game is an insignificant detail: the harmless clucking chickens in the farms one encounters in the game. Many a child mischievously tried hacking away at the chickens with their swords - only to prompt a re-enactment of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, with a flurry of chickens attacking the main character in comic retaliation as the player was helpless in the face of such onslaught of poultry. In the context of a game about a noble knight who arises from meager circumstances to save the world, it was silly, but also a subtle moral lesson for the wannabe knight: don't hurt the helpless. And everyone remembers the part about the chickens...even ten years later.
Batman is himself well-known as an icon of the courageous person who lives in the shadows and saves the innocent from crime and oppression. Arkham Asylum was no exception to the thematic of the Dark Knight. I was in fact inspired to buy it because of a review in the National Catholic Register. It is a game of moral strength against sadistic villainy. Batman makes the explicit decision to save and not kill even the worst offenders against justice. He arrests the Joker after a rampage of violence and attempts to commit him to the asylum, only to discover that it was a trap - the Joker traps Batman and all the jailers in the Arkham Asylum, killing many of them. Batman escapes and helps free everyone from the Joker's (and other villains') schemes, often through cleverness and detective-work. He refuses to use a gun, instead letting the villain's violence fall on their own heads. When confronted by evil and even his own problematic past deeds, he sticks to his belief in truth and goodness as guidance in the darkness. He eventually defeats the Joker, only to see him as an object of compassion rather than of revenge or hatred -- something the Joker cannot comprehend.
One cannot but see a ray of light shining out from the story which can influence young people for the good.
There are many worse models in contemporary culture, and not many better ones. I am tempted even to say that Batman as a hero has just the whiff of incense about him when he is able to show people in an age of terror and terrorism how to follow the good, the moral, and the true even when you're weak, broken, and everyone else is ranged against you.
Finally, the famous Skyrim game of recent memory is another classic knight-from-rags story that was immensely innovative for its wide world, incredible customizability, and deep detail. More importantly, many recent games such as this one incorporate morality and decision making consequences into the game quite explicitly. Skyrim had very much the theme of moral behavior at its core, taking a cue from the writings of JRR Tolkien in how it is written and told, forming an immersive story universe (also being the fifth in a series).
The main character is a prisoner who is freed by a chance dragon attack to become the Dragonborn -- a long-foretold Nordic hero who will save the world from a soul-eating dragon who cannot be killed by mortal men. The player is trained by a species of monks, the Greybeards, with the necessary skills to fight the dragons. They are rather explicitly spiritual characters, like many of his allies. He travels about the land, doing good and achieving little victories against the evil of the dragons. The religion of the realm factors heavily into the story, which is broadly Norse but clearly Christian in moral inspiration, with idolic demonic worship being condemned and the good gods encouraging quite traditional moral behavior. There are many displays of homage to classic myths, heroes, and stories of valor and greatness.
While one can engage admittedly in rampant death and mayhem if one so chooses, it is important to note that a bad moral character cannot finish the game. If you choose not to be a hero, you lose everything. The mere ability to make moral choices is not the end of the story. The chance to make moral decisions is present to illustrate that decisions have consequences which follow us (in this case, the whole game). But, in the end, peace and harmony, self-sacrifice and love -- these are the true values that last. The hero can, in the end, only find true rest in the hall of heroes in Valhalla.
So, I don't want to glorify games and gaming. There are many more beautiful things in the world, many things worthy of more respect and praise. But we shouldn't disparage much of what makes good video games truly great: story-telling, imagination, fantasy, beauty, and even hints of nobility that can shine in our memories for years. I could give many more examples, but my view of video games comes down to a very basic truth: stories are some of the most powerful weapons in the fights we have in the spiritual life. A good story told and retold well can do more to help us seek the truly beautiful much more than spending time in academic study (although I don't discourage the latter!). Video games, when they come down to their most elevated examples, are nothing but vehicles to bring us into a story. They might not be the best use of our time, they might be harmful to some, they might be too expensive at some points, and there might be bad stories which we don't want to tell our children, but it would be spiritual suicide to try to suppress forcibly good and healthy story-telling.
What would be a world without the greatest story ever told, let alone our childhood favorites? A world without Captain Hook and Peter Pan, a world without Cinderella and Aladdin, or (I want to venture) a world without Link and Zelda? It might be a world with time more well-spent in "productive work," but it would also be a world with a little less lightness of heart and joy. I daresay a world with a little less of God's grace.
My criteria, in the end, is simple and evangelical. To paraphrase John the Beloved: does it help relax your mind so as to assist you to obey the power of the Spirit better? If not, stay away from it like fire.
But, if yes, there is no good reason not to go for it and relish it with great love of God. The joy that might result from a good story (or even a good video game) might just help open your heart for a ray of the Spirit to get inside.