One of the mysterious aspects to people about the lives of priests is what they do in their downtime. The sorts of hobbies that take a priest’s interest can be as varied as you would find in any of the people of God. Golf is the stereotype; the gym is now a more regular option and cooking is one hobby from which it seems everyone benefits. With the millennial generation now in active ministry in many parts of the world, there are a growing number of priests who enjoy video games.

I cannot guess how many hours of video games I played as I grew up. And as I get older, the more I find myself still preferring video games to other media. My ongoing interest in video games stems mostly from my love of narratives and the deep, complexly woven stories that they present, which require my full, conscious and active participation. I very much enjoy television where these sorts of narratives can be found – often in varying styles such as in animation. There is also a growing number of Korean, Russian, Spanish, Latin American and other international drama series that streaming services can bring us which open up other worlds and storytellers to those on couches in Australia.

However, I do find at times – especially in our social media-dominated world – that TV shows can seem so passive and force-fed. Just as the stories presented can enrapture us and lead us to thoughtfully engage with ideas, television can also resort to demanding we obediently chug whatever content is poured into our senses, usually laced with appeals to our vices for wealth, power, pleasure and honour. Sometimes the occasional existential question is proposed so it can be considered “thought-provoking”, but this is usually a garnish in the cocktail of other addictive elements.

Decisions of great consequence

On the other hand, video games call the person to engage actively with the narrative, often to make decisions that affect the lives of characters presented. Unlike a book where the reader has no say in the development of the story, a video game calls the gamer to play an active role in how the narrative develops. The modern Role-Playing Game (RPG), which has for a long time allowed gamers to customise the visual look of their character, has enriched its own mechanics with a complex and dynamic moral dimension that has an impact on how the story unfolds. Very often the gamer is asked to make decisions and often decisions with great consequence, that impact how the story progresses and how their character is formed.

My long-running interest in Star Wars introduced me to the games, especially the Knights of the Old Republic games, where the choices you made determined who you became. Each choice helped form your character into a paradigm Jedi of the Light side of the Force or a Dark Lord of the Sith (or neither) and the choices you made along the way impacted not only you, but your companions and their relationship with you. I have found this even more so with the Mass Effect Series where your choices in one of the earlier games has an impact on the narratives and those choices available in the sequels, often released years apart.

Often video games can act as moral thought experiments which place the moral agent in situations that are unlikely for them in reality but require a decision based upon the gamer’s choices. Few Melbourne Catholics are likely to find themselves in Ancient Greece and without the benefits of modern medicine, forced to decide whether a family of four infected with a plague that could destroy the whole island should be killed or if they should be spared with the hope of them getting better, unless they end up in front of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.

Equally unlikely, are we ever going to be asked which member of our team we would choose to save on a mission – the one holding off the advancing forces or the one who has armed the nuclear bomb to wipe out the facility and whose position is being overrun by enemy forces – both facing certain death.

Yet every time a gamer is asked by the game to choose whether to steal or buy the item they need, to follow the rules or follow their morals, each time the choice is either intimidate, kill or persuade, an auxiliary conversation occurs quietly about what this says about me or how my values play a part in my life. Are there morally acceptable times to kill? Is stealing always morally wrong? Do the environmental principles in Laudato Si’ apply if I’m playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild? As we enter into the world and narrative of the game via our character, our own moral values are called upon in the circumstances that we find ourselves in. This asks us to really consider how our values and beliefs play a part in our lives.

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The moral dilemma

Most games will require a certain amount of moral disengagement due to the nature of video games requiring us to suspend a substantial amount of the laws of reality to adequately engage with the phantasy presented. Nevertheless, it is interesting that studies show there is no difference in enjoyment between those who choose morally upright and morally disengaged choices in video games.

This choice to morally engage or disengage becomes more pertinent when we play games with others online. So often as human beings we can take what we intend to use for the good and turn it into a cesspool of the darker parts of our hearts. Just as with social media and web forums, it is easier to justify to ourselves the malice and cruelty we show to others (often by our use of chat functions and actions in the game) by directing it to their avatar/characters, with the excuse of, “It’s just a game. I’m not really hurting anyone”.

Does who we are in the real world play a part in how we make moral decisions in the virtual world?

It is often to the digital frontier that we are encouraged to bring our faith and that does not exclude our gaming online. Just as we should remember that Christ will call us to account for our Facebook posts or Instagram usage on Judgement Day, so we should perhaps consider Christ on our squad or the opposing team as we play games online. Can others see from how we play games online (fairly, charitably, prudently, temperately) the image of Christ given us at Baptism? Do we game like a Christian?

Horror stories often make the media because they sell papers or produce clickbait. Nevertheless, there do exist stories of great and small acts of kindness: a group of teenagers expressing kindness and companionship in Minecraft; a young player who, in the midst of a terrible situation, was reminded on his birthday that there are good people in the world and something worth living for; and the story of people travelling from all over Europe to Oslo for the funeral of a young, disabled man who never physically left his family home but touched the lives of many by his kindness and friendship in World of Warcraft.

If as Christians we are called to spread the Gospel to the ends of the Earth, perhaps those “ends of the earth” can also be found in the digital frontier, whereby our actions we can further the Kingdom of God and restore all things to Christ.