Playing As Others
Theology and Ethical Responsibility in Video Games
- ISBN: 9781481315463
- Published By: Baylor University Press
- Published: October 2021
Benjamin J. Chicka’s book, Playing As Others: Theology and Ethical Responsibility in Video Games, offers a novel theological assessment of video games. Instead of looking at common ethical critiques of video games, such as the connection between video games and violence, Chicka’s goal is to connect the works of Paul Tillich and Emmanuel Levinas to the world of video games. Although the theology of Tillich and Levinas may initially appear to be opposed to each other and unrelated to video games, Chicka argues that the medium of video games can connect the two thinkers.
Chicka’s book is separated into eight chapters. In the introduction (which he playfully refers to as the tutorial), he highlights the Gamergate controversy which revealed the widespread racism and sexism that plague the gaming industry. For the reminder of the book, the events of Gamergate and the overall negative experiences of minorities (who Chicka identifies as LGBTQ+ individuals, women, and ethnic minorities) serve as illustrations for what video games can hope to correct.
In the first two chapters, Chicka outlines Tillich’s theology of pop culture and Levinas’s ethic of the other. Tillich rejects the traditional understanding of God as a supernatural being that we can encounter and instead claims that “God is waiting… for our openness and creativity in order to be realized here and now” (24). For Tillich, God is “not found in some other heavenly realm” (26) and for this reason God can be found in the culture of video games. On the other hand, Levinas presents an ethic that is focused on the needs of the other (rather than the needs of self). For Levinas, this ethic of the other draws attention to marginalized groups and leads people to fulfill their responsibilities for caring for these marginalized groups.
In chapter 3, Chicka integrates Tillich’s theology and Levinas’ ethics. While the two figures may be incompatible at first glance, Chicka shows how the two have areas of overlap. Levinas affirms similar language regarding God as Tillich does and Tillich’s theology lends itself well to Levinas’ focus on others. Additionally, in this same chapter, Chicka introduces oxytocin as “a more general stimulant for empathy, generosity, and trust” (70) and connects the release of oxytocin as a consequence of playing video games. Chicka claims that “video games put players in the position of either helping or harming others” (74) and can serve as a tool to realize Levinas’ responsibility to others.
In chapters 4 to 6, Chicka explores how certain indie video games help players understand the experiences of minority groups. Chapter 4 examines how games like Gone Home and If Found provide a deeper experiential understanding of the hardships faced by those in the LGBTQ+ community. Chapter 5 examines the situation of immigrants through the games Papers, Please and This War of Mine, which respectively highlight the complexities involved in immigration and the harsh realities of those who live in war-torn countries. Finally, chapter 6 explores how other nondominant Western religions, such as Islam, can be positively or negatively portrayed in video games like 1979 Revolution: Black Friday.
In chapter 7, Chicka briefly describes and laments the current economic state of video games. While the industry itself may be strong for AAA companies (mid-size to large firms) who assume little to no risk when making games that speak to the minority experience, the financial situation of the average employee or indie developer is much more dire. However, in spite of such financial difficulties, the author encourages video game developers to embrace “the risk of claiming God is present in changing circumstances rather than somewhere settled and secure” (134). This risk is taken by creating games that center the experiences of the marginalized and oppressed. Although this method may not lead to financial success, it is in line with seeing God as present in the experience of the LGBTQ+ individual, immigrant, or foreigner. Finally, Chicka concludes with a chapter that summarizes his work and briefly addresses how games have led to the desensitization of violence, as well as explains how video games can be used as an educational resource that can be used to, for example, develop counseling skills to treat trauma.
Chicka attempts to integrate theological insight into his discussion of the various elements of video games. While Chicka does largely succeed in his task, some criticisms can be offered. First, Chicka relies heavily on the interactivity of video games to make his point that video games are an influential media. However, this seems a bit too narrow of a quality to depend on. Perhaps, he could have considered other qualities of video games such as Jesper Juul’s suggestion that they are bound by rules set by the game designer, or that video games create entire virtual worlds.
Second, Chicka’s theological argument throughout the book is narrowly focused on Tillich and Levinas. While it is understandable that Chicka would rely on figures such as Tillich and Levinas, given the ideologies he is arguing for, Chicka never provides an explanation for why the theologies of Tillich and Levinas should be automatically accepted. As it stands, Chicka’s approach paints the LGBTQ+ community in a more favorable light theologically than some theologians would accept without some significant support.
Christian contributions to the video game literature are sparse, and Chicka’s book presents a fresh approach to the topic. Rather than addressing standard moral issues (such as linking video game play to violence), Chicka explores how video games can tell the stories of often-neglected people. While Chicka’s reference to certain thinkers could be questioned, his attempt to connect video games with theology is commendable.
Eddy Wu is a doctoral student in apologetics and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.Eddy WuDate Of Review:December 13, 2022