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Video Games and Culture

January 29, 2019


It would be rather simple to write a series of articles discussing the positive and negative aspects of video games or commenting on the coolest graphics and best storylines. But such a set of articles could not genuinely be called “Catholic.” Something that is “Catholic” deliberates the whole of things, meaning it does not interpret reality as piecemeal or a set of facts in isolation. The Catholic thinker is someone who contemplates, discusses, and writes radically (from the Latin radix—“at the root of things”) seeing reality as it is in its entirety; seeing a thing as it fits within the entire framework of existence. Thus, before we begin a dialogue about specific video games, we must first situate the topic within the context of civilization as a whole. We must go to the origin of this phenomenon and why it has taken the world by storm. The question therefore is, “Why are video games?”

Video games are first and foremost an expression of contemporary culture. A brief study in etymology will clarify our point. The word “culture” comes from the Proto-Indo-European root kwelə meaning “to revolve,” “sojourn,” or “dwell.” This would later evolve into the Latin word incola, “someone who inhabits/dwells” in a certain area. The activities of an incola for the care of his or her sustenance is the verb colere, “to cultivate/till” the earth. Colere is also a word of self-awareness, a recognition of humanity’s capacity for agriculture, construction, and landscaping. The human being is not like other creatures; humans can interact and cooperate with the world around them in a drastic way. One has only to recall the great edifices of Giza, Athens, and Rome for proof.

Even amidst their achievements, however, ancient people were mindful of mystery. They sensed that at the deepest core of reality, the world is given to man, not made by him. It is something simultaneously for us to be subdued and beyond us to be wondered at. The ancients’ realization of this fact led to the development of the verb colere into the noun cultura (culture), denoting “an acknowledgment of” or “honoring of” those things which are essential to a community’s livelihood yet not under their immediate control. One could plant the seed at harvest time (colere), but ultimately, it was the cosmic work of Renenutet, Demeter, or Ceres to provide for its growth (cultura). By studying this etymological and historical relationship between the words colere (to cultivate) and cultura (cult/culture), we can come to a better appreciation of “culture” in the proper sense. Culture appropriately defined represents a claim about the human person’s role in the infrastructure of the world; it is the fruit of a seeing where one truly is in the grand scheme of things; it is the expression of a person’s understanding of reality and their relationship to the order of the universe.

In light of the above-written reflection, let us return to our original question, “Why are video games?” Everything in a civilization is directly influenced by culture: language, food, clothing, music, inventions, architecture, etc. Each of these is a tangible manifestation of a metaphysical presupposition. In other words, the stuff we say, how we say it, what we wear when we say it, and the design of the building we say it in…all these things come from the same place. They are the fruits of culture, the consequences of a philosophical judgment made by society about the essence of reality. Video games are no different. As a matter of fact, I see video games as an apex expression of our postmodern technological culture. More than any other media, video games respond to and affirm the keystone assertion of our civilization: reality is what I make of it. The following quote from Shigeru Miyamoto (the famous creator of Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Star Fox, F-Zero, Donkey Kong, and Pikmin) summarizes the point lucidly: “Players [Gamers] are artists who create their own reality within the game.”

As such, video games have become a fascinating place to see people recognize and deal with the fallout of postmodernity. The virtual world is a seemingly limitless medium in which gamers can experience, suffer, respond to, and escape the egoism, relativism, atheism, and mechanism of culture. I recall one person on YouTube who posted at the bottom of a video game soundtrack: “This Soundtrack, this Game…it feels like a therapy. Especially when you feel down it feels like every sound, every movement you make, everything you can see is there to heal your wounds, your soul…I really love it…” This comment is a perfect example of what we have been discussing.

On the one hand, video games make clear where our culture has failed, where we as a people have lost the language, skill, and discernment to engage the deepest and most vital facets of our being. On the other hand, video games are a rich mine in which to excavate the needs of our people so as to reintroduce basic human qualities and reignite the divine spark of a sedated society.

In the end, what we millennials and post-millennials want is the real world, not the artificial world. Our wanderings in the lands of Minecraft and the mountains of Skyrim are a crying out for reality, not a rejection of it. We long to witness the breath-taking beauty of creation, soar into the heights of authentic heroism and experience the life-giving dynamism of true freedom. “We want reality!” This is the rallying cry of our generation. Unfortunately, many of us are convinced that it no longer exists. So, we seek in the virtual world what we wish existed in the real world.  The world outside our suburban home or terraced row-house is a cold, uninviting place flanked on all sides by the ravenous beast of materialistic industrialism and the constant noise of the machine. We sympathize with Romano Guardini when he first saw the decrepit smokestack of a modern factory disrupting the flawless majesty of Lake Como, Italy. At that moment, he knew the “world of natural humanity, of nature in which humanity dwells, was perishing” (Romano Guardini, Letters from Lake Como). A world of money, flashing billboards, and high-rise corporations is nothing compared to the peaceful islands of Uncharted 4 or the awe-inspiring scenery of Final Fantasy X.

Besides, why should we participate in the “real world” when all it seems to offer is passing fads, superficial pleasures, and relativistic opinions? We would rather save a magical kingdom, run through endless leagues of virtual pristine forests, or complete a daring mission to gain XP for our avatars. At least then we can feel like we have purpose; we can feel like we have the opportunity to achieve greatness and see a world left better by our living in it.

Show us something beautiful. Prove to us that the world outside our game room can be as inspiring, challenging, and fulfilling as the world within our game consoles. If you can do that, then you will awaken the hearts of millions and summon a generation of men and women ready to complete the greatest quest of all time: the quest to holiness and sainthood in Jesus Christ.