When I was a kid and game time used to get a little rough, Mom would calm my rampaging siblings and me with, "It's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt!" Her forewarned damages usually fell somewhere between injured feelings and a poked-out eye. Today's online digital game play is a far cry from yesteryear's games of living room Nerf football. But Mom's warning still applies.
The Internet fare that entertains modern gamers usually falls into one of two categories — role-playing adventures called "massively multiplayer online games" (MMOG) or virtual social interaction sites where players can get together and, well, interact.
World of Warcraft (WoW), for instance, is a popular MMOG that dresses up gamers in the digital guise of everything from trolls and ogres to elves and dwarves — all clad in fashionably cut armor and bearing the latest in magical weaponry. In the expansive world of WoW, adults and teens join with a group of online compatriots, called a "guild," and set off to battle their way through a never-ending series of heroic quests that reward them with improved weapons, increased social status and power of epic proportions.
The social interactive site Second Life, on the other hand, isn't really a game at all. In this virtual land, players create an electronic alter ego (called an "avatar") and step into an ever-evolving, rule-free, 3-D world — The Seattle Times called it "MySpace meets The Matrix." There kids can chat with new acquaintances, watch virtual concerts, go to dance clubs, you name it. With a little practice and a bit of skill, avatars can create just about anything, from houses to clothes to pet butterflies. And then they enjoy these creations themselves or sell them to people who would rather boogie than build. It's a place where participants can do whatever they set their imagination to, even creating alternate lives that include full-time careers and marriage.
If this is all new to you, it may sound quite incredible. But let's face facts: None of this is really new. Online games may be a modern twist, but the urge to escape from our day-to-day grind has probably been around since God told Adam to go work for a living. King Solomon put it like this: "All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest" (Ecclesiastes 2:23).
Now, Solomon goes on to say that we're not going to find real enjoyment apart from God, but that's never stopped us from trying to distract ourselves with an impressive collection of amusements. Online games, however, have their own special appeal.
Video games can give players some of the things that are difficult or sometimes impossible to obtain in real life. You can be a pro athlete or an action hero. You can save the planet from holes in the ozone or wipe out an invading force of zombies. And games offer worry-free gratification. No need to sweat the bills, deadlines or stresses of the real world.
Picking up a controller or sliding behind that keyboard can also offer an anonymous, new beginning for guys and gals who are tired of being pigeonholed. Suddenly being able to shape a kingdom can be a startling breakthrough for an average kid who feels he has little impact on his world. And even though gamers are commonly thought of as loners hiding away in darkened rooms, today's Internet games actually link players to communities of like-minded people from all across the globe. It's so appealing that you sometimes don't want to leave. And that's where things start getting slippery.
Some gamers become so absorbed in their fantasy that the demands of their actual lives no longer compete with the allure of their virtual ones. Real-world relationships suffer, sleep becomes optional, and plans for routing that cave full of spider demons start to take precedence over homework assignments. Of course, friends and family start complaining that the game is getting in the way of life. But the gamer sees the problem differently: Life is getting in the way of the game.
And worse, this brave new world that offers such unlimited delights can also deliver some dark and seamy experiences. If players dig deep enough and bypass warnings in a game such as Second Life, they can open the door to every X-rated virtual activity you don't want to imagine.
What are we to do then — condemn all online games? Not necessarily. But it's important that gamers realize that online entertainment such as WoW and Second Life are much more than just fun and games. Along with the promise of a compelling, immersive experience, these fantasy games have the real potential to be emotionally, psychologically and even spiritually unhealthy.
And if it appears someone is crossing that border, then it's important that his or her loved ones take helpful steps. A knock-down, drag-out fight usually isn't the answer. But keeping the computer in a common area of the house and limiting time involved in a game can be a big plus. If a son or daughter has a problem, wise parents will work to understand what makes the game so important for him or her. Then they can help their child channel that need for meaning and adventure into activities that can make a difference in the real world.
We need to be careful how we live — "not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity" (Ephesians 5:15-16). After all, we want to make sure no one gets an eye poked out — metaphorically or otherwise.
This article first appeared in the June/July 2009 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. Copyright © 2009 Bob Hoose. All rights reserved.