Does Mario go to Mass? Catholic gamers and the video game industry

NEW YORK – Is it possible to be a faithful Catholic and a video gamer?

That’s a question all Catholic gaming enthusiasts – including the young adults at whom many of the industry’s offerings are primarily targeted – must ask themselves as this medium continues to develop and expand its influence over contemporary society.

Once upon a time, back in the 1980s and early 1990s, classic games such as “Pac-Man” and “Super Mario Bros.” raised few if any moral issues. So youthful Catholics could casually – and comfortably – pick up whatever new release was available at the local store. There was no need for them to worry that the sensitivities of their faith would be assaulted or that troublesome opinions would be aggressively foisted on them by game developers.

Things are different, of course, in the second decade of the 21st century. The world of video games has never been more exciting or more innovative. Instead of the primitive platforms of 30 years ago or the basic, blocky shooters available 10 years after that, today’s games are accompanied by hyper-realistic graphics and complex, multifaceted storylines. In short, the best of them present an entire alternate reality just waiting to be explored.

It would be uselessly contrarian to deny that this is, in itself, a positive thing. Yet, along with such increased sophistication, come a number of difficulties and dilemmas for gamers striving to stay faithful to Christ and his church.

The Catholic gamer knows that, as with most things in our modern world, there are aspects of this pastime we can enjoy, but also aspects we would be well advised to avoid. This process of discernment can sometimes be easy; all too often, it can prove extremely difficult.

When initially making a purchase, for example, the consumer is frequently flying blind, with no knowledge of all that the game will ultimately contain. And, unlike a $15 movie ticket or an even less expensive video rental, where the option always exists simply to walk out of the theater or turn off the disc, a $60 product to which the buyer has already devoted some hours of play is likely to be a lot harder to just set aside and forget.

This belated discovery that a game’s content is tasteless and/or morally offensive is one of the most frustrating aspects of being a Catholic gamer, especially with increasingly stringent returns policies being enforced.

That’s where Catholic News Service hopes its video game reviews will come in handy. In keeping with CNS’ approach to assessing other media, games will be analyzed from a faith perspective as well as providing a summary of their aesthetic and technical qualities. The emphasis will not be on condemning, but on providing guidance.

Along with informing young adult and older gamers – and, of course, parents – about objectionable content (i.e., gore, language and sexuality), CNS also will provide a theological assessment of the issues and themes raised within each game. We’ll examine what sort of message the game is attempting to promote, what the motivations of its lead characters are, and what sort of mindset it’s encouraging. In this way, we hope to explore the full range of spiritual and moral questions posed by interactive entertainment.

Given that readers may have differing levels of tolerance for certain content, reviewers will note in some detail the potentially offensive elements each game includes, and assign a classification indicating its appropriate audience – from everyone to no one at all. These classifications will be identical with those used in CNS’ film reviews; game reviews also will carry the Entertainment Software Rating Board’s rating.

As experienced gamers themselves, CNS’ reviewers recognize the importance of a title’s technical distinction. So, while their work will focus primarily on matters of philosophical outlook and morality, the quality of the game-play will by no means be ignored.

So to the initial question of whether a faithful Catholic can also be an avid gamer, the answer is an emphatic yes. But prudence is required – and so too, perhaps, is the well-grounded advice of some like-minded fellow players.

Shaw is a freelance writer currently based in Manchester, England.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.