What does it mean to think biblically about video games? How much and what kinds of video games should Christians play? Bottom line, what is a theology of video games? Our guest today, Drew Dixon, author of Know Thy Gamer: A Parent’s Guide to Video Games, is going to help us think through these questions and more.

Episode Transcript

Sean McDowell: What does it mean to think biblically about video games? How much and what kinds of video games should Christians play? Bottom line, what is a theology of video games? Our guest today, Drew Dixon, is the author of a book called "Know Thy Gamer: A Parent's Guide to Video Games." He's going to help us think through these questions. Now, Drew, you've written this to parents, but we're going to go far beyond that and just kind of ask, how do we think biblically about video games? So let's start with your story. You describe yourself as a gamer, and you also say that you have a healthy relationship with video games. So tell us about that relationship with video games and maybe what you think it should look like to have such a healthy relationship.

Drew Dixon: Sure. Well, I mean, I think of it as a hobby that, like all of God's good gifts, brings joy to my life and brings joy to my relationships. Video games have been a source of connection for me with other people. They've been a way that I've been able to do ministry. I think they've been a way that I've found a lot of enjoyment and fun. And so I think a healthy relationship with video games is like one that you can do, you know, I think, supposedly, Martin Luther said, you know, like, love God and do whatever you want. Right?

Sean McDowell: Sure.

Scott Rae: Something like that.

Drew Dixon: Something like that. Right? I think that's kind of the idea. Like if you can, if you can live out the greatest commandment to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself, and play video games at the same time, then I think you're doing any hobby at the same time. I think you're, you probably have a good relationship with that hobby. So, yeah, that's what it's looked like for me. You know, avoid the extremes of playing in such a way that hurts my relationship with my wife or my children, or playing in such a way that keeps me from being a responsible adult, you know, and...but enjoy them and, you know, use them in a way that I think hopefully brings glory to God and brings good into the world.

Scott Rae: So, Drew, let's just for our listeners who may not be in the video game world, how big are these today? And then I guess the assumption is that most of the people who play these are adolescent boys. So how big are they first of all?

Drew Dixon: I mean, it's huge. The industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. It's massively popular. Video games make more money than film, you know, it's a huge deal. And also something like 220 million Americans play video games regularly. So if you think about that, that's about like, roughly two thirds of the American population

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Drew Dixon: are people who play video games regularly. And by the way, like, a lot of people who think they're not gamers actually are. You know, like if you play Wordle or Words of Friends or if you play Candy Crush Saga, so many people are pulling their phones out and not just scrolling social media, right? But playing games on their phone to kill dull moments in the day. And so they're everywhere. They're in our pockets all the time. And so we live in a culture of gamers. Most people are gamers. More likely than not, your neighbors, your friends, people you go to church with are gamers. And they're not all young boys. About somewhere-- the statistics vary year to year, but somewhere between 40% to 45% of all gamers are female. So it's not this–

Sean McDowell: Wow.
Scott Rae: Roughly, roughly half.

Drew Dixon: Yeah, yeah, almost half. And so my daughters, my oldest two kids are girls, and they're both really-- especially my oldest– is really into video games. She's 11 years old, and she loves Roblox. So there's no one. And also, the average gamer is like 35 years old. So it's not an adolescent hobby. It's pervasive. And people are playing games into their well-beyond middle age. And the people who are middle age now are the people who grew up with them. I just turned 40 not too long ago, and yeah, I have so many friends that play video games pretty regularly. So yeah, there's not one demographic, really, that captures it quite like it used to. And they're not anti-social either. That's another common misconception. Most people are playing games in very connected ways nowadays. Most of them are playing with friends online. And so it's not quite the socially isolated boy in his parents' basement who is not making anything of himself that's the average gamer.

Sean McDowell: So I've got three kids, two boys who both play, they're eight years apart in different ways at different times. And just my wife and I this week, we were talking about how video games are different than other forms of media. Because there's a sense as parents to be like, anything on a screen, we reduce it all to time we should minimize. But you say it's different than TV, it's different than TikTok and social media, how so?

Drew Dixon: Yeah, yeah. Because the big difference between games and other media is that you play them. And I don't mean that to sound like, like, duh[laughter]. But it is a really important distinction because you read a book, right? You watch a TV show, you scroll through social media. And yeah, on social media, you might be posting something or commenting on a friend's or liking something. But your interaction on social media is pretty minimal. And so is your interaction on books and film. With a game, you play it, so your input into the system matters. Your brain is being engaged on a higher level playing video games than it is those other forms of media. And there's some really good things that come out of that. There's some things that, you know, maybe we should be careful and concerned about with regard to that, but you play them. And so that's what makes them different. And they're really fun. They’re really fun to play. And there's a reason we say play video games because video games are a type of game. Games are a type of play. And so I think we would all say like playgrounds and you know playing games in you know in your cul-de-sac if you have a safe neighborhood or at the park those are all like wonderful parts of our development as human beings. And so, games are cousins to that type of play, right? They came out of that type of play. And so, yeah, there's tremendous value in that. There's things to be concerned about as well, which I'm sure we'll get to, but yeah.

Scott Rae: All right. Well, let's go a little further on the idea of play, because I think you're right. That is foundational to any kind of conversation we have about what the Bible says about video games. What does the Bible teach about play? I mean, we know about Sabbath, we know about rest.

Drew Dixon: Sure, yeah.

Scott Rae: But I don’t think most people would put play and sabbath under the same heading. So, what does the Bible say about play?

Drew Dixon: Yeah, yeah. Well there’s these little snippets we get in various places in the Bible where I think we see play or playfulness, but two that I highlight in the book that I think are really great are from Zechariah and Isaiah. So the prophet Zechariah says, "Thus says the Lord of hosts”, in Zechariah 8, “Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of great age; and the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.'" And then Isaiah says an in-

Scott Rae: That's a picture of the kingdom kind of coming in its fullness.

Drew Dixon: Yeah, yeah. Mm-hmm. I think a picture of the new heavens and the new earth is one in which play is celebrated and it's safe. It's celebrated and it's safe. Kids are playing in the streets of a renewed Jerusalem, and it's not always safe to play in streets. But when God steps in and brings renewal, then it is. And so, that's the same idea in Isaiah, is this picture, Isaiah has this picture in Isaiah 11 of infants playing over the holes of cobra stems. And so, I think our future is one of playfulness.

Scott Rae: You passed over that image pretty quickly. The infants playing over the dens of cobras and snakes and thinking that passage also is that the lion lies down with the lamb. What's the point? I mean, there's more to that passage than just that it's about play. What's the point of that, that they're playing close to something that had previously been dangerous and life-threatening?

Drew Dixon: Yeah, sure. Yeah, I think it's a picture for sure of God redeeming a world that's not safe. And this is connected to work too, I think, because sometimes, a lot of times, we work, and we have this vision, I think... I don't know if it's particularly in the West, probably all over the world now, where we work really hard, right? And we talk about hustle culture, everyone has a side hustle these days and the gig economy. Sometimes we're really bad at resting, but a vision of the New Heavens and the New Earth that the Bible lays down is one in which work is productive. And no one's stealing the work of our hands, but we're getting to enjoy the work of our hands, right? We're getting to benefit from the work that we do. Part of that benefit is that we get time to completely unplug from doing things that produce, and we get to rest. So much of our rest nowadays is invaded, I think, by things that aren't very restful, and things that aren't very meaningful, like scrolling through social media. I know this is going to be a stretch for some people that listen to this podcast, but I think, at times, anyway, video games can be a type of rest that is valuable. When we play video games, we're deliberately choosing to do something that doesn't produce, right? That isn't productive. And that's part of the gift of the Sabbath, is a break from producing and working. And so play in its purest form, anyway, is free from material benefits, right? It's not something that we make money from.

Now, there's types of play that, obviously, like playing in the Super Bowl or playing professional sports, there's professional video game players today, too. And so those people are not playing in the same way. But just, you know, getting on... there's something beautiful, I think, about getting on your PlayStation or Xbox and playing some kind of team-based game with your friends that requires creative problem solving and teamwork and you work together and you have these shared experiences. And that's a big part of how we build relationships with people. And so video games provide us with safe playgrounds to some extent. They're not completely safe, right? And we'll get to that. But they provide us a way to connect and to do things that are really fun and enjoyable.

Sean McDowell: So Drew, when I look at the phenomena, you described over 200, 220 million Americans playing video games. One of the questions I ask myself as kind of a cultural analyst is why? What does this reveal about us as a culture? What does it reveal about our cultural moment? What does it reveal to us about what it means to be human? So what do you think this phenomenon of video games, if we step out and look at it, tells us about those areas?

Drew Dixon: Yeah, I think there's two answers to that question. There's a good and a concerning answer. I think we're designed to enjoy, like we all love things that are fun. And I think at their foundation, video games are fun. They're engaging. They give us an opportunity to solve a problem and to win and to be productive. I think you've probably heard psychologists talk about a flow state. Some of the best moments in video games are when you're in that flow state where you're just fully engaged and you're solving a problem and you're winning and you're improving and you're pressing forward. And that's really fun and really enjoyable. And something I think that God is not opposed to, in fact, I think would celebrate. I get in the flow, I'm an editor, and sometimes I get in the flow state when I'm editing a book. And I love it. It's the best feeling of feeling like, “Oh, I'm giving this author amazing feedback.” I'm catching all the things that he said that need to be fixed. And when I send this off to this author, he's going to, or she is going to be so thankful for my feedback. That's how I think sometimes.

Sean McDowell: Sure, sure.

Drew Dixon: Video games provide us with those kind of moments. So they're really engaging and really fun. So the concerning part– I think the concerning answer to the question is that they're really engaging. They can engage us in ways that we struggle as human beings to set limits on. There are a lot of things that are good and fun in our world that we can very easily cultivate an unhealthy relationship with. So sex would be a great example, right? There's a lot of people in our culture who have an unhealthy relationship with sex because of how--because so many sexual images and things like that, and experiences, to be honest with you, are readily available in our hyper-connected culture, right? The same is true with video games. And the people who make them know that our attention means money for them. I'm sure you all have heard of like the attention economy.

Sean McDowell: Yeah, yup.

Drew Dixon: That kind of discussion, yeah. A great documentary to go watch if your listeners haven't seen it is “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix, which is sort of about how our world, like everything that we do is connected to social media nowadays. And almost every website we engage is using these algorithms that are designed to keep our attention, to keep us coming back again and again and again. And listen, like video game designers know that same psychology of how to keep us coming back again and again. And so while there are beautiful, wonderful games out there, there are also a lot of game makers that know like, we just need this person to keep playing. We don't care if what they're doing is really all that meaningful or fun, or if they're making meaningful social connections. We just want them coming back because that means more dollars in our pockets, you know? So that's the area to be concerned. I think the biggest area I would say of concern when it comes to video games is like the concern of overindulgence.

Scott Rae: So, Drew, that's the area I want to tackle in a little bit more detail because it sounds like what you're suggesting here is that video games reflect what most of God's creation reflects which is something that's good, but also something that's broken. And you make it very clear that you think video games are also broken. That is, they are subject to the general entrance of sin like all of other God's good gifts are. And so there's the possibility of our desires for video games becoming disordered. So let me pursue a couple of things in that regard. And I think one of the common views of video games, especially the violent ones, is that they make adolescents and kids more aggressive and they contribute to violent behavior. How valid is that claim?

Drew Dixon: So the research... the quick answer is that we don't know completely the answer to that question. Research would indicate that there is a correlation between feelings of aggression and playing violent video games, but it's not really any different than watching a violent film or even reading a violent book. So, I mean, the part of your brain that has those that is triggered, or that is activated when you read a violent account from the Bible, which there's a lot of those is the same that's, you know, that's activated when you play a violent video game. And there have been, you know, mild increases in aggression that have been shown through people who play violent video games. So there's no real proof that they're causing, you know, an outbreak of violence or aggression that hasn't been proven. That said, I don't - I'm not of the mindset that that means like, "Oh, then violent video games are fine."

Sean McDowell: Sure.

Drew Dixon: I think they're having an impact on kids who play them. You know, I think there's been lots of studies on, oh gosh, what's the term? I'm trying to think of like the way we're depicted on in media- representation in media and how that affects young people and that certainly has an impact and so yeah, I think there's some kind of impact. I'm not sure what it is, I think that the best thing to do is to be thoughtful about the types of games that we play and the ways in which we play them. And certainly, if there's parents listening to this, I'm a huge advocate of understanding your child's emotional development and what's appropriate for them at their current stage of development and setting appropriate boundaries. And we should do that for ourselves as adults, too. If a game you're playing is– 'Cause like, sometimes people get aggressive when they play video games 'cause they lose, right?

Sean McDowell: Yeah, yeah.

Drew Dixon: And so you're like, oh, we almost, you know, and to some degree that's understandable. But if you're losing it constantly because you're struggling to get better at a video game, then that's an indication that you need to like, you know, you need to work on your heart or you need to take a break. You need to, there's some kind of, you know, heart work that you need to do probably to have a better, healthier relationship with that thing.

Scott Rae: So that brings up kind of a second question about addiction to video games. How frequently do we see gamers who are genuinely addicted to the games and can't put them down?

Drew Dixon: Right, yeah. So I kind of counsel in my book to be careful with the term addiction because it is a clinical term. And so there is a clinical definition of video game addiction. And you have to observe a certain amount of behavior over months as opposed to days. And so by that definition, there are very few people in our culture. Less than 1% is what the statistics would show. Less than 1% of all video gamers would be considered addicted. That said, for my kids, for example, I'm not going to wait around until they meet all that criteria. I'm not going to observe them for six months and be like, “Okay, now we're instituting some new rules about video games.” So yeah, I think what a lot of people have in our culture– and I don't know what the statistics are, because it's really hard to find this kind of research. But I think a lot of people have some level of unhealthy relationship with video games.

Like they, you know, that's kind of like what people do with sports or romance novels or whatever, but they're a coping mechanism for the fact that people don't particularly like their lives or those kinds of things. And so, yeah, I think there's a lot of people out there that play them in ways that hinder their relationship with their spouse, that keep them from being fully engaged with their kids. It's been helpful for me nowadays. I'm just so busy. I almost never play video games anymore. So even though I wrote this book and I'm a self-proclaimed gamer, the only time I'm playing video games these days is actually with my children. So it's been nice for me because it's just sort of like video games are a time when we almost always play multiplayer games. It requires some kind of team building. And so we have hilarious, wonderful times together playing video games because of the way we choose to play in our family. So all that to say, I think most kids, 99% of kids need boundaries. There's the rare kid out there who's like so into so many different things. They're way more into baseball and soccer than they are into video games or music or something. And so they're just not that interested. So they may not need rules around video games because they just don't do it. But 99% of kids lack the ability to self-regulate when it comes to things like video games or food or any number of things that we allow them to participate in.

Sean McDowell: Yeah, that's really true for anything. I mean, my parents had to put boundaries on basketball. They'd be like, come in and go to bed and get some sleep. So that's a part of growing up. But there is something about video games where you said earlier that they are designed to keep maximal time and engagement in that platform, just like social media is. So I don't play that much anymore really at all. But when I was a kid, Super Mario Brothers, Atari, all this stuff, like I remember thinking about what brings me back to this game? And it'd be like a higher score is built into it. Like if you're close to death, you get certain endorphins kicking off in your brain. When you get like coins and gold and treasure, like what are the things, and I know video games are so different, but what are the ways that video game designers, what are the mechanisms and tools they have at their hand to try to get people to become addicted or at least use them habitually?

Drew Dixon: Sure, yeah. The biggest one is the way rewards work in video games and you kind of touched on it. But I think the most addictive ones would be things like loot boxes or free-to-play video games that--

Sean McDowell: Wait, what is a loot box? Drew Dixon: So a loot box--
Scott Rae: I'm glad you asked. [LAUGHTER]

Drew Dixon: So a loot box basically works like a slot machine. So you play for a certain amount of time. You play a video game for a certain amount of time, and at the end, you're going to get to open this loot box. And this loot box has random rewards. So you might get a crummy t-shirt for your character in the video game that everybody has and like whoop-de-doo. Or you might get this really rare outfit for your character in the game that nobody has, right? And so it's kind of the same idea of a slot machine. You might get nothing. You're probably gonna get nothing, but you might win a new car, right? Or you might get a million dollars. And so psychologists know, this is like basic psychology, psychology of reward. Psychologists know that random rewards are far more incentivizing than if you state exactly what the reward's going to be. And so yeah, loot boxes, those are a big thing in a lot of video games and they're designed to keep us coming back again and again and again.

Sean McDowell: Okay, so by the way, before we move to the next one, it's not just the clothing on that character. To the person playing the video game, that clothing represents I'm good at this, it's my identity, the respect that I get. Like that's the deeper reward they're playing off, right?

Drew Dixon: I think so. Yeah, I think it's... they want to look cool and be unique in this digital space, you know, that where all their friends are. So not all of it's like awful, I guess, because there's a sense in which, you know, they're connecting with other other kids online and with friends and building real relationships over those games oftentimes. Like I want to challenge my kids to do things for intrinsic rewards rather than extrinsic rewards. So the joy of... I want us to play video games for the joy of spending time together. I want us to play video games together for the feelings that we get of like overcoming an obstacle and solving a problem together. Like all those things, the memories that we are going to create together while we play. I think those are better, more memorable, more valuable rewards that are closer to, like, you know, eternal kind of treasures, as opposed to treasures on Earth, where, you know, moth and rust destroy. So, yeah, so I went -- I think that concerns me.

And then one related to that, to the loot boxes thing, is free-to-play games that do something similar. So Fortnite is still a really big deal. You all probably heard of that one. It's a really big, popular game. It's free-to-play, so you're like, "Oh, this is great." And as a parent, you might think, oh, it's wonderful. I don't have to pay for this game, my kid can just play it. It doesn't cost me $60 like most games do these days. But the way they make money is they have these in-game stores where you can--by playing, you can earn currency to go spend in that in-game store. So if you play Fortnite for a couple hours a day or an hour a day or whatever, you're going to earn V-Bucks to spend in the Fortnite store. And you can buy new outfits, new dances for your character, new emotes, which are like things they might say or whatever your character might say in a game that... kids love these things. I'm not making this up.

Sean McDowell: Oh, I know they do. My son always wants V-Bucks and we've had conversations of like, do you see how they're trying to use you to get my money? And not that it's all bad, like you said, but you better believe they want money and they've set up a system through the kids to the parents.

Drew Dixon: Yep, yeah I mean just this week...my kids aren't into Fortnite, but they do love Roblox, and it works in a similar way. They want Robux for Roblox. And I finally, like, this is how my kids spend their allowance. They do chores and earn an allowance. And this is how my oldest two constantly want to spend their allowance. So finally, this week, I had to sit down with them and say, "Okay, we're coming up with a plan for how often you can spend your allowance on Robux, and we're coming up with a plan to make sure that you're saving and that you're giving to the church, and giving to people in need. Spending our money, I think, the way that Jesus would want us to. And video games don't necessarily encourage that. So you can either play every day to earn V-Bucks in a game like Fortnite, or you can spend real world money. You can put down a credit card number and buy, that's the fast way to get V-Bucks, right? And so you can see why that's a recipe for kids begging their kids, either begging, sorry, kids begging their parents for money, or like feeling like they have to play every day. Because Fortnite, the people who made it are really smart. And they'll put items in their store, they're like, you can only buy this item this week. So, kids are like, oh, I have to play this week because I want to buy that new outfit. And it's only there this week, which in reality is probably not only there this week, Fortnite will bring it back. But it creates this illusion that, oh, I've got to, I've got to go back. Um, so yeah, video games understand economics.

Sean McDowell: They do.

Drew Dixon: They understand psychology. The people who are making them are very, very smart. And the result can be an unhealthy relationship where video games do start to cause kids to have poor relationships with each other and with their parents and so forth.

Sean McDowell: Drew, last question for you. One of the things I loved at the end of your book is you just talk about how video games can be a mission field. How have you used that in your own life? Tell us a story of what that looks like.

Drew Dixon: Yeah, yeah, so I've been writing about video games for years. So I think they've given me countless opportunities to get to know people. I partnered with the ministry several years ago called Game Church, where we would go to gaming conventions all over the country. And we put up a booth in these conventions and we passed out Bibles. And we had this, well, technically it was the Gospel of John with some gamer specific commentary in it. We called it the Gamer Bible and it had a picture of like a Victorian-looking Jesus with an Xbox 360 controller and a headset [laughter]. And so it was just a way to like, people would see that and they would just laugh and think it was funny, but then we got to say, "Hey, you know, Jesus loves you. Would you like one of these Bibles?" And people would go to E3, the biggest trade show in the United States, video game trade show in the United States, and we would run out of our gamer Bibles. We'd bring thousands of them.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Drew Dixon: So yeah, it was a really cool way to just like connect people to Jesus that will probably, of their own volition, never come visit your church, right? And so I think there's a mission field there too for just the average kid who plays video games. Just in the same way that we want our kids, if your kids are Christians, you know, you would want them to like play soccer in such a way that they're thinking about being a good neighbor to their teammates, that they're looking for opportunities to maybe share the gospel with some of their teammates. That happens online. There are Christians who see themselves, I know some of them, some of them are good friends of mine, who see themselves as video game missionaries. They believe their calling is to get on Fortnite and play with people and talk to them on their headsets and share Jesus with them. And there are people doing that on Twitch, which is a live streaming platform for video gaming. And so, yeah, I think it's an untapped mission field. I think just in the way that we would embrace... I think most of us would see just about any hobby that we love, whether it's like sports fandom or quilting, we'd see those as opportunities to build relationships with people. You know, Jesus ate and drank all the time with sinners and tax collectors. And so I think we've got to figure out a way, that's sort of the argument I make in the book. We've got to figure out a way to eat and drink with sinners in our culture today. What does that look like today? Well, it could look like a game night at your church or it could look like a game night in your home, where you know, it's monitored, you know what's being played, you know it's safe, but it's an opportunity to build relationships around video games, which will lead to the relational capital that we need to then say, "Hey, what do you think about life and Jesus?" And all these really important questions that provide opportunities to actually share the gospel.

Sean McDowell: Drew, you and I met a few months ago in Arkansas and I saw some of your presentation on this. My first thought was, "Man, we've done this podcast five years and have not talked about a theology of video games given that 200 plus million Americans alone play video games, we gotta do this." But second, one of the reasons we want to have you on is I think you bring such a balanced approach to this. There's an easy way to look at video games and just say they're violent, they're secularized, they divide families, they're a diversion. And that's one understandable reaction as far as it goes when people don't have healthy boundaries and an understanding of so many things we talked about. So I love your book. It's quick, it's like the length of a “More Than a Carpenter” book. You can read it in a couple hours. And I already went to my wife. I'm like, hey, if you thought about this, and it’s just given me some tools. So the title again is “Know Thy Gamer: A Parent's Guide to Video Games”. It's not just for parents. It's really kind of an intro to how to think Christianally about parents and anybody who's looking at gamers in the next generation says, I want to think through what's a biblical approach. How do I use this for the kingdom? But also relate to a culture that's gaming. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I really appreciate you coming on.

Drew Dixon: Yeah, for sure. Thank you so much for having me.

Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture”. The “Think Biblically” podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. We offer programs in Southern California and online, including the Institute for Spiritual Formation. Visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, whether you are a gamer or not, please give us a rating on your podcast app and consider sharing with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.