And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. [Romans 5:3-5 (NRSV)]
Rage against the console machine
My wife and I have an inside joke where, every time I express even the slightest bit of displeasure in whatever video game I’m playing, she will look over at me like a condescending mother and ask if she needs to take away my game since I can’t play it without getting mad. The joke is about as funny as however mad I am at the game.
We all know someone who plays video games and we’re just as likely to know someone who gets angry at them. In the video game world, we have a whole set of terms to refer to this anger phenomenon, like ‘rage-quitting.’ There’s even a research community behind the issue treating emotional challenges like alexithymia and other neurological problems.
But is there anything redeemable in this heightened emotional state caused by challenging video games? With the current trending titles “Sifu” and “Elden Ring”, this is a question at the forefront of my mind as a pastor to the nerds, geeks, and gamers of the world.
The apes of wrath
The first game I can recall forcing me to rage-quit was “Diddy Kong Racing” for the Nintendo 64. I mastered the single-player portion of the game. I felt that I was a savant at the craft, but was quickly stomped by my peers whenever I invited them over to race. I’ve never been an angry or competitive person, but I remember getting so frustrated that I caved into myself and stopped playing- I couldn’t lose if I didn’t try. That’s how my anger expressed itself.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve still seen that wrath rear its ugly head.I’ve also mostly learned how to process these emotions in a healthier way. I rarely compete in games anymore, but I do find exhilaration from the challenge of a rigorous single-player experience.
You have to "Sifu" yourself to understand
“Sifu” is one such challenging single-player experience. The game is clearly modeled after the classic Bruce Lee era Kung-Fu movies and guides the player through an emotional storyline of betrayal, growth, and family conflict that is absolutely worth the experience. While I have a sermon on the narrative of this game, I want to focus exclusively on the ludology (gameplay) of the experience for this article.
The basic gist of the game is that the player character is able to continue fighting past an in-game ‘death’ due to a magical set of talismans inherited from their father. The only catch is that the character gets older with every death. You begin the game at 20 and will max out your resurrection power at the fine old age of 80. This means that you have to find and defeat all five of the bosses in the game without reaching the age of 80.
The meta-plot of the game then becomes perfecting your run of the game by getting as few deaths as possible with each boss. You want to continue getting your age lower and lower so that you can be young enough to actually reach the final boss. This is a challenge - especially considering I was age 44 by the time I beat the second boss on my first playthrough. Doesn’t take too much calculus to learn that that wasn’t going to cut it.
The proof is in putting in the work
The bane of my existence as a streamer, especially when playing more challenging games, is the taunting phrase ‘git gud.’ This misspelling of the phrase ‘get good’ is a mocking callout used to poke fun at a person getting angry while playing through a challenging game. It’s meant to chastise the player that the game’s difficulty is due to user error and would be alleviated if only the player would perform better in the game.
And it’s not exactly wrong.
While it can be done in a bad-natured manner, the general idea of ‘gitting gud’ is fairly true to life and the ludological aspects of the things that we do. One gets better at riding a bike by continuing to ride a bike. One is a better chef by cooking more often and learning along the way. This is also the reason that a game makes us angry and how we can learn from it and grow.
A possible category to lump “Sifu” into is called the ‘roguelike’ game. While it doesn’t fully meet the definition, the core mechanic is that the player is expected to die several times in the game in order to learn to play the game better. In this way, to ‘git gud’ is simply to play the game enough that habits are developed. The more one plays, the better they get - the better they get, the more the story progresses.
What’s love got to do with it
Anger is a tricky subject to broach and there is little to no doubt that aggression in video games can be an issue. Even still, games like “Sifu” are a testament to the power of video games to parallel our lives as a series of challenges.
The reality of suffering is unavoidable, but games like “Sifu” echo the Bible in exploring how one might be able to grow from the tasks that are presented to us. It’s fair to be frustrated during a challenging experience. Games allow us to experience that furor in a closed and safe environment where we are able to feel the satisfying sensation of success once we finally do ‘git gud’ at the game.
Not every game needs to be a walk in the park. The challenge of gaming emulates and perhaps even instructs our responses to stimuli in real life. Knowing when to put the controller down and cool off is an important aspect of this experience. But even more important is using these masterly crafted simulations as a tool for personal and spiritual growth. There are certainly worse ways to suffer than getting to play another round of a video game.