What about Minecraft?
Would it surprise you to hear that video games carry spiritual messages? Sophistication in graphics isn’t the only thing that has progressed over the years as storytelling and cultural commentary in games both rival that of any other media. The amount of spiritual content in video games has increased exponentially. Running a ministry that deals with video games, as we do, we get all kinds of questions about specific games. Perhaps the most common question we receive is, “What about Minecraft?”
To help answer this question, we’ll give you a little background on spirituality in games. We’ll see what it looks like to wrestle with questions of ethics within a game universe before showing some specific examples of intense spiritual messages.
Minecraft was first launched as a tech-demo in 2009 and has exploded in popularity, as it allows the player free rein to “craft” and build nearly anything he or she can imagine. A crude comparison would be to think of it as an infinite set of virtual Legos. There is much to like about Minecraft, and its various difficulty settings allow it to be tailored to audiences young and old, making it a favorite for families with young children as well as the hardcore gamer. It can be played on many systems whether it be a top-of-the-line PC or even on your phone. But would you be surprised if we told you that Minecraft also delivers a spiritual message?
We’ll get to that, but first let’s give a little more background. Spirituality in many forms is represented extensively in modern games. At times it may serve as a plot device (i.e. seeking enlightenment or confronting God). Spiritual character archetypes (or stereotypes) are used to depict either the hero of the game, or, more commonly, the villain (i.e., a church or spiritual leader who brainwashes their followers). There is often an undercurrent of spirituality, which may aid in the search for the “meaning of life,” determining the nature of good and evil, or for understanding the nature of God. The reality of spiritual content in games can be as intriguing as it can be dangerous, but it can also provide many opportunities for spiritual conversations if we are equipped to hold the games we play up to the light of God’s Word.
Parents who ask the questions about specific games are often hoping that there is someone out there who can give a simple answer to what is truly a complex issue. Sometimes, we at Apolomedia get the feeling that people want us to be “game priests,” making declarations of blessing or curse for what to play or not to play. However, one doesn’t just need a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on specific games! Everyone needs to know how to handle any challenge, question, or spiritual topic that may arise. We believe that the most important thing we do through our ministry is to teach parents and gamers to get into God’s Word and discover who God is and what it looks like to glorify Him in all that we do, even gaming.
Got it? Ok, now let’s get back to Minecraft. Its popularity, creativity, and ability to be expanded without a separate new game release means that Minecraft will be around for quite some time. We have had some experience playing the game, but the vast time commitment required to “beat” the game was more than we could afford. In fact, for a long time many players did not even know it had an ending! Nonetheless, it is a very creative and engaging game in which one can mine materials to build towers, buildings, bridges, and statues. The best way we have found to describe it is to compare the game to a digital canvas with a full set of paints and brushes. When you play Minecraft, you are the artist and the game is your canvas.
What To Watch For
No one brought up any spiritual questions about Minecraft at first, though there were some initial concerns with the game. The “zombie-like” creeper characters could frighten little children (and skittish adults!). There is also a depiction of a digital hell in the game that they call “The Nether,” designed to be a fiery pit that invokes the imagery of hell. Now we’re getting closer, but even that is only available in some modes of the game.
Another concern, as is raised from time to time with video games, is the addictive quality. There is so much to do, so much to create, that the time put into the game can be limitless.
Is there really a spiritual message to be concerned about? If there is, what can we do about it? Ban the game? Burn it? Delete it? That might be the easy way out, but let’s dig a little deeper together. We always try to teach people two things when it comes to video games: 1) Watch what you play. Don’t take anything for granted, and don’t give anything the benefit of the doubt. Understand the messages, go to the Word of God, and find the answers. As 1 Thessalonians:5:21 tells us, “Test everything, hold on to the good”; 2) Watch how long you are playing. We don’t believe that playing video games is wrong—we are gamers ourselves! However, it is important that you make sure that they don’t consume your life. Have you heard the old saying “show me your checkbook, and I’ll tell you what matters to you”? The same goes with our time. Show me how you spend your time each day, and I will show you what’s important in your life. Ephesians:5:16-17 says, “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”
As we began to watch what we were playing and opened our eyes to the potential messages in Minecraft, even we were surprised by the spiritual content we discovered. Although it may be primarily a game of building blocks, Minecraft nonetheless does have a plot and underlying themes. Let’s take a look at the nature of the game itself. Strangely, and perhaps unintentionally, this game raises ethical dilemmas for the player. When playing Minecraft online, you have the freedom to do and act however you wish, even in worlds created by other players. There is a practice within the game called “griefing,” in which one player intentionally destroys the work of another in order to cause them grief!
That raises an interesting question: Is it wrong to do something wrong in a game? It’s just a game, right? Let this illustration help you think that question through. You recall that we have described Minecraft as a canvas. There are many talented artists in the real world. If you were to give one a canvas, he might make a beautiful work of art that could be used to glorify God by reflecting His creativity. Others, however, could take the same canvas and the same set of paint and paintbrushes, and paint something grotesque, ugly, oppressive, even evil.
In Minecraft, you never know what kind of “artwork” the other players will make. (Parents—that means that you need to be extra careful about whom they play with and how they play when online.) But let’s get back to that artist. Imagine he works for weeks drafting and completing his masterpiece. But it turns out to be an ill-fated accomplishment, as another artist, perhaps jealous, decides with a malicious heart to destroy the masterpiece. He takes a knife and slashes the canvas until it is unrecognizable. Is there any doubt that this is a morally reprehensible act for the grief and loss he has caused the other artist?
Morality would be only one of his concerns, as the legal ramifications would certainly follow him as well! Now, in Minecraft, that same thing happens all the time when players are involved in “griefing.” One might spend weeks working on a piece of art—your game canvas—investing time, energy, even emotion, only to be devastated when another player dismantles and destroys it in a matter of minutes.
How do we react to this? How should we react? Given this scenario, it’s unlikely that we would still say, “It’s just a game!” when we see the frustration and sadness of the player who bears the grief. There may not be any legal ramifications, but shouldn’t we follow God’s law in the digital world even as we do in the real world?
Still (some will say), the game can’t be blamed for this, right? Indeed, this kind of act can take place in many games of many genres. Even knowing this, we have generally given mostly positive reviews about the game. In fact, we have also seen gamers use it quite creatively as a tool for an online Minecraft Bible study and to present the gospel to teenagers, and Apolomedia resources were even handed out at this year’s MineCon (Minecraft Convention).
What About God In Minecraft?
However, one of our gaming friends came up to us after a presentation and pointed out that we had missed the most important part about Minecraft when it comes to spiritual matters! He sent a link to the “ending” of the game. What we saw there was mind blowing and changed our entire understanding of Minecraft..
A person could produce an entire documentary on the 8-minute ending scene of this game. In essence, it is an 8-minute wall of New Age teaching that seemingly comes out of nowhere and certainly flies in the face of a biblical perspective on God and the created universe. This is a significant place to not only recognize the challenge but to get the answers and know how to go back to the Bible to find truth.
Look at these statements with which the player is “rewarded” upon completing the game: (It should be noted that many players are frustrated at being forced to read all of this text for 8 minutes, regardless of religious beliefs.)
“and the universe said I love you”
“and the universe said you have played the game well”
“and the universe said everything you need is within you”
“and the universe said you are stronger than you know”
“and the universe said the light you seek is within you”
“and the universe said you are not alone”
“and the universe said you are not separate from every other thing”
“and the universe said I love you because you are love”
“And the game was over and the player woke up from the dream. And the player began a new dream. And the player dreamed again, dreamed better. And the player was the universe. And the player was love.
You are the player. Wake up”
If it isn’t clear yet, the game is essentially telling the player “You are god.”
“The player is the universe. And the player is love.” After all the hours of mining, all the hours of building, all the hours of someone else asking, “Can I use the computer yet?”—the culmination of your effort is meant to be the realization that you are the godlike universe.
All this from a blank canvas, infinite Lego-set game! Just imagine what else is out there in games where the plot and characters take center stage! Believe it or not, we don’t say this all to scare you, though if it shocks you into action, then we believe our mission is accomplished!
What Do I Do?
Determining what action to take as a parent is up to you. You have to answer the question: “What about Minecraft?” We see three main options for the way people usually respond:
Response 1: Play no more. “I don’t want to let my children play these games anymore, because I don’t want to support these messages. There is a much more God-honoring way to spend my money and my time.”
Response 2: Play with your eyes wide open. “Thank you for letting us know what is in these games. I am going to sit down with my children and have a Bible study with them. I want to make sure they know the truth so they are prepared next time a message like this is thrown at them.”
Response 3: Just Play. “It’s just a game. Stop making a big deal out of it.”
We won’t tell you which one to choose, but let us just challenge you with this…don’t be the person in Response 3. Instead, take the opportunity to get into God’s Word. Whatever decision you make, as an individual or as a family, make it prayerfully. Find real answers, and share those answers with the world around you! The chances are good that you know more than one person who plays Minecraft. This could be a great opportunity to start a spiritual conversation on a topic they already care about! We live in a world that has many dark places in desperate need of light. And we need to be the ones to shine it.
If we become bold in our faith and confident in the Bible, we have a chance to speak the truth of God’s Word to a whole culture of gamers who may be getting their only spiritual messages from games. And that is a big deal!
[TBC: The ending philosophy of Minecraft was written by Julian Gough with full approval of Markus Persson, the game’s creator. Gough notes, “…by the end of it I actually felt like I was taking dictation from the universe. Now, I’m sure there are many ways of interpreting that experience that don’t require cosmic voices from unknown entities to be talking to each other, but it actually did feel like I was taking dictation. So perhaps it is real wisdom in the story, who knows?”(1)
As a huge fan of Joseph Campbell, the man who inspired the creation of the religion of The Force in the Star Wars series, Gough sees the same potential for video games: “I think computer games can serve the function of religion. They can do the good bits that religion used to do, and hopefully not do the bad bits...”(2)
Obviously, the religion Gough promotes, and that is influencing and seducing millions of Minecraft players, is Eastern Mysticism (Hinduism, Pantheism, Panentheism), not biblical Christianity.]