Online fellowship: The ethical world of multiplayer gaming

A majority of people in the United States now play electronic games like Call of Duty, Candy Crush, and Words with Friends. Follow the money: in 2010, electronic gaming in the United States produced approximately $25 billion in revenue, whereas box office receipts for Hollywood movies totaled less than $11 billion. And gamers no longer are isolated individuals playing on their own. Multiplayer games create intense competitive and cooperative social relationships with their own set of norms and expectations.

As a chaplain I often talk with gamers and listen to them. I’ve thought about my own experience as a gamer. And I’ve detected something profound at work, something with both ethical and theological dimensions. I believe that understanding gaming and the life-enhancing dimensions of gaming is critical if Christian leaders are going to relate to gamers. Yet for the most part we are ill prepared for such conversations. We feel uncomfortable. Either we assume that talking about gaming will make a young person feel guilty about spending too much time playing, or we’re so puzzled by the whole phenomenon that we don’t know what to make of it.

To begin, simply observe a gamer at play. Take the character of Kamakazy, or to be accurate, the person playing the character of Kamakazy. He types “anyone for Assault on the Ringwraith’s Lair?” in the chat window on his computer, looking for other players who want to join him in The Lord of the Rings Online, in a challenging six-person fellowship against the forces of evil. Kamakazy is a hero in a MMORPG, or massively multiplayer online role-playing game. He interacts with hundreds of other human players, as well as Elrond, Eowyn, Gandalf, and thousands of computerized characters in the legendary Middle-earth of J. R. R. Tolkien. Those who respond to Kamakazy’s call for a fellowship may be Christians. They may be old or young, and live in America or another part of the world; they may be male or female, Jew or Greek, rural or urban. They may or may not be mature enough to play this particular game or know how to balance time spent playing the game with other aspects of their lives.