American popular culture is not particularly welcoming of anyone committed to serious moral reflection. Dip your toes in the torrent of TV shows that floods the free time of Americans everywhere these days, and you’ll find that it’s our appetites, not our virtues, we’re indulging: From husbands-turned-drug-dealers to real-housewives-turned-reality-TV-stars, where might a sober adult turn for a hint of ethical instruction?
To video games.
If it’s been a while since you’ve last taken up a joystick, if you’ve never had the pleasure of indulging in gaming, or if you view the medium as little more than a wilderness of sound and fury, consider the following: Imagine playing a computer game in which you are a police officer overseeing a border crossing in a small totalitarian state. Life is good! The charming and childlike animation on the screen shows the tools of your trade—the rubber stamp and the rule book—and you’ve little to do but inspect the parade of arrivals seeking admission and determine which to let in, a decision made easy by a long and exacting list of criteria. It’s a cushy job at first, with that sweet granny handing you papers that are perfectly in order while that scarred and shifty thug’s passport is clearly fake. You consult your rule book and press the appropriate buttons on your keyboard, happily following orders and watching your own bank account swell up as you rise through the ranks of the oppressive bureaucracy.
And then, suddenly, disaster strikes. A woman comes along. Her eyes are deep and filled with sorrow. She hands you her papers, and you needn’t look at them long before you realize that they are not in order. The woman breaks down and tells you that her kid is very sick, and unless you let her in, he may die. Should you do the compassionate thing? But your bending of the rules may be discovered, which would mean a demotion and, quite likely, one of your infirm relatives starving to death. Which would you choose?
That is the premise of Papers, Please, a computer game released in 2013 and gaining new fans ever since, including some who aren’t usually keen on electronic entertainment. Play it for an hour or two, and you’ll emerge feeling the same shortness of breath and quickening of pulse you get when making the acquaintance of a Dostoevsky, say, or an Orson Welles, or any other master dedicated to examining humanity’s moral clockwork in all its intricacy.
That’s because video games, more than any other amusement or contrivance cluttering our living rooms and sucking up our evenings, are a godly medium, by which I mean to say a medium more likely than others to make a person acutely attuned to the subtle impositions of moral codes.
This should come as no surprise: Unlike television, which requires little more than passive, bovine-like staring at images unfurling on a screen, gaming invites the player to enter a contrived world, forged by a creator unseen and governed by rules largely unknown. What, for example, is the true objective of Papers, Please? Does one win by obeying, turning down the huddled masses yearning to breathe free while enriching one’s own family? Or is the goal exactly the opposite, to rise to the moral occasion even if it means game over? Should the player conform to the rules of the game, or heed some higher calling? Playing the game is an experience at once exacting and modular, rule-based yet tolerant of deviation, moved by metaphysical yearnings but informed by intricate, earthly designs. And if all that sounds a lot like religion, it’s because religion, when grasped in all its mystery and grandeur, is a game—a transformative experience that, for a few fleeting moments, takes us outside of ourselves and connects us to all that is human.
That, in part, may be why 55 percent of all Americans, according to one recent Nielsen survey, chose to cope with the devastation of COVID-19 by turning to gaming. One in four respondents said that video games were his or her preferred platform to virtually connect with distant friends and relatives during lockdowns. Even games that lack the gravitas of Papers, Please still offer what other media cannot—the space and time to actively contemplate relating to others through decision and action, which is the most fundamental way of being in communion with others.
The best-selling title of the pandemic, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, is a case in point. Download it, and you’re instantly transported to a sunny island populated by friendly and starry-eyed anthropomorphic animals. You build yourself a modest home, then make it bigger. Small tasks earn you local currency, which can be spent in the local shop. It’s community in which the metrics of flourishing are those imagined by the most charitable among us. The game invites players to exchange a real world in which no one knows your name for an unreal one where you’re cared for and loved. And, thanks to the blessings of internet connectivity, your real-life friends can stop by for a visit whenever they wish by directing their animated avatars to your corner of cyberspace.
Even if you believe, like that old German philosopher Immanuel Kant, that from the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight will ever be built, spending a few hours in Animal Crossing’s brightly-colored, pixelated paradise should leave you immensely hopeful. Prance around your island for a bit, and you’ll see that video games, like all rituals, are an exercise in deepening our comprehension through repetition. These games don’t rely on your brain, that easiest of all organs to burden with bad information and fraudulent ideas. They appeal directly to the human spirit, which wants not to understand but to do. Do you want to see what the world is like? Walk around. Do you want to understand others? Share their space. Do you want to know yourself? First, get out of your own head by making decisions that affect the weal and woe of others.
It’s hard, given the fallen state of just about everything in America these days, to muster much cause for optimism. But video games ought to count as one surprising and not insignificant reason to feel rosy. Far from the mindless time-sucks too many parents fear them to be, they may yet serve as a vital course correction to the innate solipsism of too much TV, too many YouTube videos, and too many hours on Instagram. To play video games is to constantly question everything—why this and not that? What now? Who gets to decide? And as the Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us, it is when we ask questions, not when we think we have all the answers, that we are closest to God.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.