Thou Shalt Not Kill, Except in a Game at Church

First the percussive sounds of sniper fire and the thrill of the kill. Then the gospel of peace.

Across the country, hundreds of ministers and pastors desperate to reach young congregants have drawn concern and criticism through their use of an unusual recruiting tool: the immersive and violent video game Halo.

The latest iteration of the immensely popular space epic, Halo 3, was released nearly two weeks ago by Microsoft and has already passed $300 million in sales.

Those buying it must be 17 years old, given it is rated M for mature audiences. But that has not prevented leaders at churches and youth centers across Protestant denominations, including evangelical churches that have cautioned against violent entertainment, from holding heavily attended Halo nights and stocking their centers with multiple game consoles so dozens of teenagers can flock around big-screen televisions and shoot it out.

The alliance of popular culture and evangelism is challenging churches much as bingo games did in the 1960s. And the question fits into a rich debate about how far churches should go to reach young people.

Far from being defensive, church leaders who support Halo ”” despite its “thou shalt kill” credo ”” celebrate it as a modern and sometimes singularly effective tool. It is crucial, they say, to reach the elusive audience of boys and young men.

Read it all.

Posted in * Christian Life / Church Life, * Culture-Watch, Parish Ministry, Religion & Culture, Violence

16 comments on “Thou Shalt Not Kill, Except in a Game at Church

  1. Timothy Fountain says:

    Jesus’ earthly ministry was inexpressibly radical – he preached reconciliation and mercy in a culture wed to historic grudges and revenge. He preached and ministered on a landscape marked with crosses. His parable of the good Samaritan first worked because people knew the reality of violent robbery on the Jericho road.
    Ken Burns, interviewed about his currently running series about WWII, noted that every family knew the reality of war, either by loss or by loved ones who came home “changed.” Just because we now keep the violence at arms length doesn’t mean it went away over the years.
    I’m not saying that “Halo” is the Gospel or anything like that, but the whole “If we don’t play with war toys, there won’t be any way” myth doesn’t change the world. Rather, the Gospel must penetrate the violence, real and virtual, if there are to be blessed peacemakers and if the church is to do the work of Christ, its head.

  2. Knapsack says:

    Orson Scott Card has a cautionary tale about this, called “Ender’s Game.” You start out obliterating pixels, and you can find that you’re killing living beings without quite noticing, until it’s too late.

    How is this too different from “but I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in their heart”? It seems a small, parallel hop to “but I say to you that every one who delights in killing in virtual worlds has already committed murder in their heart”?

  3. Timothy Fountain says:

    #2 you are correct – human silhouette targets function the same way. There are built in inhibitions against killing one’s own kind, and visual and other stimulations can “sear” that aspect of our conscience.
    The question I raise in #1 (actually, the question raised by the article) is: Should we (the church, the body of Christ) engage those who are involved, or sniff at them from a distance?
    “You can’t control what kids do”, we are told, and to some extent that is true – but the church needs to be in the business of giving them another interpretation that separates the world’s myths from the Gospel.

  4. why1914 says:

    A little background:

    This has been an on again and off again debate over at a forum I help moderate at [url=][/url]. The forums are very active and we seek to provide a “safe place” for gamers who go online to play games, so that they don’t have to listen to some 12 year old screaming into his headset that he just “_____ your momma”. Our once a week podcast is heard by three thousand people a day (or at least downloaded that much … hehehehe). Our membership is primarily interdenominational, ages 14 to 50+, with — my guess — 40% over the age of 30. We allow and encourage non-Christians to join who are fed up with the language and “trash talk” they find online… in this, I believe, the Lord will provide a good witness. As well we have numerous prayer “rooms” and “bible study” groups that we host on XBox Live (“XBox Live” = the teleconferencing and online game interaction side of XBox).

    Now, onto this issue: First, Halo is not a game about killing humans. It is a game about killing aliens. For me, that is the deciding factor of what games I choose to play. So, war games and games that put you in the role of assasins or drug dealers or whatever is out of the question for me (ref: TF’s comments about silhouette targets and I would add (though I am sure he knows this): how they actually improved the military’s kill ratios because of desensitization of human form) .

    But regarding Halo in a Church, this is troubling because of it’s rating. Are the parent’s aware? There IS violence and gore.

    What we attempt to do at HCGA (the site’s name) is encourage everyone to stick to the ratings (minor’s to get with their parents), and then offer something beyond the ratings. That something beyond is a perspective from a Christian viewpoint … warnings like “if [fill in the blank] offends you, then you really don’t want this game”.

    As regards the ‘murder in the heart’ question KnapSack offered, all I can say is the same I said on the HCGA forum when this subject came up last time. And that is: I have, unfortunately, had murder in my heart in one instance in my Christian life. When I brought this issue to the Lord and told Him honestly that I wanted to kill, that I KNEW this was wrong, and that I felt powerless against this desire; I can say a miracle came from Him because 10-15 minutes later, I was actually once again on my knees praying, and meaning it, for the person who had wronged my family horribly. As someone that used to hold grudges for days, I have to say this was a bona-fide miracle.

    Now, I have not encountered anything like the above in videogames I have played. In fact, the social interaction of online playing with brothers (and sisters) takes this topic more into the realm of playing something like Chess with a brother. You love him, he loves you, and your just having a good time with all the friendly ribbing a game of Chess would produce.

    But as we also say at HCGA, put God first. Do not let the games consume you. There are gamers out there who spend every waking minute playing video games … even if the game in question was Pong, this is unhealthy, to say the least.

  5. Knapsack says:

    Nice point re: Pong, or “My Little Pony On-line.” The point is about how you live out your priorities. There’s room in the transformed life for leisure and fun and games. I just have backed away from what began to feel like a rationalization — “they’re not people, they’re aliens.” Right, and you aren’t fooling around with other women, but avatars, on Second Life. Given that “aliens” are a category of the imagination, which are usually bipedal, tool-using, communicating creatures, they all too often are stand-ins for our penchant for violent solutions. I’d almost be more comfortable with a youth group playing “Call of Duty” and then reflecting on what the moral choices are when in time of war, just or otherwise. The alien thing doesn’t strike me as an argument that stands on its own.

    That’s not to say i condemm all first-person shooter games for Christian use, but i think the burden of proof that they aren’t problematic hasn’t been met.

  6. libraryjim says:

    From Foxtrot:

    Jason and Marcus are playing “Halo 2”. From another room Dad pokes his head in the door:

    [i]Dad:[/i] Jason, that game better be rated “M”!
    [i]Jason:[/i] It is, dad.
    [i]Dad:[/i] OK, just checking!
    [i]Marcus:[/i] I wish [b]MY[/b] dad thought “M” stood for [i]”Mild”[/i].
    [i]Jason:[/i] It sure makes MY life easier!

  7. why1914 says:

    Knapsack: I’ll concede your point on that “they’re not people, they’re aliens.” could be a rationalization. And maybe it is for most people, I do not know. In that paragraph, I was talking about my personal view… perhaps I should have laid that out more clearly.

    To clarify a little bit further on why I don’t see it as a rationalization on my behalf: My father never let us watch war movies, action movies with lots of shoot-em up, etc. But Sci-Fi was pretty much a go, regardless of what type, because he was a Sci-Fi nut. So very early in my childhood, aliens were aliens and humans were humans.
    This has followed me to this day. Hence, the reason I stay away from COD and the likesuch.

    And there have been things I have learned the hard way along the course of my life… in short, my list of games I will not play also includes anything to do with spiritism or magic.

    Again, with those not mature, it takes their parents, and if they are not available, fellow Christians to guide them. I think I as someone (somewhat) mature (35 age), it comes down to knowing my faults and thinking long and hard when it comes to what game types I will play.

    Regardless, the chuches quoted above are correct in one way. The way to reach alot of people these days is through video games, shoot-em-up or not. They are here to stay; whereas in the past there was “card night” or “pool night”, around my brothers and sisters, we do the same thing, just online with UNO or chess or billiards or carcassonne (fun board game) mad tracks (a video game of you controlling toy cars … hehehe, a simulation of a simulation) or forza or halo.

    I do want to state again, though, that I find letting kids play Halo 3 in a church setting a little problematic. Did the parent’s have time to pre-screen what their children were going to be playing? Or did they just arrive and watch? If the latter, they could have wanted to object, but out of deference to their pastor let the kid finish. And now the kid wants it at home and “pastor so-and-so let us play it!!!”. What a mess!!!

    One last thing:

    That’s not to say i condemm all first-person shooter games for Christian use, but i think the burden of proof that they aren’t problematic hasn’t been met.

    I would disagree. I think the burden of proof has shown both good and bad. Good in the father’s and son’s who play online together over at our forums and have solid Christian “credentials” and meet others who are the same, bad in the zombi-fied actions of one recent example in the news where some kid played GTA every spare minute and then went out and shot someone, claiming he was in a “dream like haze” (which I do not doubt).

    My point can best be expressed by changing your words slightly (no offense intended):

    That’s not to say i condemm all liquor for Christian use, but i think the burden of proof that it isn’t problematic hasn’t been met.

    Again, some can handle liquor within His Will, some cannot.

  8. Ross says:

    Just a couple of random observations… I like video games myself, and I play a fair few. I don’t spend a lot of time with first-person shooters — not for any moral reasons, just because I truly suck at them. I tend more towards the RPG side — the Final Fantasies, the Grandias, and so on.

    One RPG I played, known as KOTOR (“Knights of the Old Republic”) is a Star Wars-themed game (and a good one.) Throughout the game, your character is presented with moral choices, some large, some small — e.g., when you see an old guy being mugged, do you fight off his attackers and restore his money to him, or do you fight off his attackers and take his money for yourself? Each decision pushes you towards the “Light Side” or the “Dark Side” of the force. Ultimately you get a different ending to the game depending on which path you predominantly chose.

    Most of the decisions are pretty simplistic — there are no real ethical dilemmas — and there are a couple of places where I think the game cheats a bit in presenting the choices, but that’s beside the point. My point is this:

    I played the game strictly Light Side. I’m the only person I know who played the game who did that. Everyone else leapt at the chance to wallow in the Dark Side. From reading forums about the game, it’s clear that playing a Light Side game is not the popular choice.

    I find this a little troubling. Add to that the enormous popularity of Grand Theft Auto — which I’ve never played, but which so far as I know doesn’t even allow for a “virtuous” path — and I’m even more troubled.

    It’s not the violence per se — sure, in games like Halo you mow down legions of pixelated enemies, but by the story line of the game they’re “bad guys.” I don’t know that this is materially different than an ancient Greek boy listening to the story of Achilles slaughtering Trojans by the score and imagining that he is the one in the battle. After a day of wrestling with complex moral issues and shades of ethical gray in the real world, it can be a relief to drop into a fantasy world where there are clearly-defined good guys and bad guys and the bad guys are for killin’. Of course, it’s a fantasy and you want to remember that the real world isn’t nearly so black-and-white; but the vast majority of game players can keep the fantasy and the reality apart.

    But what I find disturbing are the games where you are the bad guy. Again, yes, it’s a fantasy, and I suppose I can see where there might be some attraction for indulging in activity you can’t do in real life… but it doesn’t feel to me like a healthy fantasy. You’re not wishing that the lines between good and evil were more visible; you’re wishing you could be evil.

    I dare say most of us have that urge lurking in us somewhere. But that’s not a reason to feed it.

  9. Nathan says:

    [blockquote]First, Halo is not a game about killing humans. It is a game about killing aliens. [/blockquote]

    That is a lie. The CAMPAIGN is humans versus aliens but virtually nobody plays the Halo campaign. (The writer of the recent Slate review of Halo 3 said he had it for 10 hours and had played the campaign for less than an hour.) Everyone who plays Halo plays MULTIPLAYER and multiplayer is human versus human.

    [blockquote]One RPG I played, known as KOTOR… [/blockquote] I had a similar experience. The first time I played KOTOR, I played as my “normal self” which meant I made all the virtuous decisions. The second time I played KOTOR, I wanted to see what the “dark side” was like so I started making all the bad decisions. I couldn’t finish the (second) game — I felt really guilty running around lying, stealing and hurting people.

    Now the funny thing is that I have played all the GTA games and they never bothered me. But KOTOR was different because you are overtly presented with ethical dilemmas and a “what would you do?” question. And it was just too hard for me to deliberately choose the evil choice again and again.

  10. why1914 says:

    Ross: you bring up a good point.

    Leaving whether the following is a good thing or not aside: games have evolved into complex storylines that rival and surpass most movies … in budget and in story complexity and in length of play to finish it.

    A good example of a current game like this is BioShock. I have not chosen to play it or not (and leaning towards not), but the storyline intrigues me. In brief, an underwater city called “Rapture” was built in the early fifties. The leaders of this place declared they had no allegience to “God or Government” and prohibited both in the city. Needless to say, it quickly descended into anarchy. The leaders were geneticists, and in their attempt to “better” themselves and their followers, everybody quickly became mutants who strove for more and more mutations to increase their power over others.

    You are unwittingly brought to the city by an airplane crash. The mutants are the most foul mouthed of any game, sprinkling liberally “God D__”s in their speech. You find dead people hung up, crucifixion style, with a banner reading “Smuggler” above their heads. Upon closer inspection, you find that what they were smuggling in were bibles.

    In fighting you way out, you can choose to do as they do… “harvest” the young and sick for energy or to not harvest them. Either way you can make it out; but interestingly, if you choose the “dark side”, when you do escape, you unwittingly release the mutants upon the entire world. If you choose the “light side”, you escape and they are trapped there to continue on in their godless anarachy.

    This is an intriguing storyline to me due to the implicit stated need for God and order, and a healthy backslap at Ayn Rand.

    Anyway, I am much like you in being astounded at how many people choose to play the evil side in games (in games that allow for it). And I cannot see playing a game where there is no good path. My main example of such a game like this is the same as yours: GTA series.

  11. why1914 says:


    That is a lie. The CAMPAIGN is humans versus aliens but virtually nobody plays the Halo campaign. (The writer of the recent Slate review of Halo 3 said he had it for 10 hours and had played the campaign for less than an hour.) Everyone who plays Halo plays MULTIPLAYER and multiplayer is human versus human.

    I would advise you to refrain from judging a brother a “liar” based on an article in Slate. And I would advise you that your anecdotal “everyone who plays … plays MULITPLAYER” is incorrect.

    A poll we did at HCGA of people who were going to be buying Halo and what they were going to do first: Campaign or Multiplayer. The results, off the top of my head, were around 5% were going straight into multiplayer. The rest were playing campaign through first, and of those many played the campaign straight through several times on various difficulties, and some more then that in order to get all the achievements.

    I have yet to even play the game at all. I put myself on a game restriction as I have several projects going on that need my undivided attention, day and night.

    Read my comments again, brother, and see I made no statements about the Halo Multiplayer format. If I even thought of it, I would have assumed it was like the GoW Multiplayer and you would choose to be the bad guys (not human) or the good guys (human).

    I am quite offended at being called a liar. The ball is in your court now, brother. I am awaiting your answer and asking the Lord to look down on both of us.

  12. Ross says:

    Halo multiplayer is, in fact, all “human” avatars. But in my experience, it feels different than the “campaign” mode because the personalities behind the other avatars in multiplayer mode are not constructs of the storyline or writing; they’re your buddies sitting there on the couch next to you. And when you blow up your buddy’s game character with a rocket launcher, it causes him chagrin but nothing more.

    Besides, there’s no “setting” involved in multiplayer mode. The campaign has a whole backstory about the war and the (by an odd coincidence of terminology) the Covenant, so the aliens you’re fighting have characters given to them by the story. Multiplayer mode is nothing more than an arena; there’s no story, no background, nothing. You’re just there to amuse yourself by taking potshots at your friends.

  13. Nathan says:

    “Lie” is too strong. I take it back. I’m sorry.

    “Misleading”, however, is the right word. You are misleading people (apparently unintentionally!) if you insinuate that Halo is “merely” people shooting aliens as opposed to a game like GTA or COD where people shoot people.

    Read the article, it is clear that the churches are hosting [b]multiplayer[/b] tournaments. (Which, by the way, I have participated in a multiplayer Halo 2 tournament at my brother’s church!) Multiplayer tournaments, as I wrote, are the dominant way to play the game and are people versus people. The article even quotes one of the kids saying “It is fun to blow [b]people[/b] up.” He doesn’t say “It is fun to blow [b]aliens[/b] up” He says it is fun to blow [b]people[/b] up.

    I don’t know what your survey is all about, but it interesting you asked people what they intended to play first. Most people will play the campaign first — you won’t get any disagreement from me there. The question you should have asked is what game mode will you spend more time on. And here the clear answer is multiplayer. The campaign itself only takes 10-12 hours to complete. People have been playing Halo 2 for years now. Do you really think they just play the campaign over and over again? Of course not, they play the campaign once or twice and then jump right into multiplayer.

    The most popular way to play Halo is multiplayer “Slayer” mode where the winner is the person to kill the most people (not aliens) in a set time limit. That is not my opinion, it is a fact.

    Since you moderate a gaming forum. I assumed you knew something about games. I play a lot of games and have for years. It is not anecdote when I say “everyone” who plays Halo plays multiplayer. Go to some Halo forums, you will see snide messages about how the campaign is for “n00bs” and stuff like that.

    You may not have intended to be but you were misleading when you wrote that Halo is about humans versus aliens (and therefore less morally suspect than a game that is about humans killing humans). Again I apologize for using the word “lie” but if you persist with the above argument, I will absolutely call you on it because it is not true. People buy Halo for multiplayer and multiplayer is all about killing people. Do some research and get back to me.


  14. why1914 says:


    Thank you for your apology. I will take issue, however, with the blanket generalization that everybody buys Halo to play multiplayer. Even in GoW, I played maybe 5 hours of multiplayer at most. To me, the story mode is more important (and that, as you would also agree, is about aliens as the enemies). I have nothing else to base this “story mode only gamers” on but two of my employees who view the games the same way… they eschew multiplayer in favor of story mode games and almost never play multiplayer. Truth be told, we have played Quake 3 maps a few times inter-office with ex-employees VPN’ed in, but our main interests (= time spent) are in the campaigns / stories.

    I’ll have to put up a poll with a question like “Now that your done with Campaign, how many are going to be playing Multiplayer (not online coop)?” to get a feedback from HCGA as a whole.

    You are correct to say I unintentionally misled people, and I apologize for that. I should have been clearer that I think of games in the story mode mainly, and not multiplayer, since I am not a big multiplayer gamer except for (current list) Forza, Carcassone, Mad Tracks and UNO.

    When it comes to Halo 3 specifically, I am unaware of the multiplayer format since I haven’t even touched the game yet due to time constraints and the fact I try NOT to read things about it as I do not want to read a “spoiler” to the story mode. Again, I would have thought the multiplayer would be more like GoW. But again with Halo 3 and the addition of Forge, I do know one of the first custom multiplayer games that was concocted was baseball(!), where to my knowledge, nobody died, human or alien. And again with Halo 3, something you perhaps overlooked was that you can now play 4 way coop story mode over online [i]multiplayer[/i] (which is probably the only way I will be able to defeat the game in Legendary mode).

    I would also advise all reading that the thrust of a NYTimes article is going to be as damaging to a Christian group as they can be. I would imagine that there were a plethora of quotes that they could have chosen from, and they would “selectively edit” by taking the worst sounding one (“It is fun to blow people up.”) in order to advance their agenda of making Christians out to be hypocrites. I would imagine that there was a slew of quotes they could have chosen that would have been more in line with what Ross said above regarding, “You’re just there to amuse yourself by taking potshots at your friends.”

    This kind of “fun with friends” attitude Ross was talking about is what the majority of people at HCGA who indulge in multiplayer have… I would be very very surprised to find anyone ever state on the forums at HCGA something along the lines of “It is fun to blow people up.”

    And the addition of some anonymous posters’ messages about “campaign is for n00bs” does nothing for the debate. I am sure I could just as easily find forums where gamers state “I dont care about multiplayer battles, just the story mode”.

    Nevertheless, this is not a game for kids. Just like alcohol is not for kids and R rated movies are not for kids.

  15. Knapsack says:

    I’m still sorting out what i would feel proper in a church youth group setting; kind of like movie ratings, which are a good guide to start with, but in the end i use movies with discernment, not just based on someone else’s opinion boiled down to a letter or two.

    What i know i value about this webiste is dialogue like this — strong feelings intertwined with a passion for reaching the lost with the Gospel, exchanging viewpoints and perspectives with courtesy and civility. I’ve learned a great deal from this conversation, and for each of us and our faith communities, the final decision is best made in the direction God calls that body of believers.

    I still really can’t feel great about a youth group “blasting aliens” night, but i also am ambivalent about CCM/praise music, which doesn’t keep me from seeing where it can have a place in worship, as long as it doesn’t drive the bus.

    Again, thanks to everyone who’d contributed to this conversation.

  16. libraryjim says:

    I don’t play ANY game in ‘MultiPlayer’ Mode. Only ‘campaign’ single player.