Should Catholics even play video games?
The question arises more often than it really ever should.
Look, it comes up. A lot. Someone should talk about it. Am I the right person? Maybe not. My qualifications are 16 years of Catholic education and more theology and philosophy than was probably reasonable.
Whether or not Catholics can play this game or that game without sinning is a frequent topic on the internet, especially Reddit, as seen here.
Just scrolling past those topics is exhausting. Whenever I see them, I sigh and lean back in my chair, staring at the ceiling paint, contemplating if I have the strength and energy to launch into this subject one more time.
This is my “one more time.” From now on, I'm just going to link to this post, and then I'm done — done, I tell you. This is like the Harry Potter/Dungeons & Dragons/Magic: The Gathering/anything-related-to-magic-or-having-fun debate all over again.
What makes something a sin?
Helpful summary compiled from the Baltimore Catechism: Actual sin is any willful thought, word, deed, or omission contrary to the law of God. There are two kinds of actual sin — mortal and venial. To make a sin mortal, three things are necessary: a grievous matter, sufficient reflection, and full consent of the will.
For Less Important Issues, venial sin is a slight offense against the law of God, and for Very Important Issues, it is an offense committed without sufficient reflection or full consent of the will. So basically, venial sins only meet one or two of the mortal sin criteria. St. Paul provides a helpful list of things that are considered grievous, such as adultery, hatred, and theft. There are also sins that “cry out to heaven for vengeance” such as murder, oppression of the poor (such as widows, orphans, and refugees), or denying laborers their just wage. These are serious topics. Metal Gear is not considered one of them.
Sufficient reflection simply means that you understand the choice before you is wrong. You may want to strangle your neighbor at 3AM for blasting music but you know that murder is wrong. You can reflect on the action and come to a conclusion about its morality.
A really important aspect of sin is intent, which is more or less what is meant by "full consent of the will." It's you going "eh, it's a sin/probably a sin but whatever, I'm gonna do it anyway” versus “it might be/I don’t think it is but I could be wrong.” You need to be intentional in order to commit sin. Without full understanding, you cannot have full consent. And consent matters.
Do you have the maturity to not internalize poor moral values?
The answer to this is usually going to be “yes” if you're over 12 and have had any catechesis or just simple common sense. Can you read about Greek mythology without thinking that maybe you should set up a temple to Zeus in the backyard? Are you able to watch The Exorcist and understand that demons are bad? You can play GTA if you know that stealing cars and starting gang wars are neither admirable nor acceptable moral behavior and that it's just a game.
But back to intent — if you boot up GTA because you want to run sex workers over with your car, that's not good. Playing a game specifically because of its immoral content is when you creep towards sin territory. However, playing Dragon Age or Mass Effect, both of which are well-known for the ability to befriend or romance characters, isn't a sin. Even if "romancing" your character leads to an implied or vaguely scandalous sex scene, it's nothing to what is depicted in movies or TV.
If you think it's an occasion of sin for yourself (such as leading you into having sinful or harmful/negative thoughts which then might lead to action), just don't pursue those storylines or scroll TikTok during those cutscenes. If “Red Dead Redemption” makes you want to start a gang of outlaws, don’t play it. But realistically, is that going to happen?
You don't need to avoid an entire game or a whole industry because of overscrupulosity.
What if playing the game rewires the brain?
It doesn't. It's the same as the" “video games cause violence” argument, which has been debunked by psychological professionals several times over. I poured (mom and dad, look away) 200 hours into Final Fantasy X when I was a kid and I’ve never had any inclination to start praying to aeons or battling fanatics with a sword, nor have the other 15 million people who played the game.
You are a human being with free will and rational thought. God loves you and wants you to be able to relax and have fun with things that bring you joy. Unless something is screaming its anti-Catholicism at you and making you go on a priest-killing, sacrament-defiling rampage, it’s probably okay.
That said, anything that takes over your life can be harmful, and this isn’t exclusive to video games. If you read to the point where you neglect your family or your own self-care, that’s wrong. Same thing with movies, TV shows, video games, or your excessive golf outings.
Moderation is a virtue, extremes are not. Find your golden mean and stick to it. You’ll be just fine and I’ll never have to talk about this ever again.