CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Escaping Reality by Amusing Ourselves to Death

Aug 27, 2008

In 1985 American media critic Neil Postman wrote an important book entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it he argued that Americans were being dumbed down by the media, especially television. They had become a nation of zombies who were addicted to the tube and its brainless entertainment. As a result, they were escaping reality and living hollow lives. Indeed, the tube is altering reality itself, argues Postman. Thus television junkies are living lives of falsehood and illusion.

It certainly seems to be the case that truth and reality are being undermined by the new media technologies. So what is truth? One helpful definition of truth goes like this: truth is that which corresponds with reality. Known as the correspondence theory of truth, this definition argues for a correlation between a given claim and a given state of affairs. Truth, in this view, is simply telling it like it is.

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A good example of this is a map. A map is only helpful if it fully corresponds with the location it is depicting. If a map shows Sydney, Australia as being north of Tokyo, then that is not a helpful map. It is not describing reality as it really is.

The biblical Christian worldview makes much of truth and reality. Indeed, believers would argue that the Christian truth claims best cohere with the real world. What Christianity says nicely matches what we find in the real world. So the further one is away from reality, the further one is away from truth, and vice versa.

Christianity is – among other things – about helping us come to grips with reality, and leaving illusion behind. For example, sin is delusory, and blinds us to realities about God, about ourselves, and about others. Christ came to liberate us from false views of reality, and to help us get back into the real world.

Thus the importance of truth in Scripture. The cosmic opponent of God, Satan, therefore greatly dislikes truth. Indeed, he is called the “father of lies” by Jesus. Satan comes to kill, steal and destroy. He seeks to undo God’s truth and reality by his lies and illusions.

All this provides a somewhat circuitous introduction to a recent phenomenon which I wish to discuss. I refer to the huge popularity of virtual reality games such as Second Life. These games take the participant into a world of make-believe, where imagination runs wild. In such a fantasy world, the real world can greatly fade in comparison.

Here is how the Second Life website depicts its product: “Second Life is a 3-D virtual world created by its Residents. Since opening to the public in 2003, it has grown explosively and today is inhabited by millions of Residents from around the globe. From the moment you enter the World you’ll discover a vast digital continent, teeming with people, entertainment, experiences and opportunity. Once you’ve explored a bit, perhaps you’ll find a perfect parcel of land to build your house or business.”

Or as Wikipedia describes it, “Second Life (abbreviated as SL) is an Internet-based virtual world launched on June 23, 2003, developed by Linden Research, Inc (commonly referred to as Linden Lab), which came to international attention via mainstream news media in late 2006 and early 2007. A free downloadable client program called the Second Life Viewer enables its users, called ‘Residents’, to interact with each other through motional avatars, providing an advanced level of a social network service combined with general aspects of a metaverse. Residents can explore, meet other Residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, and create and trade items (virtual property) and services with one another.”

As mentioned, it has become very popular indeed. “At the end of March 2008, approximately 13 million accounts were registered, although there are no reliable figures for actual long term consistent usage. In January 2008, residents spent 28,274,505 hours there, so on average about 38,000 residents were logged on at any particular moment.”

Downsides of the game have been noted; these include problems with child pornography, cyber crime, online gambling, and privacy issues. And with people becoming addicted to SL, other problems are arising. In today’s papers there was a report of a woman stalking and kidnapping (in real life) a man she met on the online game.

A major concern is how games like SL are allowing a whole generation of people to opt out of reality altogether and live in a world of fantasy and unreality. Of course people have always had fantasy lives, but games such as these enable people to live in fantasyland 24/7. And these new virtual reality realms are very, well, real, and life-like, making them much more compelling and addictive. People really can get sucked into them, and devotees can easily prefer living in such worlds to living in the real world.

Sure, the real world can be a real stinker, and we all need a bit of relief, in the form of games, hobbies, entertainment or sport. But the concern is that some people prefer the virtual worlds to the real world. This is especially problematic when children or young people get too heavily involved.

Of course there are plenty of virtual reality games. Think of the various Sims games for example. Many can be harmless fun and entertainment. But many can become worlds in which people tired of this one prefer to spend their time – and too much time.

Scripture tells us to keep our minds focused on what is really important. We are told to keep our minds fixed on what really matters “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Phil. 4:8).

Believers and non-believers can both be pulled away from reality and the important issues of life by getting too involved in these sorts of games. True, believers can perhaps try to claim things like SL for the Kingdom. And some have. Several churches have now set up shop online on SL in the hopes of reaching others. There may be a place for that.

But in the greater scheme of things, we realise that the enemy wants us to concentrate and focus on anything other than the state of our souls and where we will spend eternity. And the enemy is quite happy to sidetrack believers as well, getting them so involved in virtual reality games that they become ineffective in the service of their King and the Kingdom.

In the old days the rulers kept the masses in check with “bread and circuses”. As long as the crowds were fed and entertained, they could be easily managed and controlled. Today the enemy of the church is quite happy to use various types of entertainment and amusements to keep our attention from what is really important, what really matters.

By all means, allow a bit of time for relaxation and entertainment. But be aware that both believers and non-believers can be lulled into a false reality by means of various diversions, and one day wake up to find that the real world has passed them by. Indeed, life is short, and they will wake out of their slumber to find themselves standing before the living God, asked to give an account of their lives. That truth – that reality – should keep us vigilant about how we spend our time on this earth.

We are called to live a life of truth, in accord with reality. Sure, in a fallen, sin-soaked and pain-ridden world, one is tempted to seek an escape. But we are not to escape from reality, but to the real reality, Jesus Christ.

www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,24249543-663,00.html

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8 Responses to Escaping Reality by Amusing Ourselves to Death

  • Dear Bill,

    I agree that some of these games can be quite intrusive on people’s lives and sure can take our mind off of Godly things. Indeed, speaking for myself here, sometimes just the Internet itself can be intrusive and one can waste hours on things like facebook and myspace, for example. I often think of how much real time I could spend with friends instead of spending it typing to my computer with these friends.

    I also note with regard to the virtual reality games you mention, a particularly troubling one – World of Warcraft. Although the game started in a similar vein as Second Life, there are countless stories of problems being caused by people’s obsession with WoW. It has caused people’s marriages to dissolve and there were even cases of people drinking (I know of one in China) so much caffeine and staying up so long (ie 48 hours) that they have died from heart failure.

    Anyway, thank you for reminding us, Bill, of the dangers of allowing ourselves to be deluded by the false world (and hopes therein) of the Internet.

    Regards, Andrew Dinham

  • Thanks Andrew

    Yes you are right to point out that there are all sorts of things that can become diversions and distractions. I suppose in the old days seemingly mundane things such as Monopoly or Risk or other board games could unduly captivate people and their time. But the new life-like virtual reality games are so much more seductive and engrossing. As I said, anything to keep our minds and hearts off the really important things in life.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • A thought for Andrew:
    You said “I often think of how much real time I could spend with friends instead of spending it typing to my computer with these friends.”

    Don’t forget the great potential all that typing to your computer has! 🙂

    Since it’s just as socially acceptable to hang out with a friend online as in person these days, sitting on the computer in the evening can become an awesome way to bless and love your friends and even convey to them what Jesus means to you. I’ve found that it’s a lot less confronting for most of my friends to talk about their beliefs in an online context.

    Dante Mavec

  • It goes without saying that the danger of the internet is the ease with which we can allow our minds to access a world of limitless fantasy. How many of us who claim to be Christian spend as much time accessing infinite and true reality through prayer, through Jesus Christ? Even good and worthwhile stuff on the internet is often just a form of diversion.

    C.S. Lewis in Chapter 12 of “Screwtape Letters” describes the devil instructing his nephew, Wormwood on how to distract his victim, not in spectacular debauchery but through trivial pursuits:

    My Dear Wormwood ,…..you will be gradually freed from the tiresome business of providing Pleasures as temptations. As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real
    happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures of vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forgo (for that is what habit fortunately does to a pleasure) you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked”. The Christians describe the Enemy as one “without whom Nothing is strong”. And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off. You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,
    Your affectionate uncle
    SCREWTAPE

    Blaise Pascal also had much to say about this human trait: http://www.geocities.com/seapadre_1999/pascal-diversion.html

    David Skinner, UK

  • I was addicted to a computer game – Multi User Dungeon known as Three Kingdoms. Challenge Newspaper has just printed my story, and if you’re interested, you can find it at: http://www.challengenews.org/ , the September 2008 edition.

    The article starts as follows:

    Flight from fantasy
    The enormous popularity of online video games suggests that for many gamers, exploring a virtual universe is not just an entertaining diversion, it is a highly addictive form of escapism.

    Elise Dettmann. Melbourne, Aust.

  • It seems as though technologies of all electronic types are being designed to separate us further and further from our physical world and our Lord who created it. Virtual games, computers television and my personal least liked, mobile phones. Of course it is fair to argue at some levels that each and all of these devices and software has useful purposes but the real trouble begins when any of them becomes all consuming. mobile phones as a case in point, which many people I might add use primarily as an entertainment device, were originally promising us convenience at a level never known before but nowdays to not have a mobile phone is at best social suicide or at worst being chained to ones desk 24/7. Endless information streaming and interuptions have become the norm so that many young people I know have tiny little concentration spans and become bored so easily. Reading the stories in the Bible is an adventure way above the possibilities a simple silicon chip can provide and will return to the reader more value than any silly game. Turn the electronics off and try it. A whole new world will open up!
    Mark Tatnell

  • Writing on one of these websites is actually new for me. Coming from the old school I choose to be illiterate with many technical devices, which I consider a blessing because I can use my saved time for things which are more important to me like reading the Bible, spending time with my husband and family. God made us for fellowship, fellowship with Him and fellowship with one another. I disagree with all the modern games and cons. I home schooled most of my children, we had no television or radio for about seven years, we had long daily devotions. Serving God was our focus. Most of my children have grown up now and are responsible adults and business people. By amusing ourselves 24/7 or letting our children do so, we are violating God’s purpose for us and teaching our children that it is all right to be self-centred. Most of the games available teach us how to kill. Meanwhile we are supposed to lay down our lives for one another as Jesus did. Let’s focus on that and put aside literally life destroying games and return our eyes to God and His will in our lives. We must teach our children real values and God’s intentions for their lives. Stop wasting time amusing ourselves. God did not use a mobile phone or the internet to call Adam. There is a time and place for everything. I like to define Joy as J-esus, O-thers, Y-ou.
    Del Tatnell

  • Can’t agree more.

    Back in the 60s and 70s, virtual reality meant consuming a tab of LSD.

    Charles Moreira

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