To family and friends, Nehemiah Griego was just a normal teen who loved playing sports, jamming in the church band, and accompanying his father on mission trips to Mexico.
But the 15-year-old boy also had a violent streak, kept well hidden until it erupted in a massacre that ripped his family apart. On Jan. 19, the teen fatally shot his parents and three young siblings in their Albuquerque, New Mexico, home. In custody later, Griego "gushed" to police about his "heavy involvement" with violent video games like Modern Warfare and Grand Theft Auto, according to the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department. Griego's gaming habits made headlines-and once again, it was game on for the national debate over the media's role in promoting gun violence.
Since the Columbine massacre in 1999, mass shootings have consistently raised questions about video gaming culture. Though much remains unproven, many critics believe violent video games play a role in breeding criminals. Christian leaders have responded by advocating a biblical perspective on the issue, saying that while all media has potential for good, violent video games have few redeeming qualities.
Nehemiah Griego is only the most recent shooter to transform virtual violence into reality. Adam Lanza, who killed 27 in the December shooting in Newtown, Conn., reportedly was obsessed with violent video games. Media reports said James Holmes, who killed 12 in the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting, frequently played World of Warcraft.
In his book, Of Games and God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games, author Kevin Schut argues Christians need not see violence as inherently negative. Christian author J.R.R. Tolkien emphasized good-and-evil conflicts in his fiction and often presented violence as necessary, Schut said. But the world of violent video games requires "constant self-monitoring, conversation and engagement. Am I buying into attitudes … that glorify destructive acts, inflicting pain and causing death?"
A gamer himself, Schut contends in his book that video games do have positive potential because they allow discerning players a trial space to make decisions and grapple with moral, albeit fictional, dilemmas: "God calls us to think about our entertainment and use those thoughts to gain better understanding of our world." But overly violent games don't always leave room for such biblically minded engagement, Schut said.
Dr. Daniel R. Heimbach, Senior Professor of Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Wake Forest, N.C., says questions about whether Christians should play violent video games fall into "the category of discretion." Gamers should consider the messages and impact of the games by asking, "What action on my part brings God the most glory?"
Continued exposure to senseless, gratuitous violence can desensitize a player's moral perception, Heimbach argues: "Entertainment is a sorry reason to deaden the gift of conscience."
Other Christian leaders agree, expressing particular concern over violent games' effect on young people. According to the Pew Research Center, many teens report playing mature and adult-only rated games, including Grand Theft Auto, rated "mature" for content involving blood and gore, intense violence, strong sexuality, and drug use.
Bob Waliszewski, director of Plugged In, a ministry of Focus on the Family that reviews popular entertainment, cites a real-life example of violent media's influence: six teens from Mineola, N.Y., involved in a violent crime spree that included a baseball bat, a crowbar and broomstick, told police they were imitating the Grand Theft Auto video games. "When video games glamorize crimes and senseless violence, there will always be players that consider the play as a how-to-lesson," Waliszewski said.
According to Dr. David Jones, associate professor of ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, the best way for Christians to approach violent video games is to "affirm the timeless, objective, biblical norms that apply to this question" and then respond accordingly. Such norms include: thinking about what is good (Phil. 4:8); cultivating a Christ-like, not worldly, mind (Rom. 12:2); opposing clear violations of biblical ideals (2 Tim. 2:16-17); affirming life's sanctity (Gen. 1:26-27); fostering care for the helpless (Jas. 1:27); and being aware of becoming like those we associate with (Prov. 13:20).
Many popular video games lack any degree of a "moral component" to justify their violence, adds Penny Nance, president and CEO of Concerned Women for America. Routine consumption of violent media in American homes should not only cause concern, but motivate parents to evaluate their family's entertainment choices: "The most important point is that there has to be real accountability," she said. "We know that 'as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.'"