The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a perfect case study of all that’s affirming and troubling about video games—and our posture toward them.
My wife and I recently watched 7 Days Out, a Netflix documentary about the seven days leading up to one of the largest “sporting” events in the world: The North American League of Legends championship. The statistics on the viewership for an event like this are incredible (over 300 million worldwide), but more incredible is the community that has formed around esports and video games.
Millions of people play video games daily on anything from smartphones to $1000 computers. Some games, like EVE Online, have formed economies and political factions that rival small countries in size and wealth. Gamers can log on to Twitch.tv simply to watch hundreds of others play games. Gaming has become a career, a social outlet and a source of purpose to millions.
Being a gamer has become an identity.
In the documentary, one of the team members talks about being kicked out of home for wanting to become a professional gamer. He was welcomed with open arms into the gaming community and has since become a celebrity and a source of inspiration for other “would-be” professional gamers.
I’m not saying this is a good thing. As Christians we know our identity is in Christ and our source of love, worth and community is in him and his church.
I’m saying this because the church doesn’t seem to want to touch the gamer community, despite the fact that many of its own members have their feet in the door. All too often we take either the Footloose stance or the apathy stance toward video games as a whole, demonizing or belittling games and alienating those who enjoy them.
This can no longer be our attitude. Video games can be extremely toxic, capable of causing severe addiction and providing an avenue for online bullying, but behind all that are people who need the gospel desperately. I’ll admit I don’t know how to become a gamer missionary, but I think it can start for all of us with a proper understanding of the medium itself and a recognition of the beauty found therein. To do this we’ll look at one game that is near the pinnacle of them all.
Ocarina of all-time
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is widely regarded as one of the greatest games ever made. In one sense it’s like the Star Wars of its era alongside other N64 titles like Super Mario 64 and Goldeneye.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a game released for Nintendo 64 in November of 1998. The fifth installment in the Zelda series was groundbreaking on many levels. Ocarina of Time was one of the first 3D open world games. That phrase may not be well known to the reader, but basically it means the game is played in a 3D environment where the player moves wherever he/she wants in a sprawling world. Many big name titles like World of Warcraft, Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed all fall under this descriptor. Today, few games made cannot trace some design elements back to Ocarina of Time.
Ocarina tells the story of Link, an orphaned boy who lives in the forest with the Kokiri, an elf-like race who never age beyond childhood and are all accompanied by fairies. Link begins his journey when the guardian of the Kokiri, the Great Deku Tree, falls sick. The boy is tasked with entering the labyrinth within the tree to dispel the curse laid on it. After killing a giant arachnid with only two legs, the curse is lifted, but the Deku Tree is too far gone to save. In his dying breath the Tree tells Link of a great evil descending on the land of Hyrule and Link’s destiny to fight it.
Link is told he must go to Hyrule castle and speak to the princess, Zelda. This he does (if the player can make it past the guards) and the princess tells him about evil Ganondorf, king of the Gerudo Thieves. Ganondorf is seeking the Triforce, a sacred relic left behind by the three goddesses who created Hyrule, which can give Power, Courage and Wisdom to the one who obtains it. Zelda tells Link he must get the Triforce first by collecting three Spiritual Stones.
Link sets off to gather the stones which unlock the Triforce, but upon returning to Hyrule Castle, Link finds it in flames and the princess fleeing into the wild. Ganondorf has overthrown the kingdom. Link rushes to unlock the Triforce, but he doesn’t know Ganondorf has followed him. The evil king seizes the Triforce before Link can reach it, but something happens then even he didn’t expect. The ancient magic of the Triforce awakens and, testing him, finds Ganondorf lacking. His heart is not pure. The Triforce separates into the three distinct pieces: Power remains with Ganondorf, Wisdom goes to Zelda, and Courage goes to Link.
But Link doesn’t know it yet. In fact, when he unlocks the Triforce, he becomes sealed away for seven years by the powers of light. Once awakened, Link finds he’s grown from a 9-year-old boy into a young man, the Hero of Time. Now, Master Sword in hand, his journey begins in earnest. He must fight through corrupted temples full of Ganondorf’s minions (including an amoeba the size of a house) to free the Sages, who alone have enough power to imprison Ganondorf and restore peace to Hyrule.
Ready, Player 1
This synopsis is not exhaustive, but sets the groundwork for one of the stronger arguments for video games. Video games are an incredible medium for storytelling. Not only do they unfold a plot in a fantasy world brought to life through art, music and coding, but they allow the receiver of the story to become the hero. This is something we already do subconsciously with most good stories. We put ourselves in the hero’s place, imprinting ourselves onto characters like Neo or Frodo or Moana. Video games like Ocarina let us do this as well, in a much more tangible way.
Ocarina of Time is a classic struggle of good versus evil set in a wondrous, mythical world. It’s a story of self-sacrifice that both Link and the player must struggle through. The battle for the fate of Hyrule reflects our own struggle as Christians. When Ganondorf gets the Triforce of Power, he becomes immortal. Link and Zelda can never truly defeat him, and no matter how many times he is imprisoned, he will always eventually find a way out. This continues from generation to generation, with the ancestors of the two heroes carrying on the fight…until the goddesses return.
I really connect with this story. Sometimes the fight against Satan seems unending. Sometimes the same sins creep back into my life over and over, each time stronger than the last. God may give success in battle and Jesus has already dealt the killing blow, but until he returns I find the struggle never ends. My flesh wants to give up the fight, concede to the never ending onslaught, but Ocarina reminds me to persevere, that the fight is noble, and that it’s worth it.
Accomplishment, connection, moderation
Video games like Ocarina of Time can enrich our lives in simple or powerful ways, but like most good we’ve been given, they can be easy to abuse. Video games can be very dangerous, and we see this in gamer identity and culture.
Video games produce a measurable, psychological sense of achievement for essentially accomplishing…nothing. We can liken this to the feeling of finishing a puzzle, only stronger and more addictive. Marketers know and exploit this to the extreme, especially in mobile games such as Candy Crush. (This false sense of accomplishment was talked about in an episode from the first season of the All Things New Podcast.)
Though every video game affects us this way to some degree, I believe modern games exploit this to a much higher degree than games from Ocarina of Time’s era. This is likely the greatest danger in video games. They scratch an itch for something that you aren’t getting as much of or as easily elsewhere, without actually changing anything. They can scratch it so well you don’t feel the need to get out in the world and do real things.
This sense of accomplishment, combined with direct involvement in the story, makes it that much easier to blur the lines between story and reality. Before you know it, you’ve sunk months or even years into your Dark Elf avatar which you identify with more than the real you. It’s addictive, enslaving (I know from experience), and if you can’t control it you need to run.
Our sinful nature loves to twist good things until we either hate them so much that we also judge those who participate them, or love them so much we can’t separate who we are from them.
What we need is moderation. Moderation requires two things: affirming the good in something and disciplining ourselves in how we use it. Ocarina of Time shows that video games can be beautiful mediums for story. Also, many games—especially dungeon crawlers and platformers like Ocarina of Time—require strong problem solving skills, meaning video games can teach critical thinking and do so in creative and accessible ways.
Video games can also be shared. My friends and I have connected through video games for years. Ocarina of Time was a favorite for several high school friends and me. It’s a single player game, but we would just hand off the controller at significant bookends while others watched, talked, ate food and hung out. I still look back on these times fondly. Online play has its own pros and cons, but moderation is still vital. Online play can connect you with friends across town or the world, allowing you to have fun and work together. But online play can also lead to bullying or a lack of face-to-face relationships.
Step into their shoes
When it comes to the culture that has formed around gamer identity, I don’t have the answers for how the church can become a light. But I do know that it is much easier to alienate “gamers” than to understand and love them. Just as we must step into Link’s shoes to save the kingdom of Hyrule, we must look through the eyes of gamers to see what they love, while guiding them toward an identity firm in Christ, not in what they play.