Gaming’s “Pay to Win” Dilemma: Pulling Zacchaeus Out of the Tree (Luke 19:1-9)

It started off small and innocuously enough… first it was the over-priced and fairly pointless horse armor in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.  It was a moderately innocent attempt to create additional revenue for the game developer through offering items of cosmetic personalization or moderate in-game buffs.  Online games would utilize features such as auction houses to allow gamers to offer their hard-earned in-game items for real world cash to other players and enabling them to use items that they had not been unable to obtain through natural in-game means.  But then the flood gates opened… completed games were shipped with entire segments hidden behind a pay wall requiring the purchaser to fork over additional currency to unlock what was already included on the disc.  So called “Free to Play” games online are anything but.  And now we have a true crisis… games such as the recently released NBA2K and Middle-Earth: Shadow of War as well as the upcoming Star Wars Battlefront II that essentially rewards those with the most real-world money to spend on upgrades and the equivalent of in-game lottery tickets with advantages over those who merely bought the game.

On one hand, developing games is an expensive business. And as we unfortunately have seen over the last few years even the largest studios are one under-performing title away from closing their doors for good, so wringing every last dollar out of their investment is the new normal.  But that extra channel of income has typically come through the veins of new content such as multiplayer maps or expansions, or perhaps in-game items that only impacted the single-player experience.  Now that studios are offering game players the ability to supplement their online abilities by simply purchasing the skills that they have not developed through natural means, the world of online gaming is rapidly shifting into a dangerous model that threatens to break the competitive environment into a real-world class system… those who have the money to purchase the best stuff, and those who could barely afford to pay for the game in the first place.

Is this a case of the “have-nots'” rebelling against the “haves”?  An extension of the revolt against those we deem as “over-privileged” finding yet one more advantage in life against those of us below their strata?  Or is there something further beneath the surface that causes us to react so vehemently against the concept of “pay to win”?  As always, the answer to even these seemingly futuristic and technological dilemmas can be found in Scripture.  In Luke 19 we find the familiar story of Zacchaeus.  Yes, that Zacchaeus.  The short one that you may have sung songs about in Sunday School.  But let’s look a little bit deeper at the issues that simmered beneath the surface and we might just find answers for our own responses to our “modern-era” struggles.  If you are not familiar with his case, Zacchaeus was a tax collector.  In our day and age that would not make you the winner of any popularity contests, but in his era he was considered less of an IRS agent and more of a traitor.  Collecting taxes for the evil Roman Empire from his own subjugated people placed him in a special realm of hatred by the Jewish people, and the common practice of tax collectors leveraging their position to line their pockets by over-taxing the people was the icing on a pretty bitter cake.

But as we find the high on life but short in stature Zacchaeus on this day, he is just another face in the crowd desperate to see Jesus as he was walking through town.  And nobody was going to allow this already disliked tax collector a spot at the front of the line.  So he improvised by racing ahead and climbing a tree so he would not miss his moment to see who Jesus was.  When Christ passed by his way a stunning and remarkable thing occurred… Jesus saw beyond the wealthy robes of a tax collector who had been fleecing his people and into the heart of someone who was risking their reputation just for the chance to see the Son of God.  And that spark of faith was rewarded when God decided to come and stay with Zacchaeus in his house that day.

Now that was not met with cheers by the crowd.  No, they were none too thrilled about the idea that this guy who had scammed his way through life was not receiving the ultimate reward, and they quickly made their discontent known as they complained that the Son of God was staying as the guest of a man who is a sinner.  Rather than seeing the opportunity for this man to make a life-altering decision to turn to Christ, the mob only saw that he was once again receiving something he didn’t deserve.  But a funny thing happened as the scenario unfolded… the “evil” tax collector pledged half of his belongings to the poor and then an additional repayment of four times what he had overcharged anyone.  And as the story ends with Christ explaining that He had come to seek and save the lost, the reality of this hits home.   Where others only saw what he was, Christ saw what Zacchaeus would become.  He didn’t see his riches, as ill-gotten as they may have been, as a liability but rather as an opportunity.  Many people would become blessed by the outpouring of wealth that resulted from that day, and most importantly a lost child of God was found.

It is easy to become frustrated when others have advantages in a game simply because they have the ability to pay more than I do.  But the truth is that they are funding the games that I love in a way that I can’t, even if it is giving them a competitive advantage by doing so.  The truth is I don’t want any more gaming studios to close their doors, and I want more games like Star Wars Battlefront to continue to be made.  And while I may disagree with how they are funding their future growth, if I stop supporting the games that I love simply because they make creative choices I disagree with than those games and the studios that make them may disappear entirely.  And from the point of view of Jesus and his view of Zacchaeus, it is clear He identified Zacchaeus as a sinner.  A person deeply flawed and unworthy of even a moment of God’s time.  Guess what?  So am I.  We all are.  And if we were discredited for salvation based on our status as lost children of God, none of us would ever become saved.   And yet Jesus looked past that the same way He does with each of us and saw the sheep He was sent to save.

I am thankful that the Lord doesn’t listen to those that we have wronged in our past when they complain that we are unworthy of His love or His blessing.  None of us deserve a single one of God’s gifts.  And like the brother of the prodigal son, many people will take umbrage when God lavishly blesses His fallen children.  My eternal destiny is based on the unwarranted and unearned grace and love of God, and so I have no right to resent the gifts that others may receive even if I feel that they received them more freely than I did.  We are blessed to have one more breath, one more heartbeat, and another day of life from the Lord.  Not everyone received those gifts today.  And in a world where “pay to win” is becoming more of the rule than the exception, it is important that we never forget that we have been living off of house money the whole time.  So if you want to buy your way to success, I won’t be one of those hating on ya… your funding made it possible for both of us to see this game grow and continue into the future and insure my children and grandchildren get to enjoy an icy battle on Hoth in Star Wars Battlefront 28.

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