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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Star Wars Battlefront II: A Letter From The Empire and Hearing From the Other Side (Daniel 1-4)

Star Wars Battlefront 2 looks to be the title we all really wanted the first Battlefront to be… in addition to its expanded multiplayer we are finally getting an honest to goodness campaign mode, and it’s not just some lackluster play through the multiplayer maps but an actual fully realized story.  What excites me about this is that the other side of the story will be told… the story of the Empire troops who stood on the planet Endor and watched the Death Star along with all of their friends, comrades, and possibly family explode in the sky at the end of Return of the Jedi.  For them this was not a happy culmination of many years of battle erupting in a lively dance-off with the local Ewoks.  This was a stunning, unthinkable defeat that left them marooned on an even more hostile planet with no idea what to do next.  It will be a fascinating story to experience and present a point of view too rarely explored in almost all forms of media… the “bad guy’s perspective”.

The most compelling villains to watch, read about, or play against are the ones who truly believe they are the hero of their own story.  They don’t do things simply because they are evil or wrong.  They exhibit a rationale that makes sense from their side of the equation and when their story is written correctly they take the necessary actions to fulfill what they perceive as their destiny.  Their downfall is that they are typically on the wrong side of history and as a result we only hear the story from the side of the winning team, typically because the villains tend to meet their final end in a blaze of glory that limits their biographical options down the road.  As a matter of fact, many times the hero they are facing is just as morally compromised as the villain is, but our hero simply makes the right choices when it matters the most as the antagonist falls victim to their own machinations and selfish ambitions.

Maybe we see so few of these stories because it’s easier to root for the hero when his adversary is a moustache-twirling psychopath bent on killing innocent people while our hero is virtuous, kind, and helps the elderly across the street while assisting them with their taxes.  A villain who is more complex and walks the same path as our hero but does so on the other side of the street complicates things quite a bit.  But what if we could get into the mind of the bad guy and actually see the events play out from their perspective?  What would we find there and how would we use this to see everything from a much broader perspective?  What if, like in Battlefront, these enemies had simply enlisted in the military, believed the propaganda they were taught, and obediently fought for their current government against a group of rebels until their chain of command exploded in the sky above them?

The Bible, like most of our historical documents, was written by the victors and the survivors.  It is a collection of history, letters, songs and wisdom from people who were inspired by God throughout time to record the events of their day or the experiences of their lives.  As a result, we find the story of David and Goliath but it is only told from David’s point of view.  We learn about the fall of Jerusalem, but it is from the eyes and mouths of the newly incarcerated Jews and not their captors.  It is not often we get the viewpoint of the opposing side in the conflicts recorded in the Bible, so when we do it is important that we stop and pay attention because a special message is about to be shared.

In the first four chapters of the book of Daniel two figures loom large… the young and ultra-heroic Daniel and the conqueror of Jerusalem and king of the Babylonian Empire, Nebuchadnezzar.  Spell check, have fun with that one.  Babylon was truly one of the first “evil world empires”.  Before that there were great civilizations and powerful kings, but Babylon was on an entirely different level.  They were a conquering force that had never tasted defeat in their conquests, and their society was much more sophisticated than previous world powers.  Rather than simply destroying those they conquered, they took the best and the brightest from them and integrated them into the tapestry of Babylonian culture so they could continue to grow into the greatest empire on earth.  This is how Daniel and his friends end up in the courts of the king, and from the word go King Nebuchadnezzar exudes a level of brazenness and pride that threatens to completely undermine his vast accomplishments as the leader of the world.

To be honest, the first three chapters show Nebuchadnezzar to be a raging psychopath of a tyrant who is simply impossible to understand or relate to.  He brings evil moustache twirling to a whole new level as he does typical villain things such as threaten to kill all his advisors because they lacked the capability of knowing what he had dreamt of that night or when he builds a gigantic golden statue of himself and demands everyone to worship it or be burnt alive.  Pretty horrible super-villain stuff, right?  And you would be correct in saying that at this point, Nebuchadnezzar is just another stereotypical evil bad guy who is out of control and needs someone like Moses to come in and take him down a notch.  But that isn’t quite what happens…

In Daniel chapter four the authorship of the en tire book switches… to the perspective of King Nebuchadnezzar himself.  And we are about to finally get an auto-biographical look at the man behind the monster.  And the interesting thing about this is that what is found in the first three verses doesn’t sound like something a depraved king would write, but rather sound like something we would find in one of David’s Psalms as he praises the one true God and extols His kingdom.  Wait, WHAT?  How did we go from “burn them alive” to this?  Fortunately, the full scene will be laid bare before us, and once again is starts with a dream.  This time Nebuchadnezzar actually remembers the dream, but his advisors are still unable to interpret it. The king summons Daniel (side note: why didn’t he just call him first, since this is his specialty?) and the Lord reveals the meaning of the this new dream as well.  The prognosis is not positive.

The king’s dream is about him, as the Lord uses the figure of a giant tree being cut down to symbolize the fall from grace that was about to occur for Nebuchadnezzar.  And as he finishes telling the king what the dream meant, Daniel finishes with a plea for the king to change his ways and walk away from his sinful life so that this would not happen to him.  For an entire year after the dream the king continued to build his empire, expanding his influence and gaining riches and power.  But it seems Daniel’s words of caution did not penetrate the king’s heart, and the dream that was so real just a year earlier now was a distant memory.  Blinded by the success he had experienced and the incredible kingdom he had built, the king decided to talk a walk and survey his accomplishments.  While staring out from his palace over his majestic city in Daniel 4:30 he utters these fatal and arrogant words, “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for a royal dwelling by my mighty power and for the honor of my majesty?”.  Even after seeing the power of God exhibited so many times through Daniel and his friends, Nebuchadnezzar failed to give the God of heaven credit for all he had received and the Lord finally had enough.

In perhaps one of the strangest riches-to-rags stories in the whole Bible, the Lord teaches the king a lesson he would never forget.  He stripped the king of his mental faculties and gave him the mind of an animal, and this great king was run out of the palace to eat grass from the ground like a cow and live with animals in the fields.  For a period of time the Bible records as “seven times” he lived as an animal, until his hair grew long like feathers and his nails like the claws of a bird.  This could have been seven years or seven seasons or some other manner of measurement, but the bottom line is for an extended period of time the king ceased to be an actual human, much less a king.  Can you imagine?  What a fall, from the heights of glory to a common animal.  That has to be hard to explain on your resume… “This gap in my employment?  Oh, ummmm, I kinda did this natural lifestyle thing for about seven years.  Really became one with the land, you know?”

It is pretty hard to relate to Nebuchadnezzar on the surface.  I mean, I haven’t had too many opportunities to build giant golden statues, but I am pretty sure even if someone came up to me and asked if I would like to make the world worship golden statues of me, I would say no.  That seems like a reasonable response.  But let’s look beyond the actions and into the motives, because buried within the actions of the king are the motives of a person no different from you or me.  The king had accomplished many great things in his military and political career, but he made the fatal mistake of believing that he was responsible for them in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary.  The key difference between our hero and our villain is that one was aware of where his preferential treatment came from and gave thanks to God for it, and the other took all the credit for it.  And that is a battle we all grapple with, each and every day.  I know I do, and I don’t even accomplish anything of significance beyond doing my job and trying (and often failing) to meet the demands of being a husband and a father.  It can be easy to take the credit for your achievements and believe that something about you made good things happen, but the truth is that while God gives each of us talents and opportunities to use them He is still the reason we experience any success in life, small or large.

So then we get this incredibly unique chapter in Daniel, this letter from the other side.  Nebuchadnezzar provides us his unique perspective on these events as only a man who has shared a buffet table spot with the cows and enjoyed some quality rest with the local wildlife can do.  He tells us of his dream and his warning from Daniel, and how he failed to heed the warning for an entire year.  After twelve months of patience the Lord fulfilled His promise and stripped the king of his humanity, but after the king had learned his lesson the Lord restored not only his mental faculties but upon Nebuchadnezzar’s repentant acknowledgment of the Lord as the one true God he received back his kingdom and all he had lost.  Only now he was a wiser and much more appreciative king who understood that all that he had accomplished and all he possessed were merely a gift that could be very easily taken away.

I find that the incredible thing about this story is not Nebuchadnezzar’s fall from his lofty position and his eventual redemption, although that is pretty remarkable.  What I find most amazing about this is that the eternal God, the One who was the true recipient of the king’s insulting world view as well as the Lord of the servants that the king had been attempting to murder, chose to give this evil king an opportunity to change.  Granted, the method was pretty severe, but after all Nebuchadnezzar had done to Daniel and his friends not to mention the entire nation of Israel it is stunning that God did not simply wipe this man off the face of the earth for his insolence.  But God saw within this arrogant king a heart that had the capacity to repent and do right, and the long-suffering Lord that we serve gave him a space to do exactly that.  And He still does the same for each of us each and every day.

We all fall.  We all make poor choices, and while most of these will not reduce us to the mental acuity of livestock they certainly come with their share of challenging repercussions.  But as Nebuchadnezzar’s experience showed us, the Lord eagerly awaits for us to come to our senses and recognize His authority over our situation as well as His ownership of all that we call ours, including our accomplishments.  I still need this lesson regularly, but I am thankful that I serve a God who knows my frailties and provides an opportunity to seek repentance to me and each of us no matter how far off the path we have fallen.  If Nebuchadnezzar can find his way back, then there is plenty enough grace available for all.  No matter what you have done or how far away you are, if a man who inhumanely conquered and devastated God’s own people and attempted to murder and/or flame-broil the survivors can come back, you and I can too!