This initial introductory post is about philosophy of religion as it relates to video games. To be clear, philosophy of religion is different than theology. Philosophers of religion generally study religious phenomena like a biologist might study some group of animals, while theologians actively construct and argue for the reality of God or religious experiences (or, lately, be less concerned with the issue of whether beliefs are true and argue for better practices within a tradition – think those who want women to be ordained in the Catholic Church). It is an issue of being an outsider or insider, though some people claim to be both… myself included.
You need to realize academics are, for the most part, out of touch with technology. That is changing as the next generation of graduate students gain doctoral degrees, but a lot of academic work on religion and games focuses on just figuring out what it is like to play a game. That being said, I am not going to torture you by recapping accounts of old men in tweed jackets playing The Davinci Code, The Chronicles of Narnia, and complaining about controls. Good deals of scholars have played Zelda, though, specifically Ocarina of Time. So that will be my initial lens to introduce their work to you. I don’t know why they all gravitated to that game.
From what I can tell, the main interest in examining religion in games is to discover whether religion in games can illuminate the way religious people behave in the real world and whether religious themes in games impact the way people think about their own religiosity. The thought process is as follows. Is religion just part of the setting in a game used to create an interesting story, or do religious element of a game impact the player’s worldview? Take an example of Zelda and young people. There are themes of leaving home, gaining responsibility, loneliness, setbacks, and yet conquering goals and finding strength. There is also a tree representing God yet becoming weaker by the moment. And the main enemies are human, not devils from another dimension. This reflects trends in actual religious commitment, as “God is dead” to growing number of secular people (religious affiliation it very low in Europe), and terrorists and other people are seen as more pressing threats than immorality, sin, and other vague terms.
At the same time, games are often about journeys fulfilling some sense of longing – for justice, home, eternal life. One argument is that openness in games opens players to previously unconsidered experiences, possibly religious ones. I find it funny that this theme is modeled in the way academics approach games, going from expecting them to be boring and pointless to being completely engrossed in a game. I read one psychologist who rationally convinced himself games are boring, but became emotionally invested in the experiences games provide. He even noted that solving a puzzle in a difficult game provided almost the same sense of accomplishment as success in his academic work. It is also odd that scholars of religion are great at recognizing the importance of symbols in religious groups, but lose that skill when studying games. Most focus one religion as presented as text on screen, not symbols and actions. They most easily see religion in text on screen, not mood or character actions – they are bad at noticing symbolism. I suspect ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, and Journey would be lost on them, though I see great religious themes and imagery at work in those games.
Back on topic: many games have the player overcome contingency. Beating a game involves moving from a state of contingency and the unpredictable to having complete control; not unlike the comfort many believers find in their creeds. But getting to that place of comfort is not easy. Rituals and rites of passage are part of both secular and religious life, but a question among philosophers of religion has been whether religious themes in games impact actual religious lives. Does playing time enrich experience and open new dimensions of experience or just interfere with daily life?
Many games mock religion or present heterodox (contrary to mainline official sanctioned teachings – though, again, many theologians including myself are more than a bit heterodox) versions of a religion. This is interesting because many people under the age of 40, and especially under 30, are critical of traditional religion and engage in alternative church communities. If you have heard of Emergence Christianity, that is one example, though I just want to be clear that I don’t endorse their theology – it is just a nice example of this phenomenon. I have also alluded to my own work being rather liberal a few times already, and it finds a tough audience with my colleagues who are 50 or older. Or take video games. Kratos gets Pandora’s Box to kill Gods. Xenogears has a group out to kill God. Furthermore, with games integrating player choice with ethically charged moments, combined with the heterodox nature of the religions presented, gaming religion could have real life consequences.
Catherine of Siena was a Christian mystic from the 1300s. Her words on the Eucharist (having snacks and booze in church): “This food strengthens little or much, according to the desire of the recipient, whether he receives sacramentally or virtually.” In other words, it is important to be engaged in what is otherwise an act of the imagination. Going to church for the sake of going to church doesn’t do much for anyone. I know running around my neighborhood with plastic guns and wearing camouflage would not have been the same if my friends and I did not buy in to the imaginative act. This is interesting for scholars of religion because much attention has been given to the physical participation in religious rituals.
Scientists have been interested in health, or lack thereof, and violence in games, while others argue they promote pro-social behavior (to come next time talking about science and games), and philosophers of religion are similarly interested if games can impact real-world religion. Do they satisfy psychologically in the same way as religion – providing community and transcending the material world? There is a tremendous mystery or fascination in games and religion, sometimes even a terrible fascination, which overwhelms the participant (think Patrick and his relation with horror games). The experience is ineffable. It cannot be described, but only experienced. Gamers know why they game even if outsiders don’t.
Religions imagine a better future, but games can let people actively engage in making a better future. Even more, Sony and Nintendo are exporting religions less familiar in the West than Christianity. This is important because modeling has become important in the philosophy of religion. Not too long ago the philosophy of religion amounted to a bunch of people with their favorite theories yelling at one another. But now theories of how religious beliefs started and how believers interact with each other and non-believers can be simulated in computer models. One main focus is how religions foster morality through group cooperation. And games offer good data of interaction with other players of NPCs in complex environments that may be better tools than artificial lab setups. World of Warcraft and, unfortunately, Second Life have been given lots of attention. How are new members treated? Are outsiders always seen as hostile? Are free-riders (people pretending to believe in a group’s system, religious or otherwise, just to gain the advantage of the group’s resources) detected or not? EVE Online would be fascinating in this regard, but I have not found anyone writing about it.
So, believe it or not, the popularity of games is influencing focus in religious studies. There has been a renewed focus on the body and ritual. Gaming is bodily, which is the first door to get players involved emotionally and psychologically. The issue is similar in religious studies. Bodies engage in rituals and, by enacting those rituals, create sacred acts. And to play is to transcend everyday material confinements. Maybe gamers are psychologically satisfied by the “play” in games to such an extent that organized religion is no longer needed, or maybe it heightens interest in what more might be out there.
Random notes not fitting into the narrative of this essay:
The term ‘avatar’ comes from Sanskrit and refers to the Hindu concept of a deity who takes on a human form. Those deities are actively involved in human life. Perhaps inhabiting an alternative identity through an avatar can facilitate imaginative engagement in spiritual quests and notions of good and evil.
Gamers may be empowered by the quests of games to create new real-world identities. With a focus on choice-making, gamers might learn about what they really seek in life and increase self-knowledge.
Gnostics make good and evil absolute – no gradations – and also make good and evil forces in the universe which actually fight. The Gnostic Gospels are not recognized as official by any major denomination, but have received attention from scholars.
Postmodern and womanist theologians have discarded abstract ideas and prefer theologies that empower people to make their local context better rather than dumping all responsibility on one God. Do games help this transition with their focus on community engagement?
Humans play (Olympics, NFL, game shows) and play is sacred, set off from the ordinary life, with its own rules that can differ from what we expect in profane living. The worlds we live in can contradict one another. They have semi-permeable boundaries with content leaking over the boundaries, so we cannot live in one, play in another, and avoid any conflict.