Posted by Paul_Tillich (185 posts) -

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.

#1 Edited by theoreticalpunch (7 posts) -

I believe you might find this article ( to be interesting and relevant to what you've posted here. It doesn't speak specifically about religion, but it does contain the idea about how players approach games impacting how it affects them, I think you'll find it resonates quite well with some of your points.

#2 Edited by Paul_Tillich (185 posts) -
#3 Edited by theoreticalpunch (7 posts) -

@paul_tillich: You're welcome, I hope you find it useful. Oh, and I forgot to mention, but I enjoyed reading your post and look forward to reading more.

#4 Posted by Kaibar (84 posts) -

Nice first article :D I'm looking forward to reading more from you!

I've not read much about philosophy of religion, especially not in the context of gaming, so this stuff is new to me. Which of course makes it all the more interesting! I especially liked your idea of gaming as having similar transcendental properties to religious practices. Although I think that a lot of art, or music, and probably also drugs could be described as having that same quality of transporting one to a different plane, if that makes sense.

Also, for future articles, maybe it's just my bad English, but I didn't fully understand the paragraphs where you used what's probably standard lingo in religious studies. Like the last paragraph, where you talk about gaming being 'bodily'. What exactly does that mean, and is it opposed to, say, the mental? Anyway, it would be nice if you explained stuff like that since I doubt that many people here are used to that kind of terminology.

#5 Edited by Paul_Tillich (185 posts) -

@kaibar: Transcendent properties would not be unique to gaming, and they have been written about in relation to music and art. I will do my best to make these things readable, but may be confusing from time to time. So just keep pointing it out.

Bodily really just means using your body to do something. Some people find the act of taking part in a religious ritual at least as important as a system of beliefs. Many people get caught up in the moment of a ritual and forget about the beliefs. So some argue taking part in group practices is more important that a list of beliefs. Similarly, in games you move, even if it is just fingers, and are actively involved in making your character's action appear on screen. That, combined with non-traditional representations of religion, has made a few people I read think games could be contributing factors in young people being non-religious or engaging religion in ways that contradict orthodox teachings (most young people in churches support gay marriage, for example). This is just an idea at the moment, as far as I can tell, and not something that has been tested by polling young religious people.

#6 Posted by EpicSteve (6499 posts) -

Good work! There's totally a place for scholarly style essays about games. Not a lot of folks are doing that, let alone successfully. Keep it up!

#7 Posted by Brodehouse (10140 posts) -

You've made some assertions throughout but I was hoping for more examples used to state these specific cases. It would consider it worth to actually delve into Ocarina's subtext rather than merely refer to it in passing. Perhaps you just intend for this to serve as an introductory paragraph to a thesis to be represented in further articles. The meat will be the interesting part, the examples themselves in the perspective of a philosophy. The Ocarina example is actually quite interesting, is there a larger work already completed it comes from?

I do have to disagree with the statement that religion fosters morality and cooperation in a group dynamic. I would argue instead that it is the group dynamic itself that fosters religions. That religion is the symptom of group identity and not the cause. Groups adopt models of reciprocity, altruism, and common cause which leads to group identity, which is then codified in religion. Religion then becomes the vector through which group identity is most easily prescribed, but not originated. It requires substantial force to modify group identity to align with religion, while religion aligning with group identity is crucial to its propagation.

#8 Posted by Paul_Tillich (185 posts) -

@brodehouse: Yes, this is just an introduction. Before I give you my own thoughts I wanted to make this post and one more which survey the work of other academics. They will be a little shallow, as you note, because 1. The articles I have read are by people who seem more than a little unfamiliar with games, but are taking them seriously and trying to learn something, and 2. There are not a ton of articles or books out there on this topic. When I start giving you my own thoughts I will be giving more sources and deeper arguments. Again, I just wanted to give an indication of the kinds of things that have attracted academics to video games without injecting too many of my own arguments.

Regarding group dynamics, what I presented here is the majority opinion in the cognitive sciences of religion. But I don't think it contradicts what you say. It is not that religion came first, then group cohesion and morality. Rather, successful early humans had already formed groups whose members cooperate and follow rules, and religion became a tool, so to speak, which helped them do so even more successfully compared to groups without religion. As biologists, people doing this kind of research are thinking of what function religion could be selected for, and group cohesion seems a likely candidate. I can say more about why they think religion would provide a sort of competitive advantage if you want to learn more about the problems of strong reciprocity (helping an individual or group you will never meet again, and thus receive no gift in return for helping), free-riders, and how minimally counter-intuitive concepts found in different religions could be solutions. However, that should probably be its own essay.

#9 Posted by ninjalegend (464 posts) -

"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."

This is interesting to me. As one of your loud atheists, I can tell you those lessons are and were dealt with long before monotheistic religion. A simple understanding of the human species will set you on the correct path. The tree could be a symbol of a decaying society or idea. If I may be so bold, I would like to see your analysis on ideas in videogames that are intrinsic to monotheistic religion. The only examples I can think of paint it kind of dark. I think the chemical rush of dopamine from the belief in an unconditional love from a powerful being would be hard to emulate in a game. Maybe a look into how religion come about for a race/culture. To what end was it brought over? How or why has it changed?

I don't know where to go from there. I have a lot more interest in movements, culture and the science and history that envelope the religions of the ages.

#10 Posted by Paul_Tillich (185 posts) -

@ninjalegend: Thanks for the idea. And, by the way, I am technically an atheist according to the language of some technical theological debates since I have argued that whatever can reasonably be considered ultimate reality cannot be a being as traditionally designated by the word "God."

If I can only respond to one of your points for now, I work for a neuroscience lab in California that began some experiments with religious groups and individuals over the last several years. While we measured dopamine, we were focusing on oxcytocin - a chemical highly triggered by moments of intense interpersonal bonding. Breastfeeding mothers and babies release A TON of it. I cannot spell out specifics at the moment, but it seems religious groups form communities in part because that chemical is released during religious rituals. But it is also released by sports teams chanting together, and even when people get feedback on facebook and twitter. I'm probably receiving a dose of it from people actually reading my words here and responding with interesting questions.

Any religious experience is going to involve some elements of mundane everyday life if it is to be something capable of actually being experienced by human beings. The issue is one of intensity and which everyday elements are combined in the right context. My Master's thesis advisor was fond of saying some religious symbols can be utterly false in one context while of the utmost meaning in another, because the content those symbols carry over to the religious person interpreting them.

So while I will indeed think about your suggestion of investigating intrinsic ideas, your noting that "The tree could be a symbol of a decaying society or idea... I think the chemical rush of dopamine from the belief in an unconditional love from a powerful being would be hard to emulate in a game" is a great insight. Because the components making up a religion are both borrowed from secular society and different than that society.

#11 Posted by sawtooth (459 posts) -

Great write up. Thanks for posting this.

Fascinating to read thoughts on games as a substitute for religion.

I wrote some thoughts on Xenoblade as an allegory for religion but it's mostly just brash connections based on my limited knowledge of christian theology.

#12 Edited by Fredchuckdave (6173 posts) -
#13 Posted by audioBusting (1649 posts) -

I've finally got around to reading this, and this is great! When's the next post coming?

I'm also kinda curious about the other academics' works you mentioned. Can you list some of them?

#14 Edited by Paul_Tillich (185 posts) -

@audiobusting: Thanks. I live in Boston, so there have been... "other things" going on lately. That being said, I just sat down to start writing the next one.