Theologists Love Games too! Thoughts about the Symposium Playing God: Religion and Videogames

On Friday 17 October, I attended the symposium Playing God: Religion and Videogames, organized by the Catholic University of TIlburg. The event was hosted by Frank Bosman, who wrote in his promotional text:

Within this emerging field of investigation on the interaction between video gaming and religion, theological inquiries and reflections are not among the popular topics to be discussed. Traditional or ‘classic’ Christian theological topoi like salvation, incarnation, sacrifice and Eschaton are nevertheless easy to be found in modern day video games, like the Mass Effect series and Bioshock. […] Can God be found in video games? And if so, how and where?


While I had seen a lot of writing on death in games, love in games, or darkness in games, I  had never seen them actively connected to the representation or experience of religion. I was really drawn to these questions, and was interested in seeing how religious scholars and theologists would discuss gaming. I subscribed.

In his introduction, Frank Bosman introduced the need for a religious discussion on games quite well. Drawing from different games, such as The Binding of Isaac, he showed that games incorporate religious motives and scripture. Remembrance and sacrifice (in Metro Last Light, for instance) are theological concepts through which we can understand particular rhetorical elements of games better.

Drawing from mythology, the first talk by Connie Veugen (VU Amsterdam) analyzed Gabriel Knight as a hero’s journey. Excited about the remake of the game, Veugen showed us examples of Gabriel’s development as a hero and connections to the scripture. She examined the games as a “micromyth”, a concept by Wendy Doniger coined in The Implied Spider, that signifies a neutral myth, “the non-existent story with no point of view”. As a heuristic device, the micromyth bears relations to concepts like archetype/prototype, but also echoes divisions in literary studies between story and plot. The macromyth, then, are the concrete myths and examples – the different crosscultural versions of a myth. Veugen explained Gabriel Knight as an expression of the micromyth “the hero king” in which a hero is finally empowered, similar to the Arthurian legend. She gave a close-reading of Gabriel Knight and showed us many references to scripture, religion and mythology in the games.

Spiritual play was adressed in the second lecture, based on a larger project by Stef Aupers. He was represented by his colleague Julian Schaap who summarized the project and his own empirical research on religion and MMO’s. He had interviewed many World of Warcraft players (both regular players as well as role-players), and was interested in seeing if the religious motives of the game had affected their game play and world views. Spiritual play, in his research, did not pertain to religion per se but to a looser engagement with spiritual matters. By questioning this, he wanted to conceptualize religiosity as a sliding scale between belief and non-belief. Unfortunately, many religious studies still position people on one end of the scale, whereas hardcore believers and atheists are actually dififcult to find in real life. Playing WoW as an atheist is nearly impossible, it depicts a variety of religions, and magic and the holy light are key motives. Of course, magic also means power in this game – it is real, material and visceral, which also affects how the game has to be interpreted. His interviewees had been inspired by the game to dabble in religion a bit. Even if they were not believers in real life, they enjoyed this unique space of play. The magic circle was safe, and they could experiment with their world views.

Peter Versteeg followed up on this with his study of EVE Online. He viewed MMOs not as religious per se, but as a medium that had potential for experiencing religious views and representing religion in different ways. Versteeg played a religious fanatic of the Amarr race in EVE, and drew from those experiences. What an MMO can do, is offer exploration of world views and reflections on matters such as death. Versteeg was in favor of a ludological approach to gaming (which led to some heated debates after his talk), by which he meant that games had to be understood as performances and a form of social interaction. “They are praxis, not text”, he summarized. Communication in games, and the formation of cultures in gaming, was the most important to him. (Note that for many  scholars this would not be a standard ludological approach, which would focus more on the formal characteristics and rules in a game). For Versteeg, a good approach to a complex game would be focussing on practices and communication or, in other words, “study it as an internet subculture”. His example of such complex player behavior and practices were graveyards in EVE, where lost pilots in space were remembered. This also supported his argument on the meaning of death in the game, which was innately tied up to a memory culture.

Decision-making in games was the last topic, as discussed by Tobias Knoll. He is researching the morality systems in games for his PhD thesis. By relying on interactivity, morality in games has a unique position when compared to other media. Games depend on our input, choice and ethical decision making. Knoll showed us that good moral decisions in games often fail, because they often rely on a dichotomy and are innately tied up to rewards. He gave an example from Star Wars: The Old Republic, in which you can choose between helping a family with an artefact, or using it for yourself to forge a light saber. He had a problem with these kind of decisions and also with the point systems that often keep track of them. You will recognize these decisions from Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and other games, no doubt. Knoll had formulated some critique against them and also worried, because in many cases these choices don’t really matter for the plot. (You can destroy the Geth in Mass Effect 2, but then in Mass Effect 3 you just get a new Geth character). It seems that there are games that give good feedback and choices (e.g., The Walking Dead by TellTales), but these emphasize narrativity and branching.

It was a cheerful conference – media scholars were inspired with some new ideas to look at games, while scholars of religion got new views on how religion can be performed and represented in different media. What also helped was the theology department had a cat – a big ginger called Theo – who walked into the conference from time to time. If every faculty had a cat like this, academia would undoubtedly be less hostile. Yes, that would be awesome.

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