Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Video Games and the American Academy of Religion

The September 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Literature contains a rather intriguing article about religious studies and video games. Entitled “Gaming Religionworlds: Why Religions Studies Should Pay Attention to Religion in Gaming,” the article is actually a “roundtable” that consists of several short pieces from several authors.

What this article is not: an in-depth, widespread exploration of theological themes and narratives within video games.

What this article is: essentially several authors detailing that preliminary scholarship over the past few years concerning religion and gaming confirms the legitimacy and relevancy of the scholarship. They then, in their own ways, propose ways and means that such scholarship should and must continue.

So why am I writing this? This has nothing to do with comic books. Maybe not, but it does deal with pop culture, of which comic books share similar territory. Plus I just found it interesting that the AAR would explore video games so officially (maybe they’ll recruit me when they get around to comic books, since I’ve presented comic book-centric papers twice at regional AAR meetings).

Rachel Wagner begins with discussing “Four Lenses for Viewing Religion and Gaming.” Her main point is that religious studies of video games go far beyond merely pointing out that, hey, some games talk about religion sometimes. That is, though, the first lens, religion in gaming, the depictions of traditional religious elements in the narrative.

The second lens gets a little more complex. This lens, religion as gaming, suggests that religious practice can be thought as a type of “play,” and not in any derogatory or dismissive sense. Wagner explains this lens “includes the comparative and functionalist observation that religion, in some of its manifestations, exhibits features (including play) that render it possible to read religious practice as similar to gaming in some respects.”1 Yeah, that’s fairly abstract, but basically says that participating in both games and religion require an individual to follow specific rules and partake in specific actions and events.

The third lens concerns gaming as religion and states that playing video games can achieve religious-like heights. The community surrounding games, as well as the time, effort, and even finances spent on gaming can bare similarities with such aspects of religious communities.

Gaming in religion rounds at the list as the last lens, and deals with the games that religious communities play. This immediately brings up awkward memories of playing Bible Pictionary in Sunday School or, worse yet, outdoor games involving egg tossing and water balloons during Wednesday night activities. But it also makes me think of that Bible Adventures game for Nintendo that my parents bought us. It wasn’t that great, but my brother and I spent hours collecting all the animals for the Noah’s Ark segment. Seriously, I recall watching the end game cutscene for that numerous times. But all those qualify as gaming in religion, as well as certainly a plethora of other games played throughout time.

While this all might sound neat, it still probably seems rather trivial and unnecessary. But then, so does the idea of exploring religion and comic books, and that has been a fascinating, wild ride for me. So, before we dismiss this concept prematurely, just consider the amount of money consumers spend on video games. A hit game like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto will earn far more upon release than the biggest movie will at the box office. More intimately, Wagner says, “Humans seek order, meaning, and purpose – and religion and gaming are two of the places we most often turn for these comforts.”2

In the next section, “Grand Theft Otto,” Shanny Luft touches on many of the same points. Video games warrant serious religious scholarship because many video games contain religious content, religious people are playing more games, and the subject of play. Play is most often overlooked, but could be the most fruitful area of study.

How do people play games, and how does that act of play impact the player beyond the realm of the game? Luft details one player that was so uncomfortable participating in the baptism scene in Bioshock Infinite that he refused to proceed in the game and even returned it.

Further, Luft offers an intriguing question I haven’t considered before. Luft asks, “How have processing speed and storage capacity transformed depictions of religion in video games?”3 Does the greater sense of immersion granted by technological advances lead to a deeper religious experience?

Next, Rabia Gregory writes about the variety of video game players in “Cyborg Chimeras and the Organic Meatbags: Gender, Religion, and the History of Video Games.” Basically, Gregory proposes that people who play video games are not homogeneous and don’t all experience the same game the same way. A person’s unique characteristics greatly affect how he or she plays a game.

And then Gregory wins me over by referencing HK-47. “To echo the accusation of HK-47, an Assassin Droid in the popular roleplaying game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, thus far scholars of religion in video games have preferred to ignore that gamers are “organic meatbags,” rational animals of flesh and blood, preferring to study games and gamers as if the technologies enabling gameplay erase the player’s gender, class, race, and perhaps even religious affiliation.”4

In “The Spawn Point: Toward a Critical Study of Religion In Digital Games,” Gregory Price Grieve also states that young white males do not comprise the whole of the video game community. Grieve also agrees with Wagner’s earlier point that religion and video games “both create lived worlds of meaning” and could therefore be studied in similar ways.

Towards the end of this short piece Grieve brings up the topic of violence in video games. He states that most approaches to video game scholarship attempts to apologize for violent content or explain it away as somehow non-essential to the experience. Sure, many games exist and are void of violence, but the vast majority, especially among the most popular games, are exceedingly violent. Grieve suggests that instead of apologizing for the violence, we should study it and try to understand it. In the context of religion and video games, why does violence seem so inherent to the act and experience of play? Does violence play a comparative role in how we “play” religion (crucifixion, scapegoating, etc.)?

“Global Perspectives and Actor-Centered Research in the Study of Religion and Digital Games,” the final selection in this roundtable article, highlights the player as a focus of study. Xenia Zeiler, the author, argues that instead of just exploring religious narratives in games, scholars should investigate the players, or “actors,” that engage these narratives. Unlike movies, a person doesn’t merely observe the narrative in video games, but actually interacts and participates with it. Zeiler also advises that religion and video game scholarship must expand beyond the Western and largely Christian contexts it currently focuses on.

So, this is all a wealth of dense ideas to unpack and consider. Like I said at the start, this roundtable article doesn’t go into extreme detail on any one point. The authors present a survey of how religion and video games are currently being studied and possible paths to explore in the future.

So what do I think about religion and video games? Well, growing up, a group of guys at my church would frequently get together and hold LAN parties. I look back fondly on those times and confess I probably found that form of “fellowship” more worthwhile than any officially sanctioned church event. Just in general, video games present a pretty good topic of conversation. I am admittedly not well adept at making small talk, and I don’t follow sports much, so video games frequently present a common ground upon which I can bond with others. Sad to say, I’m much more likely to meet someone that regularly plays video games than regularly reads comic books.

I definitely think, which should surprise no one familiar with my opinion of comic books, that the study of religion and video games is valid scholarship, and probably rather fun. The points brought up in this article intrigue me, especially the topic of religious practice and ritual as a form of play. If we view religion like this, then could my disillusionment with the church be a form of ludonarrative dissonance? How does the actor or player reconcile that the narrative of self-sacrificial love of your neighbor does not match the play or practice of preserving our own “Christian” self-interests and status?

1Heidi A. Campbell, Rachel Wagner, Shanny Luft, Rabia Gregory, Gregory Price Grieve, and Xenia Zeiler, “Gaming Religionworlds: Why Religious Studies Should Pay Attention to Religion in Gaming,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 84 (September 2016): 644.
2Ibid., 645.
3Ibid., 649.

4Ibid., 652.

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