Video Games and Religion

Amit Majmudar
August 18, 2013
Comments 7

 

A worldwide majority of people have claimed, for centuries, that they believe in, and want to go to, heaven. Whether heaven exists has always been a matter of debate, but I find it equally up in the air whether people really want to go there at all. When it comes to heaven, people may be lying to themselves two ways at once.

Because heaven must get pretty boring. This has to do with its stasis; its unvarying bliss, devoid of any contrasting emotions by whose paradoxical grace we might treasure or even perceive bliss; its perfectly certain future, which is eternal continuance; and above all its absence of conflict. Still worse, you are denied the company of flawed people, who are, let’s face it, a vast and interesting tribe.

This is why the human race, over the past 30 years—roughly my life span—has aggressively developed simulated realities that have very little in common with the  concept of heaven as described in traditional religion. The place to look for the truest, deepest human fantasies about the afterlife is gaming. There’s no spiritually correct nonsense there, just pure choice. Game designers are free to design an environment; game players are free to elect or not to elect to enter it. Inevitably, when analyzing video games, your conclusions will be skewed toward young males, but it’s still worth studying the kinds of worlds in which gamers elect to spend their time.

If we zoom out on the evolution of games, we see that, as more or less anything has become possible, games have done the following:

1.)      They have increased the detail of their environments. We don’t want to experience soft-focus glowiness. We prefer the grittiness of a textured reality.

2.)     They have preserved conflict, but in a simplified form. We don’t mind fighting. We like a good fight. But only when we know exactly whom we are supposed to kill and can do it without guilt (zombies, Nazis, etc.). We dislike moral ambiguity, pain, and guilt, not conflict itself. Hence the popularity of war simulations.

3.)      They have perfected first-person simulation. Earlier in gaming history, the character controlled onscreen was often an externally observed character (as in the game that ate up plenty of my time growing up, Contra). Many of today’s most popular online games are first-person shooter games—the descendants of Duck Hunt, not the then-far-more-popular Super Mario Brothers. In other words, we want to stay embodied. Even when we say the soul leaves the body behind or whatever, we conceptualize both the damned and the Blessed (cf. Dante’s Commedia and practically every other description of the afterlife) as embodied beings.

4.)    They have preserved a sense of a goal and the sense of a progression toward that goal. This is why you can pause or save your game and return to a level. In the worst case (where you have to start at the beginning), you still retain sufficient skill in the game from having recently played it; earlier levels can be cleared quickly and further progress made toward beating the game. This implies that we want to get to the winner’s circle—but we don’t want to live there. We want to start a different game and return ourselves to fresh difficulties. Heaven is a kind of winner’s circle, and accordingly it is of interest to us only as a goal, not as a permanent residence. Games, after they are beaten, end. There’s very little code spent on creating a congratulatory environment to be savored after the final level has been cleared. Too much dwelltime there would strike a gamer as a waste of time, which an eternity singing perfectly-pitched hosannahs may well be.

5.)      They have allowed for multiple lives. The most famous cheat code for Contra was the one that gave you unlimited lives. In some games, you can die more than once; in other games, even after your one “death,” it’s still a purely conceptual dying, as you can restart and play again, having learned what you did wrong. This relates to the sense of progression: We don’t want our skills to be lost when we die, and we want to come back until we get things right.

So we see how many of these game elements consist of the high-fidelity replication of the appearance and conditions of the real world. The main changes made to the real world are the cutting-out of death and uncertainty (religion attempts to do the same thing, notice, through low-tech linguistic means). What people really want is not a conflict-devoid eternal life, but unlimited lives in which to refine their performance in the struggle. This struggle. Our games, it turns out, reflect a very different fantasy of the afterlife: reincarnation.

 

7 thoughts on “Video Games and Religion

  1. Wonderful comments everyone–wish I could respond to them all.
    Specifically, though, @ Mr. Schrager: Do you really believe the concept of heaven originated in medieval Europe? Or that all medieval Europeans lived in some kind of state of siege? And we perceive their lives as “short”–in relation to our expectations; their society couldn’t compare itself to one where the average life span is 75. That’s why we today say a person died “young” when they pass away at 50. (50 was once “old.”) Might yr perspective stem from a 21st century American image of medieval Europeans? They were way more complex than the mindless churchgoing drones we make them out to be. And they too knew boredom (“accidie” or “acedia”) and enjoyed simulations of bloodshed–though their simulations were constructed using language, say in a violent epic poem.

  2. I would make a different argument than the one you make here. I don’t think that modern video games tell us how people want to spend their afterlife, disproving claims about the desire for heaven. I think it’s more likely accurate to view religious stories (including those of the afterlife) and modern video games to be dominant stories of different cultures and historical periods, that may tell us about what people in those places crave.

    I’d argue that in medieval European Christian culture, there was a yearning for the promise of a life that had what most people’s lives lacked, and where people’s greatest sufferings and privations were absent. Heaven as you describe makes sense in this context–eternal (where most people’s lives were too short), tranquil and conflict free (as opposed to filled with conflict, violence, and disease). The hope of such a life might be a great solace from the daily life of a medieval peasant.

    From the vantage point of a 21st-century middle-class Westerner (I.e., the consumer of the average video game), such a life may not sound too appealing. Such a person has much of what Heaven promised earlier generations–a (comparatively) long, low-conflict, stable existence, where basic needs for food and shelter are easier to meet and random suffering often appears, at least, somewhat remote. What does someone in such a life crave? Not to take their pleasant, comfortable existence to the Nth degree, but the very elements that this modern life lacks–conflict, danger, struggle, risk. A *simulation* of those elements, the excitement of them without any of the actual danger. The better the simulation, the more detailed, the better it brings the adrenaline rush our imagined ancestors knew that we so seldom find in our world unless we in some way step out of our comfortable lives and stretch ourselves. But in the meantime, let’s enjoy imagined conflict and danger, and when we die from our mistakes, we need only press the start button to reset our “deaths” and pick up again, at least until lunchtime.

  3. I’m not sure that temporal notions like boredom would apply in a place of eternal, timeless bliss. But in this temporal world we DO inhabit, people get very bored. Video games satiate that boredom. If you were only allowed to play once and then you died, who would ever buy the game?

    I disagree with this premise:

    “The place to look for the truest, deepest human fantasies about the afterlife is gaming.”

    There’s absolutely no basis for making this statement, unless you assume that people looking to pass the time on a Saturday afternoon are simultaneously philosophizing about a place that most world religions postulate as outside of space-time, a place where the passage of one moment to the next would not be observed or even occur. It’s the equivalent of a theist saying that an atheist who bangs his thumb with a hammer and says “Ow! God!” must believe in God, because he cried out the Lord’s Name in his moment of anguish.

    “There’s no spiritually correct nonsense there, just pure choice. Game designers are free to design an environment; game players are free to elect or not to elect to enter it.”

    Again, no one would play the game if they only got to play it once and then they were dead forever. You could also decide to live your real life like it was a video game version of “Grand Theft Auto,” but it would be of very short duration and you wouldn’t get to repeat it (unless in some metaphysical afterlife version).

  4. A good bit of that “I wanna go to heaven” can be chalked up to the alternative that is usually presented. After all, if your choice is between static eternal bliss and static eternal agony, it’s still an easy choice even if the options are, on the whole, not particularly enticing.

  5. From my reading, games, competition, aids us in regression to the original Oedipal situation, the original competition where once successful we advanced to a social personality. Your essay was very stimulating, I hope you don’t mind my comment.

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