Saturday, April 21, 2012

Re:Play 2012: Video Games and Religion

Kicking off the first annual Re:Play conference, Leil Leibovitz of NYU interviewed Ryan Hennesy of Princeton and rabbi Micah Kelber about the relationship between video games and religion. Video games are often seen as a waste of time at best, or at worst, as a corruptor of young souls. But games and religions have more in common than what people might imagine as they are both closed systems based on stringent rules and dedicated largely to ritual. The panel discusses these two forms of personal reflection and communal interaction and examined what they might have to teach each other.

Conversation with Leil Leibovitz
  • Leil starts, "I'm a few cheeseburgers removed from the faith of my fathers."
  • He continues, "It's ten in the morning at a video game conference, so naturally, we're going to talk about the Holocaust."
  • Rabbi Micah Kelber has been recently fascinated with Call of Duty: World at War. He comes from a background of reading black and white scripture, then he was introduced to the vivid colors and storytelling of comic books, which led him to find video games as a medium of engagement.
  • Call of Duty allows him to virtually fight the war of his fathers and understand the American contribution to the war. He's always had haunting dreams about the Holocaust, but they stopped after he overcame the dreams in game. It's embarrassing for him to say that in the world of Call of Duty, he wants the war to never stop as killing the demons satisfied him.
  • Ryan Hennesy grew up with a narrow and limited experience of what religion and spiritualism are. He was interested in the relationship between religion and games, as many religious terms like "death," "resurrection," and "reincarnation" exist in the game space.
  • There are quite confusing, profound theological feelings in games. Games are environments where you have some sort of free will within a system of rules designed by someone far away you'll never meet. There are restrictions in the world such as science, physics, and social contexts. Goals in games are predetermined and follow a model that represents our free will on Earth. There are many analogies between reality and games to draw from.
  • In God of War 2, there is a scene that required a human sacrifice. It conflicted against Micah's own personal beliefs, but he was left no other choice but to comply in order to progress in the game. As a player, Micah realized that free will was curtailed in the game. He points out there are these kinds of limitations in the game that don't necessarily exist in real-life.
  • The panel see games as an examination of oneself. Video games draw us to a moment of ecstatic transcendence and flow.
  • However, no matter how immersive the game can be, there is usually an element of detachment from the games. Micah mentions that in Call of Duty, there is a level where the player enters a library to kill some Nazis. As a player, Micah was curious about the books found in this library and was drawn to examine them, removing himself from the game experience.
  • Games are arts of participation such that there's no other option but to impact us. Players see avatars as extensions of themselves.
  • There is no clear way to distinguish religion from culture. You can see Eastern spirituality in games like Final Fantasy from the character interactions with spiritual beings.
  • The difference of how Eastern and Western cultures view religion is demonstrated by Blue Dragon (a JRPG) and Dragon Age (a WRPG). In Dragon Age, there exists a church in the game that you can fight or join. In Blue Dragon, there is no such thing as a church, but there are these spiritual beings that the characters are joined with. In the West, the idea of religion is tied to a body that can either be benevolent or antagonistic. In the East, however, religion is just ingrained into everyone; it is a part of people's lives.
  • Concerning death and reincarnation, the concept of death becomes easier and easier to every generation. Death in games almost trivialize death. Maybe someone should make a game where you only have one life and the game explodes when you die.
  • Likewise, terminology like "I died" or "I killed that person" makes death seem meaningless. Ryan attributes this to a poverty of language.
  • Game developers, while sometimes respecting religion, ignore the significance of death. In Assassin's Creed, for example, the developers were very careful to not let the player ever destroy or burn Holy books in the game, yet the entire game is based on assassination and killing.
  • Sniper 2 is a game featuring extraordinary death sequences and vivid killings (ie. you can see the close up of a bullet flying through a victim's liver). However, the more vivid the killings are, the less realistic they are also.
  • Members of clergy see themselves as shepherd and the job of a shepherd is to prevent sheep from getting eaten. They want to protect and shield the public from the evil they deem video games as. Often, they see games as dangerous as reactions to Columbine and similar events.
  • But as more people begin to accept that games are art, they can convince the public that games are not from the devil. Many people's view of games are from their last impressions of them. When they stop playing games at age 13, their understanding of the medium is what it was at age 13. They won't understand the complexities of what games have to offer. Similarly, when people stop going to church at age 13, their views of religion remain at that juvenile comprehension.
  • Games enabled both Ryan and Micah to be better religious persons. For Micah, games allows him to fight his demons and also better understand some religious concepts such as different worlds.
Question and Answer
  • Do they consider games as texts to be read? It is good to treat games more like texts. Right now is an interesting point in history because there's a 50/50 divide between people who know what video games are and those who don't. That won't be true anymore in 50 years. This is the time to start evangelizing games as texts.
  • What can we learn from games about religion? Players can learn there are multiple paths in life. Games like World of Warcraft was so successful in part because it gave players the option to play how they want. If they don't want to go out killing monsters, they can play a smith and make weaponry or a priest who heals people. Paths of life is an important concept that religions try to teach.
  • Many of the games that were mentioned in the talk like Call of Duty, God of War, and Blue Dragon conveyed religious ideas through narrative. But is it possible to get religious experiences from abstract games like Tetris or even Tecmo Bowl? The brainwave activity of someone during religious experiences is exactly the same as when Apple fanboys talk about a new Apple product. Likewise, in the physical sense of religious experience, people enter that state when playing games of physical dexterity that disengages their minds such as Tetris.
  • How do you avoid getting too preachy when designing a game with a central message? Micah says that he would like to design a game where players can contribute to a persistent world. Players would participate in an act of benevolence without necessarily being told to. For Ryan, he pushes back on the idea that getting too preachy is a bad thing. It is a great thing about the arts to be vocal and preachy about your ideas, and starting a dialogue with the audience.
  • Death is trivialized because it's repeatable, but what about creation? Micah says the most important experience of games for him is the co-creation of a world, liken to God and man's activities in Genesis. God created the world and its inhabitants, but man named all the animals and objects.
  • Early in Assassin's Creed, Altair burns the body of a victim because he couldn't bear leaving the body in disrespect. Later in the game, however, his wife dies and he leaves her body behind. Micah, as a player, didn't want to leave her body behind but the game forces him to. There is an inconsistency in the game that made him appreciate the consistency of the real world.
  • God games provide good religious comprehension as it's important to think from God's side. Sympathizing with God is one important message of Christianity. As a player, you feel frustrated when citizens in your game don't do what you tell them to do, which lets you understand God's feelings. Games like Sid Meier's Civilization and other RTS's, although wrapped in a political or military context, really let you play as God implicitly.

No comments: