August 18, 2013KR BlogBlogChats

Video Games and Religion


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.