May 11, 2011

Finding God in video games

If you get married in “Second Life,” what does it mean? Can you make a virtual pilgrimage to Mecca? Is the game “Bible Fight” blasphemous if Satan beats Jesus?

These questions, and many more, were explored during Rachel Wagner’s talk, “Godwired: Religion in a Wired World.” Wagner, a professor of religion from Ithaca College, led the audience on a tour of the connection between video games and religion in modern society.

She was inspired by a colleague who suggested that film could easily be described in terms of religion. Wagner agreed with him, but thought the parallel could go even further with an interactive media, like a video game.

“Interaction – we don’t know what it means, but it means something,” Wagner said.

She explored this link by examining how religions and video games express the concepts of games and rituals and the special space experienced by worshippers and players alike.

Wagner defined rituals and games through the idea of play. Play, she said using another scholar’s metaphor, is like a steering wheel. You can turn it a certain distance without trouble, but turn it too far and you go off the road. Rituals and video games are the same.

“Computers set up experiences in a certain order like liturgy,” Wagner said.

In religious ceremonies there are certain steps that must be taken and certain things that must be done. In most games, although paths are much more loose than they were in the “Donkey Kong” days, there are still points that all players will hit along their paths.

“We live in a world of programs,” Wagner said. “We have devices that [set] us into pre-organized structures,” which she believes could be filling a gap left when cultures stopped organizing their lives around religion.

She also drew a connection between video games and religious worship because both are lifeless until they are experienced. Liturgy, Wagner said, “is just words on a page” until it is expressed by people, and video games are just programs and algorithms until someone picks up the controller.

The second concept Wagner explored was the idea of liminal space, a place where there is equality and regular rules don’t apply. Wagner used the game “Second Life” as an example of this kind of space. No matter who you are, your avatar will begin the game with nothing, just like every other avatar did. For religious liminal space, she referenced the Indian celebration of Holi, where everyone, regardless of wealth or caste, would pelt each other with colored paint.

The post-lecture discussion touched upon the idea of transformation through gaming, citing the philosophical “Bioshock” as a game that forces players to examine their own dark sides and possibly change themselves through that examination.

The talk opened the eyes of some students. Senior Claire Anderton, who attended the lecture for Assistant Professor for Study of Religion and Culture James Thrall’s Religion and Popular Culture class, enjoyed the talk.

“I’m more aware of [the connection]. I don’t play video games, so I didn’t think about it before,” she said.

For others, the talk affirmed things that they already thought.

Freshman Evelyn Langley wanted to attend the lecture because she is “really interested in religion and [how it is] at odds with technology.”

The lecture convinced her of the power video games can wield in society and this did not reassure her.

“I think I’ve come out of [the talk] more alarmed of technology and the power it has increasingly in our society.”

Paige Anderson
Paige Anderson is a junior double majoring in computer science and creative writing. This is her second year as co-Mosaic editor. Outside of TKS, Paige has written for Knox’s Office of Communications and for her high school newspaper; her in-depth work won a third-place medal in the Redwood Empire Excellence in Journalism Awards competition. Paige will intern at Amazon during the summer of 2013.

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