Religion and digital culture:

Religion: The Game

posted by Jason Anthony

Envy the life of a Harry Potter fan. Her imaginary world is barely imaginary. She can walk into the halls of Hogwarts through dozens of not-so-secret doors: eight major-studio films, role-playing chat rooms, video game franchises, a theme park roller coaster, a local Quidditch league, dress-up conventions, fan-authored stories or—and these are completely optional—the books written by J. K. Rowling.

Our twenty-first-century stories have evolved—or returned—to a more participatory format, a phenomenon which in the academy is coming under the critical rubric of cross-media or trans-media. Such stories are no longer discreet entities that exist between two covers but cultural experiences, a wide space to explore. Play Downtown Abbey: the Game. Watch Battleship: the Movie. Jump on the Transformers roller-coaster ride. The “real” form of a story dwindles in importance. On opening night of the 50 Shades of Grey movie, it’s barely a footnote that the story began as fan-fiction on a Twilight message board.

The future of religion is caught up in the future of stories. “Mediatization” is the new academic buzzword, but the idea that the medium very much affects a messiah’s message is an old one. We can watch the Greek gods shift shapes over five centuries as they romp through Homeric epic, the advent of cast-bronze sculpture, the rise of Attic pottery, and the birth of theater. The printing press impacted not only the practice of Christianity, but how its stories were popularly understood.

In some sense, history provides a guide for how this attention-deficient, multi-screen, hands on, digital age will come to affect our faiths. Before the primacy of texts, stories of faith were told through carvings, stained glass windows, passion plays, and village games. Through them, fans could access, at a blink, persistent worlds at odds with the world around them. Religion brought us the first cross-media branding.

But the new digital formulation is not quite the same. Religions today face a sobering new expectation of access. We share stories, but we increasingly expect to write them, or at least play an active part in how those stories resolve. Religion has its own interactive texts—Buddhism’s Chan encounter dialogues and the Jewish Talmud come to mind—but they’ve only been played by a select few. The digital age invites a broader authorship. The Internet, our central text, is a massively interactive story with allegedly universal input. Billions more hands have pen and ink, or mouse and click, and expect to make a mark.

My studies focus on one corner of this landscape: games. Games have played into the digital hunger for interactivity with extraordinary success. Unlike other media, the very form depends on each user to create and change the narrative. No game takes shape without the player; no game is resolved without the unique set of decisions that she makes.

Perhaps this is why the digital age is besotted with game playing. Mobile devices provide a neat case study. Smart phones have quickly become one of history’s most universal technologies, with more devices in existence than people on earth. They’re already the leading medium, by a long stretch, for any kind of media consumption. They have become an extension of us. The average user in the United States looks at her phone between 110 and 150 times a day; she is statistically as likely as not to keep it within arm’s reach even while she sleeps. And while these new tools have their practical uses—communication, commerce, community—these are not their primary use. Every study has shown that, far and away, the largest share of the time we spend on mobile devices is spent playing games.

This may be why games figure so prominently in the landscape of cross-media narratives. Every record-breaking entertainment launch since 2009 has been a console game, far outstripping last-gen media types like movies, sports events, and TV premiers. Every blockbuster franchise now has at least one foot in the gaming world: a play-along console game, app, board game, or the alternate reality game (ARG)/live action role-playing game (LARP) communities. Some stories—the Pokemon and Resident Evil worlds, for instance—began as games, a trend that is likely to become more common.

Where does this leave religion? If games become a preferred medium in this multifaceted landscape, can stories of divinity, redemption, essential worth, and cosmic origins be molded to fit?

It seems inevitable and, in some sense, a kind of return. In many cultures, games have dominated religious practice, and offered a manifest and playful encounter space for complex theologies and cosmologies. Consider the Holy Game, a trope that crosses millennia and civilizations. Ōllamaliztli was a ball game steeped in cosmic narratives, situated centrally in ritual life—a religious event so important that its courts remain some of the only structures left from the great civilizations of Meso-America. Sumo, the national sport of an increasingly secular Japan, which still takes place in stadiums with the formal attributes of temples, progresses through ritual invocations of its players and adorns its celebrity heroes with the shimenawa, a cord that signifies a holy object.

Some holy games persist in secularized forms, as you can witness at the Olympics or on the lacrosse field. The God of Abraham notably did not play fairly with others—cf., the Book of Job—yet, under his watch, deep games have continued to peep through the veil: in the dreidel and the hiding of the afikomen, in Ethiopia’s Genna tournaments, in Ramadan games like mhaibis, and in the quasi-religious narratives of football in the American heartland.

In a digital age that values play and interaction, what are the chances that this historical affinity with religion will take new root? If our biggest stories are to be told across media, games especially, then it seems that religion would need to be experienced through games. And while many people—most, perhaps—will find this an unlikely turn of events, it some ways it has already begun.

Consider the advent of the first computer networks. The earliest university servers, later to become the backbone of the proto-Internet, moonlighted as play spaces. By day they processed research, and then by night—in the dream-time between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.—played host to the first online social communities. The players created worlds, mythic spaces wrapped up in narratives of apotheosis and magic. In NetHack, Mud, and Gods, the wired world’s first rulers were admins known as wizards and gods. When digital first dreamed, it dreamed religion. And it did so in the logic of games.

The world of game design has never stopped dreaming of religion. The professional game community, while deeply suspicious of organized religion, packs its games with religious tropes, language, images, and pursuits. The design community, flush with resources and the brightest creative minds of our era, continues to call for a new approach to great human questions—deep, transportive games with narratives that are mythic and far-reaching.

Religious communities, for their part, have fitfully been exploring the language and logic of games themselves. They create didactic games to teach their children, Sunday school lessons exported to apps and Farmville clones. They create games that deepen practice, like meditation apps or devotional sing-along titles for home consoles. They adventure into digital worlds, like Second Life or World of Warcraft to proselytize and build new churches, mosques, and temples.

Squint, and you can see shoots of a rapprochement.

A future coming-together of religion and games makes for an interesting thought experiment. The when, where, and how aren’t beyond imagining. The seeker arms of established faiths might re-explore the idea of games as a congregational praxis, and break new ground in building culturally meaningful events. Or perhaps secular game design communities might, from their end, hit upon a game so deep and immersive that it engages players beyond the bonds of their screens and keyboards.

Before you decry the idea, consider the many opportunities. Religious communities might find in game design a fix for some of the problems that so often land them in the headlines. Distrust in church leaders? The rules in most games are more important than the referee, whose purpose is often to ensure that players are radically equal. Struggling with literal adherence to an ancient text? Games are all praxis—eternally happening, constantly rewritten. Conflicts in the pews? Games embrace conflict. In fact, my favorite definition of a game is “a harmony of opposites.”

And games also win when they return to a deeper language. The stakes for the Native American spectators of lacrosse or Ōllamaliztli were unimaginable. As they watched, the health of the world hung in the balance. What does it mean to set our most important metaphors in the arena, and surrender to the sure hand of skill matched against the providence of the moment?

Whatever happens, the shape and syntax of play are becoming ever more ingrained in the digital society. Games are its re-emergent lingua franca. How religion engages with them may be the most compelling story of its future.

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2 Responses to “Religion: The Game”

  1. The premise of participatory religion is fascinating. I agree that there is a sense that the average believer now wants to write the stories of religion now. However, is it a difference of style in how that is happening, rather than a new phenomenon? Hasn’t belief always been about making stories fit our particular context? What is happening now is that it is public, instead of private, and that the individual considers herself much more of an authority?

    Games, as a vector of participation, is an interesting approach of still maintaining structure and authority. For more centralized traditions, how far can participation go?

  2. I believe this is already happening. RPG and cosplay allow for deep play in scripted mythologies, many of which are created by visionaries, with mashups of religious sources, occult themes, and supernaturalistic styles. There is an interesting intersection that is occurring right now between the technologies that mediate such participatory game play, sometimes using gps and meetup social media – only to draw the game out into the street, with living tableaus, subtlemobs, in-ear ceremonies, and crowd sourced public space (mobile) spiritualities. This is the future of story religions and performed mythologies; very exciting.

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