Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What do Video Games & Religion have in common?

Video games and religion? What do they have in common? The answer may be more similar than you think.

A child of the early 80's, I practically grew up with the personal computer around me. My dad was a programmer (part-time) but then launched into his own full-time computing business at the time. At that time, my only interest in the computer was to play video games or have it interact with me by responding to my input (if you remember command line prompting). However, I was also raised in a Judeo-Christian faith based on Herbert Amstrong's interpretations of the holy scriptures, which gave me a unique experience of Christianity that actually drew heavily on Jewish festivals and celebrations. Yet, in my past life, I never made the connection between the similarities between religion and video games until now.

My modern day journey into understanding video games came when I began my thesis looking at the idea of how folklore could inform the design of information retrieval systems. This initial topic of exploration led me to reading the book by Miller (2008) on digital storytelling. It was in Miller (2008) that I first learned that role playing video games can actually be traced back early interactive storytelling practices of religion including the participatory dramas of ancient pagan religions, where masks and costumes were used for role play to represent spirits or gods similar to how modern day avatars are applied as the embodiment or incarnation of entities from another world who are not actually present. Miller also mentions modern rituals such as the Jewish holiday of Passover and Halloween, noting similarities between people assuming roles not performed in real life and transitioning into worlds different from their own reality.

So getting back to the question, what do video games and religion have in common? Three main things:

  1. Role-play
  2. Symbols, icons and avatars
  3. enactment and re-enactment 
So taking Miller's argument, religion with its rituals and ceremonies is the first precursor to modern video games. In essence, religion can be considered a video game played or enacted outside of the computer.

Let us take the faith(s) that I am most familiar with and intimate of: Judeo and Roman Christianity. There are countless icons, symbols and avatars in my religion. In essence these religious icons, symbols and avatars are real objects used to represent an idea or a reality, or to tell a narrative or story. Examples are:
fish - to remind us about our purpose and mission - to evangelize [or proselytise] and bring in people to God
cross/crucifix - to represent the rising Saviour, the idea of resurrection
bread  - for Christianity it is a symbol of fellowship
wine - symbol of joy (for the Jews) and symbol of blood (for Christians)
lighted candlestick - symbol of inspiration
matzah/matzo - bread of affliction (symbol of the body of Christ for Christians)

Role-playing games are not much different from religion as the same elements are very much present, namely:
  • a narrative world or space - with rules, restrictions and limitations
  • a central narrative underlying the game and its rituals
  • symbols, icons and avatars 
  • role-play and enactment
Current we are in the period [that is if you are reading this blog in March/April] of two festivals where both Christians and Jews will be involved in role-playing. Most Western Christian traditions will role-play the Lord's supper (and other events), and enact through symbols Jesus' death, burial and resurrection. My Jewish friends on the other hand, will enact historical Passover night in Egypt.

As to the narrative world or space, both Christianity and Judaism today construct elaborate spaces designed to facilitate their telling of Biblical and communal narratives. Both construct spaces and ascribe rules and restrictions and limitations to what can be done within the space and who gets to play what role within specific spaces. 

For example, while it is deemed unacceptable to snack "in  church" either during the ceremony or even after, it is perfectly acceptable to "snack" of the communion bread and grape juice during the narrative event enacting Communion.

Finally, both video games and religions have communities formed around their narratives and rituals.The conclusion, perhaps video games and religion are more similar than we think. Just a thought.


Miller, C. H. (2008). Digital storytelling: A creator's guide to interactive entertainment (2nd ed.). Amsterdam; Boston: Focal Press/Elsevier.

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