There are two basic reasons for being careful when applying a ‘method’ to an object it wasn’t intended for: it might hurt the object, and, it might be wrong. Applying the methods used to study religion to video games is very unlikely to hurt the object, and if it’s wrong, I doubt anyone will really care. Of course, it’s important for academics and intellectuals to be careful when they study things: the former might lose their jobs if they fuck up too often, and the latter have something like a public responsibility. But much of the time, it seems to me that the cries for academics to be ‘careful’ and avoid charlatanry are little more than attempts to give value to what we do: if I have to be careful about it, it must be important (I don’t have to be careful about unimportant things). This is not the same kind of admonition to be careful that you hear when using a table-saw: this is more a call to ‘be careful’ with the discourse, or the object–I suspect the table saw analogy is better: we should be careful, because sloppy thinking might hurt us (through depression, becoming more scattered, etc) while the object is resilient, and the ‘discourse’ barely exists to begin with.
All that anxiety aside, here are my preliminary thoughts for thinking about video games as a humanities scholar who studies religion:
-If you want to study religious communities, look at the groups that form around major studio games, especially those that generate online economies and systems of trade; if, like me, you are more of an elitist who is into texts, art, and cultural ‘productions,’ and is comfortable looking at objects as being (partly) independent of the communities that sustain them, look to ‘indie games’.
-Death is important in video games: in many classic games, you die as soon as you are ‘touched’. Death is thus immediate. But it is not absolute: with the exception of rogue-like games, there are often multiple lives, rebirths, ‘spawning’, etc. Each one of these mechanisms is worth investigating: there is a huge difference between a game where you can save at any point, one where you can only be re-born at specific points, and those where you cannot be re-born at all. Each creates its own little theology.
-Scarcity is important in many contemporary indie games. Don’t Starve, which I will probably write about later, is a game devoted entirely to avoiding hunger in a world that operates like a children’s picture book (a coloured Edward Gorey). Survival is not taken for granted: This War of Mine (which I have not yet played) tried to take us through the motions of a civilian trying to survive the Bosnian war.
-Revisiting old ‘texts’ is important: many indie games look at the changes in gaming, and ask what has been lost. The obvious case: Fez is a game where a 2-dimensional video game world is infected by a third dimension that on the one hand reveals the things operating ‘behind’ the game, but on the other starts tearing apart the fabric of the game-world. The third dimension traumatizes the video game world.
-Loneliness is a constant theme, as is ‘otherness’: there are too many examples to count (You Were Made For Loneliness, Braid). The ‘other’ is not abstract, but a specific love object who I have neglected, overlooked, or taken for granted. There is an obvious anxiety that in playing video games, I am missing out on what is most important.
-Labour is huge: there is a lot of working for money that is exchanged; time mechanisms where characters earn a certain amount over specific periods, where little to no skill is involved. Investments that pay interest. There is a way in which a lot of games try to make you feel as if you have done ‘work’.
-Religious themes are common, but not ever-present: The Binding of Isaac and El Shaddai are ‘based’ on actual texts, and are a good place to start this investigation.
-I think a good way to start this exploration would be to find the ‘theologies’ that seem to operate behind these video games. Not only what the games presuppose (what view of live and death is presupposed, etc.) but the way they make you feel–here aesthetics and theology can shake hands. It is hard to imagine anything more useless than a theology of a video game, so I think I’m in a good position to do it. It might, accidentally, illuminate some cultural form or other.
-Economic analysis needs to be done: not so much the economics behind video games, but the economies they generate. These virtual economies often have real effects, such as the infamous world of warcraft sweatshops. This seems less useless, so I’m less likely to do it.
If I’m going to write this, and people are going to read it, I will need to learn how to write proper blog posts, and not weird lists that aren’t linked to anything. However, as this is a warm-up, and I am just getting started, I’m going to ‘publish’ this and erase it later, after I write something more coherent. I suspect part of the reason this project appeals to me is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with my research (and so is a break) and little to do with my life (which I cannot really write about without getting into trouble). But maybe I can get at some of the things that drive me crazy about religion, and working in a political pressure cooker, by examining one of the things I do when I am trying to distract myself from both.