Gaming & Godstuff

by Pete Phillips

Following up on Andy Robertson's post yesterday on "Bird Alone", today our MA course in Digital Theology had a seminar on Gaming and its impact on Theology. We were led by Revd Matthew Pulis, a digital technologist who is now a Catholic Priest studying for a PhD at the University of Malta and Jorge Herrera, a MA student at the Nazarene College, Manchester and creator of DiscoverGod.

Having taken a look at Jorge's game which puts the player into the role of Jesus exploring the world, performing miracles, Matthew took us into the world of Hugo Rahner and J Huizinga's concept of play and gaming. Do we do free play - play which isn't about competition or winning (games like Minecraft, for example) or are games always about socialisation, teaching us skills for the commercial or competitive world (like Monopoly or Go).

In games and digital media, the "magic circle" is the space in which the normal rules and reality of the world are suspended and replaced by the artificial reality of a game world. Wikipedia Snippet

Huizinga argued for the concept of the "magic circle" - that the rules of the 'real' world are suspended when we enter the world of the game. But this idea is highly contested in other games studies. Do we ever slip out of the reality of the world and enter a different world when we play games or "are we actually in a game within the world" (asked MA Course Director Jonas Kurlberg) - indeed, surely we bring our world into the game with us.

Matt Batten explored some of those themes in his post on Ready Player One a couple of weeks ago. In that film, social media users are projected into a Virtual Reality world called the Oasis. In that world, they have all sorts of superpowers. But the whole point of the film is that it's almost impossible to loose the shackles of the real world, not least because your body at home still needs to eat and sleep! In his recently released Ready Player Two, Ernest Cline takes this a bit further but still remains with the perennial problem: We are human beings and we take our humanity everywhere with us. (Of course, this refers to everything we do in digital including digital church and online worship).


So, rather than entering into a new space where we leave the rules of the world behind us and enter into the magic circle of gaming, we bring the world with us into the game space - as one of the students said - "how can you play without trying to win".

Interestingly, the world of gaming is well aware of this issue, with news items over the Pandemic pointing to the mental health benefits of gaming - compare that to pre-pandemic reports of gaming destroying our mental health.


As Andy pointed out in the Bird Alone blog, more and more games are being created to help us explore how we encounter the world, how we process our own experience and how we deal with some of the issues of the real world through gaming. Andy has a whole page on this.


Jorge pointed out another source of great advice on this: the YouTube channel "Screen Therapy" by media psychologist Courtney Garcia, which explores how we can play games in order to explore our own need to process our experience of the world. There's a podcast on Polygamer where Courtney explores her fusion of gaming, media psychology and mental health.


So rather than just bringing out the competitiveness of our nature, games can also help us release tension, process our thinking, socialise with our friends, as well as learn other important life skills. Although, how do shoot 'em ups do that? Aren't they appealing to our baser nature rather than helping us to do therapy. How, or indeed, what do we play? And do we need to be more careful about our choice of games?

“Technology should work for and towards God” Jorge Herrera

We flipped back to Jorge's game in our conversation and focused on whether it was right to become Jesus in a game. Jorge wants to create games which lead us to an encounter with God. He's quite the tech enthusiast, arguing strongly that technology should work for and towards God. Not for Jorge is the idea that tech is the domain of the bad guys.


But is it OK for us to play as Jesus?


For some people this wasn't an issue since we become lots of different avatars in gaming. What's wrong with seeing life through Jesus' eyes? Indeed, perhaps it's an extension of Ignatian Bible Reading where we are encouraged to picture a Bible scene and put ourselves into it - a form of visual meditation. But, of course, that's putting ourselves into a place where Jesus comes in as another actor rather than entering into Jesus.

Theologically, of course, as Christians we are said to be "in Christ" - one of Paul's favourite ways to talk about our faith in him. We participate in God in the doctrine of participation or theosis or divinisation. In this doctrine, we take Paul's affirmation of being in Christ, but also note his insistence in Philippians of us having the mind of Christ, or John's theology in the Fourth Gospel of us being part of the Vine, of us being one with Christ in John 17. In some way, we participate in the very nature and being of God.


Here's Jordan Cooper explaining this...

But this seems a long way away from the idea of entering into the avatar of Jesus.


I wonder whether this is because we hold much more closely to the idea of Jesus inhabiting us: Christ in you, the hope of glory says Colossians 1:27. The Spirit fills us with his presence. God dwells in the heart of the believer. Perhaps for some the inhabiting of the avatar of Jesus crosses a theological version of the "uncanny valley" (where robots seem too close to humans but not close enough).


On the other hand, lots of people will not see an issue in this. Somehow, there seems to be something more about this that we haven't caught onto yet.


We ended the seminar with Matthew sharing more of his own research and looking again at Bird Alone and the kind of feelings that game leaves us with.


Read up some responses to the seminar here and here:

What a fantastic seminar. This is a weekly feature of our MA in Digital Theology. If you are interested in joining the September cohort of students, the contact Jonas Kurlberg or Pete Phillips, or apply directly to admissions@spurgeons.ac.uk.


We'll be blogging some recommendations from the students in the coming months.


Pete Phillips is Head of Digital Theology at Premier, Associate Professor (Research) at Durham University, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at Spurgeon's College