Video Games & Spiritual Transcendence

July 11, 2019
Canopy Views

The old gods are growing old or are dying, and others are not yet born’ – Émile Durkheim

We think of video games as pure entertainment – a big-money industry built on mindless escapism. For themselves, gamers have earned a less than wholesome image at best, and an outright anti-social one at worst. Viewed through a semiotic lens, though, recent developments in gaming can be understood as offering not just more ‘healthy’ experiences, but veritably ritualistic practices, spiritual epiphanies and moral education. Of course, in the West we live in an increasingly secular culture where idolized celebrities and massive shopping centres are supposedly serving the same impulse as religious devotion. But it’s not so much that Assassin’s Creed and Minecraft are simply substitutes for scriptures and prayer. It’s that the signs and symbols, narratives and aesthetics that permeate gaming culture in the 21st Century evoke telling parallels with the religious encounter.

Fateful moments

One thing that modern video games and major religions have in common is a strong emphasis on autonomous choice. Unlike books, cinema and TV, where engagement with the narrative is a passive experience, gamers are put in the hot seat, prompted to make decisions in real time that will critically change the fate of their beloved on-screen characters. This gives the player what philosophers would call a ‘teleological’ status – they want to get to a promised end (“telos”) and have to work out the ‘right’ path to get there. This ‘branching choices’ approach has been in use at least since the detective game LA Noire in 2011. But since then it has formed the vehicle for placing moral judgement, punishable pride and sacrifice – all key themes of holy scriptures – at the heart of some increasingly sophisticated games. Playing a game like The Walking Dead – where the player’s responses to excruciating moral dilemmas impact on the rest of the game’s story – or Until Dawn – designed to be played several times all the way through to see the different consequences of one’s actions – you start to see how games can act like interactive sermons on free will and morality. Other games leverage the same device, but in a way that positions the player as a god-like judge. Games like Life is Strange, where one can rewind time in order to put things right. Or Undertake, where mercy and self-examination are thrown into the mix as the protagonist (lost, incidentally, in a purgatory-like underworld) must choose whether to kill or befriend a host of monsters.

Holy Relics

‘All that wonder and atmosphere of PS1 games, it was so dreamy… I miss the love and hate relationship with memory card, I miss blowing into the CD to make the game work, I miss the smell of new CDs and the smell of the console when the CD cover was open …’  (User comment on the YouTube video ‘Original PlayStation Startup Intro’)

What’s also becoming clear as gaming matures is that it’s generating its own mythical history. Because of the fierce competition over tech innovation in the gaming industry, new platforms are constantly arriving on the market – roughly two a year since 1990 and that’s just consoles – meaning older machines quickly become obsolete (think of classics like the NES, the Sega Mega Drive and Master System, the Game Cube and the SNES). It is only later that avid gamers look back and pine for their beloved childhood consoles which, by then, are often lost. This ephemerality has prompted a collective need to indulge in video game experiences of the past outside of the games themselves. User-made videos shared online play on nostalgic engagement with gaming culture’s past, sanctifying the sonic, iconic and functional signifiers associated with the classic consoles. A prime example is Player 2. The video follows the true story of a boy’s rediscovery of his old Xbox console – leading him to discover a digital ghost of his father on a racing game they used to play, allowing the boy to relive some of the precious moments he had with him before his death. Such videos conjure the emotional affiliations people have not just with the game narrative, but the physical and ritualistic experiences gaming consoles generate, triggering profound feelings of higher consciousness, community and meaningful memory, feelings typically associated with religious practice. The visual imagery used – the beams of light through stained glass windows like those of churches, the dust blowing off the old console like an unearthed holy relic – cue traditionally spiritual narratives of miracle and reincarnation.

Zen Design and Spiritual Gameplay

This quasi-religiousness of gaming culture comes into sharper relief when we look at the visual design and settings of some of the most cutting edge releases. Sacred environments, symbolism and scripture-inspired gameplay all figure in Journey. Apart from the narrative framework (epic journeys are everywhere in the founding myths of ancient religions) this indie game uses biblical landscapes and ubiquitous familiar signals of spiritual meaning (ancient writing, beams of light, waves of sand, flowing scarves). Meanwhile the aesthetic design of the puzzle game Koi takes inspiration from Eastern philosophy, Confucian art and a Buddhist account of nature. With symbolic references to earthly elements such as lotus flowers representing new beginnings and a trinity symbol made of three fish, one can’t help but feel the game’s spiritual message.

Interrogation of the semiotics of video games reveals more than just fun and mindless violence. Whether or not our old gods are dying, the search for spiritual meaning – as old as the humanity itself – might just have found a new and powerful outlet.

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