Games and Religious Ritual

Conversion of Paul with Xbox

Recently, I was privy to both Robert playing Brendon Chung’s Thirty Flights of Loving and Ramiro playing Proteus, and their reactions to these games seemed about as close to a transcendental experience as I’ve seen from any game. Days and even weeks later, they still talk about these games in semi-hushed tones while sporting glassy-eyed stares that I’ve only seen in some of my more religious friends speaking of their conversion experiences.

My undergraduate years were spent at a small Christian school in Tennessee, so I have witnessed many people who have also had life-changing experiences, but never from games. Games have been mostly regulated as an interesting if geeky way to pass one’s free time, much in the same category as seeing a movie about super heroes. The recent Road to Damascus experiences of my two friends got me thinking about the cathartic power of games, and their ability to create emotional, magical spaces.

Ludologists usually call the ability of games to create these spaces the Magic Circle, but the concept extends beyond games. Indeed, when Huizinga’s originally used the term, he also included “the arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc.” Any space which is considered mythical, mystical, magic, or religious has it’s own set of constraints and rules governing behavior as well as it’s own mechanics for producing meaning in its participants. Outside of games, the creation of a mythical place usually involves a connection to some sort of higher power or ideal, like justice and truth in the court of law, or a religious being in a church service. Much of what makes people feel special, that they are part of something bigger and grander than their lives, is the part of an experience based in rituals and rules.

Magic circles don’t have to compromise a naturalistic cosmological view of the universe, far from it. The mechanics or rituals of these spaces are what create meaning out of thin air, and connect the physical human to the metaphysical. Every religion, no matter how true or false, has services steeped in ritual, and these rituals are all created by humans to either commemorate a special event, please the god or gods they are worshiping, or symbolize a representation of a meta-physical being’s actions or form. Rituals are designed to create specific effects in human brains. For example, researches have found significant similarities between the brains of meditating Buddhist monks, praying Franciscan nuns, and chanting Sikhs. I don’t intend to prove or disprove any religion or belief structure, I only mean to point out that religious rituals have the potential to create a meaningful emotional response in their adherents.

Religious Powerpellets

Mechanics are the rituals of games, and are what create fun out of thin air. They connect the player to experiences beyond their capabilities, while rules help keep these activities in check, and create experiences of heighten concentration and immersion, much like the mediation, praying, or chanting. They are often representational of real-world interactions, or interactions that are normally impossible. Games have the ability to create meaning out of what is normally meaningless computer bits, dice, or cards. Brandon Joyce’s essay “Cathexis and Lifegames” speaks directly to this ability of games to create meaning:

In the bloodpumping heat of Miss Pacman, I need that powerpellet more than I need air to breathe and a good woman to love. And why? What do I get out of it? I get points, I get to eat ghosts, but beyond that Miss Pacman seems to create desire ex nihilo; that is, out of nothing.

Joyce would extend the magic circle to encompass the total of existence, which is a noble aim, but I’m focusing more on the emotional potential of games.

Game designers study and then subvert physical rituals creating a new systems of cathartic generation with each new game mechanic. Different games create different types of experiences. For example, the nail-biting excitement of hiding from the guards in Splinter Cell is a much different heart-pounding excitement of dodging a rocket while shooting a shock-combo in Unreal Tournament. Given that games provide different types of emotional responses based on their mechanics, and that these mechanics are similar to religious rituals, why could game designers not then study and subvert meta-physical rituals to produce meta-physical results as well? Could a game be devised that gives someone a strong enough emotional reaction that it, for lack of better terms, shakes their soul?

As any games for change proponent will tell you, getting someone to take what they have experienced in a game and make a lasting change in their life is both rare, and extremely difficult, but religious adherents seemingly do it all, the, time. Have we, in the current practice of creating games for change, been doing it wrong? Instead of pushing a list of learning outcomes, should we instead create games that attempt to create spaces invoking specific overwhelming emotions? If religion can do it, why can’t games?

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