This year’s American Academy of Religion conference offered much in the way of religion and popular culture with session topics ranging from video games to Comedy Central’s The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. I’ll provide some highlights from the sessions that I attended, starting with Born Digital and Born Again Digital: Religion in Virtual Gaming Worlds, sponsored by the Religion and Popular Culture Group and the Religion, Media, and Culture Group.
The session was presided by Gregory Grieve from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and the panelists included Rabia Gregory from the Univeristy of Missouri, Columbia, and Brian Moynihan, Vincent Gonzalez, Pamlea Mullins Reaves, Shanny Luft, and Anne Blankenship, all from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The first three presenters in the group discussed the theme of “Born Digital” and examined the presence of religion in virtual gaming worlds, examining online games like Kabbalah 101 and Shadowbane and the New Age PC Game The Journey to the Wild Divine.
Gregory, Moynihan, and Gonzalez discussed the ways in which these games illustrate religious principles and enliven Scripture. A game like Kabbalah 101 uses intentionally unsolvable problems to teach religious lessons. The questions the panel had for an online battle game like Shadowbane concerned the ways in which the digital religion of the game justifies the rule set of free-for-all interplayer combat in which one player can kill another for any reason. To do this, the creators of the game employ an elaborate religious narrative including its own creation and fall story. Yet to further subvert reality, and perhaps the virtual reality as well, the player never really dies but is reborn in another character.
The study of The Journey to the Wild Divine reveals an ironic transition whereby the religious becomes more technological and the technological becomes more religious. In this game, players wear a set of three fingertip controllers that they use to move throughout the game and that the game uses to monitor physical responses, particularly heart rate. The game is championed by the likes of Deepak Chopra and Dr. Andrew Weil. A question particular to this game, yet that also overrides the first part of the session concerns what happens to the player when (s)he steps back into the real world, having spent such immersive time in the virtual world.
The second group, Reeves, Luft, and Blankenship, which I found much more interesting, examined the Christian video game industry and Christian video game makers’ attempts to cash in on the popularity of secular video games while trying to negotiate the presence of violence in these games. This group also looked at the technological progression of the Christian video game industry from Wisdom Tree‘s early forays into virtual reality to the first person shooter Catechumen and, most recently, the Left Behind video game, Eternal Forces.
This group noted the rise in popularity of the Christian video game industry/market, noting its $200 million business in 2002. Again, an overriding question for this panel is how religious communities negotiate their identities as consumers in contemporary culture. One of the ways they have negotiated the video game industry, and particularly the violence in secular video games that makes its way into Christian games, is, as the panel discussed, through three techniques, metaphoric, adaptive, and justification.
The metaphoric narrative repeats the secular conventions of violence but codifies them in religious terms. The adaptive narrative imitates the qualities of secular games but modifies the violence. The justification narrative allows the existence of violence in a religious virtual world but justifies it as a necessary evil in an ongoing battle between good and evil, most mythically played about between angels and demons. Of course, these are not mutually exclusive and one can find all three in particular games.
The panel discussed Wisdom Tree’s release, Super Noah’s Ark 3D, a direct religious translation of the popular first person shooter, Wolfenstein 3D. The comparisons of screen shots from the two games are invaluable for an understanding of the ways in which Christian filmmakers interact with their secular counterparts. The creators simply exchanged dangerous Nazis with wayward animals and a plethora of deadly weapons with a bothersome slingshot.
Catechumen is another first person shooter that came on the heels of the Columbine shooting. In this game, the enemies are highly demonized (literally) so that the player is justified in killing a demon. However, Roman centurions also stand in the player’s way and must be eliminated as well. Thankfully, when you dispatch a soldier, they evaporate rather than bleed to death. The dialogue surrounding the game hypocritically stressed its “war-free warfare.” This N’Lightning release also allowed players to encounter verses of scripture throughout the game that players could pause and reflect upon if they were not too busy shooting demons with their swords.
Finally, the panel discussed the recent, controversial release of the Left Behind: Eternal Forces video game for the PC. The game has been criticized for its emphasis on “convert or die” scenarios in which, while not necessarily encouraged, a player can kill his opponents if they refuse to be converted. This is the most blatant example of justified violence in Christian video games. The heart of the justification is that forgiveness does not include absolute defensivelessness, and the whole scenario is framed in the ideals of persecution and martydom.
I really enjoyed the panel; however, I did have some questions and concerns. The panel, especially the first half, did not focus on any mainstream games that might also rely on similar religious strategies. The second group only considered violence, an appropriate entre into the discussion, but a passing mention of sexism, racism, and xenophobia in these games is warranted as well.