Serious Games — Studying Religion in Video Games

23 Oct

Over at The Critical Religion Association’s blog, there is an interesting post by Jonathan Tuckett (University of Stirling) about credibility and the study of video games. Tuckett recently presented on the religious theme of The Elder Scrolls at the BASR/EASR. He expressed his worries as “the “ludicrosity” of the whole affair.” Here’s what happened:

Later I was among the contestants for a recording of the second RSP Christmas Special (you can hear me make a fool of myself at the first one here). During the game, which had a large audience definitely featuring some prominent academics, I was joking with my colleague David that unless he started asking questions on Skyrim (where the latest Elder Scrolls game is set) I wasn’t going to know very much. I had already flunked the question on the books of the Bible and was then stumped by a question on the Unification Church. It was during this aside that I happened to get a glimpse at some of the prominent academics who were listening to our brief exchange. It was then that the idea of ludicrosity returned to me. The looks I saw can only be summed up in one way: “Is this guy serious?” I don’t mean to criticise them for giving me those looks or thinking in that manner. I can completely sympathise with them because on one level if I had been in their position I would probably be thinking the exact same thing.

Later, Tuckett demurrs, arguing that he does “do not wish to criticise those who would think that the study of video games in Religious Studies isn’t a credible activity. I understand their scepticism. We’re breaching new territory, charting a region on the social scientific map that we may very easily fall off.” Then he points to the work of William Sims Bainbridge, whose more recent blogs are a bit unusual for a religious studies approach, as both a representative of the possibilities and dangers of this subject.

Here’s my take on things:

1. William Sims Bainbridge’s latest work, eGods, is exactly the kind of work Tuckett appears to be doing with The Elder Scrolls. They may use different theoretical paradigms, but both Tuckett and Bainbridge take seriously the myth-making at the heart of the fictional worlds created in video games. Tuckett didn’t spend a lot of time explaining his project, but I’ve read Bainbridge’s work and it inspired my next project on the supernatural in interactive entertainment (i.e., video games).

2. Tuckett says there were 8 competing panels, so attendance was low at his session. Panels are not attended for lots of reasons. It’s tempting to assume that low attendance is because of our presentations, but more often it is because of competing panels, inconvenient time slots, or a half-dozen other factors that are out of our control. That’s rough, but there it is. Of course, one way to redeem the panel may be to publish its papers online and share them freely. We can’t be everywhere, so even a summary blog post can go a long way toward increasing the conversation!

3. I take issue with anyone who would criticize the serious study of video games. Unlike Tuckett, I would criticize them, and I don’t see a lot of reason to defend their hypothetical myopia. Nor does it seem appropriate for them to be casting dirty looks about. I think we all know by now that there are really no topics that are off-limits so long as we can clearly demonstrate the academic merits of a project. Just 20 years ago the study of material religion was in its infancy. Material religious objects have been around for millennia. But we didn’t put the pieces together until recently in a way that fit the guild’s model of study. Video games, by contrast, emerged just 40 years ago. In that time they have become one of the pillars of popular culture. They inspire fashion, fiction, and film. More important, they inspire fans–that word rooted in fanatic, which means one “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion.” Part of what I hope to show in my own future work on games is how devotion in games is becoming a substitute for more traditional types of devotion. The mythical worlds of the games may be the very thing that is satisfying the spiritual needs of many of our religious nones. The rising overtness of religious elements in video games attests to this trend. There’s no academic reason they should be left outside our field of vision.

4. Moreover, the religious aspects of video games are not even remotely in doubt. Even if the industry wasn’t worth more than a billion dollars, we could easily argue its merits on participation alone, which is also in the billions. Asia’s youth are rampant gamers. And games are now pervasive in our screen-laden Western societies. Even the most banal games–those which contain only the barest element of narrative context–often rely on religious themes and mythology as their premise. The sophisticated narrative worlds top-tier (a-list) games create are more detailed and more thorough than all but a few fictional worlds (say, Tolkien’s). [See my earlier post of The Binding of Isaac and blasphemous gaming for a bit more on this point.] The tepid religious elements of most science fiction novels, for instance, do not compare at all with the detailed mythology of the world where the Elder Scrolls takes place. Just as religion intersects fiction and television, so too does it exist in games and the lives of gamers. I’m incredulous that folks would think to exclude it from professional study.

The religious elements are overt, plentiful, and extremely well integrated into the experience of gamers around the world. These often include websites, real life roleplaying, and fan fiction (both professional and amateur). It is a global playing field that freely combines religious elements from major religions around the world. Buddhism can be found almost as easily as Christianity, and video games have even managed to depict a number of ancient religions in interesting ways that build on the work of archaeologists and ancient historians (see the Total War series). It’s a vibrant gaming world, and shutting our eyes to it won’t do us any good as we try to account for the way that religion and religious themes appear in our time.

5. In sum, I’m thrilled to hear that Tuckett is fighting the good fight for video games. I’m also frustrated to hear him give room for its critics. They do not have a place to stand. When and if they appear, they will need to be criticized. The best way to do that–unlike this hasty response–is to produce elegant and persuasive scholarship on the topic. That is the only response that is worth our sustained effort. It’s not worth fighting a territorial or canonical battle. Those of us that want to expand the canon will win out if we can demonstrate the merits of our contributions. It’s not about “reaching a sense of credibility.” That implies we are bringing something to the table that is not credible to begin with. For the social scientific world, this may simply be a question of method and paradigm, but in the religious studies world this problem is a phantom. We find “religion” wherever and whenever it may be and do our best to understand it with the appropriate methodological tools. The methods are not our masters–our religious subjects are. If video games help in the task of illuminating them, then let the parade of scholarship begin. Don’t aim to reach a sense of credibility; Produce work that matters.

Finally, this November’s AAR has several papers on games and an entire panel devoted to their study. I’ll be there. I hope to see you there, too. No cosplay required.

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4 Responses to “Serious Games — Studying Religion in Video Games”

  1. Jeff Brackett October 23, 2013 at 3:28 am #

    So glad you posted this. Like you, I find it difficult to imagine any scholar who would limit the subjects/objects/topics worthy of scholarly investigation. Students have given wonderful presentations on religion and video games in my “religion and popular culture class.” I look forward to reading more of your work on video games (and other topics, of course).

  2. Followone October 23, 2013 at 5:05 am #

    Right on all points.

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