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Viral Religion — Twitch Plays Pokemon, part 2

21 Mar

In Neal Stephenson’s famous science fiction novel Snow Crash, religion is presented as a kind of virus capable of rewriting the basic operating system of the human brain. With recent works such as T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back, the sense that religion re-writes the mind and its perception of reality has received new legs. (It’s an very old argument that can be seen in the works of Freud, Durkheim, and Marx.) What’s notable about Snow Crash and the point that Luhrmann and others have revived is that religion is a product of intentional effort. We may speak of religious experiences as emerging from places beyond reason, but institutions of religion are conscious creations.  Religion rewires us. When we play at religion we get better at understanding the game we participate in and its rules. We are practicing our practice. That effort makes us adepts, experts, and professionals.

The recent Twitch Plays Pokemon (TPP) phenomenon, which I wrote about last week, continues apace. It takes serious effort to follow TPP. It runs 24 hours a day as players around the globe control the game from their home computers. I manage to follow along only by the generous updates offered by community members online. The latest version of the game, Pokemon Crystal, took nearly two full weeks to finish. At every moment fans are creating new interpretations of the game and its awkward, halting game play. Fan art occupies more than half of the popular subreddit for TPP. Participants in TPP exert continuous forward pressure on the TPP mythos. They actively elevate the game play into the religious realm. It is their effort that spurs the complex narratives. And like a virus replicating in a healthy culture–TPP creates its world and in that effort has become more adept at creating that world. Much like the world occupied by the evangelicals Luhrmann describes (or the cult followers of Asherah in Snow Crash), this is an environment that nurtures itself.

It is on this point  of effort and conscious invention that I want to dwell today (as TPP begins its journey on the next game in the series, Pokemon Emerald). First, let me outline a point of pre-existing mythology in Emerald. The world occupied by the protagonist has two major forces vying for control–Aqua and Magma. Team Aqua wants to expand the oceans of the world; Team Magma wants to expand the world’s landmasses. As a creative, productive force, magma is contrasted with the chaos that would emerge with a return to the sea. In the game both sides are ridiculous. They are the kind of bumbling evil that pervades Scooby Doo. As mythical forces, however, they are the division of earth and water. What’s missing is the tempering force of sky. The give and take of water/earth is an endless cycle. It’s a literal eternal battle, too, between two legendary Pokemon. Only a third force can break the stalemate that rocks the world.

As fans of TPP brace themselves for the start of a new adventure, they already know several layers of mythology. Nearly every one of them will have played Emerald themselves. They will be aware of its pre-existing canon. So too are they aware of the canons of the games that precede Emerald’s myths within the Pokemon world (having played both Crystal and Red in TPP already). And yet there are further layers added from the playing of Crystal and Red in the community. The deities and myths that have been elevated in the last month are now givens for the new TPP world.

I think the community is getting much more than they bargained for when they signed on for the first play through. The creative outlet that the game gave to its fans is now a recognized as one of the exercise’s benefits. It is as much an exercise in the formation of mythology as it is a social experiment about the limits of cooperation within a limited digital medium.

Last week my brother asked whether I saw any religious studies potential in the affair. I replied immediately and without hesitation that I did see scholarly promise in TPP. Part of me sees the exercise’s contribution as time compression. Where else can you see the birth and evolution of mythology laid bare before your eyes with such precision? Another part of me recognizes that it is the virality of experiment and its memes that renders it immediately useful for religious studies. So often we lack a good case study to explain the way in which digital religious lives operate today. This is religion online as opposed to digital religion, I know, but I think there is a mix of both here that makes TPP so exciting.

Update:

This post was set to post Friday, but some technological glitch held it up. Since the TPP Emerald game has already begun, let me say a brief word or two about the latest version. Users were initial struggling with the option of choosing a boy or a girl character. With no democracy mode in this play through–full anarchy mode all the time so every command is executed–the first hurdle appeared when a boy was selected, then a girl, and then a girl again. The failure to sustain the initial choice led the community to speculate on the psychological or even criminal events that might have led to the final selection. The following items, posted on Reddit, highlight these and other developments over the weekend, including the permanent release of the character’s starter Pokemon, the capture of multiple versions of a hyena Pokemon, and the repeated failures to make game progression due to a rock-paper-scissors battle that had the community in perpetual loss.

[All images linked to their original posts on Reddit.]

 

A is for Anarchy

http://www.reddit.com/r/twitchplayspokemon/comments/213btf/torchic_was_a_fitting_choice_for_a/

Definition of Insanity?

 

Only Doge?

 

After the community released Torchic, the Pokemon they started the game with, there was quite a lot of mourning. This comic, for instance, summarizes the complex emotions some of the community was feeling.

Farewell Torchic

 

And then folks started arguing that another pokemon, which evolves like a cicada and leaves a ghostly pokemon shell behind, was really hosting the lost Torchic’s spirit or soul. You can read more about that in this post which references the manga Fullmetal Alchemist.

The sense of loss and anxiety is palpable, while the number of posts emphasizing a community in decline suggests the initial period of euphoria of the new adventure is wearing off and moving on to other darker emotions. Needless to say, it’s a wild time over at TPP Emerald.

 

 

All Hail Helix! Religion in Twitch Plays Pokémon, part 1

10 Mar

Recently, a social experiment in the form of a community effort to play a video game became the platform for the swift birth of a viral religious mythology. The details are complex, so let me take a few moments to get you up to speed on the details you need to know.

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Fan Art depicting the religious aspects of Twitch Plays Pokemon

1. Twitch.

  • Twitch is an online streaming site where the content is video games. (The content is called a “stream” and the content creators are known as “streamers” because they are live-streaming their gaming content.)
  • Just as folks recently enjoyed watching full coverage of their favorite Olympic events, Twitch offers full access to gamers who are sharing their experiences playing games. Popular games such as DOTA2, League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo 3 have all been featured by major Twitch streamers. Monetization for the site and its content producers occurs through the display of advertisements and monthly optional subscription fees. Just as more YouTube videos are watched every day than all of cable and public access television, at some point in the future, it’s likely that the streaming experience will become another major form of content for media consumers. For serious (and even casual) gamers, Twitch is a normal part of today’s gaming experience.
  • The best way to understand Twitch is to simply head to their site, pick a stream, and watch for a few minutes. I recommend whatever the stream is with the most views at the time when you open the site. Right now that’s 50,000 folks watching a professional competitive League of Legends player practice.
  • Alongside the main window of Twitch’s content stream (where the game play is broadcast) there is a continuously scrolling bar of viewer conversation. These are often moderated (to prevent spam), but any Twitch user can post comments, questions, or whatever occurs to them to share with everyone else watching the stream. This chat window can be hard to follow because it posts continuously. With 10,000 or more viewers, stream chat windows can get nearly impossible to read as you might read any other kind of text. While some instinct in me says “don’t bother,” other instincts in me say to find a smaller stream to see the value of the text chat for devoted fan interaction with streamers.

2. Pokémon

  • In 1996 Nintendo released a game for its handheld Gameboy console titled Pokémon. Players became trainers of animal creatures called pokémon. Over a series of nearly a dozen iterations of the game, players rehashed the game’s simple mechanics– capture pokémon, train them to become more powerful, and defeat all other pokémon trainers to become champion of a competitive battle league. The game stands as one of the most enduring contributions Nintendo made to popular culture. The franchise’s slogan “Gotta Catch ’em All” belied their intelligent marketing to young consumers. The video game birthed action figures, printed manga, multiple animated television series, several generations of collectible card games, and more merchandise than you could really even fathom. No, seriously, take whatever amount of merchandise you think would be utterly ridiculous and absurd and multiply it by 50 or a 100. You still wouldn’t be there yet. (The only game franchise more lucrative and loved by gamers around the world is Mario Brothers.)
  • Within the mythology of the Pokémon world, one of the early games required players to choose between a pair of end-game pokémon creatures. The Dome and Helix fossils were mysterious pokémon believed to be extinct. During game play, players resurrected one of the two fossils, and could, if they so desired, add the pokémon to their collection.

Now you have all the pieces you need to appreciate the way in which things have all come together in Twitch Plays Pokémon (hereafter TPP). Let’s get started.

A few weeks ago, a “social experiment” began on Twitch that allowed the community to play through a game of Pokémon Red together. By entering commands into the live-stream chat window, players would be controlling the actions of the character in the Pokémon game. It was a complicated system featuring options for more or less chaos in the way the community controlled the game. In “anarchy mode,” commands inputted to the chat were executed by the game in the order they were received. As you might expect, this meant a huge volume of wasted commands. The character in the game spun in circles, opened and closed menus, dropped important items on the ground, released pokémon that it had caught, and so on.

In “democracy mode,” commands were executed with slightly more control. Each command went up for a community vote, and after a short time the command with the highest vote was executed. This meant a deliberate effort on the community’s part could result in significant game progress. (Anarchy mode, while chaotic, also made game progress, although this progress may have been due to collections of Twitch accounts controlled by a single user and programmed to rapidly enter a series of commands. This kind of botting appears to have been involved in the game, but I’m not sure how reliable any of the information on this is or what its effects might have been.)

During the first TPP run-through of Pokémon Red, players began to speculate about the motivations of the game character for constantly entering the game menus. Consider this for a second. The way in which the community’s control of the game affected game play became an object of speculation for the community about why the in-game character would do such things. Why, they wondered, was the character always looking in the menus of the game? What did it mean?

The “let’s go along with it” attitude is not especially odd for the group of gamers playing this game. Pokémon is at its core a role-playing game. Community participants in TPP were simply being good role-players by asking what the game was doing when its play seemed not to fit the established roles. (I’m trying so very hard to avoid using theory here, but obviously Geertz, Bordieu, Smith, Bell, Douglas, and others would have extreme relevance on this point.) They filled this gap–consciously, deliberately, and knowingly–with religious and mythological content.

Toward the end of the game, after players had collected a Helix fossil, selecting the fossil in the inventory resulted in an error message that informed players they couldn’t yet use the fossil. In an effort to explain why the in-game character was consulting the fossil so often, players began to claim that Helix was a kind of deity to whom the character was turning. When the community finally turned the Helix fossil into a pokémon, all hell broke loose.

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Evangelicals for Helix?

Community members that supported the choice rejoiced and proclaimed that the character’s most powerful pokémon was in fact the champion or protector of the deity. This spawned the instant meme of “Bird Jesus” because the strongest and first pokémon on the community’s team was a bird. That spawned images like this:

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Lord Helix’s protector, Bird Jesus.

Community members that rejected the choice argued that the un-chosen fossil was the real deity. A religious schism expressed the community’s lack of explanation for their collective game play. It was the backstory that game randomness meaning. And because they saw it this way, the deity Helix became an incarnation of the value of chaos.

(Sidenote: In the second play-through the TPP community appears to be working out a solution to Chaos’ reign that may result in a battle between order and chaos. This is being actively supported by the TPP leaders through their “hacked” version of the game. They seem to be saying they’ll rig the final battle in the second game to be against the team from the first play through. I’ll update this when I know more.)

If you’ve come this far, you might be ready now to appreciate the kind of madness (in a good way) that this has spawned. Pokémon fans are nothing if not utterly devoted to their game. Their nostalgia and sense of play (in terms of role-playing) has created a serious virality of religious innovation that acknowledges pre-existing in-game content and real-life religious influences. Not only are their products syncretic–combining both real world elements and pre-existing franchise approved mythology–but they also have explanatory power over the community’s experience of the chaotic play-through. These are smart readers of culture and religion and they’re using that skill to create mash-ups that are just astonishingly inventive.

Take this Reddit post by user aseanman27 as your gold standard. In it you’ll find an utterly fascinating image that details all of the steps and missteps of the emergence of TPP mythology. The image is enormous or I’d include it here, but stop reading right now and open the image. Really.

Should it all make sense to you? Absolutely not. If it does, I can guarantee you were about 10 or 12 when pokémon came out and that you had access to a Game Boy Advanced or Game Boy Color. I’m actually working myself to get far enough into the game itself that I understand all the elements that make up this chart. I’ve got about 6 hours of gameplay on a iOS Game Boy Advanced emulator version of Pokémon Emerald that I understand far better the kinds of things happening on the stream than I did previously. Should you do that? Probably not. But I will be posting a series of explorations of the TPP mythology that delve a bit further into the convoluted fray. After all, upon completing Pokémon Red, the folks behind TPP jumped right back in again began another play-through of Pokémon Crystal. The mythology continues apace right this second.

It’s not often we get to see even a pseudo-religious mythology arise. To see it happen over the course of the last few weeks has been astounding. If it has been too far out of your comfort zone to register, I hope I can help. Feel free to comment below on whether you’ve been watching, what you’ve seen, or to ask any questions that have occurred to you about this phenomenon.

Just to stimulate that appetite a bit more, here are a few more viral image compilations:

For more on TPP, I suggest

But above all visit,

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Death & Dying in Banished

7 Mar

In the year 20, the village of Tinsel had a famine. Robust supplies of onions, potatoes, and berries dwindled to nothing. Hunger spread and in just a season or two, dozens of villagers perished from starvation. The impact was immediate–overall health improved among survivors while happiness plummeted. Then a labor crisis emerged as the villagers could no longer sustain themselves. Tinsel was soon abandoned as everyone perished. Welcome to Banished.

Banished is a city simulation game that has taken the Steam gaming community by force. At $20 the game’s offers fans the kind of steep but rewarding challenge that recent a-list $60 titles such as SimCity failed to deliver upon. As NPR reporter Steve Mullis said, “Banished is like SimCity Without the City (but with Cholera).” Begin your village with a handful of people desperate for housing. Start a new game when your city has perished from fire, disease, labor crises, starvation, or simple mismanagement. In one game my blacksmith died and I failed to replace him quickly enough. Cue a tool shortage. Production plummeted; villagers died.

As a gamer, I must confess that Banished is both ridiculously enjoyable and terrifically frustrating. Even when your towns do succeed, there is a lack of end-game content to find new funny ways for them to fail. You can upgrade your houses from wood to stone, collect all the different produce seeds by trading, or push your population from 10 to over 1,000. These goals may take you dozens of hours, but at some point you’ll find yourself weary of your town and ready to begin again.

As a scholar, I also think that Banishes is ridiculously enjoyable and terrifically frustrating. Religion plays two roles in Banished. First, the presence of a church creates a congregation whose formation increases the happiness and therefore the efficiency of your workers. Assigning the church a priest directly equates religious observance with the kind of obedience whose purpose is social control. The church’s function is to manage sloppy, lazy peasants just enough so that they’re sloppy, productive peasants. It’s a minor but crucial shift for your game play, but it says little about the value of religion for the lives of Banished npcs.

The second way that religion operates in the game is by placing graveyards as a stop-gap for the happiness drop that can occur when village elders die of old age. A successful town has a mixture of younger and older villagers. Be successful enough and some of your town’s members may just live to be 80 or more and die of natural causes. (Oh to be so lucky as to avoid disease, falling trees, falling rocks, the dangers of childbirth, or any of a dozen other ways to perish!)

Graveyards provide comfort and solace to grieving villagers. This increases the stability of their happiness, which again helps preserve production and render your population more efficient. But are they necessary?

No. Both graveyards and churches are ultimately only equal to the effectiveness of the brew of the gods. A brewery–distilling fruit or wheat into alcohol–actually provides several functional advantages to both churches and graveyards. Game-play-wise graveyards are semi-permanent structures. They increase productivity and require no specific laborers to operate, but the land they sit upon has now become useless to increase your population, food supplies, or anything else. The AI mechanics of npc character does direct villagers to visit and congregation in graveyards, particularly upon the passing of an elder, but otherwise the land is pretty useless. Churches are similar. They boost production, do require a worker, and don’t offer much other benefit.

Brewers, on the other hand, are a way of consuming surplus food stocks and turning them into a tidy profit. The game’s trading mechanic over-values alcohol as a trade commodity. Not only will it make your own population happy (a happiness at least equal to churches or graveyards) but you can trade alcohol for warm coats, new crop seeds, tools, or even food. The graveyard is only a reasonable choice if you haven’t got extra convertible food, and there’s literally no reason to use a church.

Game designers–and Banished is made by just one really devoted guy–often use religion as a means to preserve order, maintain productivity, or otherwise offer stability to city simulators. As I noted about Civilization 5, religion often emerges as an abstraction to cover game mechanics. Even when it does appear, the religious content itself is often abstracted.

In Banished, religion is assumed to be Christianity–and with churches operated by priests that’s a safe bet–but there is also an underlying philosophy of death and dying that suggests the inextricable link between cultural memory of death and community health. Graveyards work because they offer relief for the grief that a villager’s passing causes. The vacuum of labor a death causes in a small community could become a morass, but Banished argues that the grief can be offset by giving dying structure. Graveyard are stabilizers just as churches are. And yet if one turns to drink they may escape this cycle entirely.

Death is inevitable and swift in Banished

Death is inevitable and swift in Banished

Reddit user HolyNoob’s Banished Village collapses

It’s always frustrating when video games get a hard wrap for being juvenile. After all, adults make them and adults play them. There’s obviously a set of rewards to their creation and operation that exceed their form (just as for comic books.) At a party recently my spouse joked that I sit around playing video games. She was sincerely frivolous in her comment, but the other person quickly agreed that video games were so much nonsense. I steered the conversation elsewhere. I do play games, but more often I work on one computer while listening to video game let’s plays in the background on another computer. Why? I simply don’t have the time, money, or expertise to play every game that hits the market. I do recognize, however, that nearly all gaming content engages the basic cultural values in which it was produced. Some do so explicitly (Assassin’s Creed, for instance), while others offer a commentary or critique on our own labor practices. Do you play Candy Crush all day? What kind of emotional rewards does that provide? Is there a way in which the addiction to gain another level might be analyzed religiously? Absolutely.

I think what really gets me about Banished is that the basic premise of the game–survive–is essential a religious premise. Like so many survival based city-simulators, the means to get from surviving to thriving inevitably relies upon some measure of culturally significant mechanics such as religion. For gamers these are often disguised as “happiness” or “order.” Games take the qualities that religion possesses and distill them into algorithmic components that can be operational in the gaming world. If that’s a shrine that restores health, that says something about the link the game makers see between religious structures and well-being. Otherwise, game players wouldn’t even think about visiting a shrine to heal. These associations are culturally induced by experience. The game designer of banished presumably knew several things about happiness. In looking for items that could be introduced into the game world, religion offered a concrete evocation of health and stability. Do churches increase happiness? There may be a study to say. Do game makers think churches increase happiness? Seems so. The evidence is right there in Banished that the game play works that way. (And it works similarly in a host of other city-simulator games.)

If you’re intrigued you can follow along with a Let’s Play or lay down $20 on Steam for a chance to find out what really happens when famine becomes a problem in your town. You don’t have to have a graveyard, but maybe it’ll make you and your villages feel better as you all starve to death because you expanded too quickly. Yup. It’s just that kind of world.

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.

Reaper of Souls — Religion in Diablo 3’s Expansion

2 Oct

As I suggested in an earlier post on the rising religious elements of a-list video game releases, the Reaper of Souls expansion for Diablo 3 is likely to be thorougly saturated with religious content. Today I want to walk through two of ways that will happen: Narrative and Gameplay.

1. Narrative:

Diablo 3 has a rich backstory (supplemented by comics and novels). Humanity lives in a world called Sanctuary between the High Heavens and the Underworld. It was supposed to be a neutral place, but demons use Sanctuary as a staging ground to invade the High Heavens to defeat God’s angels. Diablo, the Lord of Terror, concocts scheme after scheme to rule the three realms. Inevitably, your task is to defeat him.

[Highlight for an interesting Spoiler about Diablo 3: In Diablo 3, Diablo is female.]

In the expansion, Diablo has been cast down from the High Heavens, but the vessel that enabled his rise to power, the black soulstone, has been stolen by Malthael, the former Archangel of Wisdom turned Angel of Death. Here’s the trailer to see that bit of plot in classic Blizzard animation:

I’ve written about Grim Reapers before, and I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say when the game is released sometime in late winter or early spring of 2014.

2. Gameplay

One of the most discussed pieces of the Reaper of Souls expansion is the new character class that players will have access to: the Crusader. Fans of the series will recall that Diablo 2 had a Paladin class. Here’s the extensive background on that character from the Diablo 2 wiki:

During the mid-twelfth century, after the Church of Zakarum had gained prominence in the East, the Church decreed that the visions of Akarat would be spread throughout the known world in order to redeem the masses. Thus, the Church selected a group of its most charismatic and devoted priests and sent them on a mission to proselytize the people of the West.

Unfortunately, the Church had not prepared these men for the rigors of travel nor the hazards of the world. The priests who survived their missions recounted tales of harsh weather, inadequate supplies, attacks from bandits and even encounters with horrible monsters. To ensure the success of future missions, the Church set about training holy warriors, Paladins, to accompany and safeguard their missionaries. In practice, these “Protectors of the Word” proved to be more successful at converting the native peoples than the Priests that they were assigned to defend. Impressing the locals with daring deeds, powerful weapons, and martial prowess was far more convincing than the condemnations of a soft-spoken monk. However, once the Word had been spread to every major city of the West, the “Protectors of the Word” faded from public view.

Some decades later, Paladins were again called into service. During the height of the Time of Troubles, the Church commenced a second campaign of conversion. This time, however, the inconvincible were deemed evil. The Zakarum Inquisition spread through the lands like a tempest, laying waste to all suspected of demonic possession or corruption. Leading this crusade was a new generation of Paladins, known as the “Hand of Zakarum.” These cavaliers of righteousness swept through the lands, expunging the taint of demonic contamination wherever they found it.

In the midst of this bloody crusade, a rebellion arose within the ranks of the Paladins of Zakarum. The rebels condemned the methods of the Inquisition, proclaiming that the new Order of Paladins should protect the innocent, and that the evil corruption was rooted in their forebear’s failure. They resolved to fight the true source of corruption, the Three Prime Evils – Diablo, Baal and Mephisto. And so, these rebellious Paladins left their Zakarum brethren and ventured west.

Got it? Paladins are holy warriors devoted to fighting corruption on the lam from the corrupt inquisition. The crusader class in Diablo 3 looks like it will be cut from this exact mold. In the game your character will build up religious “conviction” to spend dispelling demons and the undead with holy damage. The current characters operate similarly, with Demon Hunters collecting Rage, Barbarians generating Fury, and Monks building Spirit. (The Wizard and Witch Doctor classes are both spellcasters and build up mana to fuel their spells.)

As an action role playing game (ARPG), Diablo 3‘s gameplay doesn’t radically change from class to class. A player’s style in combat might differ based on character, but all players equip the same number of skills, use roughly the same kind of armor, and defeat demons with similar weapons. For experienced gamers, there are very significant differences, but for casual observers, the gameplay across classes is pretty standardized. See monster, kill monster. (The game developers received a flood of complaints on this and related issues that boiled down to a lack of character customization.)

What will makes the gameplay different as a crusader will probably not be subtle to casual gamers who play the game for the first or second time with that class. Diablo 3 is a game where players complete the entire game on easy difficult levels before completing the game many more times on harder difficulty settings. For dedicated players, however, the cumulative effect of dozens or even hundreds of hours of gameplay will be significant. And yes, it is pretty easy to complete the story 30 times or more, especially if you create characters in each of the 5 classes.

Consider this: When you play solo in the game, you can get a computer-controlled follower to aid you. Most players choose the Templar because of a particular bonus he provides. Over the course of your journey, he talks to you. If you spend too long in town shopping, he will say he’s bored. If you spot a powerful monster, he’ll shout one of three catch phrases: “By all that is Holy! Do you see that enemy over there?”; “A mighty adversary is before us”; and “There! A worthy foe.” After you defeat the monster? He’ll say one of four catch phrases. The most notorious is “That was a worthy foe. Glorious.” After hours and hours of defeating elite monsters, most players are sick of these phrases, but they also know them by heart. The same repetition will cause the crusader’s religious bent to become normative for players.

If you’re itching to see what the crusader looks like, you can watch this gameplay trailer from Blizzcon:

Blasphemous Gaming — The Binding of Isaac (2011)

28 Aug

When Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl released their independent video game The Binding of Isaac in 2011, they probably had some idea that their creation would be controversial. They didn’t expect it would sell a million copies, but they had high hopes for their unusual creation.

If you watched the embedded clip above, you’ll know now that the premise of the game is profoundly religious: Isaac is to be sacrificed to God by his devout mother, so he escapes to the basement where he fights monsters. We’re probably all aware that Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah (re-read Genesis 22 if you need a refresher). It’s commonly interpreted as a test of faith or loyalty, but it also has significant meaning in relation to the substitutive nature of sacrifice (animals for people). In this game, it’s an opportunity for the darkest religious themes to become power-ups for your character’s survival as Isaac.

If you want to get a sense of the gameplay, you can watch some of NorthernLion’s YouTube videos. You might want to briefly browse the game’s wiki of increasingly powerful items that help you survive. If you played the original NES The Legend of Zelda or the UNIX classic Rogue, you’ll find the game oddly familiar. If you’re not into games, a few minutes to get the gist of what the tone and mood of the gameplay is like is plenty.  (Warning: Northernlion’s language is NSFW right from the start, but he’s the most prolific Binding player on YouTube and his profane reactions emphasize the non-religious context of most gamer’s experience of the religious content.)

Naturally, what angered many observers when the game launched the profoundly dark and graphic presentation of religious elements. From the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to seemingly satanic imagery with pentagrams and the fictional grimoire Necronomicon, there is an abundance of provocative themes. Despite the cartoon style of the game, this is not for children. Nintendo, for instance, fearing the ease with which their young gamers could access the item in their online shops, removed the product from their stores. (This was mostly discussed as an instance of Nintendo failing to understand their own fleeting status as a gaming platform for serious gamers.)

The major issue surrounding the game became its designation as “blasphemous.” After all, this term is entirely relative. Blasphemy assumes discourses of truth and untruth, devout and disparaging speech. For retailers (and countries that assign ratings to game like Germany, Australia, and the United States), the issues of propriety, morality, and responsibility came headlong into discussions over religious norms and free speech. Who says the themes the game shows are blasphemous? Who has the right to decide the content is blasphemous for others? And so on.

This controversy has subsided–it’s 2013 and the game continues to produce additional content that has significantly expanded the range of religious endings gamers find when they win–but the issues have not gone away.

As you can see, even Bioshock Infinite, an A list game from multimillion dollar developer Irrational Games, had a spate of bad press among Christian gamers who felt unable to accept the false baptism the main character requires to enter the game. Valve, makers of a game-platform called Steam where players downloaded the game, may have even gone so far as to refund the money of an offended gamer (in violation of their stated refund policies).

As narrative games become increasingly more sophisticated, we can all expect more and more rough patches between fictional representations of religion and the religious beliefs of gamers. Bioshock is just the latest (and biggest) title to have stirred these waters. I imagine that Witcher 3 (a hack-and-slash game with strong religious elements) might have this problem.  Or Diablo 3‘s newest expansion Reaper of Souls, which has an obvious Grim Reaper character as the newest protagonist.

If you’re watching religion in popular culture and all you’ve got on your plate is cinema and television, you’re missing the massive enterprise that is modern gaming culture. Superheroes may have leapt from comics to the screen, but franchises like Resident Evil, Doom, Mortal Kombat, Streetfighter, Pokemon, Tomb Raider, Hitman, Prince of Persia, and Silent Hill show that games are increasingly sources of cinematic profits.

Look here in the future for more posts about the religious elements of Bioshock Infinite, Assassin’s Creed, Diablo, and The Witcher. It’s a big help if you let me know you’d like to see these. Let me know in the comments and I’ll make it happen sooner rather than later.

World Religions in Sid Meier’s Civilization 5

11 Aug

As I prepare an article for a volume on the World Religions Paradigm (WRP), I’ve been rereading classic works such as Russell T. McCutcheon’s Manufacturing Religion and Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions. In the midst of John Kerry’s comment that were he to return to school today he would study Comparative Religions, it is evident we need more discussion of the way “religion” has been constructed and deployed. Michael J. Altman has an excellent post on Medium.com with his recommendations for how Secretary Kerry might revise his understanding of religions. I don’t intend anything quite so grand, but I do want to point out how freely the WRP works itself into unusual niches in our lives. Sometimes its appearance can be pretty confusing, as I found in the case of a popular computer game.

Sid Meier’s immensely popular game franchise Civilization has been the go-to turn-based strategy computer game for nearly two decades. Since the release of Civilization in 1991, gamers have logged millions of hours conquering the world hexagon by hexagon. As the ruler of an ancient civilization, players must found cities, gather resources to feed their populations, build armies to defend their lands, and research technologies that mirror humanity’s rise to the present. For the level of commitment some players have to the series, check out this account of a man who has been playing the same game for over a decade!

One of the more recent versions of the game, Civilization 5: Gods and Kings, added religion as a core mechanic for gamers to enhance their empires. You can select various traits that give bonuses for possessing certain resources or tiles. Desert tiles, for instance, produce very little food and can make it harder for your cities to grow. Often you might avoid placing cities in areas where they would be surrounded by lots of desert. One religious trait you can adopt adds a bonus for desert tiles, making them much more desirable.

Civilization V

Civilization V (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is probably enough in the details of religious attributes to merit another post or two in the future. For now I want to emphasize the way in which the world religions are constructed in the game. Players begin by accumulating faith (usually by building a shrine which takes several turns to build and has a maintenance cost every turn). Eventually they accrue enough faith to found a “pantheon” and select an initial gameplay bonus.

After even more faith a “Great Prophet” is born and players can choose to found a religion and select two more gameplay bonuses. While one is always free to found a fictional religion, the preset options are primarily the standard core of World Religions. The 13 choices are listed alphabetically (and not tied to chronology, culture, or geography): Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Protestantism, Shinto, Sikhism, Taoism, Tengriism, and Zoroastrianism. [Originally there was only “Christianity,” but an expansion split Christianity into Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox Christians.]

If a player accumulates enough faith a Great Prophet appears and s/he can found a religion.

While faith is universally represented by a dove carrying a small green branch, each of these religions is represented by an icon. The icons serve one primary purpose:  when multiple religions exist in a city, the small icons fit in the pop-up HUD to display the breakdown of a population’s religious affiliation. There are also no bonuses for pairing religions with traits that might appear appropriate to their historical or cultural pasts. You can have Buddhist Cathedrals or Catholics that receive a bonus from temples. It’s a massive and confusing religious buffet.

And as I see it that is part of the problem. The choices of traits are not confined to particular religious traditions. Players are not penalized for mixing and matching, nor must they take both good and bad traits. This format presents all religions as functionally equivalent–the name is irrelevant.

I can understand from a designer’s standpoint that this mechanic is meant to offer players diverse bonuses that are appropriate for their particular circumstances in-game. It works, too. It is immensely satisfying to find your economy or scientific research pulling ahead because you carefully planned your religion’s abilities.

From a religious studies stance, however, every time I found a religion in a game of Civilization, I find myself cringing at the underlying consequences of the whitewashing of historical and cultural context. Why should the Protestants get a bonus in the desert! Why are the Tengriists getting bonuses for printing presses? How are the Buddhist monasteries generating so much wealth for my cities? It’s a endless hodgepodge.

On the one hand, I want all the many thousands of Civilization 5 players to run out and read Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One rather than Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions or Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. Implicitly and explicitly, the game makes it possible for its players to treat the world’s religions as simply different paths up the same mountain. Prothero lays out the case for laypersons that these “world” religions simply do not believe in the same deity. When Civilization makes it inconsequential to pick Zoroastrianism over Buddhism, they’ve made it easier for gamers to think there is little difference between the two. [Note I say “easier.” I don’t believe the game is responsible for getting its gamers to think much about the differences among any of its religions–that’s the problem!]

The beliefs of many faiths are mutually exclusive or, at the very least, perennial antagonistic. The attempt to synchronize world religions is not simply an effort of categorization (scholars being scholars) but of faith and its role in creating and shaping scholarship. It is the product of a certain way of looking at the world and a certain way of judging its people’s beliefs and behaviors. Because we know that the WRP is so profoundly entangled in the rise of enlightenment rationalism and Protestantism in the West, at least we have a chance to develop a very good sense of the biases and contortions of the categories. This, I suppose, is the other hand: even Prothero’s work can be fundamentally misleading.

One of the great challenges in avoiding the WRP is stepping outside of the boxes into which we’ve placed religious lives. It’s not easy and there are pitfalls that the game exposes. Civilization is a game that puts players at the dawn of time and hopes they’ll survive until the present day and beyond. This inevitably compresses (or obliterates) not simply the details of the lives that would render the WRP less powerful, but also the differences of time, space, and culture that led to the possibility of the WRP in the first place. It doesn’t matter whether I pick Catholicism or Islam–the game doesn’t care and there are no consequences to my selection. I guess that means that religion has been so spectacularly reduced by the game that its arbitrary-ness is more evident than its special-ness. As I said, a hot mess.

At least the gameplay is still spectacular.