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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.

Disgust — Provocations from Trier’s Antichrist

6 Nov

When I was writing my halloween posts last week I came across a link to a film review blog called A Movie A Week. It’s exactly what it sounds like–a site where critic Shaun Henisey reviews one movie a week. As I read through his reviews, I realized that Henisey had reviewed a challenging film, Antichrist, which I had been failing to talk myself into watching until recently. Henisey’s review is both generous and cautionary. Lars Von Trier‘s film is notorious for its extended meditation on (or embodiment of) misogyny. It’s a sexually graphic and psychologically intense film that divided audiences and critics alike. Detroit News film critic Tom Long’s comments are typical of positive reviews: “Self-loathing, mean, ugly and perfectly made, Antichrist is probably the best film ever that you’d recommend to absolutely no one.” On the other side, Dallas Morning News critic Christopher Kelly wrote, “Antichrist is a unique form of cruel and unusual punishment: an unrelenting orgy of graphic sex, violence and cynicism that also manages to be wildly pretentious.”

You can see the overlap in the critical reviews of this film–it is a disturbing piece of cinema. For some there was meaning in the madness; for others there was only madness.

Antichrist by Lars von Trier

Antichrist by Lars von Trier (Photo credit: ‘Lil)

Rather than write directly about the film–I think Henisey’s review captures many of the essential religious themes–I want to say a few words about disgust. First, a basic definition of disgust is a feeling of revulsion or profound disapproval aroused by something unpleasant or offensive. Disgust is a negative emotional response. It requires us to have moral, aesthetic, or religious boundaries. Disgust crosses the line. To bring Mary Douglas and Emile Durkheim to the discussion, disgust is taboo-breaking that places us in danger of becoming impure. Disgust assumes we are pure. It is a moral high ground. Consider the satellite of synonyms for disgust: revulsion, repugnance, aversion, distaste, nausea, abhorrence, loathing, detestation, odium, horror, contempt, and outrage. Is it possible that these alternatives are varieties of emotional condescension?

When we watch a film that really gets down in the muck, what is the nature of our disgust? Is it reflective? Are we repelled by seeing any fraction of ourselves? Or is it alienating? Are we repelled by the lack of relation?

Disgust is an emotional that has received considerable study. What’s fascinating, however, is that there are few studies of disgust as a religious faculty in modern experience. (I know of several studies of monastic practices that deal extensively with self-mutilation and other ascetic practices.) Yet religious studies appears to have overlooked this emotion today (whereas our colleagues in the social sciences have not).

When a movie like Trier’s comes along that provokes such intense reactions of revulsion and offense, I wonder whether it has successfully manipulated foundational religious elements to these effects. The wrapper of visceral gore makes it difficult to judge. What disgusts us in the film? Can we segment the stimuli? If so, are there more centrally religious elements? For our students, can these elements be extracted from the film to be discussed with material more appropriate for the classroom. (Despite my firm belief that there are really no limits to the objects we study in the academy, I do believe there are a number of limits to the objects we teach with in the classroom. Antichrist violates so many of these I hardly know where to begin.) In short, can we approach a “disgusting” film didactically and then employ its lessons on less dangerously provocative material?

In the context of a class I am slowly developing on the supernatural, disgust is an emotion that I’m sure will be invoked at least once. After all, can you imagine watching The Exorcist and not being even a little disgusted by the demon’s provocations? So, at the end here, I have a very practical motivation for my inquiries. I expect to need a way to deal with disgust and its satellites of similar emotional responses. We cannot stop feeling when we watch horror films. In truth, and as I said in my post on horror and religion, I think those feelings are central to the genre.

Thus, how would you discuss disgust in a religious studies classroom? Do you see a place for it? How would you deal with it? If you have thoughts, let me know below.

Related articles on my supernatural course

Is Horror Religious?

1 Nov

Every Halloween is an intense reminder to me that religion and horror go hand-in-glove. All Hallow’s Eve has become a secular candy-infused target for conservative religious figures, and yet these critics are not wrong to lament the religious inversions that are on display. We become the monsters we should fear. We masquerade in identities it would be better not to claim. I find the thought of living in Superman’s world as equally disturbing as I believe it would be to live in Freddy Kreuger’s. If conservative religious voices express their concern that these actions make us less able to distinguish between reality and fantasy, I think they’re on to something. (However, they are decisively less persuasive when they claim that weakening this boundary means we are crossing the line separating good and evil.) Let me explain.

A basic interpretation of ritual, Emile Durkheim’s, for instance, suggests that ritual operates using cyclic rhythms to interrupt the banality of everyday life. Rituals express significant chronological and spatial differences. Eliade’s formulation of these ideas, especially in The Myth of the Eternal Return, suggested that this was a religious predisposition of all humans. In the modern world, Eliade feared, we have lost our religious bearings. Ritual has lost its ability to express sacred time and space.

English: Emile Durkheim's grave. Italiano: La ...

English: Emile Durkheim’s grave. Italiano: La tomba di Emile Durkheim (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Jonathan Z. Smith came along to tear down the ritual model as built by Eliade and Durkheim, one of his significant contributions was to distinguish between the religious actor’s imagination and their expectation. Ritual became an act of imagining–not a true expectation of change. In this respect, Smith embodies every fear Eliade had about the demystified or disenchanted modern world. Smith’s ritual world is one where ritual agents imagine their magic works. However, at some level, even if unspoken, ritual agents know their actions are not magic. In a perfect world, Smith argued, it wouldn’t be necessary for us to speak symbolically. Our rituals would always have the exact effects that we ascribed to them. Rain when we asked for rain. Healing when we desired healing. And so on.

If this seems difficult to follow, consider this. One of the major theological elements in the divide between Protestants and Catholics is over transubstantiation. When the host (the bread as the body of Jesus) is consecrated, is that material truly changed into the body of Jesus? Even hardened Catholics have difficulty explaining why the wafer still appears to be a wafer. The theology of change in essence without change in form is a delicate bit of spiritual prestidigitation. Protestants, by contrast, more openly say that the wine had not changed from alcohol to blood. For them the change is symbolic.

Back to horror now. As a genre, horror begins in the Gothic era. Yet, as I noted in a previous post about ghosts, there is a much older tradition of paranormal experience–folklore. Folklore is a cultural expression where normative beliefs and practices are passed from generation to generation. In this sense, folklore is very much the mechanism for passing ritual expectations. It preserves the sense of imagination while sustaining expectations. What is the key to good storytelling? Getting the listener to ask “Then what?” What happened next is the folktale’s engine.

We have two overlapping but distinct genres. Folklore is not always horrific. Horror is definitely not always folklore. Horror is often fictional, which certainly makes a difference since folklore like myth always strives for truth. But that’s not the rub. Horror is the genre whose object is the production of terror. I say terror here for two reasons. First, I don’t want to confuse the genre with its product. Second, I want to emphasize the kind of terror the Rudolf Otto evoked in his famous use of mysterium tremendum et fascinas. This is the numinous–that which is wholly other, that tells us simultaneously to look away but also compels us to look. This is the beating heart of horror–actions which are beyond reckoning that both invite and discourage attention.

Let’s return now to horror and its Halloween critics. When we play as devils, they say, we risk becoming demoniacs. Smith’s ritual corrective suggests that religious agents can more readily separate the imagination they employ while wearing masks from the reality that they do not become what the masks represent. We are a society at play, not a society playing at becoming. That religious folks think becoming the monsters is possible is notable.

The challenge of the genre of horror is continually producing experiences that are wholly other. It shares with religious ritual the goal of playing convincingly while acknowledging that becoming is not ruled out. Despite Smith’s objections, we live in a world where a vast majority of people believe, beyond all factual evidence and reason, that becoming just might be possible. This explains the urgency in critics’ voices as well as the attraction of Horror. There is a remote possibility, the genre seems to say, that this could happen. That slim chance is what makes us share a protagonist’s doubt about whether they locked the back door. That possibility is not folklore’s “what happened then” but rather horror’s “what if this really happened?”

The speculative core of horror is one of the reasons I think it is inevitably, and fundamentally, religious. It is the spectrum of religious behavior and thought that preserves the terror of radical possibilities. A serial killer is some absurd form of hideous, blasphemous miracle. The return of ancient world-destroying gods? Another grotesque possibility.

Cthulu Jack O' Lantern

Cthulu Jack O’ Lantern (Photo credit: joebeone)

Finally, however, I think that beyond possibility, it is terror that pushes all horror into the religious. That of which we are terrified–physical, psychical, or mental harm–cut deeply into the core of religious bodies, souls, and minds. It causes us to question whether bodies are sacred. It make us wonder whether our souls are secure. It make us wonder whether our minds are whole.

The damage horror inflicts–and one of the reasons I don’t flatly reject horror’s religious critics–can be quite real. Terror opens interrogative room. This isn’t the same space as the miraculous. This is a space where reality is inverted, subverted, and rejected. It can be profoundly emotional.

Horror, when it is at its most horrific, is our own lives tipped just slightly out of balance. It makes the whole world unheimlich (unfamiliar in the sense of uncanny). We lose our sense of being at home. Thus while folklore preserves our world; horror breaks it down until it is no longer familiar to us.

Otto claimed that this disorientation was fundamentally religious. This Halloween week I find myself agreeing with him. So, is horror religious? Yes. Absolutely.

Thought Experiment Addendum

On Twitter Daniel Silliman suggested that one way to test my inquiry would be ask “could horror be irreligious?” He said he didn’t think so. I agreed. Can you think of a way for horror to be irreligious? I’ll note that to the best of my knowledge, Wikipedia’s suggestion that irreligion can be indifference, rejection, and hostility to religion seems unhelpfully broad. It notes right away that religious rejection (atheism, for instance) is different from hostility to religion (antitheism). This suggests we might be better off limiting the discussion to indifference to religion. After all, if one is hostile to religion then one is still dealing with religion. So, to be more precise, can horror be indifferent to religion?

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.

Mystical Pregnancies

15 Oct

Io9 strikes again with Katharine Trendacosta’s list of “The Most Ridiculous Mystical Pregnancies in Fiction.” It’s a solid compilation that ranges from Twilight to Xena: Warrior Princess and Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the end of the post, Trendacosta directs readers to Anita Sarkeesian’s take on Tropes Vs. Women.  It’s definitely worth 7 minutes of your time:

As Sarkeesian explains, pregnancy in speculative fiction is commonly a vehicle for reducing women from vibrant characters to incubators. Moreover, pregnancy is frequently made into a traumatic, monstrous experience. Just remember Bella’s pregnancy in Breaking Dawn, which featured the fetal vampire’s attempt to kill her human mother. Critics emerged en masse to complain not just about the representation of the female body during pregnancy, but also its deceitful portrait of the emotional lives of mothers. (See Think Progress, Adios Barbie, or Io9).

As I develop a course on the supernatural to add to my teaching portfolio, I’m on the lookout for thematic content that highlights a broad range of religious issues. Mystical pregnancies is excellent in this respect.

    1. There are  so many clear examples of mystical pregnancies in film that every student is likely to be familiar with at least one or two fictional examples. The abundance of examples also means that every student could research their own example. This fosters a climate of comparison that will help focus attention on the common dimensions of the trope.
    2. It focuses on issues of gender in a different way than horror’s more general application of the trope of the virgin. This is a chance to explore motherhood as a juxtaposition to sexual purity.
    3. This opens avenues to discuss Mariology–the prototypical mystical birth that I would expect all my students to become experts on.  What does it mean to be both immaculate and the mother of God? What do women think about Mary as a religious ideal? How do they reconcile Mary’s life with their own experiences with motherhood?
    4. Supernatural fiction is a vehicle for the discussion of reproductive and sexual rights. All too often demonic possession is an opportunity to highlight the boundaries of sexual norms. The Exorcist, for instance, sexualizes a young possessed girl through her intense, vulgar language. When monstrous pregnancies introduce demonic fetuses, is this a punishment for sexual acts? A test of faith or obedience? Under what circumstances does pregnancy become evil? How are infants imagined as violations of nature? (As when Bella’s child grows at an accelerated rate.) [Depending on time, this may also be a time to introduce the history of the culture wars that is the broader historical context for so many of these fictional works.]
    5. Supernatural fiction often demonstrates basic biological and human imperatives through inversion. Why is The Omen so shocking? It tells the story of parents who ultimately conclude they must sacrifice their demonic offspring. It’s a perverse adaptation of the story of Abraham and Isaac–only in this case Abraham tries to go through with the sacrifice and is narrowly stopped by the police. What are we to make of the triumph of evil here? Is obedience to the law a sufficient replacement for obedience to God? What are the limits of our parental instincts? Is infanticide ever natural?
    6. Finally, it discretely thematizes the vast supernatural canon. We can effectively group content with pregnancies or pseudo-pregnancies without worrying about the many other issues they raise. This frees me to deal effectively with movies that run a broad supernatural gauntlet (like The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby). I can easily find another movie to deal with prophecy, the anti-Christ, demonic possession, etc.

Feel free to suggest more issues that you would raise! I’m also on the lookout for excellent secondary sources if you know of any! (I have this fascinating thesis by Natasha Lopusina with its many excellent sources. Thank goodness for the digital age!)

Every Page is Spiritual Warfare (part 2)

10 Oct

This post continues yesterday’s discussion, which started with an annotated selection from Francis Frangipane’s The Three Battlegrounds.

In my work, I tend to focus on the construction of cosmic-level strongholds as the basis for confrontation between public/secular imaginaries and private/religious ones. They are fundamentally world founding because they structure perceptions of truth and reality. They are orientating, and this jives with a diverse selection of classic definitions of religions including those provided by Durkheim, Feuerbach, Frazer, Otto, Marx, and Geertz. How far do the rabbit hole of definitions do we want to go? Depends on how fractured you’re willing to be in applying definitions to a part of what spiritual warriors are up to.

Religion Stencil

Religion Stencil (Photo credit: murdelta)

One of the reasons I continue to study spiritual warfare texts is that I believe they suggest an inadequacy of most definitions. While I have a lot to say on this issue (I hope I’ll have room for it in my first book), let me give a quick run-through here. My religious subjects appear to be defining not just one but two worlds–the secular and the religious. For them, only one world has a legitimate Truth claim. The secular world’s claim to be reality (or a more objective version of a reality that we all share) is not merely fraudulent. Nor is it some kind of objective container for competing religious perspectives. For my subjects, the religious world is the only world and the secular world’s view of things is utter heresy or apostasy.

Analytically, the crutch of the issue lays with J. Z. Smith, however. While I see my subjects claiming that the religious world has not just primacy but exclusivity, do I affirm their beliefs? I can confirm they feel that way most of the time. But like Smith’s ritual agents reenacting the bear-killing ritual in “Bare Facts of Ritual,” we can’t be sure spiritual warriors aren’t simply performing the world the way they wish it would be.

As they say to young scholars, fake it till you make it! If that is the case, then how are my subjects behaving differently than their “secular” counterparts? If, as a scholar, I deny their ontological claims, then I will likely struggle to convey not only the conviction of their beliefs, but also the consequences of those beliefs. In religious studies, we’re pretty cautious about these. At the very least we want to give our subjects the benefit of the doubt. More often, we give them full range of expression without direct judgment.

In anthropology, which more religionists should study, this is the perennial problem of emic/etic or insider/outsider perspectives. Anthropologists carefully delineate the boundary between the local perspective of subjects and the global perspective of scholars. (I should note that some excellent work on this has been done by Robert Orsi in Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them.) In ethnographic studies, this makes a lot of sense (and is all the more fascinating when it breaks down, as in Mama Lola).

Though I may include more ethnographic elements in future iterations of my project, my present work is historical and rooted in published texts. There’s much less room to separate emic and etic when you rely on 20 year old spiritual warfare manuals. The format of my sources discourages this division. I can only take my sources seriously if I see them as documents that attempt to be coherent, serious participants in the worlds they describe. They could be winking, but if they are, I don’t have the resources to say so.

Could I just take a side and say what I think? Sure. I’m not categorically unwilling to do this. I’m just unconvinced it is appropriate or helpful. If I have to step outside of my subjects’ perspective and in so doing dispute the very core of their beliefs, then what have I gained? Shouldn’t my theory tolerate equally my potential dissent and my subjects’ affirmations? In short, shouldn’t religious theories explain how religion actively produces and shapes its secular counterpart?

I suppose this means I’m saying that religion is not just about religion. That’s probably a good thing. Our discipline routinely gets criticized for its failure to define its object of study sufficiently without self-reference. (Woe unto you if you begin by saying that religious studies is the study of religion!)

Part of the challenge of existing definitions is that they often self-exclude religion’s products as pieces of the equation. That’s surely our field’s history of Protestant belief-bias. Only recently have we been able to fully marshal our energies to acknowledge and study material products. Even Durkheim dissed the totems and churingas in the end. But today we still haven’t fully wrestled with the production of non-belief, non-material things. The secular world is one of these types of products. And as unlikely as it may seem to some, it’s a dynamic, shifting product that spiritual warriors are working actively to change in their favor. (I suppose saying that the secular world exists beyond belief is fairly positivist of me, but remember that I’m describing the religious world created by my religious subjects’ projection of secular worlds from their religious one.)

You can think of it as a world-view if you like, but I tend to avoid that world because of its strongly negative connotations in my source material. Instead I call it an imaginary, a way of imagining the world that shapes our ability to act. (And yes, I borrow this from Charles Taylor, the scourge of contemporary high theory.) It is the basis for believing an action is appropriate and likely to succeed, and it includes the whole body of elements that exist to support those actions. For spiritual warriors, it means not simply the theological arguments for the validity of warfare, but also the spiritual gifts used in battle, the paradigm to interpret secular foes, and, paradoxically, the secular society that legally supports their rights to fight for their supremacy of their version of reality.

If you think that fits an existing definition of religion, then be sure to post a comment below. I’d love to hear from you! Agree or disagree, just let me know you made it this far with me.