Tag Archives: Video game

Serious Games — Studying Religion in Video Games

23 Oct

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

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

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

Here’s my take on things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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: