Monday, February 9, 2015

Spirituality and Games

This is a repost and revision, based on a discussion I had with a fellow classmate.  It seemed relevant, and rather than it getting lost within my Gamasutra space, I decided to port it over here.  As I'm delving deeper into game studies, I also figured that I'd do a bit of leg work and revise it over with some links to some game scholars as well.

Because this goes beyond the normal video game realm, particularly into the realm of television/video, I'll be citing relevant points through analysis of additional media beyond video games. This is due to a lack of availability of content - I'm a console developer, primarily, and there is a notable dearth of religious console titles which makes completely analysis of a specific section of media, in this case, video games, difficult at best. I'm also going to be focusing on Christian-faith based games. This isn't due to laziness, rather, the problems that are illustrated in religious-based games aren't unique to any one faith and that Christian-based games are far easier for me to come by over Islamist, Hindu, etc. based game. 

I'm afraid much of this is anecdotal, as I have not worked for an explicitly religious game company of any faith. I'm a Unitarian Universalist, so, I like to consider myself a student of many religions.  That said, much of my experience with faith comes from playing games with family members that are exceedingly religious.  In none of the games I've ever played was faith or spirituality explicitly thematic or a driving force within the game world itself.  It is exceedingly simple to see why explicitly spiritual games are not more numerous within the broader game market:
  1. Spirituality is hard to define.
  2. Spiritual is often conflated with religious, and religious games are painfully didactic.
  3. Gameplay is more engaging when it is emergent; because of the focus on message, strategies are limited to fall within the confines of the specific spiritual goal
Spirituality has many definitions, and much like religious faith, is often a personal definition which is hard to qualify.  Wikipedia summarizes "Spirituality" thusly:
"...a process of personal transformation, either in accordance with traditional religious ideals, or, increasingly, oriented on subjective experience and psychological growth independently of any specific religious context. In a more general sense, it may refer to almost any kind of meaningful activity or blissful experience."
  • "Spirituality." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 9 February, 2015. Web. 9 February, 2015.
What is interesting about this definition is how Wikipedia goes on to define meaningful.  Wikipedia takes meaningful to be within the context of the philosophical debate about the meaning of life, by using this definition:

"The meaning of life is a philosophical and spiritual question concerning the significance of life or existence in general. It can also be expressed in different forms, such as "Why are we here?", "What is life all about?", and "What is the purpose of existence?" or even "Does life exist at all?" It has been the subject of much philosophical, scientific, and theological speculation throughout history. There have been a large number of proposed answers to these questions from many different cultural and ideological backgrounds." 

  • "Meaning of Life." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 7 February, 2015. Web. 9 February, 2015.

This goes beyond the definition used by academics like Jane McGonigal when they describe meaningful.  In game studies, meaningful is placed within the context of games and the role of games in effecting change, education, or desired emotional context.  Meaning, in the context of games, is that the gameplay or interactivity has an explicit intent to inspire a specific line of thinking or evoke a specific emotional aesthetic from the player.  So a game that is focused on spirituality has the specific intent (or meaning) to evoke a religious or pseudo-religious experience from the player.

The problem there is easy to identify: what one person may find meaningful within the context of their religious tradition may not evoke a meaningful response to those that are not of that tradition. Creating a game in which one travels to Judea and listens to the Sermon on the Mount may be a meaningful event to those in the Christian traditions, but to a Hindu or Ba'hai, it may mean nothing. That isn't to say that it isn't possible to create games that target specific meanings, and these meanings can be explicitly spiritual, but then we run into the muddy definition of what it means to be spiritual.

Once a specific definition of spirituality is embraced, limitations are placed on the tone, content and meaning of the interactive experiences.  There have been widely released games that have taken a very specific spiritual context and applied it to the tone of the game. The most famous christian game of late that received both wide release, thanks to being carried by WalMart, and wide critical press would be Left Behind: Eternal Forces and its sequels. The game, as evidenced by the Metacritic score, was very poorly received by the gaming community. Going through the reviews, even the best reviews provided via Metacritic indicate that the gameplay experience was, over all, poor. The story didn't get much better reviews, but, given that the gaming press is largely secular, this isn't much of a surprise. Because the game itself is focused on recreating a world and universe centered around a specific, christian, interpretation of the "End of Days", the game - at its core - must hold onto this premise and its meaning in its narrative. This adherence to a very specific Christian interpretation takes precedence over the development of core gameplay mechanics, resulting in a didactic game unless you accept the specific meaning of spirituality advanced by the developers. 
But even with a specific meaning applied to the mechanics, narrative and tone of the game, where spirituality is defined clearly within a specific context, the audience for these games don't necessarily care that the game is fun as long as the spirituality-based message is prominent. Games developed with this mindsent eschew emergent gameplay at its core and instead reply upon more traditional and far more limited progression-based gameplay. (see Jesper Juul's Half-Real p.73-91).  If the player does not perform the correct events in the correct series, their progression through the game is stopped. The adherence of the communication of the message takes priority over everything, including the use of emergent gameplay to occasionally surprise the player, and as long as the game clearly communicates this message, then the developers consider the game a success. This is clearly surveying the reviews of Left Behind: Eternal Forces as a game.  

The second is the IP holders. Like the audiences, they see the game as a marketing tool not just for their IP, but also for their message. So, again, if the message is at the forefront, clearly presented, and continues to be inline with the ultimate spiritual goal, then the IP holders don't care if the gameplay is good. The meaning and message is key, everything else is secondary.

So, how can we get by this and how can developers bring together these seemingly exclusive worlds together in such a way that these games appeal to both gamers and the faithful?

Allegory could work, but this tends to be perceived as diluting the message. Allegory is open to interpretation, which goes against a specific spiritual meaning.  Even if there is by in by like minded people, an allegory could be misinterpreted or missed entirely. The Left Behind series is a pretty good description of that; while it is couched in Bible, that is firmly couched in the prophecies as literally interpreted in the Book of Revelations (itself a work that is littered with allegory). 

Improving the gameplay would, of course, provide these spiritual games with a wider audience.  As we've seen, that is a fine line to tread. Gameplay is iterated upon to create a fun experience with the goal of creating emergent events that occasionally surprise the player and allow them to find new ways to interact within the game rules to achieve their goals. That means, in story-based games, that both gameplay and narrative are molded together into a single entity. This is no different than translating books into movies. Some aspects of books are invariably cut to create a much more compelling, both visual and pacing-wise, product. Using religious text or meanings as a narrative source, however, limits this flexibility. Altering the narrative potentially alters the message and this would be unacceptable. Gameplay, as a result, can only be modified so much as long as strict and explicit interpretations is followed. The results, as we can see via the Left Behind: Eternal Forces, show out that an adherence to inflexible narrative content hinders gameplay mechanic growth.   Once you understand the context of the meaning, then you know exactly what to do to succeed and eliminate the need or even desire to embrace emergence in play.  

Studying spirituality in games is a difficult subject to tackle.  Because game studies is so young, little has been done in precedent, which is a good thing.  The study is novel.  Game studies is also pretty fuzzy around the edges, as there are many different things to study when it comes to games, meaning it could be possible to study the spirituality in games.  The problem boils down to how you define spirituality and meaning, because depending on the religious tradition or belief system of the researcher and the users, these terms become very fuzzy and difficult to pin down.  This makes finding examples in game spaces more difficult and requiring more interpretation and critical analysis like one would find in the Humanities and its study of literature and film.   One could walk down into the sociological aspects of faith and spirituality in MMORPGs, but, again, the broad definitions of spirituality and meaning would make finding specific instances difficult unless one spent a great deal of time nailing down more cogent and accepted definitions.

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