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Shaman, paragon, God-mode: modern video games are heavily coded with religious undertones. From the Shinto-inspired Japanese video game Okami to the internationally popular The Legend of Zelda and Halo, many video games rely on religious themes and symbols to drive the narrative and frame the storyline. Playing with Religion in Digital Games explores the increasingly complex relationship between gaming and global religious practices. For example, how does religion help organize the communities in MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft? What role has censorship played in localizing games like Actraiser in the western world? How do evangelical Christians react to violence, gore, and sexuality in some of the most popular games such as Mass Effect or Grand Theft Auto? With contributions by scholars and gamers from all over the world, this collection offers a unique perspective to the intersections of religion and the virtual world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253012531
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 04/28/2014
Series: Digital Game Studies
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,235,779
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Heidi A. Campbell is Associate Professor of Communication at Texas A&M University, where she teaches media studies. She is author of Exploring Religious Community Online and When Religion Meets New Media, and editor of Digital Religion. She is Director of the Network for New Media, Religion, and Digital Culture Studies.

Gregory P. Grieve is Associate Professor in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is Director of MERGE: A Network for Collaborative Interdisciplinary Scholarship in UNCG's College of Arts and Sciences, and co-chair of the American Academy of Religion's section on Religion and Popular Culture. He is author of Retheorizing Religion in Nepal and editor (with Steven Engler) of Historicizing "Tradition" in the Study of Religion.

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Playing with Religion in Digital Games

By Heidi A. Campbell, Gregory Price Grieve

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2014 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01263-0


Dreidels to Dante's Inferno


Jason Anthony

IT'S HARD TO IMAGINE TWO MORE DIFFERENT ARENAS THAN games and religion. Games strike us as a pleasant distraction, a space where amiable conflicts play out to a conclusion which, tomorrow, won't matter much. Religious activity is clearly quite different. It calls for utmost seriousness and a minimum of conflict, and our commitment will yield consequences that can last a lifetime–or longer, depending on the views we hold on eternity.

So goes the conventional wisdom. Yet games and religion share a long, rich, and intertwined history, even in the digital age. Consider a brief snapshot of the events at the 2011 Game Developers Conference. The world's top designers, developers, and game studios have gathered to discuss the state of their art. Design guru and director of the NYU Game Center Frank Lantz steps up to the podium. In a highly anticipated talk, he advocates at length for the "sublime" in games. He explains that the venerable game of Go held a place in Confucian practice, and asks why poker and other complex games could not attain a similar stature: "Why can't a video game be a spiritual discipline?" And he continues: "I want more video games that give me a space in which to entangle my mind with the mysterious infinite secrets of the universe. And this doesn't have to be precious. Poker proves that it can have something vulgar and violent and dirty and shameful and dangerous and addictive. And if it's deep enough, it can slingshot you all the way around to new orbits of insight and higher levels of consciousness."

In the days that follow, the conference takes up this gauntlet. Eric Zimmerman–who had been working with Deepak Chopra on the console meditation game Leela (discussed below)–coordinates the annual game design challenge. He gives three prominent designers the task of coming up with a new game that addresses the theme "Bigger than Jesus: Games as Religion." The previous year's winner, on a totally unrelated challenge, had been Heavenville, "a sort of stock market that measures the social currency of dead people."

The result of Zimmerman's challenge made headlines. Jason Rohrer came up with Chain World–a whole universe on a flash drive. The game could only be possessed and played by a single person at a time. Each player would live a life, be born and die, then pass the game on, leaving traces of their short virtual life to be discovered by the next possessor of the artifact. Because Rohrer's game evoked a meditative practice, embraced a closed and fervent community, and presented a position on the ephemerality of life, Wired magazine devoted a feature to the question of whether Rohrer had designed a new religion.

This kind of work would seem to be the purview of priests and shamans. And the attitudes of game designers on this frontier of religious thinking remain complex; Rohrer is a professed atheist, and Lantz has been vocal in his criticism of organized religion. Yet their fascination with religion is extensive and takes many forms. Games are exploring ways to tap the mind's capacity for transcendent experience. Major studio titles regularly use religious characters and themes from existing traditions. Players are invited to immerse themselves in worlds where new religions can be explored.

The critical work to be done here is daunting. This chapter offers one strategy for parsing that wide field: a backward look. Can we understand more about the religious dimensions of digital games by looking broadly at the history of pre-digital games in religion? I make the following case: games have intersected deeply with religious practice across centuries. These intersections may be broadly placed into four types, each a different strategy for engaging with the "divine" or with the central object of a religious tradition. The four categories will then be held up to the current digital gaming landscape. Some of the four historic types will have direct corollaries; others will not. Those digital games that don't follow a historical precedent may prove to be of special interest, pointing the way toward the unique aspects of the digital medium and the digital moment. In short, how do we understand something like Rohrer's Chain World–bold, inventive, and puzzlingly unique? A historical typology of sacred games might allow scholars to place such a development within a larger historical and critical story.

Such an undertaking comes with obvious reservations. An exhaustive survey of religious games is difficult if not impossible. The ludic arts present challenges, both historiographical and contextual, since they are often popular, plastic, and ephemeral performances. Most gravely, placing religious games correctly–and without offense–within a nexus of religious practice, meaning, and relative cultural importance is prone to missteps, especially for traditions that are foreign to the researcher or are no longer extant.

That said, such a typology's value might outweigh its limitations. I argue that religious games in history have functioned in one (or more) of four ways: as educational mechanisms; as festal elements in public or private rituals; as divinatory methods; and occasionally, as orthodox forms of worship in and of themselves. Digital games have begun to expand these functions in many ways, and three new directions are mapped here. The first opens new virtual spaces in which traditional religious activities can unfold. The second creates alternative realities in which players engage with new metaphors of the religious. The third offers players the chance to try on the perspective of the divine itself. Before getting into the specifics of these categories, I briefly contextualize the reach, history, and definition of games in religion.


The London Summer Olympics have captured the world's attention at the time of this writing (2012). Though they are no longer religious events, today's Olympics still carry an echo of public ritual, as historian John MacAloon has carefully explored. The modern Olympics come cloaked with a quasi-religious gravitas, from the torch run that "[initiates] the period of public liminality" to the "rites of closure and reaggregation with the normative order."

For the ancient Greeks, the holiness of the games was gloriously explicit. Athletes swore oaths to fast and to observe chastity as they trained, offered sacrifices upon their success, and atoned when they cheated. During the games, debts among spectators were paid and crimes forgiven. Gods were invoked in poetry composed and read for the victors. In Philostratus's description, the players themselves were woven into the rites. To open the games, runners were placed one stadion away from the altar, the priest waved a torch, the race began, and the winner "put fire to the sacred portions," creating an inseparable fusion of game and ritual.

Olympic races represented an engagement with the sacred for player, priest, and spectator. Yet these were far from the only games that Greeks wove into their religious lives. Events at Delphi, Nemea, and Corinth helped make up a vast athletic liturgical calendar, which also included funeral games, like those staged for Patroclus in The Iliad. Among non-athletes, devotees might compete at carding wool (an early step in the weaving process), playing the flute, or singing at sacred festivals in Delphi and Athens. Western drama itself comes from a contest central to the springtime festivals for Dionysus. (Some scholars, ancient and modern, argue that the word "tragedy" derives from the root word for he-goat, perhaps the prize given to early winners.) The word used for dramatic scenes between characters–agones–is the same word used for Olympic events. It's not far wrong to see the whole sober canon of Athenian tragedy as a series of contests within a contest, games within a holy game.

Narratives of Greek divinity also reflect this theme. Atalanta made a footrace the basis of her courtship, and Orion met his death in a contest played between Apollo and Artemis. Arachne met her doom in a contest against the goddess Athena. The Trojan War itself began with an agon; three goddesses made Paris the judge of a beauty contest between them, similar to the beauty contests held on the island of Lesbos in the sanctuary of Zeus, Hera, and Dionysus.

The West at one time had a thriving tradition of sacred games. That tradition waned considerably with the rise of Christianity, for reasons we can only conjectured. Yet puzzles, games, and competitions have surfaced even in Christian traditions; and when we look more broadly across other traditions, regions, and epochs, examples of gamed engagements with the divine are never hard to find.

Before delving into examples, the term "religious game" needs some defining. For the purpose of the first typology, this chapter will consider a game religious if it is practiced in conjunction with a religious body, holiday, or ritual. This casts a wide net, and captures games with vastly diverging levels of ritual importance. A game with real political and symbolic consequences, such as the egg races of Rapa Nui, seems an altogether different encounter than, say, unsupervised children spinning a dreidel in a Reform Jewish congregation.

So much for religious–what do we mean by game? Definitions of what constitutes a game are slippery, and many of them might encompass a good many religious rituals. Consider dharma combat in the Zen traditions, or structured debates in Tibetan Buddhism. These are ritual discussions about sober metaphysics, yet their rules and enactment can be surprisingly lively. In the Tibetan tradition, two contestants face each other: a sitting defender and a standing challenger. The showdown can attract spectators who cheer and jeer. There is a strict rule set and a declared victor. Voices are raised and animated, hands clap in a raucous and ritual rhythm. Smiles are common, as is playful mockery. This sounds game-like. And this ritual model of two opposing forces is hardly an uncommon one. But to avoid chaos in defining what is a game and what isn't, this chapter will use a more utilitarian approach. Games here all replicate or exhibit a marked similarity to games played outside of religious contexts. For instance, dreidel spinning, footraces, and the Mayan public ball game of ulama are (or were) played as games both inside and outside of religious contexts. In contrast, Tibetan debates are not "played" anywhere outside of the monastery, and so are not considered religious games here.

Finally, the category names below are new and mostly neologisms from Greek roots. This is both to avoid confusion with English terms, and to playfully offer a nod to the Greeks' contribution to this history.

Didactic Games

The first category may be the most familiar to modern readers. Didactic games–from the Greek [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "to teach"–are games that instruct players about a religious doctrine or history. Games are powerful teaching tools, both because they are an easy avenue for communicating with children and, as Stephen Sniderman points out in "Unwritten Rules," because they inherently teach about larger societal rules and norms.

Didactic religious games are also often distinguished by their limited ritual role. They generally focus on passing along rules and concepts, rather than offering a sacred experience. Such games may take place in sacred space, such as a worship center, but are rarely seen as sacred events. In a phrase, didactic games embrace the "divine as lesson," mostly pointing to the sacred without participating in it. A familiar archetype might be Bible camp in the Christian tradition: scripture charades, crossword puzzles, chapter-and-verse freeze tag, and the like. Super Bowl Sunday School, credited to Leah O'Connell, has students answer Bible trivia to march down the length of a classroom to reach the "eternal endzone." Such games are often adapted from secular play for religious purposes, layering doctrinal teachings onto a more profane structure.

A more ancient example might be the game of dreidel, a welcome institution of the Chanukah holidays. According to the story, devout Jews would use dreidel to disguise their Torah studies from the approaching forces of the Seleucid monarchy by hiding their scrolls and pretending to play. The gambling game is still played by the original rules, yet children are taught that the letters on the sides of the dreidel also stand for the phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, which means "a great miracle happened there." (Or, for dreidels manufactured in Israel, Nes Gadol Haya Po, "a great miracle happened here.") Some scholars teach that the four letters point to the four Jewish exiles, under Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman rule. Layers of teaching elements on a secular game make this a good example of didactic play.

Hestiasic Games

This term comes from the Greek word [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], "to offer a feast or festival." It connotes sacred events celebrated at home, rather than at the temple. This category broadly embraces games that occur as a lighthearted part of a sacred celebration, the sort of games that might be played at some distance from a formal site of prayer or contemplation. Such religious games might be those that most closely and exclusively aim for "fun," the ineffable quality that, according to Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens, "characterizes the essence of play." Hestiasic games, then, might be thought of as lively games that take place with the divine as context or occasion.

Consider Ramadan games. In parts of Iraq, the nightly game of mhaibis is considered a welcome part of the season. After the nightly feasting, teams square off, and one player hides a ring in his fist (mhaibis means "little ring"). It is up to the other team to guess who is holding it. They discern this through a close scrutiny of facial gestures and body postures, and star players gain great acclaim. Veteran mhaibis champion Lateef Moussa claims to have correctly guessed the holder of the mhaibis from among four hundred players.

Such seasonal games are common. During Russian Christmastide (Svyatki), divination games about the coming year are a familiar rite. Hindu wedding games, where the romantic future of the couple is playfully divined, might function similarly. Clifford Geertz, in his classic study of Balinese cockfights, explains how these popular and rowdy contests sometimes occur as an integral counterpart to Njepi (Day of Silence) celebrations. Like didactic games, hestiasic games are rarely proffered as ritual means to access the sacred in a sober, orthodox way. Rather, they are lighthearted elements of religious seasons or festivals.

Poimenic Games

Poimenic games represent a sharp departure from this casual approach. They propose instead that the divine is an active, interested player. The term comes from the Greek [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], which means "shepherd" in the sense that this word is used in Matthew 25:32 of the Christian scriptures. There, the Son of Man is described as separating the nations in the way that a shepherd separates sheep from goats. In a poimenic game, the divine makes an active selection between two or more contestants, or between two or more courses of action. This is the "divine as player."

The annual Tangata Manu competition on Easter Island was a well-documented example. The bird-man for the coming year was selected by means of an elaborate obstacle course. Each contestant would appoint a representative to try to collect the season's first sooty tern egg, laid on outlying Motu Nui island. The path was treacherous; contestants would wait for the birds in a cave, scale the cliffs to reach the nests, then descend and swim back through shark-infested waters. Many were killed. The first to return with an intact egg won the right for his sponsor to be the bird-man for the coming year. The position carried a number of honors and responsibilities: the Tangata Manu lived in a ceremonial house for a year, he received tribute, and his clan had the sole right to collect the eggs from that outlying island. As the winner, he was regarded as having earned a special favor from the god Make-Make.


Excerpted from Playing with Religion in Digital Games by Heidi A. Campbell, Gregory Price Grieve. Copyright © 2014 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: What Playing with Religion Offers Digital Game Studies / Heidi A. Campbell and Gregory Price Grieve
Part 1: Explorations in Religiously Themed Games
1. Dreidels to Dante's Inferno: Toward a Typology of Religious Games / Jason Anthony
2. Locating the Pixelated Jew: A Multimodal Method for Exploring Judaism in The Shivah / Isamar Carrillo Masso and Nathan Abrams
3. The Global Mediatization of Hinduism through Digital Games: Representation versus Simulation in Hanuman: Boy Warrior / Xenia Zeiler
4. Silent Hill and Fatal Frame: Finding Transcendent Horror in and beyond the Haunted Magic Circle / Brenda S. Gardenour Walter
Part 2: Religion in Mainstream Games
5. From Kuma\War to Quraish: Representation of Islam in Arab and American Video Games / Vit Šisler
6. Citing the Medieval: Using Religion as World-Building Infrastructure in Fantasy MMORPGs / Rabia Gregory
7. Hardcore Christian Gamers: How Religion Shapes Evangelical Play / Shanny Luft
8. Filtering Cultural Feedback: Religion, Censorship and Localization in Actraiser and Other Mainstream Video Games / Peter Likarish
Part 3: Gaming as Implicit Religion
9. The Importance of Playing in Earnest / Rachel Wagner
10. "God Modes" and "God Moods": What Does a Digital Game Need to Be Spiritually Effective? / Oliver Steffen
11. Bridging Multiple Realities: Religion, Play and Alfred Schutz's Theory of the Life-World / Michael Waltemathe
12. They Kill Mystery: The Mechanistic Bias of Video Game Representations of Religion and Spirituality / Kevin Schuts

What People are Saying About This

Concordia University - Mia Consalvo

This volume brings together the fields of religion studies and game studies in valuable ways. It helps us see the many and complex roles that religion and spirituality can take on within contemporary videogames, and it also explores how the practice of gameplay itself can be a religion-like experience. The many excellent writers included here demonstrate the value of cross-disciplinary approaches to understanding games, and also how digital games have become a key element of contemporary life—in both its sacred and its profane expressions.

Duke University - David Morgan

Games and gods are very old partners, but this book shows they are also on the cutting edge of religious studies today. The editors have assembled a wonderful range of essays that advance the conversation, soar over traditional boundaries, and ought to work like a charm in the classroom. The task of scrutinizing religion in gaming is important because the issues are play, imagination, leisure, and vast sums of capital. If the sacred does not shimmer in the hand-held screens of modern entertainment, then its fire has gone out of the universe—until, of course, it returns in the shape of a dark-caped knight and a gleaming sword

RMIT University - Paul Emerson Teusner

This volume offers, finally, a space for legitimate discussions on the nature of 'play' within our notions of religious participation or spiritual searching. The greatest benefit of this book is that it highlights how engaging in digital gaming represents new questions about what makes a thing (be it a story, an action, or a symbol) religious.

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