Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Come and Play

Image result for journey ps4 gameplayBefore she entered the magical world of theme parks, Cylene the Goth talked to me about her devotion to a video game released in 2012 called Journeywhose adherents form a sort of subculture in themselves. In contrast to a lot of games, it’s neither violent nor competitive, but consists of – you may not be surprised to discover – a journey towards a mountain, glimpsed in the distance, which involves challenges and puzzles in which you may encounter other players, who can assist one another if they choose, but who cannot communicate with each other. Altruism is rewarded and as the player progresses (their ‘character’ is not a muscled hero or a heavy-chested girl with suspiciously revealing and impractical body-armour, but a sexless, abstract robed figure) the music shifts correspondingly. In the climax of the game, which may only take 90 minutes or so to reach, the player arrives at the mountain, ascends it by flight, and is extinguished in a suffusion of light. ‘I never reach the end without crying’, says Cylene, and you can see why: this is very clearly indeed a metaphor for the spiritual life; in fact even more than a metaphor, it’s a way of representing it in a non-religious form, a form so unspecific that players of any ideological tradition could get something out of it.

Not long ago another friend, Karla, who is also a determined gamer, drew attention to this article by Brie Code, a female games designer discussing why people don’t like video games and what her colleagues might do to change that. This is what Ms Code says in conclusion:

I'm not remotely interested in shockingly good graphics, in murder simulators, in guns and knives and swords. I'm not that interested in adrenaline. My own life is thrilling enough. There is enough fear and hatred in the world to get my heart pounding. My Facebook feed and Twitter feed are enough for that. Walking outside in summer clothing is enough for that. I'm interested in care, in characters, in creation, in finding a path forward inside games that helps me find my path forward in life. I am interested in compassion and understanding. I'm interested in connecting. … I want to make games that help other people understand life. ... We should be using this medium to help us adapt to our new, interactive lives. This is how we become relevant. … We want games that aren't gritty, toxic pseudo-realistic pseudo-masculine nonsense nor frustrating time wasters that leave you feeling dead inside. We want games about how each of us could be in the future, how the world could be in the future. We want games built on compassion and respect and fearlessness. This is so much more interesting.

I've never played a video game. I don't think I have any interest in doing so, either, because I don't have time to do all the things I want to as it is. I am, however, interested in the idea that gaming could provide a means for exploring and assimilating life. Via the magic of LiberFaciorum, I asked Karla:

How common do you reckon it is among games designers to think in these very idealistic terms rather than just in terms of supplying a market with entertainment?

To which she replied:

There are a fair number of indie developers who work with concepts like this …  My view of gaming was permanently marked by the game that really turned me into a lifelong devotee of the artform - Ultima VI: The False Prophet, which, although it used the standard structure of a computer role playing game of the time, revolved around themes of virtue ethics, unintended consequences of actions in the name of good, and justice in warfare. Other instalments in the same series looked at issues of racial prejudice, deception and religious intolerance, or demanded that the hero set the world to right not by slaying the Big Bad, but by becoming a moral examplar. They … really shaped my expectations of, interest in and hope for games as a medium to communicate something meaningful.

This all made me reflect that I, a non-gamer, engage in this business of representing life so it can be explored, assimilated and changed, partly through music and even gardening, but mainly through religion. Christian spirituality consists of an immersive, imaginative engagement, by a variety of means, in a story, reading your life and experiences through the lens of that story and adjusting the way you interact with the world as a result. Some time ago I said to a friend that the Church was a sort of Live-Action Role Play, and I only meant it part-facetiously. Apart from the assumption of Christianity that behind its key interpretative narrative lies something, and somebody, absolutely real, the mechanism is exactly the same. For people who have no faith, gaming could provide a means for doing the life-shaping job that religion does for those who have it. But saying that ‘gaming is like religion’ is a little obvious; it’s more interesting to posit that religion is a form of gaming. 

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