Why I research religion in digital games

DSC_7603By Greg Perreault, Newsletter Editor

Like most children in my generation, I grew up playing digital games. Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, and The Legend of Zelda were not, in my experience, marks of absence from the social world but an indication of presence within it. Because everyone played. You learned you had to pass the controller.

The games have aged. Those early games have given way to Angry Birds and Temple Run, as well as the more serious¬†Dante’s Inferno and Bioshock Infinite. Gaming itself has achieved a level of near ubiquity. Nearly seventy percent of Americans play digital games regularly and, to look to the future, among 14- to 17-year-old girls regular game play is 94 percent and 99 percent among boys. Want your heart skip a beat? See the chart below. USA Today, Forbes Magazine, Wired Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times and The Washington Post all now have reporters who cover digital games as at least a part of their beat.

As a journalist and a young academic (as well as a father), these numbers are rather striking. Much of my early research at Georgetown University and the Missouri School of Journalism has been on press discourse regarding religion–a tradition pioneered by truly brilliant scholars like Judith Buddenbaum and Stewart Hoover. But in the middle of my career at Missouri, I began to do some research on this topic. Gaming deserves more attention in Media and Religion research not solely because of its growth as a medium but also because of the quality of the narratives. The storytelling in games has developed so that it can now take part in the larger narratives of our culture such as the connection between religion and violence and the place of religion in civil society.

Are-You-There-God-Its-a-Me-MarioPerhaps if the predominant games on the market continued to be Pac-Man, Mrs. Pac-Man, Child of Pac-Man ad infinitum, one could still argue for the examination of exploring the subtleties of religion in these games (e.g. the implicit religion of digital game play, as explored by Rachel Wagner). But as games have grown in popularity so have they also grown in the complexity of the stories they can tell.

In 2013, 30-minutes of gameplay from Beyond: Two Souls premiered at Tribeca Film Festival. Similarly, a movie based on the Halo franchise was nominated for an Emmy. In Bioshock: Infinite (2013), it is impossible to explore the surroundings of the game without recognizing the overt religiousity of the culture. Set in a city in the clouds, Columbia, the game is a first-person shooter in which the player must rescue a young woman named Elizabeth.¬† Just to enter the city, the player’s avatar must submit to a baptism. The imagery in Bioshock: Infinite brought about widespread discussion in the press and blogs. One developer at the digital game company reportedly threatened to quit over the religious depictions in the game.

Common themes in digital game narratives include killing God or Satan, evil/hypocritical establishment religious figures, god figure(s) as a motivator for violence, and saving your game progress by praying to a religious shrine. All of these raise interesting theoretical questions regarding both the production and the reception of such games.

This topic has drawn increasing academic interest as evidenced by a special issue on gaming in the Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet this past spring and the recently-released edited volume by Heidi Campbell and Gregory Grieve, Playing with Religion in Digital Games.

My dissertation joins my two worlds together by exploring how digital game journalists address (or don’t) the religious narratives in digital games. Digital games will continue to be a part of my research in that as technology continues to develop and as their use continues to grow, so will the reflective power they have to mirror the religious discussions of society.

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