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Religiousness and God in Computer Games

by Simon Heider

A lecture that deals with Computer games – The eyes of many people would light up immediately and they would start to listen with eager anticipation. I also was curious what Michael Waltemathe would tell us about „Religiousness and
God“ in Computer games.

The first part of the lecture dealt with the topic of religion in computer games. For that he chose three games as main examples to show how the topic might be placed and handled within a computer game.

The first one was the final sequence of Jedi Knight – Mysteries of the Sith. In the  sequence the character Mara Jade has to solve an encounter with her friend Kyle Katarn, who has been corrupted by the dark force. Before that final encounter she had to find her way to the center of the temple. During that she passed many pictures which described what two Jedis have to do in order to solve a conflict. One of this things is that the player learns that conflicts are solved by the abdication of violence. So in the final scene the only solution is at first not to cross the bridge to attack Kyle but to commit „suicide“. In the following scene a picture at one end of the thrown hall shows a kneeling Jedi with his switched off lightsaber in front of him. This is the final hint for the player – only if one condemns violence, one is a true Jedi. When Mara switches off her lightsaber Kyle is so moved by her confidence in their former friendship that he sees his failures and realizes the corruption by the dark force. In Waltemathes opinion this scene shows the central substance of the Star Wars universe where a Jedi acts in accordance to friendship, faith/reliance and devotion.
Only if one’s matters are seen as arbitrary one can become a good Jedi. The inspiration by some religions can be recognized in it’s absolute clarity in this scene. He used the term sledgehammer method for the approach of Mysteries of the Sith.

A different approach was chosen in Peter Molyneuxs game „Black and White“. Here the player actually plays a god whose aim is to get the people to worship him and to get them to do what he wants. This can be done by force if one puts fear into the hearts of the worshipers or if one commits acts of kindness towards them.

Another example given by him is „Resistance – Fall of Men“.  Here an additional moment concerning „religiousness and god in computer games“ takes place – The transformation of a sacred space into a profane one. This case happens in an alternative history where the cathedral of Manchester is a field hospital for the humans who had been attacked by aliens. The interesting thing regarding this case is what Waltemathe told us happened after the game was released.
At first the Church of England was appalled by the blasphemy of that act and sued Sony, the publisher of the game. But a by-product of the game was that many tourists streamed to the cathedral because they had seen it in the game and now wanted to see it in reality. In the end the Anglican church stated that as good Christians she should forgive the deed of Sony. And Sony on the other hand apologized for it.

Another game which should be mentioned here is „Left Behind – Eternal Forces„, a computer game which is based on the Left Behind series which has an evangelical background. Here Jesus, in analogy to the apocalypse in the revelation of John, takes the righteous one’s with him in an instant. And so planes fall from the sky and trains and cars crash, and so on. The sinners remain and have to fight the devil / Satan and his army who is represented by the Romanian leader of the UNO. Worth noting is the evangelical view concerning women as portrayed in this game. Men do everything from persuading to fighting but women can only heal men and sing to encourage them.

After these examples the lecturer switched to the topic of computer use by young people. So after the sweets always comes the water and the bread. But to his credit I have to say that we did not had to dig deep into the statistics
conducted by the “Medienpädagogischer Dienst Südwest” . But anyhow one should mention a few of the results here although they might give ammunition for prejudices.
The first result is that boys are playing more computer than girls about 1,5 h – 2 h a week vs. 47 minutes. Concerning the computer use as a whole girls use their computers more to write text, create presentations or do some video editing. And before I might forget it…according to the study it is true that half of the boys prefer to play shooters. I’m not sure at the moment because one can not see my friends as a representative group but I would like to formulate the guess here that the preference towards shooters might shift a bit to the so called “open world games” over time. And also the “casual games” which aren’t mentioned separately in the study might gain more importance in the near future. To conclude that I would like to say that due to lesser restrictions and more possibilities of technology use for it the landscape of computer games might change and evolve even more in our near future. But as I said that’s just some thought based on my perception of the changing of computer games since the 90s.

The next part of Waltemathes lecture was about his application of Alfred Schütz theory of life-world to computer worlds. He has done that in order to get a phenomenological look at the idea of using computers as media or tools for learning in religious education. Because this text here is a blog entry I would like to try to just give a sketch of Schütz
theory and its application to computer worlds. Schütz phenomenological approach of the life-world sees the World of working in daily life as the paramount reality or to say it in Schütz own words

the intersubjective world which existed long before our birth, experienced and interpreted by Others, our predecessors, as an organized world.

There are other worlds which constitute the life-world and which are mere modifications of the world of working in daily life in which one can leap for a period of time. These are, here already supplemented by later scholars:

  • World of dreams
  • Worlds of phantasies, especially the world of art
  • World of religious experiences – added by Peter Berger
  • World of scientific theorizing
  • World of play, games and humor

The leaping process happens by experiencing something which Schütz called “a special shock experience”. For example the shock of faling a sleep when one leap into the world of dreams.

According to Schütz there are six characteristics of finite provinces of meaning for the world of working in daily life:

  • specific tension of consciousness : wide-awakeness, originating in full attention to life
  • specific epoché : suspension of doubt
  • prevalent form of spontaneity: working
  • specific form of experiencing ones self: the working self as the total self
  • specific form of sociality: the common intersubjective world of communication
    and social action
  • specific time-perspective: standard time between duree and cosmic time as the
    universal temporal structure of the intersubjective world.

In Waltemathes opinion this characteristics might be be applied to virtuality in life worlds. So far that means virtuality in life-worlds:

  • specific tension of consciousness : wide-awakeness, leap to actions in virtual
    life and working in real life
  • specific epoché : everything is possible except for the illogical in itself
  • prevalent form of spontaneity : working is determined by my actions and
    performances in virtual life
  • specific form of experiencing ones self : the working self is no longer the total
  • specific form of sociality : the common intersubjective world of communication
    and social acon through less channels
  • specific time-perspective : inner time

Between the different life-worlds are the so-called enclaves. The virtual worlds can be viewed as situated in the enclave amongst the World of Play and the World of Phantasms / Phantasies. Here the term ‚flow‘ is of some importance because this term coined by the American psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi describes

the optimal experience while someone is engaged in an activity with high involvement, concentration and enjoyment, and experiences an intrinsic motivation and the sense of time distortion.

This term can be attached to playing a game. Here one detaches temporarily from the world of daily life in this case the body and leaps to the World of Phantasies for example. With regard to religious experience in the life-world according to Peter Berger it can develop in at least four variants:

  • Experiencing transcendence
  • Trust in ones own experiences
  • Epistemological Reversal
  • Humor as an Epistemological Reversal

Especially the point of epistemological reversal is of some importance because it means that the World of religious experience can conduct a paramount change and for a person who experiences that the World of religious experience will become the one which in the standard scheme is the World of working in daily life.

After this remarks about Alfred Schütz theory and Waltemathes adaption of it he changed the topic to how one can actually apply that to computer games and education.Here he gave some examples of works he had done, for example the Calvin game. The idea of the so called Calvin game was that the player, who should revise an exhibition on the occasion of the 500 th  anniversary of the death of Calvin in 2064, learns about the legacy of Calvin by travelling with a time machine to different places to meet people who had known him rather direct or indirect. One of the ideas of that
game was to show the timelessness of Calvin’s idea.

The last part of the lecture was about virtual religious spaces and how pupils created them with the editor of a popular game – unreal. Here one example which I want to show at the end was really interesting. The situation is as follows: At the beginning the character is baptized and now has two options. The first is to go to Heaven the direct way or to rely on the free will. Now the char can either go to Heaven or Hell. But even though if one really chooses the Hell one can receive a cleaning and therefore start again at the moment of the baptism. So the so called free will is kind of tricked and a backdoor is used, so that salvation might come for everyone as shown by the picture below. Dear reader I hope that salvation is also still in store for the humble writer of this text.

Links for further reading and information:

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