Book Review by Sapphire Ng
Playing with Religion in Digital Games
by Heidi A. Campbell, Gregory P. Grieve
Indiana University Press
Copyright April 2014
Hardcover, 314 Pages
A phenomenal critical work guided by a patently cogent intellectual vision. Engrossing from the beginning to the end and uniquely cohesive as a collective whole, this book is the commendable result of rigorous examinations of compelling issues intersecting the realms of religion and videogames.
Perspectives, arguments and hypotheses in the book are conspicuously presented in incredible lucidity, effectiveness and accessibility. Along with adventures into the intertwining territories of religion and videogames, this book incorporates traces of religious studies, immerses the reader in various games’ rich narratives and intriguing fantasies, and emphasizes the versatile ingenuity of videogames. With delightful examination of videogames through the lens of religion, the avid and ambitious gamer can expect to level up his or her gaming vocabulary.
This book is great for religious, atheist and secular game scholars alike; the topic of religion is rather professionally, sensibly and neutrally handled. Scholars and students of all faiths would feel equally invited to engage whole-heartedly and academically with the contents of the book. I consider this book to be an excellent model for scholar-researchers, -writers and -editors venturing to publish a collective scholarly work; the structuring of and strategic role of each chapter in this book in contribution to the overall subject matter is strikingly ingenious. The nonbelieving general reader is encouraged to peruse the text with an open mind, and to guard against involuntary surfacing of cynicism and skepticism that might arise from reading content related to expressions and behaviors of religious faith.
Arguably the most excellent academic material in the book pertains to distinctions between various typologies of religious games, the look at the audiovisual, narrative and procedural layers of videogames separately through comparative examinations of American versus Arab games, and the practical application of the concept of “spiritual efficacy”—“an essential aspect of the implicit religious potential of games”—fascinatingly and methodically illustrated through the analysis of the videogame The Path.
The clear distinctions established between the likes of allomythic games—that presuppose new religious landscapes—, theoptic games, digital didactic or praxic games and more are made all the more compelling with the range of examples provided. It is absolutely enjoying, the way Chapter 5 explored Islam through unpacking the narrative of the “European medieval travelogue” of the American game Age of Empires 2 in contrast to the “Arab prophetic literature,” the game Quraish, and thereafter explicating the elements contributing to for example, the humanization of Islam. The analyses of the elements forming and somewhat quantifying the notion of spiritual efficacy—flow, meditation, empowerment, disempowerment and morality—of The Path is astoundingly fascinating, achieved through meticulous consideration of factors such as the presence or absence of in-game moral systems, moral feedbacks, predetermined goals, elements generating “meditative states,” or availability for an avatar’s abilities to improve.
Comparably captivating and exceptional includes content dealing with ideas of religious “transcendent horror” explored through the games Silent Hill and Fatal Frame, of neomedievalism in fantasy role-playing games, and of the outstanding intellectual concept “mechanistic bias” as purportedly perpetuated to religion by the videogame medium. The very human fascination with supernatural horror makes the heart thumping investigation of fundamentalist Christianity in Silent Hill, and of the signifiers of Japanese Shintoism and Buddhism in Fatal Frame really captivating indeed. Another excellently argued hypothesis is the idea of the precise, reductionist and mechanistic approach of videogames in rendering religion, as manifested in the forms of “formulaic deities,” technological gods, the “strategic” religion, and the quantifiable faith, and which is eloquently said to result in “an impoverished vision of what religions mean to their adherents.”
Some religious controversies stirred by the gameplay or the virtual environment of certain videogames are compellingly covered. For example, the game Resistance: Fall of Man which was sued by the Church of England for purportedly desecrating the Manchester Cathedral in England through its virtual depiction of its ruins, and the game Hanuman: Boy Warrior based on Hindu mythology which instigated furor for supposedly empowering gamers to “control and manipulate” the Hindu deity Hanuman and thus “disrespect[ing]” and “trivializing” the deity. This book flawlessly boils down this topic of contention to the seeming irreconcilability of the notions of “interactivity” and that of “theological inevitability.”
Other ideas in the book are distinctly transformative and therefore precious. The positive empowerment of the gamer is absolutely valuable, for one to guiltlessly and whole-heartedly embrace videogames, by liberating the self from the mainstream stigma and condemnation of videogames as frivolous. With one’s consciousness being imbued with the alternative perspective that games and the act of gaming can be viewed as a “religion,” and as a medium simultaneously warranting fun and serious treatment, the gamer is freed to boldly accept that gaming can be an earnest venture and a meaningful pursuit in life. The book contains ideas for example, that indicate games to be not “unreal,” but instead to be “human worlds revealed to be symbolic universes accessible through a machine.”
Another extraordinarily unconventional, convincing and fluently constructed perspective is as follows, “One could even argue that from the player’s perspective computer worlds are superior to reality in some respects. The example of Manchester Cathedral in the game Resistance: Fall of Man makes this clear. For players, the cathedral was more ‘real’ in its virtual representation than in the actual building in Manchester, because the game allowed the players to work in it in the Schutzean sense and thus make it part of their life-world. The building in Manchester had no reality for most of the players.”
Whilst religious purists and zealots likely might not peruse this book, it could still be necessary to highlight the rare statement or so that could potentially be taken wrongly by this demographic of readers. Atheists might nod their heads in agreement to statements proclaiming the close resemblance between religion and gaming, for example that religion is potentially as “unreal” as videogames, religious purists however might not take such insinuations amiably. The same could be said with regards to instances such as when the spiritual and virtual worlds are noted as “close cousins,” and to be “equally isolated from the material world’s play and prayer.”
Hardline religious adherents might also not appreciate or even downright reject respectful and scholarly considerations of religion as a game, in the sense of “the game of religion” or “religion, as a game.” Other potentially problematic statements communicated the possibility of religion “devolv[ing] into assumptions of certainty where certainty does not exist,” and expressed notions that “we are increasingly enchanted with computers because they do what our religion has always done for us, but in some ways they do it better.”
Though probably inconsequential and barely noticeable to the average reader, the book at one juncture however could possibly furnish an additional sentence or so to contextualize an example provided on game localization. In Chapter 8 “Filtering Cultural Feedback,” it was cited that the movement speed of the U.S. version of The Dirge of Cerberus to be “reportedly 1.2 times” faster than that of the Japanese version. The curious reader however is left wondering the rationale, whether cultural, technological or otherwise, which explains the disparity. Whilst the lack of an answer here is hardly tragic due to the introductory nature of this material as preceding the comprehensive core of the chapter, any refinement in the attention to detail in the book however could certainly leave distinct impressions in the minds of attentive readers or book reviewers.
Considering the masterly fleshed out premise of gaming as “implicit religion” in the book, as an atheist, I just might adopt the religion of gaming from this moment on.
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.