Are Video Games the New Religion? Part 1 – Sociological Definitions And Counters

I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Alternate title for this: One Man’s Ranting Against Sociological Definitions of Religion.

Leave it to Kotaku and M. Joshua Cauller to dig these strange sorts of videos up! These kind of articles display the journalistic fervor and dedication required to work at Kotaku. That is to say, come up with an incendiary headline and a bunch of passing references to something vaguely related, and poof! Hits! But I suppose we can make an analogy here and call this video on its use of allegory to make a point in not so subtle terms.

So let me describe the video in text form for those unable to read it due to extenuating circumstances. In the description, it says thus:

Like any religion that of being a geek takes time and dedication, perhaps no part more than that of the gaming geek. This is not a call to become a Christian, but a gamer. A gamer of a specific persuasion who not only plays for thrills and head-shots and boss battles, but to connect their gaming experiences with real life.

Much of this talk revolves around how gamer culture and Christianity are, similarly, religions in the general sociological sense. Wikipedia calls it  an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural, and to spirituality. Video gamers exist in a “religious” framework only in the sense that they are a culture system, a set of dictates and stances you take. However, I don’t think it is too broad a claim to dismiss turning subcultures into religions.

Andy Robertson says quite a few things to support his points. First, he tells us that the cultural artifacts of video games are similar to the cultural artifacts of religion. These come through in terms of rituals, beliefs, and other ideas related to gaming culture and the like. Secondly, video games ultimately provide a mythology that applies to life through an immersive world and through story that is similar to the mythology of religion. I imagine this comes through in the myriad narratives that modern games provide, of course, as many games of the past don’t even bother with the greater meaning of life (apart from saving the world, granted).

Thirdly, due to the culture and mythology of video games, video games can do more than just entertain you. They can speak to larger, even eternal life themes. But, of course, every single medium/communicative device on earth could also do this, given the right mindset in context. A painting of the distant past like the Chauvet Cave to the pyramids in Egypt to even the worst pulp fiction novel conveys eternal value when presented with the right presuppositions. I’m not trying to sound postmodernist, but this must be the case if God controls all of creation, and the creatures with God’s image keep creating things. I do understand the idea that people gather around such works – but so do students and purveyors of “modern” art exhibits, who craft their own meaning, their own art, and their own rituals (and sometimes in bizarre ways).


Lastly, If video games can speak to larger, eternal life themes, it would be beneficial for Christians to not dismiss them, but to engage with them in order to guide this “speaking” toward a conversation about Christianity. But, then again, this appears similar to every other medium and means of exchange of ideas that ever existed. People have done this for thousands of years, if not in the recent timeframe. Watching the video, I have to ask: what is the point of this use in particular? Anybody can take an arbitrary definition, apply it to something, and work out a system. Hence, video games as a religion. That is if religion itself finds definition in a sociology text book, of course. No adherent of a religious faith requiring belief would ever describe it that way, I imagine. Nor would I!

Allow me, then, some breathing room to explain myself. Christians define themselves through an encounter with the risen Christ, not necessarily a set of doctrines. But those doctrines do safeguard that experience and what the texts that explicate them imply, regardless of their mystery (think the Trinity in this context). Video games aren’t mysterious. They’re an assemblage of systems; like any medium that accepts the rigors of narrative, they intend to convey a particular point and/or lesson in their modern literary construction. There’s been a recent dismissal of many Japanese games simply because they don’t fit these structures, but that’s a different issue entirely.

Andy Robertson talks about the popular notion of video games, i.e., the one that people getting their information about pop culture from talking heads can understand. It’s a rather vast generalization, don’t you think, with all the vast differences in game players, the games themselves, and the devotion they inspire? I wouldn’t consider myself a “gamer” any more than I would consider myself a film lover or jazz fanatic. I simply like to play video games; they are my hobby, and I enjoy them as a hobby even as I use them for the purpose of theology.

In no way could we consider that devotion anywhere close to Christian notions of faith. In fact, Christians believe in a great many things that make no sense at all. Think of the Trinity, the belief that God is three persons in one substance, or homoousios. This, literally, makes no sense; it exists as a way to define the implied relationship within the New Testament to make it explicit. It seeks to describe a reality we feel, yet our words fail to express it correctly. Even so, this doctrine isn’t found in the Old Testament nor the New, and the writers of the former don’t even recognize it. Nor, I claim, did they lose anything from it, as John Goldingay, OT Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, would say:

Now I accept the doctrine of the Trinity; I say the creed every Sunday without any mental reservation. Yet I’m not inclined to say it’s a New Testament truth. Rather, its importance lies in the way it safeguards those truths that the New Testament does imply. The importance of the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t lie in what it reveals. Indeed, I am not clear it reveals anything. Now in making that statement, I go against a trend in Systematics. If you ask how the Trinity is positively significant for us, then a standard contemporary answer in the West is that it establishes the presence of relationality in God and of free collaboration within God. But that is an inference from the doctrine of the Trinity, a contextual inference that became important to Western thinkers in the late twentieth century because of our concern about relationality that issues from relationality being a problem to us. It is not a truth that comes from the New Testament as opposed to the Old.

I honestly can’t think of a single time at any conference or otherwise where people had such a grand and miraculous experience with a video game that they, immediately, changed their life forever. Nor do I think one could say this with film, television, works of art, interpretive dance, or some of the crazy things that happen in modern art schools (seriously, just look that stuff up yourself; I’m not helping propagate that stuff). I’ve never been told a story similar to that, nor will I. Video games would need to completely change in style and objective for that to happen. I don’t think it really fits any religious experience you could read about, either, when people commune together to talk about video games. It’s mostly been an exchanging of common interests rather than a life-changing event.

Maybe I’m a jaded cynic, but I don’t see that in gamers. I see, rather, a lust for whatever’s new and shiny, and not what’s wonderful about video games. It’s the same with most cultural artificats in the age of free enterprise: many get caught in the endless cycles of products and cannot see the true light of day. They are blind wilfully, and cannot see. They are not part of a religion, but a cycle of constant desire for material things. I should know this; I was one of them.

4 “I have kept silent for a long time,
I have kept still and restrained Myself.
Now like a woman in labor I will groan,
I will both gasp and pant.
15 “I will lay waste the mountains and hills
And wither all their vegetation;
I will make the rivers into coastlands
And dry up the ponds.
16 “I will lead the blind by a way they do not know,
In paths they do not know I will guide them.
I will make darkness into light before them
And rugged places into plains.
These are the things I will do,
And I will not leave them undone.”
17 They will be turned back and be utterly put to shame,
Who trust in idols,
Who say to molten images,
“You are our gods.”

18 Hear, you deaf!
And look, you blind, that you may see.
19 Who is blind but My servant,
Or so deaf as My messenger whom I send?
Who is so blind as he that is at peace with Me,
Or so blind as the servant of the Lord?
20 You have seen many things, but you do not observe them;
Your ears are open, but none hears.
21 The Lord was pleased for His righteousness’ sake
To make the law great and glorious.
22 But this is a people plundered and despoiled;
All of them are trapped in caves,
Or are hidden away in prisons;
They have become a prey with none to deliver them,
And a spoil, with none to say, “Give them back!”

Isaiah 42:14-22

Next time, we’ll discuss real religion and religious experience – foundational to Christian faith. Certainly it isn’t like video game culture, that’s for sure.

Part 2 Here.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.