Structure and Innocence

Allow me to wax nostalgic. After all, part of the appeal of video games is nostalgia, in some sense.

Imagine the concept of a game. A game  is structured playing, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool. Nearly every game has this element of “structured play”, from Mario to whatever the latest first person shooter on the market enjoys public favor at the moment.

Civilization, in effect, is a structured means of socialization. There are certain norms and standards to which we adhere, usually with the intention of removing unecessary conflicts. Civilization exists to provide a better life for all through social structures. The ideal might appeal to our sensibilities, but who would argue that the United States’ governmental system isn’t substantially better than fascism or communism? All of our complaining has led to comparatively little changes in lifestyle and government control over the past two hundred and forty years.

As a result of this structured linkage, I find my life works best when I have a schedule. Not the kind of schedule where I have specific times and finish tasks at specific dates; rather, my brain internally categorizes the various deeds I need to perform in a day. So, when I need to write an article, for example, I think of how many, what topic, how many I need to write in a day, what video game I need to play for a substantial commentary on it, etc.

I have played a LOT of video games in my life. As such, this element of “structure” has permeated my worldview forever. It certainly helps that Christianity has its own logically consistent internal structure. Becoming a Christian, and playing video games in my youth at the same time, has given me a love for the orderly, the solid, and the structured. When the Apostle Paul says, for example,

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Ephesians 2)

even the Church has its own orderly structure. Christ remains its foundation, and everything else on top of that, including the spiritual gifts, theology, the worldly work of the laity, the Catholic Church, too many things to list – a structured organization with distinct roles provides a highly effective group of people serving one cause through different methodologies. As it is with the Trinity, so it is with us all in the Body.

Of course, there’s another element here as well: innocence. A structure implies a certain degree of faith and trust. We trust the developers of a video game to place a set of interesting, but fair, challenges before us. Video game critics always identify the “cheap” elements of a game’s mechanics without knowing why that’s a problem in the first place. Good video games go through focus groups, game testing, and design iterations precisely to remove these elements that detract from the structured play. If not, the game isn’t a very good game, is it?

The light-hearted style of early Japanese games adheres to this innocence. Take a look at Ukiyo-e Heroes – the people behind this project reveal that Japanese games took many of their vibrant colored aesthetic and mechanical aspects from the style of woodblock prints that has existed for centuries. Video game arose out of a distinct cultural traditional that took hold of religious and mythological stories to bring such ideas to life. And yet, these aren’t profound messages of human reckoning or life-changing stories – they’re simply a form of entertainment and fun. Some may have morals, but those ideas must be extrapolated; the culture is examined, and then a reflective methodology inserts itself into a pre-reflective culture. They don’t exist inherently.

So it is with Mario. Do I much care for “An Explication of the Psychotropic Narcotic Status of Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom”, or “The Theological Concequences of Zelda’s Triforce”? No, I don’t. What I do care about, most of all, is that game X achieves the developer’s final end: to create an interesting digital playground, structured or no.

That’s why I am sad about the current generation of video games: it’s like the lost of childhood innocence. We’re no longer content with game qua game. We must have more cutscenes! We must have more “adult” content, which usually results in more guns, babes, and booze – the vices, apparently, mean your content is more “mature” by default. Does it surprise anyone that Japanese games aren’t as popular in the West anymore? It isn’t because Japanese games have no innovation, or are outdated, or any of these other aspects – it is that they are simply games full of play. We learn to be the wiseman while leaving the fool behind:

16 Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself? 17 Do not be excessively wicked and do not be a fool. Why should you die before your time? 18 It is good that you grasp one thing and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forth with both of them. (Ecclesiastes 7)

“Indie” games, which some call “retro”, do exactly the opposite of this. They make games into torturous, and not at all fun, games that are derivative in the utmost sense while purporting to give “meaning”. This almost nihilistic approach immediately strips the fun out by default; it’s not structured play anymore when a message grafts itself onto traditional game formulas.

Heck, I’d rather have almost any mainstream game rather than this “independent” movement. Give me vapid shooters any day. There’s a time for philosophical commentary on the travails of human existence, but there needs to be some balance. Isn’t Ecclesiastes 3 interesting in this sense?

3 There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven—

A time to give birth and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.
A time to kill and a time to heal;
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to weep and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.
A time to search and a time to give up as lost;
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear apart and a time to sew together;
A time to be silent and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate;
A time for war and a time for peace.

There’s certainly a time to have fun and a time for profundity. I just don’t think video games are the answer to the latter. Certainly, they can tell something about ourselves (like this website portrays), but video games should avoid pseudo-profundity. The overabundance of reflection and armchair psychologist have created this problem. Game journalism doesn’t need to grow up; it needs to rekindle that innocence that made the game of old so enjoyable and memorable. Meaning isn’t manufactured; it’s natural. This is probably why I don’t like movies that seek to be “more”. Neither do I like video games that seek to be “more” than games. Game are not movies, nor works of “art” in the sense that most would stick to them.

Perhaps I am just longing for a pre-reflective culture, but I feel like mankind shouldn’t be destined for meaningless debate and jargon. If the Law is written on our hearts and God wants all to be reconciled to him, then why the obsessive discussions over media? What is in the here and now will pass away. If you take Christianity seriously, wouldn’t you think we’d climb a ladder of sorts, that we see the world from above rather than below, and that everything becomes a meaningless apart from Christ? So it is that “meaning” in our worldly sense become a ladder to which we climb up the scaffolding; it is time to throw the ladder away.

For in many dreams and in many words there is emptiness. Rather, fear God.

– Ecclesiastes 5:7

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.