Welcome to The Theology Gaming Sessions, hosted by Bryan Hall of JohnnyBGamer fame/infamy! Bryan came up with the idea, so who better to host it?
My goal in these sessions is for you, the reader, to become better acquainted with the writers of Theology Gaming. So, without further ado, this week we have an interview with Mr. M. Joshua Cauller.
Q: Tell us about yourself and how you were first introduced to video games.
Josh: Christmas 1989, my cousins got a Nintendo Entertainment System with two controllers, the gray light gun, and Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt. Suddenly, the Nintendo officially became the coolest thing in the universe. I mean that thing even beat Transformers. And nothing was cooler than Transformers in first grade. Instantly, I learned what the word jealousy meant. My family certainly wasn’t the poorest in West Philly. But a $100 game system was an unheard of luxury at the time. Plus, my mom was pretty opposed to me owning something I could get addicted to. She said she heard stories of kids at the handicapped kids’ school who literally couldn’t do life without those things. So for most of my childhood, video games represented envy.
Plus, it may have been the only thing I knew how to talk about. A lot of my friends were made or unmade because of games, borrowing games, and talking about games.
One day, my dad made a promise: if I can save my pennies, nickels and quarters up to half the cost of the Nintendo ($50), he’d pay for the other half. When you’re 9 or 10, it’s hard to come up with that much cash. It may have taken me a whole year. It certainly felt like it.
I remember coming out to the front porch where my dad and his buddy were working on re-flooring the wood planks and telling them how excited I was to only need $5. My dad’s friend, Ray, looked at me with a smile, said “What? This five dollars,” and handed me the cash. That might be the only reason I still remember his name twenty years later. A few minutes later, my mom got home from a day of garage sailing. I dropped the news on her with all the excitement of a kid who just won the lottery. Then she said something that almost literally blew my mind: she found a guy who was selling a Nintendo for $45. That left me with enough cash to maybe buy a used game!
My mom drove me to the house where they were selling the system and then I saw it: it had a little wear and tear, but it may have been the single most beautiful game system I’ve seen to this day. My mom’s bargaining skills came into play. She talked the seller into letting me pick out two games instead of just one. He didn’t care too much. He was having too much fun with his Super Nintendo. But me? I was just totally stoked that I got a game with a flying space man with a gun (Section Z) and a game with angels that shoot stuff (Legendary Wings). It also came with Super Mario/Duck Hunt.
I went home thinking my life was finally complete. Little did I know, I was still only entering into the world of gamer envy.
Bryan: I want to applaud your dedication for saving up $50 in loose change. You must have been scouring the family room sofa and swimming in local park fountains. I can only imagine the time you were caught by the police in said fountain, “but officer, I need an NES!”. Like you, owning a Nintendo console was a rite of passage for me, growing up. So much so that I still own an NES to this day. Sky Shark for the win!
Q: How did you handle the transition from the 8-bit to the 16-bit era? Were you a SEGA or Nintendo man?
Josh: I was excited to get my hands on anything. And when it seemed like all the world was getting N64’s, I had just finally gotten a Sega Genesis. But it wasn’t exactly out of preference. I have pretty much always just liked the privilege of getting my hands on something new. Maybe that’s why I still like trying so many different things?
Bryan: I completely understand where your coming from in regards to new things, especially technology. I’ve never been one for the “console wars” or anything like that, I just want to try the new and experience the different.
Q: Gaming has changed a lot over the years. Violence and even sexuality have become more realistic and pervasive. How do you deal with the blood sacrifices to demons in Darksiders or the sex scenes in Heavy Rain? As a Christian, how do you approach video games?
Josh: I don’t watch Game of Thrones because of the sex. I almost skipped Heavy Rain for precisely the same reason. But my curiosity got the best of me. I knew that at it’s core Heavy Rain was after something more important than the cheap sexualization that floods the game industry and I didn’t want to miss that. David Cage’s inclusion of the (optional) sex scene was part of his pursuit to make a video game with honest human expression. What happens when a father is pushed to his ultimate limit for his son? This was the core message of the game, but you don’t see that on the box behind the M rating.
My approach to games recognizes that I am sometimes the character on the screen and sometimes not. In Heavy Rain, there’s four characters that I gain control over. So, am I: Ethan, Madison, Norman, or Shelby? The truth is that I’m neither. But when given control of them, I dictate their actions to the degree of control that the designers afford. Right before Heavy Rain’s infamous sex scene, I have the option to make Ethan not kiss Madison, thus omitting that sexual encounter. Admittedly, you can’t play Heavy Rain without seeing a naked butt (Ethan’s). But all of the other scenes containing sex or nudity are up to the player.
But not all games afford that level of room for decision, often stripping the player of any control with a cut scene or obligating abhorrent behavior for the sake of progression. This is where the real question of engagement lies: am I sinning by “pulling the trigger” when I have no other option than to quit the game? Or in the case of a recent Bioshock Infinite player: do I forego the obligatory cultish baptism to enter Columbia? For some, the obvious answer is no. For the rest of us, there’s the question of agency: is it really me pulling the proverbial trigger in an artificial world? Or am I just a guy on the couch pressing a button for the sake of narrative progression?
Darksiders is a different beast. It represents the adolescent power fantasy (questing for power, violent conquest, and “cool” demonic imagery). But it’s also one of the first big games to tackle the Book of Revelation. Yes, it’s a loose take on all that (with some confusing spiritual imagery). And Jesus is completely absent from their narrative. But it was a step in the right direction for a discussion of religion and games, even if it did so clumsily.
I don’t think I ever made a sacrifice to demons. Though, the currency in that game is the souls of the enemies you defeat. So I guess that’s kinda gross. But that’s kinda par for the course.
My main attitude going into games is to discover where they’re maturing, not where they’re not. I’m not going to play God of War: Ascension. I’m not the least bit interested in Call of Duty. In my mind, these games are recessive, not adding anything to the medium in a meaningful way. Sure they may have refined the basic mechanics of violent conquest. But I want something that draws me into being a better human. I know that’s a tall order. But if you follow the games I write about, you might get converted (as I already am).
Stay tuned to Theology Gaming for more from M. Joshua Cauller. In the meantime, you can also visit him at his homebase, Love Subverts.