Wagner: Programming games, programming religion

Rachel Wagner speaks on the effect of gaming culture on religion during her Friday Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Adam Birkan.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

Technology has become a part of almost every aspect of our lives. Video games and the algorithmic culture perpetuated by human reliance and participation in digital forms of media can influence the way we perceive religion and relationships.

Friday, in the last interfaith lecture about the Week Six theme, “The Life of Faith in the Digital Age,” Rachel Wagner discussed what the rise in a digital, algorithmic culture means for religion, how religion is depicted in video games, and what video games mean for religious practice and ritual. Wagner’s lecture was titled “Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality.”

Wagner is an associate professor in the department of philosophy and religion at Ithaca College. She authored Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality and has an 18-year-old son whose interest in video games catalyzed her curiosity about the gaming culture and its implications.

“The more religion gets wired, the more it incorporates the values of the software it embraces, so we have to ask, what does that app do?” Wagner said. “What does it not do?”

During her lecture, Wagner discussed certain chapters and themes she developed in her book. One chapter is titled “The Games We Pray: What Is This Ritual-Game-Story Thing?” It expands on the concept that both religious ritual and games influence behavioral structures and how we see ourselves in the world.

Game theorists often discuss the concept of a “magic circle” that surrounds people when they play and interact with videogames. The theory argues that when you play a game, you enter a new sphere detached from reality and where nothing you interact with will shape or influence your behavior. When people enter into religious rituals such as prayer or meditation, they also enter a seemingly isolated sphere, Wagner said.

“In the one case we say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t affect us, it doesn’t change us, it’s interactive,’” Wagner said. “But in the other context, we say, ‘Oh, that changes you a lot.’”

Another chapter of Wagner’s book focuses on storytelling and the positives and negatives of translating religious scripture and stories to digital media. When text is translated to digital media, it is paramount that the story and the religious text remain intact. Changes to them can result in blasphemous games, she said. There is one religion-oriented video game called “Bible Fight” that corrupts the Christian story.

“You can play as Jesus fighting Mary with a cross as your weapon,” Wagner said.

Eric Zimmerman, a game study theorist, has discussed how much video game creators can alter or interact with sacred stories when creating virtual play areas.

Zimmerman said: “Think about the use of the word ‘play’ in the sense of the free play of a gear or the car’s steering wheel. The play is the amount of movement the steering wheel can move on its own within the system, the amount the steering wheel can turn before it begins to turn the tires of the car,” Wagner said.

Wagner said one should understand ritual and story as the road and “play” is how far you can turn without going off the road. The film “The Passion of the Christ” veered slightly from the road, but “The Last Temptation of Christ” veered so far it landed in a ditch, she said.

Wagner studies the presence of religion in games and also the ways in which a game can work like a religion. Games do so when they provide users with structural views of the world or with mythic components.

“There are certain situations in which religion can be played like a game with winners and losers, and that is a deeply problematic manifestation,” she said.

In 2006, Sony released a game called “Resistance: Fall of Man.” In the game, people fight aliens in what appears to be 1950s Britain. In one scene, a battle erupts in the Manchester Cathedral. The Anglican Church sued Sony for virtual desecration. The Anglican Church argued that virtual space is still sacred and what happens in it maps onto real life. If a video game depicts violence as OK in the virtual sacred space, it said, then the game suggests violence is permissible in real life.

Sony’s CEO responded, saying, “We do not accept that there is any connection between contemporary issues in 20th century Manchester, and a work of science fiction in which a fictitious 1950s Britain is under attack by aliens,” Wagner said.

In other words, the CEO felt the separation between reality and the game kept the magic sphere of play, which allows for safe detachment, intact, she said.

Ian Bogost, a game theorist, argues that there is an element of “procedural rhetoric” attached to video game play.

Bogost wrote that procedural rhetoric is: “the practice of persuading through processes in general and computational processes in particular. It is a technique for making arguments with computational systems and for unpacking computation arguments others have created,“ Wagner said.

One thing to consider about procedural rhetoric is the idea that many of the world’s most powerful religious leaders have opted to have Twitter accounts. What does that mean for theology, Wagner asked, when world religious leaders agree to compress their messages down to 140 characters and to send those messages in a stream that could include advertisements or other messages incongruous with religious ideas?

There are certain situations in which religion can be played like a game with winners and losers, and that is a deeply problematic manifestation.

—Rachel Wagner

Roy Rappaport, an anthropologist who studies ritual, said ritual gives people a pattern for action. Ritual changes the world or the place of its participant in the world, Wagner said.

“If I go to a film-viewing experience, I can’t change it. How much more so must ritual theory apply to video games which are interactive, which do involve these active experiences that shape our behavior,” she said.

Rituals are a large part of the algorithmic culture — the wired, digitally connected culture in which people exist today. Wagner asked what may happen to religion if people are replacing God and religious ritual with programs.

She also listed the ways in which video games and religion are similar. They are both experienced socially; are deeply absorbing; can involve sets of “what-if” problems; involve a suspension of belief, rules, competition; and provide a sense of purpose.

Jane McGonigal, a game theorist and proponent of video games, argues that games supplement the rituals people have lost as societies have secularized.

“We want structure, we want order, we want shape,” Wagner said. “That’s a fundamental definition of religion, so if you have an app that’s supposed to make you a better person, sounds a little bit suspiciously religious to me.”

Wagner cited the definition of game as something that is rule-based, with quantifiable — win-lose — outcomes. She argued that some people are beginning to play religion like it is a game with winners and losers.

“The more invested we become in gaming culture, without thinking critically about it, the more possible it is that there could be a feedback loop — that kind of thinking may more and more affect religious perspectives, which I think should have a lot more complexity to them,” she said.

Clifford Geertz defines religion as a set of symbols that shape perspectives and moods, provide order and say everything is true.

The world today has an algorithmic structure, Wagner said. When we go online, we can find our friends organized alphabetically. But, a new philosophical view called cosmopolitanism is taking root. Cosmopolitanism is a view that says we live in a diverse world that inspires tension and disagreements. The Internet and social media let people familiarize themselves with the world’s diversity more easily, Wagner said. Exposure to such diversity can be difficult.

“On the one hand, it’s so overwhelming we all want to be (politically correct), we all want to be good people, we want to be embracing of all these different views even if we don’t understand them,” she said. “But gosh, we wish it wasn’t so hard.

“We use different devices and programs to try to simplify that process for ourselves.”

The algorithmic culture — peoples’ increased exposure to diverse peoples and cultures — has inspired a postmodern anxiety, Wagner said. People turn to online worlds, video games and social media as a coping mechanism, because the programs’ binary nature organizes and simplifies understanding. In video games, the binary structure of “us versus them” is simple and easy to understand, but people should recognize the propensity for that thought process to enter real-life scenarios.

“If the way that you deal with difference is to push it away symbolically, metaphorically, with virtual violence, you might not pick up a gun and shoot someone — though some people do — but you might think, ‘I don’t need to know that person, I don’t have to talk to them, I don’t have to understand them,’” Wagner said.

There are some games such as “World of Warcraft” that are violent, deal with realistic themes and often propagate awful stereotypes, but people say they are not entirely bad, because there is an element of fantasy in them that keeps the player detached, Wagner said.

“There are some games where the magic circle is so thin, you can’t help but have that mapped back onto real life,” Wagner said.

There is an incredibly realistic Palestinian game called “Under Siege” that shows Palestinians fighting Israelis. To win, one side must destroy the other.

In the United States, a game called “Kuma\War” takes news footage and war footage from recent American military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the game, Americans are good, and the “others” are bad. In some scenes, players shoot at an enemy that comes out of a mosque, Wagner said.

Because of our increasingly binary culture, it is becoming more difficult for people to see others as beings with complex, hybrid identities, Wagner said.

There is another form of gameplay, called transformative play, that involves actively breaking the rules of the game and hacking into the system to alter the way the game is played. If that is taken to religion, it will help people let go of the idea that religion has defined winners and losers.

“We have the opportunities to engage with one another in an ongoing way, and any sort of sorting we do with algorithmic culture is not going to help us with that process,” Wagner said. “We have to engage with real people, in real time, with real conversations.”

Two weeks ago, Wagner went to Turkey for a religion conference, where she met a sheikh. He told her his theory that the Internet was created by God to bring people of all religions together so they could work through their differences, embrace their similarities and reach a common ground. Wagner told the sheik she disagreed.

“I said to him: ‘Should we continue to talk about the things upon which we agree? Absolutely. Should we talk after that about the things we don’t? Absolutely. Will we ever work it out? No. Should we continue talking anyway? Absolutely,’” Wagner said. “He said, ‘Why?’ And then I said, ‘For love.’”