Just out in in Mark J.P. Wolf (ed.) Revisiting Imaginary Worlds: A Subcreation Studies Anthology (Routledge 2017, pp. 116-126): “Religious Impulse in Video Games: Implications for World-Building.” Excerpts below; please go to the original source for the full essay.
Religious Impulse in Video Games: Implications for World-Building, by Edward Castronova
“Why God?” is a question often asked about the real world. Why do we think about such a thing, why has God-thinking been so prevalent in history, why does it persist now science and reason show paths to understanding everything? To many contemporary writers, god-thinking is a nuisance, a hangover from our goat-herding days. How odd, then, when given the ability to make any kind of world that we wish, we seem to insist on putting God in it. Gods are everywhere in fantasy worlds. In this essay I will focus on video games, but the argument could be extended to many arenas where imaginary worlds appear, such as film, novels, and toys. God-thinking seems more popular in these places than in the real world.
It is a puzzle, not unlike the puzzle of markets in virtual worlds: Everyone says they hate economics, yet no one makes a fantasy world without shops and money. We can only conclude that there’s something deeply attractive about shops and money. Perhaps there’s something deeply, if ineffably, attractive about God as well. What might it be? It’s not escape from mortality; death in fantasy worlds is never permanent. It may be related to the search for meaning but, on the other hand, few people derive truly substantial and long-lasting personal significance from their game play. In this essay I will explore two less-obvious explanations for the persistent attraction we have for the Divine. It may be entertaining, for one. God’s existence makes a world more fun to live in. And the gods of our fantasy may not after all be a projection, but rather a memory; this is an idea traceable to Plato. The more we talk about worlds we like to create, the more we need to think about metaphysics, as it is possible that these worlds represent an ongoing project to make the Forms concrete.
In the US, recent surveys say that millennials (not people waiting for the End Times, but those born around 2000) are not interested at all in organized religion. The number of “nones” (not lady monks, but those who adhere to no religion) in religious surveys is rising. According to Pew, the percentage of Americans affiliated with no religion rose from 16% to 23% between 2007 and 2015, a rapid rise for an aspect of life that is supposed to be fairly fundamental and unchanging. According to the Barna foundation, the percentage of skeptics (atheist or agnostic) who are under 30 has risen from 18% to 34%.[i]
No doubt it is all encouraged by the Internet. The Internet began as a community of scientists. Scientists are less likely to be god-people, by and large. Pew says that scientists are half as likely as the public at large to believe in God.[ii] Richard Dawkins is a scientist; he has said that religious parents, teaching their children all these lies about existence, are committing child abuse.[iii] Of course he is just trying to get everyone riled up, and it is not hard to find religious scientists.[iv] Still, it is fair to say that the internet did not grow up as a religious or humanistic project; it was about sharing scientific data. As a result, the culture of technologists and advanced internet-based thinkers is not a strongly pro-religion one. Although there is not hard data to support this contention, my sense is that netizens – those who see themselves are hard-core technologists – are not generally acolytes of a traditional religion. So not only is society at large moving away from god-thinking, the Internet seems to be ahead in that respect.[v]
This development needs to be raised because imaginary worlds are generally believed to source from fan communities on the internet.
Shadows of religion in a post-religious world
So perhaps the internet and its fan communities seem unlikely to be a place where gods and god-thinking would be popular. Yet, as we will see, it is; gods are very popular in video game communities. To understand why, let’s begin with some of the shadows left by past religious thinking.
Here They Are, All the Gods
Indeed, whatever God’s shadow has left in other parts of culture, there’s probably no place where god-thinking is more active, and growing more rapidly, than in fantasy culture. In books and games that deliver a deep, invented lore, there are almost always religions of some kind, and those religions are directed at gods.
Gods are certainly common in fantasy literature. I just started a fantasy novel by Patrick Rothfuss called The Name of the Wind (2007). The first mention of a supernatural being was on page 3.[vi]
In Pathfinder (2009), the fantasy role-playing game I know best, there are dozens and dozens of gods. Sarenrae is goddess of sun and light. Desna, goddess of the moon and dreams. These are both good deities. Rovagug is the god of anger, destruction, that sort of thing. He’s evil. Pharasma, god of death. He’s a neutral fellow, not evil or good. Gozreh is also neutral, god of nature. On and on. Here’s my favorite: Andoletta, a grandmotherly creature who often appears as a crow. She is lawful and good, and she will get after you with her willow staff if you do wrong, Sonny. To which I can only say, Andoletta, bless my writing! And may I have another helping of pasta?
Katamari Damacy (2004) was a popular little game with the simple mechanic of rolling a ball and picking up stuff. The ball was rolled by a little guy called “Prince”. His father was called the “King of All Cosmos”. And the King shot lightning bolts out of his eyes, rode in the clouds, and of course put Prince onto the odious task of rolling up everything.
Are there fantasy novels and games without gods? Certainly; the work of Neal Stephenson comes to mind. But it is not very common. If anything, fantasy novels will include a spiritual element but depict the organized religions that officially express that sentiment as corrupt. Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995) is an example. On the game side, the official church in Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) is riven by factions who spend a good deal of time killing one another.
Why Are Gods in Games?
Religious source material has been available for religion to grow in games, but what explains the role they play in making a good gaming experience? In a novel, the reader is watching others do things and have experiences. In a game, the players have the experiences themselves. What do game gods give players?
One possibility is that the gods are there for players to interact with in much the same way as happens in the real world. The gods may demand allegiance and worship, and the players must ask whether they truly have faith in those gods. Perhaps the role of gods is to demand true spiritual conversions. Perhaps players view the quests assigned by gods as true quests, true missions. Or, perhaps the game players believe that salvation is possible only through pleasing the gods of video games. This all seems highly unlikely, though. There’s no trace of that kind of committed, actual belief among game players, either when spoken with directly or on forums or discussion sites. I once had a conversation with worshippers of a god named Khaine from the Warhammer universe. Khaine worship involves torture and murder. He is very evil; it says so right in his flavor text. I asked them whether they tried to be evil, out of respect for their god, and they told me that that was a ridiculous conclusion to make. They said they tried to be noble and kind, to others of their cult anyways. They trusted one another for support in difficult situations. Their attitudes in general seemed consistent with the general instrumental morality of any other gamer, which is to be a (pretty) good sport and work hard for your team. And indeed, how could it be otherwise? Imagine a group of gamers who role-played the followers of an evil god accurately. The group wouldn’t last a day; it would have all of Sauron’s difficulties with his minions without the iron hand of supreme power to compel obedience.[vii] No, gamers are not actually worshipping the game gods.
Another possible explanation is that gods are unavoidable. Perhaps we have a hitch in our thinking that has not yet been adapted away. Perhaps we cannot imagine a world without a god. Past thinkers, as we have said, believed that gods were somehow necessary for us. This argument though is a little deeper. Robert Wright has written about how notions of god have evolved with us.[viii] There is certainly an evolutionary explanation for god-thinking, having to do with our proclivity for assigning agency to entities that might be conscious. If something happens that we don’t understand, perhaps we generally tend to assume first that somebody did it. That impulse may be adaptive. It may have been better for us always to assume that someone was behind the events of experience. If so, we would naturally assign an agent to things like lightning strikes and sudden sickness. From this god of events then evolved our more sophisticated notion of a creator of everything. Even for those who have dispelled that notion consciously, perhaps we still have an unconscious need to have someone play the role of the builder or the agent who is at fault for the basic situation. It is more comfortable that way.
On a similar vein, perhaps game gods are just shorthand communication between the developers and the player: It is the developers’ way of saying “That’s just the way it is.” A game world with no gods has difficulty explaining why the hordes of demons are going to all the trouble to invade our world and kill us. Lots of cool mechanics are easier to justify if you simply say that the gods did it: Rifts between worlds, conflicts between creatures, planets bashing into one another, mindless aggressive things that it is completely OK to kill. If the devs want to do it, they need only invent some pantheon to spat with one another and cause it to happen. Then it makes sense – in a god-think kind of way.
Perhaps gods are placed in game precisely so that player may express disbelief in them. In EverQuest (1999), you were told, upon making your character, that you must choose a deity. While there was no real consequence to this, it was something that you would carry with you for a long time. EverQuest characters required thousands of hours to level. The god choice could not be changed. All of the EverQuest gods were available —I took Rodcet Nife, who is closest to my real-world belief system—but you could choose None if you desired. Many other games allow the player to adopt a stance of antagonism toward religion. In Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014), there is a repeated discussion about whether the hero —you— is an envoy of a god or not. Whenever this comes up, you are given the option to deny not only your own divinity but the whole idea of the divine. Perhaps gods exist in games in order to allow a secular culture to express itself boldly.
Perhaps game gods are the first step in a future religion. The idea of a post-religion is a bit premature – the data we have show that billions of people around the world are still firm believers – yet sociologists of religion as well as futurists have proposed that humanity is developing a new way of thinking practically about metaphysics.[ix] Perhaps humans are driven to seek grandeur and the transcendent, but the advances of information technology have moved us into a new age of awareness. For the new times, a new form of worship may be necessary. If so, then perhaps our peculiar attention to gods in imaginary worlds may be more significant than it looks. It is not worship, perhaps, but nonetheless a pursuit of transcendence and awe. The gods in game worlds are (with exception of god-games such as Civilization (1991) and Black and White (2001)) typically non-player characters. They are instantiations of AI. If we were to class them together, we might call them AO instead of AI. Such gods are not intelligent, they are omniscient. Hence, the primary descriptor of game gods might be artificial omniscience rather than artificial intelligence. Robotic deity is another way of describing what may be a proto-transhumanist religion.
Perhaps Gods Are Fun
Perhaps gods make a world more enjoyable. In particular, perhaps gods makes games more fun. I mean this as a direct statement: Perhaps there is a direct effect of having gods in the lore, an effect that makes engagement with a game more fun.
This idea might seem odd at first. Many people associate gods with unpleasantness. If it weren’t for gods, the thinking goes, we could do whatever we wished. We would have no guilt. We could be moral by ourselves and not have to worry about what some supreme consciousness might think. We would not feel so spied upon. Our reasons would be our own. Our lives would be more private. We would not be subject to the censure of anyone, whether gods or people. Moreover, all religions seem to come with ridiculous demands attached, demands that have no apparent justification, at least not on the surface. Kneeling is an example, or abstaining from certain foods. If you do the work to understand the symbolic meaning of these gestures, they make sense. But if you do not do that work, and if there is no reason to do any such work, then the gestures seem pointless, but unpleasant to perform. If there were no gods, we wouldn’t have to control ourselves for these abstract reasons. Abstract, pointless self-control just does not seem like fun, yet it is part of religious observance. Of all the arguments for gods in games, the argument that they are fun seems to make no sense at all.
A similar line of reasoning, however, applies to the case of economics in games. Just about everyone hates economics, as I know from many casual conversations involving my Ph.D. degree. On top of that, these days business people have a very sour reputation in the culture at large. In real life, for most people, money is a source of endless daily worry. The world of money and markets and prices is certainly not the first thing that comes to mind when you say “FUN!” Yet every game has its store. In Plants vs. Zombies (2009), you gather up coin to go pay Dave the neighbor for extra gear, seeds, and whatnot. Why does the game not just give these things to you for certain achievements? Why does it involve money, and a store? Evidently, in fantasy settings, people really like money. The love of lucre and everything that goes with it is a primitive in game design, such that every dead rat drops a few coins. In life, coins are hated. In games, they are loved. Therefore let us not dismiss out of hand the possibility that gods, too, are found to be annoying by some or many in the real world, but loved in games.
How else are gods fun in games? Perhaps the presence of gods make everything feel significant. That is, not only are my choices important, but everything happening here is important. Consider a quest to cure a plague. Here are two versions of the assignment text:
- The holy statue speaks to you: “Holy mother Angeloi cries out in anguish at the suffering of her beloved followers in the country of Tantream. A horrible plague, unleashed by Cosmodeus of the Netherworld, is killing them by the score. She implores you to gather these herbs and make the potion they need. Do this, and Angeloi’s favor will shine upon you for the rest of your days.” [An amulet appears floating in the air.]
- Harmus tells you: “A terrible plague is killing people in Tantream. It’s the result of eating too much manniconny. Gather these herbs and make the required potion. People will be very thankful if you do it. I will give you these pills which will help you later on. The world will be a better place, and you’ll probably feel better, too.”
As a final speculation, consider the possibility of a connection between game gods and ultimate reality. We have already mentioned the idea that game gods might be worshipped as such, or might be the locus of an early, nascent transhumanist religious impulse. These interpretations handle game gods as being real gods in some way. Here, let us consider how game gods might be connected to a Real God, that is, a supernatural omniscient consciousness that created all existence and cares about it.
This avenue of speculation requires that we allow metaphysical spirits to have real existence. It is an old idea, one that today is sometimes called neo-Platonic realism. This type of realism is easy to see in the ancient philosophical debate about the realism of mathematics. One view holds that mathematics concepts exist independently of human minds; minds discover them. The opposing view holds that mathematical concepts are invented by minds. The former is the realism to which we are referring.
Plato is the author of the idea and he taught that all abstract notions participate fully in existence. If we accept the existence of a metaphysical realm in which abstract things live, it might also be the place where we might find spirits, angels, devils and, of course, gods. The yearnings that people exhibit for gods might not be mere evolutionary leftovers. According to the realist view, people may be yearning for contact with real things that happen not to exist empirically alongside us.
Many have argued that fantasy, dreams, poetry, and the like are the only available ways to know this side of reality.[x] Games are a particularly visceral instantiation of our fantasies and dreams. If we do seek gods in mythopoesy, we would also seek them in imaginary worlds. In worlds, mythopoetics are concretized, articulated, and performed.
If this line of speculation has any truth, it would suggest that the existence of gods in fantasy worlds is speaking to a deep drive of humans, to find the author or authors of all existence. This possibility would only open a further set of questions, however, involving the reasons imaginary worlds have been chosen for this activity. The “real” gods have been available in places of worship from time immemorial, and still are available there today. Anyone seeking God can find him, her, and/or it in a nearby house of prayer. The fact that people might be seeking God in video games inevitably says something troubling about the nature of seeking in the real world. Something has perhaps gone sour. Perhaps traditional routes to an encounter with the Divine seem closed, difficult, or uncanny, whereas in fantasy worlds the gods are an integral, normal, and easily-accessible part of the social and cultural fabric.
The story of yearning, sin, judgment, redemption, and meaning may just be a holdover from our goat-herding days. Or it may be an inextinguishable drive to find something or someone truly real yet truly divine. Whatever the source, imaginary gameworld players don’t want to read about this quest or watch a movie about it; they want to do it. The gamer’s quest for gods makes them a natural element in imaginary worlds.
[v] I’m speaking here of developed countries! In the US, Europe, Japan, Australia, places where people are rich, live in safety, and have plenty to eat, god-thinking is fading away. Not so in other areas. We tend to call those other areas “less-developed,” but that seems like only a different way of saying “savage” or “barbarian.” Because in the global south, to use a term neutered via geography, people can’t seem to get rid of their god-thinking. The Roman Catholic Church (where I belong) is booming down there.
[vi] The Chandrian are mentioned in the first chapter as a type of mythical demon-creature.
[vii] In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is the evil overlord and his minions, orcs and goblins, generally hate each other and fight one another at the most inconvenient times. For example, one group very nearly captures the all-important Ring of Power in the pass of Cirith Ungol, but they end up killing each other in a stupid brawl over nothing.
[viii] Robert Wright, The Evolution of God, Boston: Back Bay Books, 2009.
[ix] Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion, Rutgers, 1996
[x] Tolkien makes a strong case for this is in his essay “On Fairy Stories” (1939).