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Navigating the Religious Worlds of Science Fiction and Video Games

Written by David McConeghy in response to Ben Banasik and Tara Smith, interviewed by Raymond Radford.

This episode of the Religious Studies Project is a wide-ranging discussion with Ben Banasik, Tara Smith, and Raymond Radford. All are doctoral candidates in the University Of Sydney’s Department of Studies in Religion. Sweeping from Arthur C. Clarke’s story The Nine Billion Names of God to the video game Journey or the Church of All Worlds (CAW) that was inspired by Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land, you may feel out of your depth at times with colleagues at ease in sharing multiple references to sources in their studies on religion in Science Fiction and video gaming.

Maybe you’ve had the pleasure of reading Leo Tolstoy “A Confession” but not Frank Herbert’s Dune. Or you’ve been lost for hours in the video game world of Skyrim but not Stardew Valley. Perhaps you’ve heard of Jediism but not CAW. There’s always another thing to see as data for religious studies, but widening the boundary for what counts as data comes with a price. Every new category is a multiplication. When your choices are infinite, then explaining your choices becomes an obligation.

To free readers and listeners from the burden of initiation into complex canons of works, I want to discuss instead the way that investigations of imagined worlds lend themselves to scholarship in religious studies. Why do scholars choose expressions of popular culture amid the array of data options? What do they hope to gain from this sort of data that is inaccessible elsewhere? What’s in it for you if you can’t tell Herbert from Heinlein or Skyrim from Starcraft?

For its part, the RSP has been a fierce advocate for the value of studying religion and/in culture, covering topics from comic books to video games, music, clothing, consumerism and more. Ben, Tara, and Raymond all agree with the claim that “Science Fiction is social fiction.” Video games, too. They are always products embedded in time and space and made for the society in which they were produced. Cultural products reveal a society’s culture(s), just as they seek to change the culture(s) that produced them. Observing this discourse is bread-and-butter work for many in our field.

One major premise of studying fictional worlds is that they are immensely powerful forces in human lives. They are capable of replicating many of the moves commonly associated with religion including myth-creation, textual authority and canonicity, the elevation of sacred objects, ritualization and commemoration, pilgrimage, and much more. In the depiction of the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ Time Machine we are compelled to see things racially. In the obsession with tending a virtual farm in Stardew Valley we can investigate ritualization but also the meditative “flow” players enter in long gaming sessions. In the complex mélange of Islam and Buddhism in Dune we can ask about religious syncretism. We can look at Comic Conventions as pilgrimage sites for devoted fans. All of these comparisons are likely to use terms like religion or religious experience, but when we do the terms don’t come without the weight of their origins and contexts. Just as the world religions paradigm is haunted by religions outside of regular order of six or so traditions, each new fictional world is a chance for us to remove the ghosts from the terms. They are laboratories for testing our assumptions about how things work, or, more often, how they might work differently if we understood the stakes in a different way.

Since Science Fiction and video games are data worth considering for religious studies, I’d argue that this reorientation of our field’s shared terms is a major effect of their inclusion on the state of the field. Gamers or readers aren’t blank slates. They’re brimming with a mix of meanings and attitudes about religion already. Scholars also bring the weight of prior studies. If we go looking for religious experiences and mean one kind of experience distinct from all others, then we have quickly moved into essentialism and may find few experiences that match our ideal. The alternative that I’m sure we’d prefer is to assert that some experiences are produced in relation to what we already call religious for some other reason (including that they produce these experiences). They are religious by relation, comparison, or convention to other previously-agreed upon religious data.

This alternative emerges as mode of investigation in our field whose goal is self-definition. We’re left asking, what exactly do players find religious about their experiences in the game Journey? This then reinforces or adjusts the operative definition of religion. It’s a test to make sure an object isn’t “really” religious and is instead reproducing similar experiences, beliefs, actions, or moods. We can then explain such effects and their meaning by relating them to religious ones. Perhaps the experience qualifies as religious but fails to meet the standard for a religion. Similar conclusions emerge when we ask what Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and the CAW have to say about religion. In such cases we may offer our reading or present another’s reading and then use the new perspective to engage the model of religion we came in with. It’s still a test of our category–even if it is under the cover of explanation (for whom, about what, and why).

These are the scholarly moves, right? Work in the discipline is always work about the discipline.

Whether we search for the hopes creators embed in their works of Science Fiction or the responses people have to gaming experiences, one of the benefits for religious studies is that in both instances we can see enormous overlap between the categories of religion and technology. Both apply knowledge to solve problems. This operationalizes Science Fiction, for instance, because it becomes a way to ask questions about the future. This is a dynamic process, as we know well, because creative fictional worlds have consequences on our actions and thoughts that change the world that produced them. We think of simulations as merely reproducing the world, for instance, but our engagement in virtual worlds changes the world, too.

Presented in this way, Science Fiction, video games, and religion can all be seen as “existence” technologies. They provide meaning and context for life. Not to all or in every instance, but reliably enough to be studied using observation, surveys, and interviews. This is what we hear Ben claim about his surveys with gamers on their perpetual journeys. This is what Tara says about her upcoming interviews with Nebula writers and Science Fiction fans and how the genre aims for social change.

One of the great challenges of religious studies today is that most of us are convinced religion isn’t a commodity neatly held within conventional boundaries of religious traditions. All the voices in this podcast agree. Religious experiences are likewise not bound to religious traditions. Nor is religion the sole source of experiences and communities we may have formerly said were exclusive to religion. As a technology, Science Fiction “cracked” many of the trade secrets of religion. It didn’t do it intentionally. Science Fiction, like religion, isn’t a thing out there waiting to be found or with independent motives. It is the result of creative effort, communities of reception, marketplaces for production, and so much more working for the last century or more without any distinct plan or concerted agenda. Nevertheless, Science Fiction has forced us to reconsider what we mean when we say “religious experience,” since many of its most notable works have imagined ways of being religious that draw upon but are not exclusive to the cultures that generated them.

Like all technologies, Science Fiction became a posture, an attitude, for certain ways of world-viewing. Video games, too, will have their due as they increasingly find ways to engage gamers through mixed-media immersion, world-building, and simulation. The question must always be: to what end are we comparing Science Fiction, Science Fiction fans, or video games and their gamers? What does it show about how we navigate our world? What does this say about “religion” or how we talk about the category of religion? Can we do it without “religion” or are these subjects “religious” in an inescapable way? I look forward to seeing these bright young scholars complete their work and show the value of looking carefully at popular culture’s connections to religious studies.

Science Fiction, Video Games, and Religion

Science fiction and video games have come to the forefront of a new global resurgence, with the popularity reaching record numbers in regards to cinema, and video games. From classic science fiction, to sandbox video games that require hundreds of hours to complete fully, religiosity can be utilised and attached to certain actions, places, characters, and stories. This podcast explores what feature religion plays within an attachment to science fiction and video games, how seekers attach meaning, and seek belief in things that are ‘out of this world,’ as a means of both escapism, and hope of the future.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Science Fiction, Video Games, and Religion

Podcast with Benn Banasik and Tara Smith (27 May 2019).

Interviewed by Raymond Radford.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Banasik_and_Smith_-_Science_Fiction_Video_Games_and_Religion_1.1

 

Raymond Radford (RR): My name is Ray Radford. I am the social media editor of the RSP. And today we have a couple of my fellow PhD candidates along with me: Benn Banasik and Tara Smith. Hi Guys!

Tara Smith (TS): OK. How’s it going?

Benn Banasik (BB): Hi.

RR: So do you want to tell us a little bit about your dissertations?

BB: Sure! Ladies first!

TS: Oh, OK. Yes, let’s jump straight in. So I’m doing my PhD on science fiction as social fiction. I’m interested in the religious aspect incorporated within science fiction. And I’m doing some interviews in America at the Nebula science fiction conference, which I’m hoping to sort-of see how much writers are incorporating their own social concerns for the future into the work that they’re writing. I did my honours on Frank Herbert’s Dune, focussing on the eco-religious aspects of that. And yes, so I guess religion is incorporated in a lot of different aspects in the work I’m looking at. But so is science fiction as a genre, as well.

BB: Yes. So I did my honours focussing on Origen of Alexandria and the Jewish elements of his work. So I was looking at Jewish and Christian interrelations and interactions within the third and fourth century. That led me into looking at apophatic theory, and getting really deep into that, particularly from the Christian perspective, but also from the Jewish perspective. My PhD topic is taking those elements – unending aspects of theological engagement with God – and investigating video games through that lens. So, looking at the perpetual journey of video games and video gaming as a religious endeavour, and what that actually means for people. So I’m doing some social surveys looking at people’s interactions in video game space, as well as people who interact with religion – whatever that means today, and that’s a negotiated term – and then synchronising their responses to see if there are any similarities. And then doing more of the theoretical work in the background, as well.

RR: I like that it’s a bit of step from Origen to video games!

BB: It’s a negotiated step!

RR: Yeah. It’s very tentative, I like it. In case you haven’t been able to guess, in today’s podcast we’re going to be focussing on religion, video games, science fiction, popular culture and just the way that these are all entwined within . . . those who look for them or seek to get something out of them . . . I guess is a good way of explaining it. Quick question: have you guys read the Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke?

TS: I’ve got it on my bookshelf, but I’ve got a big, big pile and I’m hoping to get to it. I know it’s been on a lot of lists of things to read.

BB: I have not.

RR: Well it’s the . . . I was thinking about it earlier this morning. And it’s basically a group of monks in Tibet writing down the nine billion names of God because they think that when that happens that God will destroy the universe or, you know, everything will become fulfilled and then the universe will end. So they get to a point and they go, “Oh, this is going to take too long. So they rent a computer from a couple of Americans. The Americans come in and three months later it’s done. The Americans are like, “Oh it’s not going to happen. The computer’s not going to write down all these names of God. And then they’ll blame us when nothing happens.” And then it ends with them looking up and the stars are blinking out.

All: (Laughter)

RR: I thought that was a good analogy of how religion and technology can work together, especially in classic science fiction – which is where you’re looking, Tara.

TS: Yes, definitely. There’s a few . . . there are so many works of science fiction, and technology is such a key theme. One of my favourites is HG Wells’ The Time Machine, and just how he develops . . . it’s one of the first mentions of a time machine – a classic science fiction trope – and transporting somebody to the future. And it’s such a good story because you have, you know, the classic inventor and he’s thrown into this world of these two human races which are basically the sort-of English bourgeois class. And it’s taken to the nth degree, where they’ve formed two different species – the Eloi and the Morlocks.

RR: Yes.

TS: And they sort-of . . . it’s just such a funny little quirky exploration of, you know, how races . . . not races, but how some classes could develop in the future (5:00). And I feel like there’s a real little comic element to that as well. But just how . . . what a good story it is.

BB: I think that’s an interesting thing and this is where your and my PhD’s actually interact, here. And that’s the way that we think about religion in general, and how it interacts with other gaming, social media and technology in that regard. So that element of religion inside Sci-Fi, I can see some similarities in that regard for Second Life. Where you have people that are creating elements of a worldly environment inside a digital space. So people purchase off spots of land actually in Second Life. And there’s been lots of words written about Second Life. Probably more words written about Second Life than actual players of Second Life. Because it’s not actually that popular anymore. Nevertheless, it is interesting see that human interaction in an open space. . . and given the freedom, people set up farms, work places and religious institutions. And they are largely representative of things which happen in the real world, or best practices which people try to aim for in the real world. And I see that through Sci-Fi, as well.

TS: Yes, what’s interesting is they opt for quite mundane realities, you know? If you’re given an option to be an avatar you can do anything you want. And what people want to do is they want to keep farming, and they want to just keep living and forming relationships. You kind-of would imagine that they’d choose something a bit more out of this world. The sort-of everyday is what they like to recreate in those realities.

BB: It’s things like FarmVille

RR: Or Farming Simulator. These things that you can get now which are just simulating the real in virtual reality.

BB: So, for me, those elements and Stardew Valley is one of those games that I’m studying as part of my PhD. And I’ve asked people to engage with this survey. And it’s been my most popular survey, as well.

RR: Maybe you just want to explain Stardew Valley?

BB: OK. So for those who haven’t interacted with it, it is a farming simulator. You’re transported to a farm which is in your family, and you’re given the space to do whatever you like. You can construct fences and have animals, or you can till the fields. And there’s different seasons. And you can interact with people in the village that is close by. And you can also do fishing other mundane tasks. It’s this perpetual engagement with this space, though, that I think actually quantitates a religious experience. But that’s outside of what the first grouping of religion and technology is that I see. The first one being religion inside the technology. That aspect of creating a church in Second Life is not the same engagement which someone would have by hoeing the fields in their little farm, inside Stardew Valley. That’s a different experience. And it quantitates a different response. And it’s different. Both of those architectures don’t have ends. So they’re both spaces to involve, but it’s about what the player does in those spaces. Second Life is more of an open field. And games like Elder Scrolls or Sky Room, they’re closed environments. So you have these religions that are actually represented in those spaces, and they may be made up. From that, I think we have Sci-Fi in religion. So it can come outside of the computer.

TS: Yes. And you can really see some example of that in science fiction. Some examples that come to mind is obviously Frank Herbert’s Dune, which is just such a rich tapestry of different religions. I mean, I think he sort-of identified himself a little bit as a Zen Buddhist. So you have these sort-of very clear Zen ideas, but then also very overt references to Islamic religion. You’ve got other eco-religious sort-of aspects to it. And so many different examples. And I think that’s so interesting, as a reader, is you try and navigate the space of so many different philosophies and ideas. And I think Frank Herbert really just wanted you to try and work it out. And I think, in his books, he really tries to get you to question sort-of where you want to take the book, and who you think the goodies and the baddies are. And he doesn’t really spell it out. And I think that’s why they’re such a good series. (10:00) And the other example, of course, is Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which is about the Martian, Valentine, who sort-of comes on earth, and creates his own church – the Church of All Worlds. Which is this very sort-of sixties, free love, sort-of pagan church. Which is such a contrast to the religious, very strict kind-of world he finds himself in. And he kind-of creates this space. And then it’s actually being used and created in religion outside of the novels: Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and Morning Glory. I think they’re based in America, and they have concepts they’ve borrowed from books like “grok” kin which is a term in the book used in the water rituals – they do their own sort-of water rituals. And they call themselves water kin. They’re called “Nests” that they group themselves in. And all these sort of things are borrowed from novels, but they’ve obviously taken it as their own, and sort-of brought their own very pagan, probably even more pagan aspects to it, and created their own little religion. I think that’s just so interesting, where you have science fiction directly impacting religion in that. But there’s also, of course, religion in the novels itself. So you’ve got these two ways that it’s diverging.

RR: Let’s just go back to Heinlein, for a second. Because writing something like that, in the 1960s – especially 1960s America, was completely antithetical to the standards and practices, if you will, of American society at the time. Which brings us to the idea that science fiction is social fiction. So you know, he’s sort-of writing this idea that in the future, possibly, we have comradery and free love. And we’re not being jack-booted into oblivion by fascist governments or anything like that – which a lot of 1960s science fiction was about – apocalyptic, and all that kind of thing. So do you think some social aspects of society influence . . .?

TS: Oh, definitely. Of course. I think that’s a huge impact. You obviously write to what your surroundings are. But I think science fiction uses our social fictions. Because it’s set in the future – and all of these works are set quite far into the future – the writers can sort-of explore new ways of looking at . . . and that’s why you have utopias and dystopias. You can look at completely different, new ways of thinking and taking of the world to a different place. And that’s why I think it’s so powerful. And, in terms of religion, you can imagine different ways of how religion might look in the future. And with technology, you can see maybe how technology could be used, taken to it’s very most extreme view – sort-of as warning and as a guide. That’s why science fiction is so useful. And probably with gaming you see similar aspects of the reality and real life impacting fiction. And the lines are getting blurred. And with technology. Our kind-of idea of having distinct categories is sort-of dissolving.

BB: True. I think and we’re talking about this intermediary space between religion and Sci-Fi, or Sci-Fi, technology and religion. And there are elements that are in both. My thesis looks at the religious endeavour of the technology. So there is actually a third category we can look at. But to flow into that second category, you have elements, now, of technology and Sci-Fi being implemented in religions. And they’re commonly done. We had the Pope App that was launched, which has the “Click to Pray”. And Pope Francis was actually launching the app – he’s a bit of a technophobe, (self-) admittedly, a technophobe – and he asked the priest next to him whether he’d actually done it by clicking the prayer, making sure that he actually prayed at that point. Which is quite jovial I think! There is an android monk who has been created. And you can go, and the monk then offers constant prayers. And you have different elements of technology which is enabling people to practise their religions in unique and different ways. What I think that you can see, and where this crossover is, is the elements of religions that are from Sci-Fi or from technological basis, becoming religions in themselves. So the Church of All Worlds, yes, is a good example. Jedi – I know that there was protest religion for the census four years ago (15:00). The numbers dropped off but there are certain people that do practice what is known as . . .

RR: There are registered temples in the United Kingdom, I believe.

BB: Yeah. And the sociological aspect of . . . I guess our department in a university and Western universities in general, is that we have to take people for what their words are. And if they say they are practising a religion and “We believe that we are practising a religion”, who are we to question that? So they are seen as equal footing. But what I think is interesting is the technological element, or the video gaming element as a religious endeavour in itself. And Sci-Fi actually as religious endeavour, and using those texts as religious texts.

TS: Definitely. Especially if we see science fiction as technology itself. As a definition you could call fiction and science fiction technology, just the reading of it. Because I think the definition of technology is like – we probably should have . . .

RR: I think the definition of technology is the same as the definition of religion. It’s different to whoever’s discussing it, I guess. And that’s the big problem with Religious Studies is that it’s a different meaning to everybody.

BB: That’s true. Whether we’re using mundane tools or super computers creating digital spaces to deal with . . . they are both outside of the human experience, in its unique and abstract from. So if we think of it in that regard. So, myself as a human: how do I interact with the world? And my choice is – me, myself – is to sit at home and play video games, occasionally, when I get time. But involving ourselves in some sort of experience using a tool. That is, in itself, a technology. And I think that’s the boundary. And that’s all we can say about it. Because otherwise you get drawn into, “Well, is a Dolo Matrix computer system actually as equal technology as something as an iphone today?

TS: Yeah. I guess I’d want to just say that science fiction can be used as a tool almost like a form of technology, itself. And if we’re looking at science fiction like that, I think we can connect. We have similarities in our PhD topics and what we’re interested in. And that science fiction can be used both as a guide to these developments of technology . . . in the sense of, when we’re exploring topics like AI and cloning and looking back at the writers who were already thinking about this sort-of fifty years ago, and trying to project that into the future. That’s such a useful tool for us. But also science fiction being used as a way of shifting perception. And this is Darko Suvin’s definition of estrangement. So, good science fiction creates a sense of a new reality, a new perception, a new way of thinking. And that’s what I think is the key for science fiction, is really shifting what we think. And by setting new social realities in the future – whether  that’s exploring different ways of looking at gender, different ways of looking religion – it’s allowing us to really shift our perception, and grow as a civilisation, and that’s what I think the key is.

RR: I think one of the really good things about science fiction is it actually provides us a glossary for terms for technology now. So things like when Arthur C Clarke first used the term satellite, it hadn’t been used before. And now we are all calling these things orbiting the earth satellites. But even things like when Steve Jobs first announced the ipad, or the iphone, he was calling it a “magic tablet”, because you were essentially using your finger like a wand. And sort-of taking these terms from literature and them importing them into technology.

BB: It’s a very . . . that speech which Jobs gave at that Apple conference and there’s the ipod

RR: The ipod – even earlier! Yes

BB: So that was where he pulled out the ipod and is talking about the beautiful cover art and how to actually listen to sounds and everything like that. But that element of talking about the finger touching onto the screen, or touching onto the dial at the time – so the circular dial – and being able to choose different things. And then the glass screen being fitted afterwards. It’s a really charismatic performance which he actually is creating. And it blurs the lines of, you know, a traditional religion, into that regard (20:00). And there’s people that have written on this: the dress code that he’d apply . . .

RR: Oh, the turtle neck?

BB: Turtle neck, the black, and speaking in certain ways, no visible microphones and this sort-of darkened room but a crowded audience, so you have that sense of being drawn into something like a church. It’s very organised. And it’s quite amazing seeing that line of technology almost manifesting itself into a religion and religious experience.

TS: Definitely. It’s like all the geek culture now is becoming like sort-of what we are in science fiction and gaming, the geek culture – not exclusively, but I mean that how we make meaning and how we connect to the world is really changing I feel. And it doesn’t make it any more or less religious. It’s still people still getting sort-of a religious experience doesn’t always have to be what we typically understand religion for. And I think that’s why, as studies of religion students, our definition is constantly trying to change and fit into new paradigms. And I think that’s what – not everyone agrees – but I think that what is important to have different ideas and trying to constantly rethink what we think is technically religion. And not dismiss things that don’t necessarily fit into what we thought.

BB: I agree and that’s a large part of my PhD, actually, is going to engage with, “What is religious experience?” And so William James actually coined that phrase, and uses religious experience in a certain way. And he’s using that on the basis of quoting from people like Tolstoy which then Albert Camus, and later writers, actually engage with as well. I actually think there is a misreading here that we – as people that are studying theology or philosophy or religious studies or religion in general – we’ve actually taken a lot for granted. And it needs to go back and look at what these writers are talking about. So where Tolstoy, in My Confession, he paints the picture of being in the well and hanging from the sides of the well, seeing a snake that is about to bite your hand. And then there’s this little sapling with some sap that’s dripping forth almost a honey. What do you do in that experience? Do you fall? Do you accept that you’re going to fall? Do you try and fight on? Or do you joyously eat the sap and accept that that is going to be your lot in life? Camus and Tolstoy, they’re engaging with these things – this absurdism of accepting your lot in life, and actually engaging with it as much as you can, and doing the best that you can in that space. That’s where I see these similarities of religious experience of somebody who plays that Stardew Valley, as to someone who’s sitting in the church pews, or engaging with pilgrimage and going to the mountaintops. And I can see the same languages being used with these different people. Now it’s not every person that’s going to get that experience. I don’t think that the casual gamer who’s jumping on line to play with their friends, playing Call of Duty or whatever the game is, is going experience that. Nor do I think that games like Mario Parties, which are a social event, may give you those feelings. They may, but it is not necessarily the case that every person that engages with reading Sci-Fi is going to have the divine experiences of questioning what it is to be human and what it is for reality. But some texts definitely do. And some games definitely do.

RR: I think a lot of the text where it comes down to questioning reality, or questioning what it is to be human, comes down to if the book is really well-written you can sortof start thinking about that. But I think it’s something else where the book starts giving you religious fervour. Sort-of like . . ., trying to think of a good example . . .those sort of books where . . . things like Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, which gives a good example of the internet, being written in 1993, is sort-of the next precursor to Neuromancer to explore the ideas of virtual reality, and all that kind of thing. But I don’t see any religions being made around it, or it being held up in high esteem as . . . . I think it’s up there with Dune (25:00). It’s one of my favourite books. But that concept of religion and technology is, yeah, I think it’s sort-of . . . people pick and choose what they want to take from that, I think.

BB: Yeah. Well there is curation of course. But I think that if . . . and what my study is finding is you ask people set questions – and I’m asking people the same questions if they’re from this religious experience and they identity as religious, or they identify as players of Elite, or Stardew Valley. And we just copy and paste out the names of religious experience to playing Elite. And you find the responses are very similar. Which means that there is something that people are getting out of this that it is quite religious.

RR: I just want to quickly ask Tara . . .because you haven’t done your research part of it yet. You’re going over to America, as you said, in a couple of weeks to ask people questions. Is there anything in particular you feel that you want to get out of them?

TS: I guess I just want to see some awareness . . . and I think that’s going to be with writers that are writing specular fiction; that they are trying to create a force of social change for the good. I think that there’s a certain . . . and it’s not all writers, but I think a lot of science fiction writers, especially, are trying to create a better world through their writing. And I think that’s a unique aspect of science fiction

RR: People like Kim Stanley Robinson with the environmentalist message.

TS: Exactly, yes. And so what I want to do, there’s a few things that I’m looking at. I’m looking at AI, I’m looking at environment, I’m looking at interplanetary travel, so there’s a few themes that I’m looking at. But I’m just trying to see: if they’re concerned about climate change, is that being reflected in their writing? And I think that obviously it will. But I just want some sort of confirmation that young writers – and I’ll probably get a range a people at Nebula, so all different periods of their writing experience – but that’s like a real . . . . That it’s sort-of at the forefront of their writing. And I think it will be. And that’s why I think it’s such a unique genre. Because it’s concerned with the same questions that philosophies are concerned with: “Who are we?”; “Why are we here?”; and also, making the world better. And I think you’d be hard-pressed to find people who don’t want to make the world a better place. And we’re in such an era the moment where people are feeling very fatigued and very depressed with the kind-of state of affairs. And I feel like that’s why it’s so important.

RR: Do you think things like science fiction and video games give people the hope . . . that they find themselves doing these things in order to better feel better about things, about the world? Give some form of meaning, some form of credence?

TS: You mean like escapism?

RR: Escapism, yeah.

TS: Sort-of, but I also think more of a warning. Speculative fiction that’s set in the future and shows a very bleak . . . where technology’s gone totally terrible, and it’s like this very bleak world, we can go: “Ok. Should we, maybe, alter the way that we’re progressing with artificial intelligence? In reality, can we do some measures to try and, maybe, not get to that place? Or how can we change the way we interact with Facebook or our iphones, to maybe then impact the future? And that’s what I’m hoping science fiction . . . . What I think science fiction does is it also acts as a warning – not just that escapism from reality. That’s definitely an aspect of it, but also a warning in the dystopia of what our realities could become.

RR: Yes. Benn?

BB: Yes! (Laughter) I think . . .

RR: Because I’ve got to admit I’m very much a video game player and I play for a multitude of reasons. None of them are religious – it’s usually to avoid other people.

BB: And that’s, I think, where most people do find themselves engaging with this space. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you cannot get the same experience there that someone who is having an openly religious experience is. So they can be one and the same. I’m not necessarily concerned or even really interested in why people engage with video gaming or religion. Because I think that becomes a whole quagmire of thought, based on family background, social background, and then you have to almost get into the psychology of someone who is engaging that way (30:00). All I’m interested in is flat-lining the approach. So classifying people as: you’re either playing, or you’re not playing these games. And I then asked the question well, “Why are you playing these games? Why are you continually playing a game which is meant to only have a ten or twenty hour engagement? Why have you played that for four or five hundred hours? Why do you continue to play World of Warcraft?” Once you’ve got to the end, you’ve got your character maxed out, and you’re one of the toughest in your group. And, yes, you perform in a certain role in a team environment. But it brings people back. It’s not physically possible to finish every element in a lot of these games. And they are sand boxes, many of them. But some of them aren’t. And this is the interesting thing. There’s people that have played games which are meant to be coin-crunchers – arcade experience games, that you’re meant to only play for two or three minutes, and then you give way to the next person at the arcade to put another quarter in there, and that’s what those games are developed with – people that play those games for eighteen to twenty hours at a time on a single credit. Nibbler for example. It’s not a great game. It’s a snake that is going round a field constantly – same type of field. That’s not a great experience, it looks like, from someone who stands back. But people try and do that because they’re trying to get the world record. But they’re returning to it constantly, because they’re obviously enjoying that experience. Otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it. And that, I think, is really interesting. Where you can have what looks like a very mundane task, and it gives that sort-of perpetual feeling of engagement. And it keeps drawing people back, over and over again. If I can share a quote?

RR: Yes, please.

BB: So this started off on a Tumblr site and it’s been copied across to a website. And it’s called Journey Stories. And the user Jitterfish shared this, which I thought was quite interesting. It’s about Journey the video game. So Journey is a game where you are a cloaked avatar. So you’re a cloaked figure that appears in a vast dessert landscape. And you don’t see anything, except for a light on a hill in the distance. And there’s very little actually in the field of play, initially. And it draws you to constantly march towards . . .

RR: It’s very linear.

BB: Yes – very, very linear. You do interact with another person in the game. So it’s not – spoiler alert! It’s a ten year-old game, I think we can spoil it! The other person that appears in the game is actually another user who is playing the game at the same time, somewhere else in the world. So it’s a live experience. And it’s not initially clear that you have that experience. Now, Jenova Chen actually studies flow, studies philosophy, writes a little bit about religious experience in that regard, but not so much. But he was interested in creating this experience where he’d engaged with users in a very limited way. So you only have a set tone, so you can set off this tone. And that’s it in the game. So you can jump, set off a tone and walk. Very, very limited. So Jitterfish writes: “Is it possible to have a religious experience in a video game? Because I just danced for twenty minutes with a complete stranger in the final level of Journey. When we got to the end I learned that the final part of the mountain, just before you walk into the light, if you run into your companion and jump you can fly into the air. We synchronised our jumps until we were floating above the light, twirling and dancing and laughing. And I just – I don’t even know, man. I’m crying. So many feels! Carlos G. Nice, if you’re reading this, you’re amazing.”

RR: It’s kind-of sweet.

BB: And that for me is – it is a very sweet experience. And I have had very similar experience, playing the game, where I walked and played with someone from the beginning to the end of the game. It’s only happened once since I’ve played it, and I’ve played it a number of times through. And then you float back to the beginning and you lose connection with that person. So, yes, there is this interaction that you’re getting which is a divine experience. And that is quite magnificent for a game to actually give you that experience.

RR: I guess that brings me to my last thing I want to talk about, and that is perception of reality within video games (35:00). Because I mean, that’s quite a nice story here. Journey is, what, five hours long?

BB: Not even that. It can be two to three. And that’s if you go all the way through it.

RR: But for that two or three hours, that’s your reality. Where do you see technology, video games, science fiction sort-of leading in regards to reality?

BB: I think with the freedom of human experience now being shaken, and what it actually means to be human, it gives people a place for free expression – this is video games. So the expression . . . I think the narrative is interesting, which is given to players, and given these choices. So if you play Last of Us or something like that, this is quite an amazing experience. But they are somewhat a “choose your own adventure” game. Maybe a little bit more complex, but generally that’s what they are. The experiences where players push that boundary can be in linear experiences, but generally it is in these sandbox, larger games, where people break that narrative and then exist within the space. That’s what I find fascinating. And that I think is something unique to our generations now, where we’re looking at technology, in this regard, as a place where we can go home and interact in those environments –and “be the best that we can”, to take the Pokémon phrase! And that very best that we can may not necessarily mean that I am even known by my name as Benn, anymore. It may be that I’ve taken on a persona, and am existing in this space, and am free to do so because of the limitations being removed. And then that pulls onto things that people like William Bainbridge, who has a background in Theology, looks at world of Warcraft in that regard, actually spoke about how his sister has passed away, and in creating an avatar and naming that avatar after her, and engaging with that avatar, and imagining a persona of her experience in there, that really opens up possibilities of what gaming can actually provide.

TS: Yes. I think science fiction is such a useful way of exploring different realities and new realities and I mean when I was I think about fifteen was when I read Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker and his Last and First Men. And they were just such big perception shifts for me. And I just remember in Star Maker – and I’ve written an essay on it since then – but this massive cosmic journey that you take through all these different universes and worlds, and you meet all these different alien lives, so different from yours. You’ve got these amazing creatures that he creates. And the whole purpose of the journey is to meet the Star Maker and meet who created all this life. And you get this feeling of this real, depressed . . . all these civilisations that can’t quite reach this perfect state. They just can’t quite get there. And this big quest. And you know, towards the end, the actual meaning of the Star Maker is not what you expected. You end up coming back a bit disappointed. And you return back to – the character’s unnamed – but you return to this grassy hill in England in the dark, looking up at the stars. And you sort-of feel this sense of awe, but also a little bit of this sense of loss. And the two things that Stapledon gives you – as a final conclusion, two pillars that we can really rely on – is a sense of community and a connection with people, and the sense of this cosmic awe and the striving to know that, even if we never reach that. And I think that really fits in well, Benn, with your perpetual journeying and also those two elements in Journey that you talked about: doing the Journey with somebody else, and that kind of connection with another person; and also this striving for something that you never really can get. And those two features are just such a sweet little reminder of what, I think, is this way that this profound effect that reading good science fiction and playing good games can have on you as an individual.

BB: Totally.

RR: I think we may have to leave it there. Benn, Tara – thank you very much!

TS: Thank you.

BB: Thank you (40:00)


Citation Info: Banasik, Benn, Tara Smith and Raymond Radford. 2019. “Science Fiction, Video Games and Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27 May 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 22 May 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/science-fiction-video-games-and-religion/

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation

This roundtable, in association with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, considers the impact of recent technological advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics on religion, religious conceptions of the world, and the human. It draws attention to how such advances push religion beyond how it has been commonly defined and considered.

1389397212614In March 2016 ‘AlphaGo’, a Google/Deepmind programme, defeated an international champion at the Chinese game ‘Go’ in a five game match. This victory was, by current understandings of AI, a vast leap forward towards a future that could contain human-like technological entities, technology-like humans, and embodied machines. As corporations like Google invest heavily in technological and theoretical developments leading towards further, effective advances – a new ‘AI Summer’ – we can also see that hopes, and fears, about what AI and robotics will bring humanity are gaining pace, leading to new speculations and expectations, even amidst those who would position themselves as non-religious.

Speculations include Transhumanist and Singularitarian teleological and eschatological schemes, assumptions about the theistic inclinations of thinking machines, the impact of the non-human on our conception of the uniqueness of human life and consciousness, and the moral boundary work of secular technologists in relation to their construct, ‘religion’. New religious impulses in the face of advancing technology have been largely ignored by the institutions founded to consider the philosophical, ethical and societal meanings of AI and robotics. This roundtable is an initial conversation on this topic, with the intention for further discussion and publications.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, tin foil hats, Jeff Goldblum custom water proof shower curtains, and more.

Playing the Field: the Logistics of Religion and Video Game Studies

The field of religion and video games is still new and forming. In its struggle to find itself, it simultaneously competes with a university’s traditional understanding of both education and culture, often involving Gregory Price Grieve’s comment that video games are perceived as “low brow” culture. The view of video games as, again to quote Grieve, “just above pornography,” is a misconception that the academic study of video games is constantly fighting against.

That being said, hearing about Grieve’s success in bringing the study of video games to his university is promising. Not only was he able to establish courses for the study of religion and video games, but was also able to work with his library and university in order to establish gaming centres for students to play games. Having digital media pushed across disciplines throughout the university, as well as having a Digital Media Centre in their library, helps to establish video games and other forms of digital media as important and worthy of study in the university.

Grieve did have an understanding university, which is something important to keep in mind. While his approach to getting video games in the classroom is a format presented to be copied, not everyone is lucky enough to be present in a university that is so understanding. This is especially the case in universities rooted in academic tradition, built on older standards which seldom factor in elements of popular culture. This is not even considering the cost of this kind of endeavour. Even with a buy-in from the library, Grieve’s project still needed $10,000. And this is only considering the technicalities of this new media, and not the thought process of people who still believe that video games are not an important element of popular culture today, or who don’t seem to really care about the “popular” at all. In that sense, there are bigger problems facing some people at less understanding universities than a lack of technology.

The positive reception Grieve has experienced with his students can hopefully begin to be experienced by researchers and teachers in the study of video games in many universities throughout the world. However, there are many elements that still work against progression in the field. Some of the thoughts and actions impeding the growth of the field are, sadly, still present even among scholars in the field. By studying only video games, we impede ourselves and the progress which can be made; there are many aspects of video games which are affecting other elements of popular culture. An example of this are Let’s Play videos, in which players record themselves playing a video game, with commentary and sometimes even recordings of the player’s face (as the Let’s Player PewDiePie became known for), which are then uploaded on video sharing sites such as YouTube. Unfortunately, the popularity of Let’s Plays have been stereotyped almost as much as video games themselves are, an element that is unfortunately heard even in Grieves interview in which he relegates their popularity and interest almost exclusively to “teenagers”, even though the demographic may not be this concrete, especially for Let’s Players who are older themselves, such as Fun Haus. PewDiePIe has over 41 million subscribers, and it is hard to imagine that all 41 million are only teenagers. Not to mention that the fastest growing demographic for gaming content are women over the age of 25.[1]

What Let’s Plays demonstrate for academics of video games is the creativity enjoyed by Let’s Players. Geoff Ramsey, the founder of the Let’s Play group Achievement Hunter has commented on this creativity: “Any time we can take and use [a game] in a way that it wasn’t necessarily intended by the developers, that’s like the best thing in the world to me.”[2] This out-pouring of creativity allows researchers to have easy access to new narratives being created and the emotions they create and share. These new narratives and emotions are not experienced solely by the Let’s Player, but also by those who watch these videos; these narratives are then shared by the viewer to others, and new narratives are created by the viewer in relation to these new narratives. These videos are then not only relegated to the realm of video games, but also to internet studies and realms of internet discourse, particularly when elements of them become shared as memes.

The field of religion and video games is still emerging, and thus still solidifying its own definition and place. What is most important is for scholars interested in engaging with digital media, like video games, to demonstrate to their students, universities, and themselves that video games are a medium worthy of study.

[1] Gautam Ramdurai, “Think Gaming Content is Niche? Think Again,” Think with Google, December 2014, accessed February 2016, https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/think-gaming-content-is-niche-think-again.html.

[2] Rooster Teeth, Let’s Play Live: The Documentary, Video (2015), ), http://roosterteeth.com/episode/r-t-docs-let-s-play-live-let-s-play-live-the-documentary

Video Games and Religious Studies

The project of legitimating new cultural commodities into the canon of interpretative objects can be lengthy process. In this interview with University of North Carolina at Greensboro Associate Professor Greg Grieve, video games are presented as a content moving from the margins to the center of the intersection of religion and popular culture. Grieve explains how he integrates play and critical analysis into his course, and narrates the process by which his university’s library created a space to support his innovative classroom work.

invented religions, allow users to create and experience virtual religious spaces, and much more. Students often come to video games in need to critical tools to move beyond play to critical thinking with/about games, but Grieve’s laboratory methods create miniature experimental situations for students to assess gaming content alongside the gaming experience. Like many other technical tools, games in the classroom require not just some elements of hardware but also new techniques, methods, and theoretical models. This is challenging, yes, but in Greive’s opinion the hurdles are well-worth the results: invested students, powerful classroom experiences, and content that is as diverse and rich as any other popular culture materials.

This interview was recorded at the 2015 AAR Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

**We are aware that the audio quality this week is not up to our usual standards, but we hope that the content of the interview more than makes up for this. Apologies.** 

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on Invented Religions, Religion and Film, Religion and Literature, Visual Culture and the Study of Religion, Religion and Comic Books, and Religion and Cultural Production. You might also be interested in the article Locating the Locus of Study on “Religion” in Video Games, written by our own Jonathan Tuckett and David Robertson. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, video games, indulgences, and more.

Podcasts

Navigating the Religious Worlds of Science Fiction and Video Games

Written by David McConeghy in response to Ben Banasik and Tara Smith, interviewed by Raymond Radford.

This episode of the Religious Studies Project is a wide-ranging discussion with Ben Banasik, Tara Smith, and Raymond Radford. All are doctoral candidates in the University Of Sydney’s Department of Studies in Religion. Sweeping from Arthur C. Clarke’s story The Nine Billion Names of God to the video game Journey or the Church of All Worlds (CAW) that was inspired by Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land, you may feel out of your depth at times with colleagues at ease in sharing multiple references to sources in their studies on religion in Science Fiction and video gaming.

Maybe you’ve had the pleasure of reading Leo Tolstoy “A Confession” but not Frank Herbert’s Dune. Or you’ve been lost for hours in the video game world of Skyrim but not Stardew Valley. Perhaps you’ve heard of Jediism but not CAW. There’s always another thing to see as data for religious studies, but widening the boundary for what counts as data comes with a price. Every new category is a multiplication. When your choices are infinite, then explaining your choices becomes an obligation.

To free readers and listeners from the burden of initiation into complex canons of works, I want to discuss instead the way that investigations of imagined worlds lend themselves to scholarship in religious studies. Why do scholars choose expressions of popular culture amid the array of data options? What do they hope to gain from this sort of data that is inaccessible elsewhere? What’s in it for you if you can’t tell Herbert from Heinlein or Skyrim from Starcraft?

For its part, the RSP has been a fierce advocate for the value of studying religion and/in culture, covering topics from comic books to video games, music, clothing, consumerism and more. Ben, Tara, and Raymond all agree with the claim that “Science Fiction is social fiction.” Video games, too. They are always products embedded in time and space and made for the society in which they were produced. Cultural products reveal a society’s culture(s), just as they seek to change the culture(s) that produced them. Observing this discourse is bread-and-butter work for many in our field.

One major premise of studying fictional worlds is that they are immensely powerful forces in human lives. They are capable of replicating many of the moves commonly associated with religion including myth-creation, textual authority and canonicity, the elevation of sacred objects, ritualization and commemoration, pilgrimage, and much more. In the depiction of the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ Time Machine we are compelled to see things racially. In the obsession with tending a virtual farm in Stardew Valley we can investigate ritualization but also the meditative “flow” players enter in long gaming sessions. In the complex mélange of Islam and Buddhism in Dune we can ask about religious syncretism. We can look at Comic Conventions as pilgrimage sites for devoted fans. All of these comparisons are likely to use terms like religion or religious experience, but when we do the terms don’t come without the weight of their origins and contexts. Just as the world religions paradigm is haunted by religions outside of regular order of six or so traditions, each new fictional world is a chance for us to remove the ghosts from the terms. They are laboratories for testing our assumptions about how things work, or, more often, how they might work differently if we understood the stakes in a different way.

Since Science Fiction and video games are data worth considering for religious studies, I’d argue that this reorientation of our field’s shared terms is a major effect of their inclusion on the state of the field. Gamers or readers aren’t blank slates. They’re brimming with a mix of meanings and attitudes about religion already. Scholars also bring the weight of prior studies. If we go looking for religious experiences and mean one kind of experience distinct from all others, then we have quickly moved into essentialism and may find few experiences that match our ideal. The alternative that I’m sure we’d prefer is to assert that some experiences are produced in relation to what we already call religious for some other reason (including that they produce these experiences). They are religious by relation, comparison, or convention to other previously-agreed upon religious data.

This alternative emerges as mode of investigation in our field whose goal is self-definition. We’re left asking, what exactly do players find religious about their experiences in the game Journey? This then reinforces or adjusts the operative definition of religion. It’s a test to make sure an object isn’t “really” religious and is instead reproducing similar experiences, beliefs, actions, or moods. We can then explain such effects and their meaning by relating them to religious ones. Perhaps the experience qualifies as religious but fails to meet the standard for a religion. Similar conclusions emerge when we ask what Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and the CAW have to say about religion. In such cases we may offer our reading or present another’s reading and then use the new perspective to engage the model of religion we came in with. It’s still a test of our category–even if it is under the cover of explanation (for whom, about what, and why).

These are the scholarly moves, right? Work in the discipline is always work about the discipline.

Whether we search for the hopes creators embed in their works of Science Fiction or the responses people have to gaming experiences, one of the benefits for religious studies is that in both instances we can see enormous overlap between the categories of religion and technology. Both apply knowledge to solve problems. This operationalizes Science Fiction, for instance, because it becomes a way to ask questions about the future. This is a dynamic process, as we know well, because creative fictional worlds have consequences on our actions and thoughts that change the world that produced them. We think of simulations as merely reproducing the world, for instance, but our engagement in virtual worlds changes the world, too.

Presented in this way, Science Fiction, video games, and religion can all be seen as “existence” technologies. They provide meaning and context for life. Not to all or in every instance, but reliably enough to be studied using observation, surveys, and interviews. This is what we hear Ben claim about his surveys with gamers on their perpetual journeys. This is what Tara says about her upcoming interviews with Nebula writers and Science Fiction fans and how the genre aims for social change.

One of the great challenges of religious studies today is that most of us are convinced religion isn’t a commodity neatly held within conventional boundaries of religious traditions. All the voices in this podcast agree. Religious experiences are likewise not bound to religious traditions. Nor is religion the sole source of experiences and communities we may have formerly said were exclusive to religion. As a technology, Science Fiction “cracked” many of the trade secrets of religion. It didn’t do it intentionally. Science Fiction, like religion, isn’t a thing out there waiting to be found or with independent motives. It is the result of creative effort, communities of reception, marketplaces for production, and so much more working for the last century or more without any distinct plan or concerted agenda. Nevertheless, Science Fiction has forced us to reconsider what we mean when we say “religious experience,” since many of its most notable works have imagined ways of being religious that draw upon but are not exclusive to the cultures that generated them.

Like all technologies, Science Fiction became a posture, an attitude, for certain ways of world-viewing. Video games, too, will have their due as they increasingly find ways to engage gamers through mixed-media immersion, world-building, and simulation. The question must always be: to what end are we comparing Science Fiction, Science Fiction fans, or video games and their gamers? What does it show about how we navigate our world? What does this say about “religion” or how we talk about the category of religion? Can we do it without “religion” or are these subjects “religious” in an inescapable way? I look forward to seeing these bright young scholars complete their work and show the value of looking carefully at popular culture’s connections to religious studies.

Science Fiction, Video Games, and Religion

Science fiction and video games have come to the forefront of a new global resurgence, with the popularity reaching record numbers in regards to cinema, and video games. From classic science fiction, to sandbox video games that require hundreds of hours to complete fully, religiosity can be utilised and attached to certain actions, places, characters, and stories. This podcast explores what feature religion plays within an attachment to science fiction and video games, how seekers attach meaning, and seek belief in things that are ‘out of this world,’ as a means of both escapism, and hope of the future.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Skyrim, The Witcher, and more.


A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Science Fiction, Video Games, and Religion

Podcast with Benn Banasik and Tara Smith (27 May 2019).

Interviewed by Raymond Radford.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Banasik_and_Smith_-_Science_Fiction_Video_Games_and_Religion_1.1

 

Raymond Radford (RR): My name is Ray Radford. I am the social media editor of the RSP. And today we have a couple of my fellow PhD candidates along with me: Benn Banasik and Tara Smith. Hi Guys!

Tara Smith (TS): OK. How’s it going?

Benn Banasik (BB): Hi.

RR: So do you want to tell us a little bit about your dissertations?

BB: Sure! Ladies first!

TS: Oh, OK. Yes, let’s jump straight in. So I’m doing my PhD on science fiction as social fiction. I’m interested in the religious aspect incorporated within science fiction. And I’m doing some interviews in America at the Nebula science fiction conference, which I’m hoping to sort-of see how much writers are incorporating their own social concerns for the future into the work that they’re writing. I did my honours on Frank Herbert’s Dune, focussing on the eco-religious aspects of that. And yes, so I guess religion is incorporated in a lot of different aspects in the work I’m looking at. But so is science fiction as a genre, as well.

BB: Yes. So I did my honours focussing on Origen of Alexandria and the Jewish elements of his work. So I was looking at Jewish and Christian interrelations and interactions within the third and fourth century. That led me into looking at apophatic theory, and getting really deep into that, particularly from the Christian perspective, but also from the Jewish perspective. My PhD topic is taking those elements – unending aspects of theological engagement with God – and investigating video games through that lens. So, looking at the perpetual journey of video games and video gaming as a religious endeavour, and what that actually means for people. So I’m doing some social surveys looking at people’s interactions in video game space, as well as people who interact with religion – whatever that means today, and that’s a negotiated term – and then synchronising their responses to see if there are any similarities. And then doing more of the theoretical work in the background, as well.

RR: I like that it’s a bit of step from Origen to video games!

BB: It’s a negotiated step!

RR: Yeah. It’s very tentative, I like it. In case you haven’t been able to guess, in today’s podcast we’re going to be focussing on religion, video games, science fiction, popular culture and just the way that these are all entwined within . . . those who look for them or seek to get something out of them . . . I guess is a good way of explaining it. Quick question: have you guys read the Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke?

TS: I’ve got it on my bookshelf, but I’ve got a big, big pile and I’m hoping to get to it. I know it’s been on a lot of lists of things to read.

BB: I have not.

RR: Well it’s the . . . I was thinking about it earlier this morning. And it’s basically a group of monks in Tibet writing down the nine billion names of God because they think that when that happens that God will destroy the universe or, you know, everything will become fulfilled and then the universe will end. So they get to a point and they go, “Oh, this is going to take too long. So they rent a computer from a couple of Americans. The Americans come in and three months later it’s done. The Americans are like, “Oh it’s not going to happen. The computer’s not going to write down all these names of God. And then they’ll blame us when nothing happens.” And then it ends with them looking up and the stars are blinking out.

All: (Laughter)

RR: I thought that was a good analogy of how religion and technology can work together, especially in classic science fiction – which is where you’re looking, Tara.

TS: Yes, definitely. There’s a few . . . there are so many works of science fiction, and technology is such a key theme. One of my favourites is HG Wells’ The Time Machine, and just how he develops . . . it’s one of the first mentions of a time machine – a classic science fiction trope – and transporting somebody to the future. And it’s such a good story because you have, you know, the classic inventor and he’s thrown into this world of these two human races which are basically the sort-of English bourgeois class. And it’s taken to the nth degree, where they’ve formed two different species – the Eloi and the Morlocks.

RR: Yes.

TS: And they sort-of . . . it’s just such a funny little quirky exploration of, you know, how races . . . not races, but how some classes could develop in the future (5:00). And I feel like there’s a real little comic element to that as well. But just how . . . what a good story it is.

BB: I think that’s an interesting thing and this is where your and my PhD’s actually interact, here. And that’s the way that we think about religion in general, and how it interacts with other gaming, social media and technology in that regard. So that element of religion inside Sci-Fi, I can see some similarities in that regard for Second Life. Where you have people that are creating elements of a worldly environment inside a digital space. So people purchase off spots of land actually in Second Life. And there’s been lots of words written about Second Life. Probably more words written about Second Life than actual players of Second Life. Because it’s not actually that popular anymore. Nevertheless, it is interesting see that human interaction in an open space. . . and given the freedom, people set up farms, work places and religious institutions. And they are largely representative of things which happen in the real world, or best practices which people try to aim for in the real world. And I see that through Sci-Fi, as well.

TS: Yes, what’s interesting is they opt for quite mundane realities, you know? If you’re given an option to be an avatar you can do anything you want. And what people want to do is they want to keep farming, and they want to just keep living and forming relationships. You kind-of would imagine that they’d choose something a bit more out of this world. The sort-of everyday is what they like to recreate in those realities.

BB: It’s things like FarmVille

RR: Or Farming Simulator. These things that you can get now which are just simulating the real in virtual reality.

BB: So, for me, those elements and Stardew Valley is one of those games that I’m studying as part of my PhD. And I’ve asked people to engage with this survey. And it’s been my most popular survey, as well.

RR: Maybe you just want to explain Stardew Valley?

BB: OK. So for those who haven’t interacted with it, it is a farming simulator. You’re transported to a farm which is in your family, and you’re given the space to do whatever you like. You can construct fences and have animals, or you can till the fields. And there’s different seasons. And you can interact with people in the village that is close by. And you can also do fishing other mundane tasks. It’s this perpetual engagement with this space, though, that I think actually quantitates a religious experience. But that’s outside of what the first grouping of religion and technology is that I see. The first one being religion inside the technology. That aspect of creating a church in Second Life is not the same engagement which someone would have by hoeing the fields in their little farm, inside Stardew Valley. That’s a different experience. And it quantitates a different response. And it’s different. Both of those architectures don’t have ends. So they’re both spaces to involve, but it’s about what the player does in those spaces. Second Life is more of an open field. And games like Elder Scrolls or Sky Room, they’re closed environments. So you have these religions that are actually represented in those spaces, and they may be made up. From that, I think we have Sci-Fi in religion. So it can come outside of the computer.

TS: Yes. And you can really see some example of that in science fiction. Some examples that come to mind is obviously Frank Herbert’s Dune, which is just such a rich tapestry of different religions. I mean, I think he sort-of identified himself a little bit as a Zen Buddhist. So you have these sort-of very clear Zen ideas, but then also very overt references to Islamic religion. You’ve got other eco-religious sort-of aspects to it. And so many different examples. And I think that’s so interesting, as a reader, is you try and navigate the space of so many different philosophies and ideas. And I think Frank Herbert really just wanted you to try and work it out. And I think, in his books, he really tries to get you to question sort-of where you want to take the book, and who you think the goodies and the baddies are. And he doesn’t really spell it out. And I think that’s why they’re such a good series. (10:00) And the other example, of course, is Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which is about the Martian, Valentine, who sort-of comes on earth, and creates his own church – the Church of All Worlds. Which is this very sort-of sixties, free love, sort-of pagan church. Which is such a contrast to the religious, very strict kind-of world he finds himself in. And he kind-of creates this space. And then it’s actually being used and created in religion outside of the novels: Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and Morning Glory. I think they’re based in America, and they have concepts they’ve borrowed from books like “grok” kin which is a term in the book used in the water rituals – they do their own sort-of water rituals. And they call themselves water kin. They’re called “Nests” that they group themselves in. And all these sort of things are borrowed from novels, but they’ve obviously taken it as their own, and sort-of brought their own very pagan, probably even more pagan aspects to it, and created their own little religion. I think that’s just so interesting, where you have science fiction directly impacting religion in that. But there’s also, of course, religion in the novels itself. So you’ve got these two ways that it’s diverging.

RR: Let’s just go back to Heinlein, for a second. Because writing something like that, in the 1960s – especially 1960s America, was completely antithetical to the standards and practices, if you will, of American society at the time. Which brings us to the idea that science fiction is social fiction. So you know, he’s sort-of writing this idea that in the future, possibly, we have comradery and free love. And we’re not being jack-booted into oblivion by fascist governments or anything like that – which a lot of 1960s science fiction was about – apocalyptic, and all that kind of thing. So do you think some social aspects of society influence . . .?

TS: Oh, definitely. Of course. I think that’s a huge impact. You obviously write to what your surroundings are. But I think science fiction uses our social fictions. Because it’s set in the future – and all of these works are set quite far into the future – the writers can sort-of explore new ways of looking at . . . and that’s why you have utopias and dystopias. You can look at completely different, new ways of thinking and taking of the world to a different place. And that’s why I think it’s so powerful. And, in terms of religion, you can imagine different ways of how religion might look in the future. And with technology, you can see maybe how technology could be used, taken to it’s very most extreme view – sort-of as warning and as a guide. That’s why science fiction is so useful. And probably with gaming you see similar aspects of the reality and real life impacting fiction. And the lines are getting blurred. And with technology. Our kind-of idea of having distinct categories is sort-of dissolving.

BB: True. I think and we’re talking about this intermediary space between religion and Sci-Fi, or Sci-Fi, technology and religion. And there are elements that are in both. My thesis looks at the religious endeavour of the technology. So there is actually a third category we can look at. But to flow into that second category, you have elements, now, of technology and Sci-Fi being implemented in religions. And they’re commonly done. We had the Pope App that was launched, which has the “Click to Pray”. And Pope Francis was actually launching the app – he’s a bit of a technophobe, (self-) admittedly, a technophobe – and he asked the priest next to him whether he’d actually done it by clicking the prayer, making sure that he actually prayed at that point. Which is quite jovial I think! There is an android monk who has been created. And you can go, and the monk then offers constant prayers. And you have different elements of technology which is enabling people to practise their religions in unique and different ways. What I think that you can see, and where this crossover is, is the elements of religions that are from Sci-Fi or from technological basis, becoming religions in themselves. So the Church of All Worlds, yes, is a good example. Jedi – I know that there was protest religion for the census four years ago (15:00). The numbers dropped off but there are certain people that do practice what is known as . . .

RR: There are registered temples in the United Kingdom, I believe.

BB: Yeah. And the sociological aspect of . . . I guess our department in a university and Western universities in general, is that we have to take people for what their words are. And if they say they are practising a religion and “We believe that we are practising a religion”, who are we to question that? So they are seen as equal footing. But what I think is interesting is the technological element, or the video gaming element as a religious endeavour in itself. And Sci-Fi actually as religious endeavour, and using those texts as religious texts.

TS: Definitely. Especially if we see science fiction as technology itself. As a definition you could call fiction and science fiction technology, just the reading of it. Because I think the definition of technology is like – we probably should have . . .

RR: I think the definition of technology is the same as the definition of religion. It’s different to whoever’s discussing it, I guess. And that’s the big problem with Religious Studies is that it’s a different meaning to everybody.

BB: That’s true. Whether we’re using mundane tools or super computers creating digital spaces to deal with . . . they are both outside of the human experience, in its unique and abstract from. So if we think of it in that regard. So, myself as a human: how do I interact with the world? And my choice is – me, myself – is to sit at home and play video games, occasionally, when I get time. But involving ourselves in some sort of experience using a tool. That is, in itself, a technology. And I think that’s the boundary. And that’s all we can say about it. Because otherwise you get drawn into, “Well, is a Dolo Matrix computer system actually as equal technology as something as an iphone today?

TS: Yeah. I guess I’d want to just say that science fiction can be used as a tool almost like a form of technology, itself. And if we’re looking at science fiction like that, I think we can connect. We have similarities in our PhD topics and what we’re interested in. And that science fiction can be used both as a guide to these developments of technology . . . in the sense of, when we’re exploring topics like AI and cloning and looking back at the writers who were already thinking about this sort-of fifty years ago, and trying to project that into the future. That’s such a useful tool for us. But also science fiction being used as a way of shifting perception. And this is Darko Suvin’s definition of estrangement. So, good science fiction creates a sense of a new reality, a new perception, a new way of thinking. And that’s what I think is the key for science fiction, is really shifting what we think. And by setting new social realities in the future – whether  that’s exploring different ways of looking at gender, different ways of looking religion – it’s allowing us to really shift our perception, and grow as a civilisation, and that’s what I think the key is.

RR: I think one of the really good things about science fiction is it actually provides us a glossary for terms for technology now. So things like when Arthur C Clarke first used the term satellite, it hadn’t been used before. And now we are all calling these things orbiting the earth satellites. But even things like when Steve Jobs first announced the ipad, or the iphone, he was calling it a “magic tablet”, because you were essentially using your finger like a wand. And sort-of taking these terms from literature and them importing them into technology.

BB: It’s a very . . . that speech which Jobs gave at that Apple conference and there’s the ipod

RR: The ipod – even earlier! Yes

BB: So that was where he pulled out the ipod and is talking about the beautiful cover art and how to actually listen to sounds and everything like that. But that element of talking about the finger touching onto the screen, or touching onto the dial at the time – so the circular dial – and being able to choose different things. And then the glass screen being fitted afterwards. It’s a really charismatic performance which he actually is creating. And it blurs the lines of, you know, a traditional religion, into that regard (20:00). And there’s people that have written on this: the dress code that he’d apply . . .

RR: Oh, the turtle neck?

BB: Turtle neck, the black, and speaking in certain ways, no visible microphones and this sort-of darkened room but a crowded audience, so you have that sense of being drawn into something like a church. It’s very organised. And it’s quite amazing seeing that line of technology almost manifesting itself into a religion and religious experience.

TS: Definitely. It’s like all the geek culture now is becoming like sort-of what we are in science fiction and gaming, the geek culture – not exclusively, but I mean that how we make meaning and how we connect to the world is really changing I feel. And it doesn’t make it any more or less religious. It’s still people still getting sort-of a religious experience doesn’t always have to be what we typically understand religion for. And I think that’s why, as studies of religion students, our definition is constantly trying to change and fit into new paradigms. And I think that’s what – not everyone agrees – but I think that what is important to have different ideas and trying to constantly rethink what we think is technically religion. And not dismiss things that don’t necessarily fit into what we thought.

BB: I agree and that’s a large part of my PhD, actually, is going to engage with, “What is religious experience?” And so William James actually coined that phrase, and uses religious experience in a certain way. And he’s using that on the basis of quoting from people like Tolstoy which then Albert Camus, and later writers, actually engage with as well. I actually think there is a misreading here that we – as people that are studying theology or philosophy or religious studies or religion in general – we’ve actually taken a lot for granted. And it needs to go back and look at what these writers are talking about. So where Tolstoy, in My Confession, he paints the picture of being in the well and hanging from the sides of the well, seeing a snake that is about to bite your hand. And then there’s this little sapling with some sap that’s dripping forth almost a honey. What do you do in that experience? Do you fall? Do you accept that you’re going to fall? Do you try and fight on? Or do you joyously eat the sap and accept that that is going to be your lot in life? Camus and Tolstoy, they’re engaging with these things – this absurdism of accepting your lot in life, and actually engaging with it as much as you can, and doing the best that you can in that space. That’s where I see these similarities of religious experience of somebody who plays that Stardew Valley, as to someone who’s sitting in the church pews, or engaging with pilgrimage and going to the mountaintops. And I can see the same languages being used with these different people. Now it’s not every person that’s going to get that experience. I don’t think that the casual gamer who’s jumping on line to play with their friends, playing Call of Duty or whatever the game is, is going experience that. Nor do I think that games like Mario Parties, which are a social event, may give you those feelings. They may, but it is not necessarily the case that every person that engages with reading Sci-Fi is going to have the divine experiences of questioning what it is to be human and what it is for reality. But some texts definitely do. And some games definitely do.

RR: I think a lot of the text where it comes down to questioning reality, or questioning what it is to be human, comes down to if the book is really well-written you can sortof start thinking about that. But I think it’s something else where the book starts giving you religious fervour. Sort-of like . . ., trying to think of a good example . . .those sort of books where . . . things like Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, which gives a good example of the internet, being written in 1993, is sort-of the next precursor to Neuromancer to explore the ideas of virtual reality, and all that kind of thing. But I don’t see any religions being made around it, or it being held up in high esteem as . . . . I think it’s up there with Dune (25:00). It’s one of my favourite books. But that concept of religion and technology is, yeah, I think it’s sort-of . . . people pick and choose what they want to take from that, I think.

BB: Yeah. Well there is curation of course. But I think that if . . . and what my study is finding is you ask people set questions – and I’m asking people the same questions if they’re from this religious experience and they identity as religious, or they identify as players of Elite, or Stardew Valley. And we just copy and paste out the names of religious experience to playing Elite. And you find the responses are very similar. Which means that there is something that people are getting out of this that it is quite religious.

RR: I just want to quickly ask Tara . . .because you haven’t done your research part of it yet. You’re going over to America, as you said, in a couple of weeks to ask people questions. Is there anything in particular you feel that you want to get out of them?

TS: I guess I just want to see some awareness . . . and I think that’s going to be with writers that are writing specular fiction; that they are trying to create a force of social change for the good. I think that there’s a certain . . . and it’s not all writers, but I think a lot of science fiction writers, especially, are trying to create a better world through their writing. And I think that’s a unique aspect of science fiction

RR: People like Kim Stanley Robinson with the environmentalist message.

TS: Exactly, yes. And so what I want to do, there’s a few things that I’m looking at. I’m looking at AI, I’m looking at environment, I’m looking at interplanetary travel, so there’s a few themes that I’m looking at. But I’m just trying to see: if they’re concerned about climate change, is that being reflected in their writing? And I think that obviously it will. But I just want some sort of confirmation that young writers – and I’ll probably get a range a people at Nebula, so all different periods of their writing experience – but that’s like a real . . . . That it’s sort-of at the forefront of their writing. And I think it will be. And that’s why I think it’s such a unique genre. Because it’s concerned with the same questions that philosophies are concerned with: “Who are we?”; “Why are we here?”; and also, making the world better. And I think you’d be hard-pressed to find people who don’t want to make the world a better place. And we’re in such an era the moment where people are feeling very fatigued and very depressed with the kind-of state of affairs. And I feel like that’s why it’s so important.

RR: Do you think things like science fiction and video games give people the hope . . . that they find themselves doing these things in order to better feel better about things, about the world? Give some form of meaning, some form of credence?

TS: You mean like escapism?

RR: Escapism, yeah.

TS: Sort-of, but I also think more of a warning. Speculative fiction that’s set in the future and shows a very bleak . . . where technology’s gone totally terrible, and it’s like this very bleak world, we can go: “Ok. Should we, maybe, alter the way that we’re progressing with artificial intelligence? In reality, can we do some measures to try and, maybe, not get to that place? Or how can we change the way we interact with Facebook or our iphones, to maybe then impact the future? And that’s what I’m hoping science fiction . . . . What I think science fiction does is it also acts as a warning – not just that escapism from reality. That’s definitely an aspect of it, but also a warning in the dystopia of what our realities could become.

RR: Yes. Benn?

BB: Yes! (Laughter) I think . . .

RR: Because I’ve got to admit I’m very much a video game player and I play for a multitude of reasons. None of them are religious – it’s usually to avoid other people.

BB: And that’s, I think, where most people do find themselves engaging with this space. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you cannot get the same experience there that someone who is having an openly religious experience is. So they can be one and the same. I’m not necessarily concerned or even really interested in why people engage with video gaming or religion. Because I think that becomes a whole quagmire of thought, based on family background, social background, and then you have to almost get into the psychology of someone who is engaging that way (30:00). All I’m interested in is flat-lining the approach. So classifying people as: you’re either playing, or you’re not playing these games. And I then asked the question well, “Why are you playing these games? Why are you continually playing a game which is meant to only have a ten or twenty hour engagement? Why have you played that for four or five hundred hours? Why do you continue to play World of Warcraft?” Once you’ve got to the end, you’ve got your character maxed out, and you’re one of the toughest in your group. And, yes, you perform in a certain role in a team environment. But it brings people back. It’s not physically possible to finish every element in a lot of these games. And they are sand boxes, many of them. But some of them aren’t. And this is the interesting thing. There’s people that have played games which are meant to be coin-crunchers – arcade experience games, that you’re meant to only play for two or three minutes, and then you give way to the next person at the arcade to put another quarter in there, and that’s what those games are developed with – people that play those games for eighteen to twenty hours at a time on a single credit. Nibbler for example. It’s not a great game. It’s a snake that is going round a field constantly – same type of field. That’s not a great experience, it looks like, from someone who stands back. But people try and do that because they’re trying to get the world record. But they’re returning to it constantly, because they’re obviously enjoying that experience. Otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it. And that, I think, is really interesting. Where you can have what looks like a very mundane task, and it gives that sort-of perpetual feeling of engagement. And it keeps drawing people back, over and over again. If I can share a quote?

RR: Yes, please.

BB: So this started off on a Tumblr site and it’s been copied across to a website. And it’s called Journey Stories. And the user Jitterfish shared this, which I thought was quite interesting. It’s about Journey the video game. So Journey is a game where you are a cloaked avatar. So you’re a cloaked figure that appears in a vast dessert landscape. And you don’t see anything, except for a light on a hill in the distance. And there’s very little actually in the field of play, initially. And it draws you to constantly march towards . . .

RR: It’s very linear.

BB: Yes – very, very linear. You do interact with another person in the game. So it’s not – spoiler alert! It’s a ten year-old game, I think we can spoil it! The other person that appears in the game is actually another user who is playing the game at the same time, somewhere else in the world. So it’s a live experience. And it’s not initially clear that you have that experience. Now, Jenova Chen actually studies flow, studies philosophy, writes a little bit about religious experience in that regard, but not so much. But he was interested in creating this experience where he’d engaged with users in a very limited way. So you only have a set tone, so you can set off this tone. And that’s it in the game. So you can jump, set off a tone and walk. Very, very limited. So Jitterfish writes: “Is it possible to have a religious experience in a video game? Because I just danced for twenty minutes with a complete stranger in the final level of Journey. When we got to the end I learned that the final part of the mountain, just before you walk into the light, if you run into your companion and jump you can fly into the air. We synchronised our jumps until we were floating above the light, twirling and dancing and laughing. And I just – I don’t even know, man. I’m crying. So many feels! Carlos G. Nice, if you’re reading this, you’re amazing.”

RR: It’s kind-of sweet.

BB: And that for me is – it is a very sweet experience. And I have had very similar experience, playing the game, where I walked and played with someone from the beginning to the end of the game. It’s only happened once since I’ve played it, and I’ve played it a number of times through. And then you float back to the beginning and you lose connection with that person. So, yes, there is this interaction that you’re getting which is a divine experience. And that is quite magnificent for a game to actually give you that experience.

RR: I guess that brings me to my last thing I want to talk about, and that is perception of reality within video games (35:00). Because I mean, that’s quite a nice story here. Journey is, what, five hours long?

BB: Not even that. It can be two to three. And that’s if you go all the way through it.

RR: But for that two or three hours, that’s your reality. Where do you see technology, video games, science fiction sort-of leading in regards to reality?

BB: I think with the freedom of human experience now being shaken, and what it actually means to be human, it gives people a place for free expression – this is video games. So the expression . . . I think the narrative is interesting, which is given to players, and given these choices. So if you play Last of Us or something like that, this is quite an amazing experience. But they are somewhat a “choose your own adventure” game. Maybe a little bit more complex, but generally that’s what they are. The experiences where players push that boundary can be in linear experiences, but generally it is in these sandbox, larger games, where people break that narrative and then exist within the space. That’s what I find fascinating. And that I think is something unique to our generations now, where we’re looking at technology, in this regard, as a place where we can go home and interact in those environments –and “be the best that we can”, to take the Pokémon phrase! And that very best that we can may not necessarily mean that I am even known by my name as Benn, anymore. It may be that I’ve taken on a persona, and am existing in this space, and am free to do so because of the limitations being removed. And then that pulls onto things that people like William Bainbridge, who has a background in Theology, looks at world of Warcraft in that regard, actually spoke about how his sister has passed away, and in creating an avatar and naming that avatar after her, and engaging with that avatar, and imagining a persona of her experience in there, that really opens up possibilities of what gaming can actually provide.

TS: Yes. I think science fiction is such a useful way of exploring different realities and new realities and I mean when I was I think about fifteen was when I read Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker and his Last and First Men. And they were just such big perception shifts for me. And I just remember in Star Maker – and I’ve written an essay on it since then – but this massive cosmic journey that you take through all these different universes and worlds, and you meet all these different alien lives, so different from yours. You’ve got these amazing creatures that he creates. And the whole purpose of the journey is to meet the Star Maker and meet who created all this life. And you get this feeling of this real, depressed . . . all these civilisations that can’t quite reach this perfect state. They just can’t quite get there. And this big quest. And you know, towards the end, the actual meaning of the Star Maker is not what you expected. You end up coming back a bit disappointed. And you return back to – the character’s unnamed – but you return to this grassy hill in England in the dark, looking up at the stars. And you sort-of feel this sense of awe, but also a little bit of this sense of loss. And the two things that Stapledon gives you – as a final conclusion, two pillars that we can really rely on – is a sense of community and a connection with people, and the sense of this cosmic awe and the striving to know that, even if we never reach that. And I think that really fits in well, Benn, with your perpetual journeying and also those two elements in Journey that you talked about: doing the Journey with somebody else, and that kind of connection with another person; and also this striving for something that you never really can get. And those two features are just such a sweet little reminder of what, I think, is this way that this profound effect that reading good science fiction and playing good games can have on you as an individual.

BB: Totally.

RR: I think we may have to leave it there. Benn, Tara – thank you very much!

TS: Thank you.

BB: Thank you (40:00)


Citation Info: Banasik, Benn, Tara Smith and Raymond Radford. 2019. “Science Fiction, Video Games and Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27 May 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 22 May 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/science-fiction-video-games-and-religion/

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AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation

This roundtable, in association with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, considers the impact of recent technological advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics on religion, religious conceptions of the world, and the human. It draws attention to how such advances push religion beyond how it has been commonly defined and considered.

1389397212614In March 2016 ‘AlphaGo’, a Google/Deepmind programme, defeated an international champion at the Chinese game ‘Go’ in a five game match. This victory was, by current understandings of AI, a vast leap forward towards a future that could contain human-like technological entities, technology-like humans, and embodied machines. As corporations like Google invest heavily in technological and theoretical developments leading towards further, effective advances – a new ‘AI Summer’ – we can also see that hopes, and fears, about what AI and robotics will bring humanity are gaining pace, leading to new speculations and expectations, even amidst those who would position themselves as non-religious.

Speculations include Transhumanist and Singularitarian teleological and eschatological schemes, assumptions about the theistic inclinations of thinking machines, the impact of the non-human on our conception of the uniqueness of human life and consciousness, and the moral boundary work of secular technologists in relation to their construct, ‘religion’. New religious impulses in the face of advancing technology have been largely ignored by the institutions founded to consider the philosophical, ethical and societal meanings of AI and robotics. This roundtable is an initial conversation on this topic, with the intention for further discussion and publications.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, tin foil hats, Jeff Goldblum custom water proof shower curtains, and more.

Playing the Field: the Logistics of Religion and Video Game Studies

The field of religion and video games is still new and forming. In its struggle to find itself, it simultaneously competes with a university’s traditional understanding of both education and culture, often involving Gregory Price Grieve’s comment that video games are perceived as “low brow” culture. The view of video games as, again to quote Grieve, “just above pornography,” is a misconception that the academic study of video games is constantly fighting against.

That being said, hearing about Grieve’s success in bringing the study of video games to his university is promising. Not only was he able to establish courses for the study of religion and video games, but was also able to work with his library and university in order to establish gaming centres for students to play games. Having digital media pushed across disciplines throughout the university, as well as having a Digital Media Centre in their library, helps to establish video games and other forms of digital media as important and worthy of study in the university.

Grieve did have an understanding university, which is something important to keep in mind. While his approach to getting video games in the classroom is a format presented to be copied, not everyone is lucky enough to be present in a university that is so understanding. This is especially the case in universities rooted in academic tradition, built on older standards which seldom factor in elements of popular culture. This is not even considering the cost of this kind of endeavour. Even with a buy-in from the library, Grieve’s project still needed $10,000. And this is only considering the technicalities of this new media, and not the thought process of people who still believe that video games are not an important element of popular culture today, or who don’t seem to really care about the “popular” at all. In that sense, there are bigger problems facing some people at less understanding universities than a lack of technology.

The positive reception Grieve has experienced with his students can hopefully begin to be experienced by researchers and teachers in the study of video games in many universities throughout the world. However, there are many elements that still work against progression in the field. Some of the thoughts and actions impeding the growth of the field are, sadly, still present even among scholars in the field. By studying only video games, we impede ourselves and the progress which can be made; there are many aspects of video games which are affecting other elements of popular culture. An example of this are Let’s Play videos, in which players record themselves playing a video game, with commentary and sometimes even recordings of the player’s face (as the Let’s Player PewDiePie became known for), which are then uploaded on video sharing sites such as YouTube. Unfortunately, the popularity of Let’s Plays have been stereotyped almost as much as video games themselves are, an element that is unfortunately heard even in Grieves interview in which he relegates their popularity and interest almost exclusively to “teenagers”, even though the demographic may not be this concrete, especially for Let’s Players who are older themselves, such as Fun Haus. PewDiePIe has over 41 million subscribers, and it is hard to imagine that all 41 million are only teenagers. Not to mention that the fastest growing demographic for gaming content are women over the age of 25.[1]

What Let’s Plays demonstrate for academics of video games is the creativity enjoyed by Let’s Players. Geoff Ramsey, the founder of the Let’s Play group Achievement Hunter has commented on this creativity: “Any time we can take and use [a game] in a way that it wasn’t necessarily intended by the developers, that’s like the best thing in the world to me.”[2] This out-pouring of creativity allows researchers to have easy access to new narratives being created and the emotions they create and share. These new narratives and emotions are not experienced solely by the Let’s Player, but also by those who watch these videos; these narratives are then shared by the viewer to others, and new narratives are created by the viewer in relation to these new narratives. These videos are then not only relegated to the realm of video games, but also to internet studies and realms of internet discourse, particularly when elements of them become shared as memes.

The field of religion and video games is still emerging, and thus still solidifying its own definition and place. What is most important is for scholars interested in engaging with digital media, like video games, to demonstrate to their students, universities, and themselves that video games are a medium worthy of study.

[1] Gautam Ramdurai, “Think Gaming Content is Niche? Think Again,” Think with Google, December 2014, accessed February 2016, https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/think-gaming-content-is-niche-think-again.html.

[2] Rooster Teeth, Let’s Play Live: The Documentary, Video (2015), ), http://roosterteeth.com/episode/r-t-docs-let-s-play-live-let-s-play-live-the-documentary

Video Games and Religious Studies

The project of legitimating new cultural commodities into the canon of interpretative objects can be lengthy process. In this interview with University of North Carolina at Greensboro Associate Professor Greg Grieve, video games are presented as a content moving from the margins to the center of the intersection of religion and popular culture. Grieve explains how he integrates play and critical analysis into his course, and narrates the process by which his university’s library created a space to support his innovative classroom work.

invented religions, allow users to create and experience virtual religious spaces, and much more. Students often come to video games in need to critical tools to move beyond play to critical thinking with/about games, but Grieve’s laboratory methods create miniature experimental situations for students to assess gaming content alongside the gaming experience. Like many other technical tools, games in the classroom require not just some elements of hardware but also new techniques, methods, and theoretical models. This is challenging, yes, but in Greive’s opinion the hurdles are well-worth the results: invested students, powerful classroom experiences, and content that is as diverse and rich as any other popular culture materials.

This interview was recorded at the 2015 AAR Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

**We are aware that the audio quality this week is not up to our usual standards, but we hope that the content of the interview more than makes up for this. Apologies.** 

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on Invented Religions, Religion and Film, Religion and Literature, Visual Culture and the Study of Religion, Religion and Comic Books, and Religion and Cultural Production. You might also be interested in the article Locating the Locus of Study on “Religion” in Video Games, written by our own Jonathan Tuckett and David Robertson. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, video games, indulgences, and more.