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.