Gods, demons, Crusaders, avatars. Video games are full of them. Lars de Wildt found surprisingly many similarities between religion and gaming. ’Game producers often use religious symbolism that consumers can make their own, which gives them the chance to lose themselves in the intensity of the game, experiencing feelings that resemble religiousness.’
Text: Gert Gritter, Corporate Communication / Photos: Hesterliena Wolthuis
Gaming has a lot of common ground with religious practice. ‘You’re immediately transported to another world that is meant to be overwhelming. Music plays an important role as it does in church services. You can have contact with others, often on a more or less regular basis, which can be experienced as a sense of community. And just like with religion, there are ‘rituals’, prescribed actions that allow you to participate in the game. Gaming also involves a ‘bodily’ dimension that is the interaction with your controller. This is reminiscent of the praying of a rosary by letting the beads of the necklace go through your fingers.’
Do not underestimate the aesthetics either. In game development, huge investments go to the design of the game, which results in the most impressive virtual landscapes and buildings. This fact appealed to De Wildt, who grew up in a tiny village in the south of the Netherlands. ‘I was baptized a Catholic, but I stopped being religious at a very early age. Churches still appeal to me though. The sacred space, the special objects, it smells nice in there, it has a romantic vibe of times gone by. A lot of Dutch people feel the same way: what do we do when on holiday abroad? If there’s a little church that has its doors open we always step inside. And if we’re lucky, the choir is singing too. In the 1980s, the Japanese had a true obsession with Catholicism exactly because of those aesthetics: cathedrals, statues, eating of meat and blood of a ‘zombie god’, angels, a god that manifests in three ways, the mythology, the saints, the martyrs. This can also be seen in Zelda, still one of the best-selling games in the world, developed in Japan.’
‘In a way, gaming is participating in religious or semi-religious rituals. People have a need for rituals, including when they are not necessarily deeply religious or have strong morals. This is also true for a lot of churchgoers. Why do they go to the service? Because of the fixed, recognizable rituals, the regularity and the encounters with others, the music and singing, the imposing interiors, statues, smells. These are all aspects in gaming as well–apart from the smells, of course. You can enter a naive fantasy world in which you can experience the benefits of a religion without the drawbacks. It’s ‘tamed religion’, because you can determine the extent of your religious experience and be involved in all the aspects you like. Literally and figuratively, you are in the comfortable position where you have the luxury to switch off the game as soon as you’ve had enough. You remain in control. That doesn’t mean that it stays superficial. By playing a role in a game, people are absolutely able to reflect on their position and discover other versions of themselves. For some, this leads to far-reaching spiritual insights.’
De Wildt is very familiar with the world of game producers. For his research, he has interviewed a lot of game developers, for example during a big international conference in San Francisco. ‘They looked at me in disbelief when I said that I was researching the relation between games and religion. What could that have to do with each other? Until I explained to them how many religious elements are present in their own games: gods, avatars, angels, priests, demons, symbols of the cross, cathedrals, Crusaders, battle against evil, parallel worlds.’ Is he able to produce games himself as well? De Wildt smiles. ‘No, just like most art historians aren’t great painters I can’t develop games.’
De Wildt is assistant professor of Media & Cultural Industries and approaches gaming the way other cultural scientists research, for example, literature, music, visual arts, or film. He sometimes has some difficulty explaining why he chose this study object. ‘At first sight, gaming may seem trivial and non-academic. After all, it hasn’t reached the cultural status like, for example, the work of Shakespeare has. Highly educated people can’t always see it because of the bubble we’re in, but gaming is anything but a marginal phenomenon. It’s a major factor in our culture and society, which is why it has sociological importance. It generates billions of euros every year, more than the film and music industry combined. The profits may not be as high but that’s because every time billions are immediately invested again in the development of new games. It deserves an academic approach.’
De Wildt, who likes to play games himself, is not a theologian. He prefers to call himself media sociologist or cultural scientist in the research field of gaming. ‘I’m fascinated by the manner in which games help establish our world view. At the moment, I’m looking at the relation between militarism and gaming. I’m surprised at how normal it has become in games for players to step into the shoes of American GI’s and eliminate enemies by ‘first-person shooting’ and solve problems. This world view is becoming the most natural thing in the world. It’s actually purely coincidence that I previously focused on the relation between games and religion.’ He has been approached before by producers to act as consultant in the development of games. ‘But I’d rather stay at the University. I find that much more interesting.’
See the staff page of Lars de Wildt.
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