Tag Archives: video games

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Slaying the dragon: Video games, fairy tales, and seeing life in this world as it really is

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” — G.K Chesterton

“Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind”  — J.R.R Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

We are, throughout, in another world. What makes the world valuable is not, of course, mere multiplication of the marvellous either for cosmic effect… or for mere astonishment, but its quality, its flavour. If good novels are comments on life, good stories of this sort (which are very much rarer) are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience. Hence the difficulty of discussing them at all with those who refuse to be taken out of what they call ‘real life’ — which means, perhaps, the groove through some far wider area of possible experience to which our senses and our biological, social, or economic interests usually confine us — or, if taken, can see nothing outside it but aching boredom or sickening monstrosity. They shudder and ask to go home.” — CS Lewis, On Science Fiction

“Most people think of games as power fantasies—escapism that makes people feel heroic and accomplished. That Dragon, Cancer has the opposite effect.” — Drew Dixon, That Dragon, Cancer teaches players to long for renewal amidst defeat

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A video game made me cry.

I cry at the drop of a hat these days; well; I feel like crying at the drop of a hat. But this game pulled me in and then kicked me in the feels. It’s called Fallout 4. You might have heard of it. But. Be warned. There be spoilers.

Actually. Two video games made me cry. The one that really had the tears flowing — that didn’t just kick me in the feels, but headlocked me and threw me into some sort of MMA style submission hold — is an independent release called That Dragon, Cancer.

Why did these games make me cry? They have a couple of things in common — both games take place in beautifully rendered, coherent, worlds. These environments are the product of the sort of mythopoeic world-creation that’d have both C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien feeling pretty excited about the capacity for video games to get us in touch with the enchanted reality we really live in. Both games rely heavily on story-telling; we’re carried along on a journey that pulls on the heart strings quite deliberately — even though Fallout 4 is in a sandboxy open world where you’ve got some freedom, while That Dragon, Cancer requires you to click your way from A to B in a very linear manner. Both games — and here’s the rub — hit me in the feels because of what they do with parenting, and loss. Though there’s also a stark difference here which made the impact of That Dragon, Cancer longer lasting for me; in that it is the real story of creator Ryan Green, and his wife Amy, and the loss of their beautiful son Joel. It’s an enchanting story because even amidst the clinical science and the very raw, real, emotions on display from the Green family, and others who’ve battled the dragon, there is a sense that Joel’s story plays out against a transcendent backdrop. This life, this cancer, is not all there is — it’s a dragon to be fought as part of a bigger, spiritual, narrative that is much bigger than simply the Greens versus a horrible and confronting bunch of aggressive cells.

Fallout 4 is pure post-apocalyptic fiction told in a completely ‘immanent’ frame. There’s no real ‘enchantment’ here. Just the ability to explore and craft your way to recovery, building villages for survivors of the nuclear apocalypse while hunting for your abducted son, Shaun. Everything is very ‘tactile’ in a sort of digital way. You scrounge through debris looking for duct tape so that you can upgrade a weapon; you can salvage components from just about anything to use it to build your settlements or upgrade your mechanical armour. I can’t walk into Bunnings or the hardware aisle of a department store now without subliminally thinking ‘jackpot.’  Everything is subject to the laws of cause and effect, and you’re the author of your own destiny. You’re, as you play, in control of your story. The one spanner in the works is that it turns out Shaun was pulled from the grasp of your murdered wife a significant number of years before you’re cryogenically defrosted, many more than you thought, and he’s much older than you. He’s the game’s ‘father’ figure; and now the head of the potentially nefarious ‘Institute,’ the organisation responsible for his abduction and your wife’s death. What you do with this information, and with Shaun, changes the course of the game.

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Image: “I, Father, am your son” — an awkward reunion in Fallout 4

My virtual self was convinced of the evils of The Institute, and pretty upset that Shaun wasn’t the little kid I’d been searching for; so I shot my son. For the greater good. My finger hovered over the trigger button for quite a while. This was the sort of ethical dilemma that video games now confront us with as they draw us into their worlds — into their ‘narrative frames’ — I shot ‘father’ because any relationship I thought I had with the character was based on lies. He was a manipulator, and his organisation was a threat to the better vision of the future that I was building in the Fallout 4 world. But I felt conflicted doing it.

It helped that the Fallout world is both purely digital, with no real world crossover, and purely immanent — the consequences of my actions were going to change that world, but the flow on effects would only be in the chain of causality in the ‘immanent’ world, there was no cost to my digital soul because in the post-apocalyptic rubble there’s very little room for faith. Those of faith were members of strange post-doomsday doomsday cults. The landscape is littered with abandoned churches that at best are home to a few post-human irradiated ghouls. I wore a clerical robe for much of my time wandering through the landscape, but the hope I brought came from slaying mutant cockroaches and liberating civilians from the grasp of some over-sized mutants. With a custom-made automatic shotgun.

Fallout’s world is our ‘disenchanted’ reality on steroids. This little paragraph from Dreyfuss and Kelly’s All Things Shining a philosophical treatise on the evacuation of ‘meaning’ and lustre from post-modern life, could easily describe the sort of world you inhabit as your character. There’s nothing remotely shiny — physical or metaphorical — about the Fallout world.

“The world doesn’t matter to us the way it used to. The intense and meaningful lives of Homer’s Greeks, and the grand hierarchy of meaning that structured Dante’s Medieval Christian world, both stand in stark contrast to our secular age. The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away.” — Hubert Dreyfuss & Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining

Fallout didn’t end up teaching me much about myself; I enjoyed the scavenging and building of settlements for others more than I enjoyed picking which faction to side with in the bid for some sort of restorative revolution. I felt things about the loss of my son — while pursuing him — but when confronted with the reality, I made a very ‘immanent’ decision; one that benefited my digital minions and my wasteland idealism. One that fit my nobel cleric’s vision of the end times best. I just wanted my people to live another day… so when that happened, I was happy. Happy enough to hang up the shotgun, which I named THE DELIVERER, and start pottering around in my settlement with a robotic barman.

That was Fallout 4. Perhaps the perfect story — or at least ‘a’ story — for the disenchanted ‘secular’ age; where transcendent questions are secondary. That Dragon, Cancer is the reverse. The ‘sciency’ immanent questions are very much the present reality, but there’s something bigger at play. A dragon that needs killing. A dragon we’d like to see killed, as fellow citizens of this world.

“Fear is cancer’s preservative. Cancer’s embalming oil. You’re a snake. A serpent. A dragon with snuffed out coal on his breath. Melting.”

“Whenever I ask sciency questions I nod my head. Digesting every Latin word, hoping it will stick to my ribs, become part of me. That if I ask enough questions, that maybe I could get my brains around this cancer.”

If only cancer could be killed simply by understanding it. If only we could think it gone.

It’s unclear to me still whether That Dragon, Cancer has a happy ending. Joel dies. You know that from the beginning. From the marketing. You’ve got to be prepared to ride that rollercoaster with the family before investing yourself. Joel dies. And yet. He lives. And not just in digital form — though it’s beautiful that Ryan and Amy were able to ‘incarnate’ and preserve Joel’s memory in the bits and bytes of his story in a lasting way. Joel lives because Joel’s family put their faith in Jesus. Joel lives, waiting for that time when Jesus returns to slay the dragon once and for all.

I can’t remember the first time I fell apart while playing. Joel’s polygonal face in game play very readily blurred into the visage of my son. I was destroyed by empathy with every click, as I moved through the journey from early stages, to treatment, to diagnosis, to prognosis, to desparate fight, to Joels’ death. One of the big moments for me was the moment you see Ryan’s immanent world collapse. The moment where asking all the great science questions in the world isn’t going to cut it. The moment where the immanent world collapses, or can’t support us, and we’re left grasping towards the transcendent, and really asking “where are you God?”, “where are you when kids like his, maybe like mine, are getting cancer?”

Does God really care? Or as Ryan asks at one point:

“If Joel does die, will Jesus even care? Will he weep for him? Or for me? I think greater than my fear of death, is my fear of insignificance.”

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Ryan and Amy ask those questions. And carry us with sensitivity and beauty and grace through their journey towards answering them. They don’t find all the answers, but they find reason to hope. They find meaning in faith — not just in the latin names of Joel’s dragon-like cells, or in the treatment. They find beauty in moments of pain, and things to be thankful for. They are amazing, and though they’re a world away I love them for it; and I long to spend at least some of my eternity with them and their pancake-loving son. Their story enchanted me. Here are some of the closing words from Amy to Ryan. I know I lost it at this point — I know it made me confront the ‘dragon’ and shake my fist at it, and its master death and Satan. I know it made me place more of my hope and trust in the one who will end the dragon’s grip on this world.

“So here we are. And the air is emptier without his laugh, and yet our hearts are still full, though with a different drink. And this ride we’ve been on for so long is silent. And so also is the Lord. And so we sit here in this new silence. And long for the noise to start again. And long for the music to start again, and for the disc to spin again. Even if it means going round and round for many more years. For at least we would be moving and Joel would be laughing, here on earth. And not only in heaven. I sense that his silence is only because he is drawing his breath. And now we know love and longing, empty and full, all in one moment. And I am grateful that we loved him well. And that we miss him well.” — Amy Green, That Dragon, Cancer

We’re waiting, with Ryan and Amy, Joel’s parents. Waiting amidst pain. Waiting in longing. Waiting in hope. Waiting for that day when Joel’s ‘words’ at the end of the game become reality — “you made it too“… Waiting for our faith to become sight.

And I’m glad they’ve shared some of their waiting with us, and all of their faith, and hope, and love for Joel, and their abiding trust in Jesus through the pain. I’m glad I ‘played’ my way through their story, and that my world was expanded by their experience — by Joel’s love for water, and ducks, and dogs, and pancakes, and by his family’s love for him. I love the final scene of the game — an imagination of reunion. Final reunion. A picture of Joel in the new creation. Cancer dead. Family restored. It’s more compelling than the reunion in Fallout, and ultimately, despite the multi-million dollar difference in budgets for rendering the world — and despite the pain being real — I’d rather live in Ryan and Amy’s world, which is more vivid and real, than in Fallout’s post-apocalyptic flatness and grey. I’d rather face these real questions — real pain, real mess, than that moment — real or virtual — of indecision about what preferred immanent solution I want to pursue with the pull of a lever, or a trigger, as I seek an effect I might cause. I’d rather live in an enchanted world than a disenchanted world where only ‘scientific’ questions have any bearing on the future of my family. I’d rather not feel like I’m in control — because I have no answer in the face of tragedy if I am. I can’t slay the dragons in this world on my own.

So why does this matter? Why overthink video games — no matter how profound — in this way? Stories matter. The worlds our stories occupy matters. Because we’re shaped, profoundly, by story. Especially stories we participate in — which gives video games incredible power. This quote from James Smith could well be contrasting the approach to the world found in Fallout 4 and in That Dragon, Cancer.

“Instead, we should say that we have a “feel” for the world that is informed by stories that dispose us to inhabit the world as either a bounteous but broken gift of the gracious Creator or a closed system of scarcity and competition; and as a result, either I will just “naturally” be disposed to see others as neighbors, as image-bearers of God, whose very faces call to me in a way that is transcendent, or I will have a “take” on others as competitors, threats, impositions on my autonomy.” — James K.A Smith, Imagining the Kingdom

Fallout 4 relies on the premise that you can be totally in control of everything — put the right machines together, make the right choices, control the world and your environment just right — and you’ll live, not just you, but the society you’re building. That Dragon, Cancer makes it clear this promise is a baldfaced lie. It doesn’t matter how good you are at pulling levers, or knowing stuff — the monster will take down the machines every time. Hope is found somewhere beyond the machine. These games and their questions of loss, and children, and control, are interesting examples of the two ways of seeing the world and ourselves that Charles Taylor talks about in A Secular Age and James K.A Smith summarises for us in How (Not) To Be Secular:

“It is a mainstay of secularization theory that modernity “disenchants” the world — evacuates it of spirits and various ghosts in the machine. Diseases are not demonic, mental illness is no longer possession, the body is no longer ensouled. Generally disenchantment is taken to simply be a matter of naturalization: the magical “spiritual” world is dissolved and we are left with the machinations of matter. But Taylor’s account of disenchantment has a different accent, suggesting that this is primarily a shift in the location of meaning, moving it from “the world” into “the mind.” Significance no longer inheres in things; rather, meaning and significance are a property of minds who perceive meaning internally… Meaning is now located in agents. Only once this shift is in place can the proverbial brain-in-a-vat scenario gain any currency; only once meaning is located in minds can we worry that someone or something could completely dupe us about the meaning of the world by manipulating our brains… There is a kind of blurring of boundaries so that it is not only personal agents that have causal power Things can do stuff.” — How (Not) To Be Secular

Fallout 4 and its world of things and control — even its ‘hauntedness’ — is set in a secular world. Even the disease — and the very visible scarring of people and ghouls — is the result of the nuclear apocalypse. That Dragon, Cancer presents us with the reality that the world is broken, and asks ‘is there more to this disease than we might grapple with via science’… these stories, these worlds, leave us with a very different understanding of ourselves, and our limits.

At this point Taylor introduces a key concept to describe the premodern self: prior to this disenchantment and the retreat of meaning into an interior “mind,” the human agent was seen as porous. Just as premodern nature is always already intermixed with its beyond, and just as things are intermixed with mind and meaning, so the premodern self’s porosity means the self is essentially vulnerable (and hence also “healable”). To be human is to be essentially open to an outside (whether benevolent or malevolent), open to blessing or curse, possession or grace. “This sense of vulnerability,” Taylor concludes, “is one of the principal features which have gone with disenchantment”… So the modern self, in contrast to this premodern, porous self, is a buffered self, insulated and isolated in its interiority, “giving its own autonomous order to its life”  — How (Not) To Be Secular

My character in Fallout was most definitely buffered — protected by his isolation, never getting too close to those in the settlements, separated from the world by my mech-suit, totally and symbolically insulated and isolated from the nuclear affects of the world. Even my pet dog was called ‘Dogmeat’ — perhaps to prevent any sort of attachment. Totally buffered. Totally autonomous. Totally in control — which is, ultimately, why I shot my son. Because I preferred my own ‘ordering’ of the world to his proposal, and wasn’t going to sign up. While the Greens, in That Dragon, Cancer couldn’t be buffered even if they tried. They didn’t just have to be completely open to some sort of transcendent blessing amidst their vulnerability, in making the game and consciously ‘unbuffering’ — both seeking contributions from other affected families, and involving ‘players’ like me in their story — they’ve remained vulnerable and connected. There’s a real path towards healing for them. Not in terms of tackling the dragon — Jesus will ultimately do that, and science might help along the way. The path to healing is one consistent with a transcendent world, and the picture of the enchanted, and enchanting, future we see in Revelation. What I’ve really learned in these games, as I’ve played, is that when you’re being beaten and buffeted about by what life in this world throws at you, an unbuffered self actually, counter-intuitively, has more to protect it than the buffered self. We aren’t in control. We need others. We need hope. We need transcendence. We need more than what ‘is’ in this material world. More than Dogmeat, or friendmeat. We need a dragon slayer.

“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City,the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bridebeautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” — Revelation 21:1-5

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Stuff & Things: 27 December

Here are some things I enjoyed online this week.

// STUFF //

Grantland // The Raid 

A piece analysing True Detective and modern TV through the lens of one exceptionally well-crafted one-take scene.

It’s as if True Detective happens in a diorama. Walking out of a coroner’s office, Cohle tells Hart, “This place is like somebody’s memory of a town. And the memory’s fading.”

Staring at this diorama like a blinking god, watching these men at a crossroads, watching their cars coursing across gray highways is Fukunaga’s camera. With the wonderful cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom, Top of the Lake), he captures the two protagonists as they are pulled toward their inevitable reckoning.

In the early episodes, this perspective has a unique power. It’s like Cohle and Hart are the only two people on earth. True Detective’s pacing mirrors Cohle’s drug use. In the first three episodes, it’s moody and ponderous, as Cohle pounds cough syrup and swallows ’ludes. But as Cohle hooks back into the “Crash” persona and meets up with his old Iron Crusaders cohort, switching to speed and coke, Fukunaga tightens the vise — the cutting gets quicker, the scenes play faster, and the camera movement goes from languid to frenetic.

Grantland // The Birdcage

An examination of the movies that are being made, and just how little originality is out there. I love this description of a scene from the movie Birdman.

“Now, in a hospital bathroom, he finds himself face to face — or really, beak to beak — with not only his own remade reflection but Birdman himself, who has, in full costume, made himself comfortable on the commode in a way that reawakens questions about certain superhero practicalities that have crossed the mind of every kid who ever read a comic book. So there they are, the two of them, taking each other in: silent, irritated, perplexed. Whatever kind of contest between Riggan and Birdman we’ve just been watching, it seems to have ended in a futile tie.

What does this moment mean? In the movie’s artistic scheme, it means Riggan can’t ever truly free himself of the needy, frail ego that his sturdy, gruff alter ego represents. But if you work in or follow the movie business, what we have here is a grim joke with a grimmer punch line: There is no escape anymore. We will never get away from Birdman, even as he threatens to poop all over everything. If movies have, for a century, been the repository of our dreams, and every generation gets the dreams it deserves, then ours is Rodin’s The Thinker reimagined as a superhero poised on the edge of the crapper, and the rest of us poised on the edge of … well, it may be a little extreme to invoke the abyss. But we’re on the edge of something, and thesomething is big and dark and annihilating. So call it what you will, but come up with a name fast, because we’re all about to get sucked in.”

Overthinking It // Icons and Empathy: on the weird difficulty of player identification in videogames

I’ve spent a bit of time wondering about how, given the emerging sense that video games are an art form, we’ll start to see some interesting stuff that goes beyond the ‘games make young men violent’ trope exploring the idea that how we approach games, and in game decisions, might reveal something about our own character, and also teach us about the world around us. This is an interesting exploration about how games where you play as someone not like you, or very like you, might do different stuff for you. I’ve also read some cool stuff like the dad who watched as his four year old played GTA, just as an emergency services worker (alternatively, there’s this violent cussing grandma playing it very differently – language warning), how another guy played Skyrim committed to non-violence (there’s a whole movement of non-violent gamers, more), a guy who played Far Cry 2 as though he only had one life (then wrote a 391 page book about the experience), and a piece about a war photographer who found playing a war game hit too close to home for him when he conducting an in-game photo shoot. What’s interesting to me is the way the approach we take to games completely transforms our experience of those games – such that when people talk about how a game necessarily produces X result for all people who play it, those people are talking about games from a much more linear time, and not really understanding the medium.

But while the solitary experience of reading a book is mitigated by the ability to share it with other people (since everyone more or less experiences the same events in a book in the same order and context), the solitary experience of gaming increasingly loses the sense of being a shared experience the more choice is presented to the player; when you can choose not only whether you traverse none, some, or all of the optional side-quests, when you can choose whether or not to romance one or more of the other characters, when a vital character might die halfway through for me but live to the end for you, when even the name, race, gender, appearance, sexuality, specializations and abilities are certain to be different for every player who takes on this protean persona, a game risks exchanging an increased sense of empathy for a draining-out of the sense of community that comes from having the very same aesthetic and narrative experience as countless other experiencers out there in the world.

I’m not sure that’s a game design problem, exactly…but it’s a design decision that’s important to consider and to keep in mind, whether you’re making a game or just playing one: what does this game force me to be? About what or who does this game compel me to care? Just how far can you abstract empathy? If Hawke can be whoever you want, who actually is Hawke?

The Guardian // The Guardian view on religious intolerance: the burden of the cross

An interesting story about the persecution of Christians around the globe, but especially in the Middle East, with a pretty anthropocentric conclusion.

“Just as important is a resolute stand for the principle of religious freedom everywhere. Religious belief is fundamental to many human identities. Freedom of faith must be defended, irrespective of whether the attacks come from totalitarian atheist regimes or theocracies. For the faithful, what they believe about God is inseparable from what they understand about human beings. But God’s rights must never be allowed to trample on human rights.”

The Australian // Is Science showing there really is a God? (the Google search results will let you get to this otherwise paywalled article)

I hover between thinking the argument from fine-tuning is compelling evidence for God, and finding Douglas Adam’s sentient puddle quote a useful antidote to overreaching with the explanatory power of this kind of thing.

“This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

I find most of the tit-for-tat arguments around the existence of God based on natural evidence neither here nor there. The bits that show how incredibly complex the natural order of things, which I believe are naturally ordered by God, fascinate me, and reveal something to me about the nature of the God I believe in, but I feel like, if I try to unpack why I believe in God, I can see things from the other side of the fence.

I feel like science, the data it produces and our understandings of the mechanics of life in this world, will only ever support the view of the person interpreting the data. I might be wrong. But I think it’s only when we’re able to say that finding out about the universe God made doesn’t actually do anything but describe the world God has made that we can properly talk about science and God. We’re not going to find God’s signature in the mathematical improbability of our existence if we’re not looking for God, and a better place to look for God’s signature is in the way he marks the world with word and image. Jesus. His word made flesh, the man made in the image of the invisible God. And people being transformed by God into bearers of this image.

I think, when I read articles like this, and when I think about why I believe what I do, that I don’t necessarily believe in God because I’m alive, as a product of my very existence, I believe in God because I am convinced Jesus lived, died, and was raised.

// THINGS //

This Hipster Business Name generator is pretty awesome.

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I don’t know why I find this sort of video as funny as I do.

Jesus: Watch, Listen, Follow

At church in term 1 next year we’re experiencing the Gospel of Mark as though social media was around when Jesus was alive. Through the eyes of the characters who feature as eyewitnesses in Mark. It’s potentially going to be a lot of fun. Join in from afar. Or near.

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Video games as pro-God propaganda

Two pieces have piqued my interest today. Unrelated, but related. The first, from Overthinking It, questions whether video games, by their nature, inspire belief in a creator.

Now, I’ve given up on taking part in apologetics debates online, and mostly on the need to convince people of God’s existence using science and philosophy. It’s not that I don’t find the arguments convincing, it’s just that I think that the gospel is more than fancy logic, and people aren’t going to be argued into believing it (though such arguments might be part of conversion).

Anyway. This is interesting because it considers Christian apologetics from the perspective of a video gamer, who seems to be more interested in philosophy than religion.

Here’s a longish extract.

““It was incredible,” you say. “I mean, if anything had been just a little different – if those question blocks hadn’t been exactly where they were, or if there hadn’t been those Piranha Plants and that Propeller Cap inside but, let’s say, a Fire Flower instead, I’d never have been able to get those star coins! Everything was arranged so perfectly, so precisely. It really makes you think it was all put there on purpose, you know? Like it was designed.”

Luigi, ever the skeptic, replies: “But if things weren’t the way that they are, they’d just be some other way instead. Maybe in that case you’d be raving about how unlikely that was. Or you wouldn’t have known there was any star coin there at all and you would have just kept on going.”

The argument Mario and Luigi are having here is what’s known in philosophy as the Anthropic Principle. In one certain formulation, the Anthropic Principle puts forth the idea that the laws of the universe and the particular circumstances of our place in it seem so precisely modeled to bring about the necessary conditions for intelligent life – so fine-tuned that if any one element had been just a little different it would be impossible for human beings to exist – that it indicates a Creator who intentionally made things this way in order to bring us about in the way that we are. Basically, it’s an argument for the existence of God. That’s what Mario is proposing and it’s often referred to as the Strong Anthropic Principle. Luigi’s point is that the appearance of design is no proof of design, because if things were different enough that we couldn’t exist to observe them, we wouldn’t be around to notice. So we don’t exist “on purpose,” but since the universe happens to be the way that it is, it just happens to be possible that we exist too.”

The article goes in pretty interesting directions after that. It’s worth reading.

The second article was from a Christian gamer, writing at Christ and Pop Culture, reflecting on the Skyrim experience, and the treatment of “theology” present in the latest, greatest, RPG.

“As I was exploring Skyrim, I was attacked by a band of cultists dedicated to the god “Boethiah.” Upon defeating them, I learned of the location of their cult and out of curiousity, decided to go investigate it. When I found the priestess of Boethiah, I learned that the cultists had been luring innocent people to their shrine and killing them in worship of their god.

There was no option to report the cult to the governing authorities, so I decided it was time to bring some vigilante justice to these murderers. I carefully planned out each of my attacks and took out each of the 6 cultists who were stationed near the shrine. Just as I took down the last one and was beginning to feel as though I had done something good to protect the innocent citizens of Skyrim, my screen blurred and I heard a voice from the heavens shouting, ”WHY HAVE YOU KILLED MY SERVANTS!”

It was disturbing to say the least. In a moment, a god, who in my mind only existed as a cultural artifact, came to life. I couldn’t have a detached relationship to Boethia because in the world of Skyrim, he actually exists and I found myself face to face with him.”

Fun stuff. But ignore all this, because video games are stupid (at least according to some).

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Post-it Mario Bros

Got an office morale problem? Solve it with a little team bonding exercise involving post-it notes and a dash of 8-bit inspired enthusiasm.

Staff from a Seattle Digital Solutions company called Filter put this window homage to the original Super Mario Bros together in their spare time. It’s the entirety of level 1-1.

Apparently it’s the escalation of some sort of inter-office post-it tit-for-tat.

Sin within Video Games: Is it sinful to break the ten commandments in a game?

I’ve been pondering my relationship with video games since the infamous Mark Driscoll incident. I also happened to be playing my way through the morally open world of Red Dead Redemption – where one is constantly faced with the option to choose right or wrong. To be villain or hero.

While disagreeing passionately with Driscoll’s “games are stupid because people want to rescue a princess” caricature – I’ve been pondering the deeper question about my approach to ethical decision making within the games I play. Games are different to other types of culture because there’s a sense of agency. We choose the path the entertainment takes. We place ourselves in the centre of the narrative. So the immoral actions of a protaganist come down to our choice. So if I choose to do wrong in a game – is this a wrong in the great game of life? I don’t think so. But I think it can be. And it’s certainly a reflection of the wrong in my life. Games, like anything, can be harnessed and abused by our sinful natures. That doesn’t make them wrong inherently. Wrong use does not negate right use.

Christ and Pop Culture raise for me, what is a much more nuanced approach to video gaming as a Christian than Mark Driscoll’s… is it sinful to choose a sinful action in a game, or does it simply express our sinful nature… the article also touches on John Marston of Red Dead Redemption, which I’ve just finished. And I chose to be good.

“Artistic mediums that ignore the reality of sin are sentimental at best. Thomas Kinkaid may paint a lovely cottage, but there is very little richness and resonance to his work because it lacks an acknowledgement of this key truth. Videogames, on the other hand, tend to acknowledge our inherent sinful nature without even trying. In fact, videogames’ biggest strength is that they illuminate our nature and force us to come to terms with it. In a videogame we are, simply put, selfish jerks.

When I am given a blatant moral choice, I may make the outwardly righteous choice, but my inward tendency still remains. I do what it takes to progress, not because it’s right, but because it alleviates my boredom and allows me to feel good about myself. “

I like the quote below. But I disagree a little. Because I think, at some point, the decisions I make – be it through bloodlust or seeking some sort of thrill that would be sinful were I to actualise the desire rather than virtualising it – I’m not acting out of faith, but rather out of the desires of the flesh, and I reckon that might be an expression of the brokenness of my fleshly side, I’d be comfortable calling it sin. But I’m much more confident that Christ’s blood is sufficient to cover all the brokenness of my flesh.

“As a sober exploration of my sinful state, many of these experiences are incredibly valuable, not harmful, as many have charged. It’s just a videogame. These worlds, these people, and these choices are not real. I’m not truly sinning in these games, as much as I’m exploring the concept of sin. But I know one thing: I am not a good man.”

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Someone at Mars Hill doesn’t hate video games

This is pretty funny.

There’s this old school universal cheat code from the days of the NES called the Konami Code.

up up down down left right left right B A Enter

Go to Mars Hill’s website and enter it – just hit the combo of keys above on your keyboard + enter – and you find an “Easter Egg.” Somebody there knows more about gaming culture than they’re letting on, because the code takes you to Driscoll’s ill-conceived rant about video games, posted and discussed here the other day.

H/T ChurchCrunch

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Mark Driscoll on Video Games: Not sinful, but stupid

Mark Driscoll doesn’t like nerds or geeks (neither do Westboro Baptist). He regularly bags out bloggers, now he’s having a dig at people who play video games. Watch from about 1:47 in this video… or just read this post on the Mars Hill blog.

“Video games are not sinful, they’re just stupid. And they’re stupid in this way: Young, particularly men, and now women are joining it, they want to get on a team, be part of a kingdom, conquer a foe, and win a great, epic battle. So they do it with their thumbs and it doesn’t even count. Nobody’s really liberated. The Taliban is not really conquered. Women are not really freed from oppression. Generations are not really changed. It’s all fake. It doesn’t count.”

No. It doesn’t count. Only the particularly deluded think games = real life. But games are entertainment, and like all culture and art, they are an avenue to connect with other people. You know. The type of thing you often encourage your followers to do when they’re engaging with culture.

In the first video, and the text in that first blog entry, Driscoll strawmans anybody who plays games – because we’re all motivated by wanting to fight a battle. That isn’t real. And doesn’t count. It’s just an odd little rant coming from a guy who at this point seems to be letting his prejudices against the nerdy types of people who sit in their mum’s basements and bag him out on their blogs cloud his judgment. It seems a little bit like he’s missing the whole fiction/non-fiction divide again a little (as he did with Twilight and Avatar).

Here’s what he said in an earlier post on the Resurgence blog about his approach to culture:

“What I’ve found over the years is that whenever I speak about something culturally related from a Christian perspective, a debate rages. This has been the case since the earliest days of my ministry. This is because I consider myself a missionary in culture. When we started our church we did so in what was among the least churched cities in the nation, seeking to reach the least churched demographic—young, educated, single, urban men. The truth is, these kinds of young men are generally missing from the American church. One thing these men of all races are doing is listening to rap music.”

Now, I want to know what the difference is, in his mind, between games and music – so far as looking to engage in the subculture in a missional way. I don’t get it. If it’s about escapism – then why is he ok with watching movies and television. And he is ok with watching movies and television. I assume he’s also ok with reading novels.

Games are interactive stories. They are movies that the gamer takes part in, novels that the gamer helps write, entertainment that is active rather than passive, and increasingly they are art (though Roger Ebert doesn’t think so) and social commentary. Like music. Like movies. They’re culture. They’re not stupid, or sinful. But, like anything, the way people use them can be. And like anything, there are always a bunch of Christians looking to Christianise (or, to use one of Driscoll’s Rs, Redeem) this stream of culture. Though this one is satire:

Here’s a post linking to a good essay on the subject of games as art that I put up a while ago, here’s the one that Call of Duty image was originally featured in, here’s a couple of posts about Christian games: post 1, post 2

Now, excuse me while I go to shoot some Mexican bandits on Red Dead Redemption.

On Video Games and culture

I’ve only just discovered N+1. I’ve read two articles. And both have been fascinating. Read this one too, it’s about video games and culture.

Here are some paragraphs. I like them.

Games are, by design, what Plato believed epic poetry to be: ethics manuals for inhabitants of the cave.

There is no game, at least not yet, in which you accomplish the mission only to learn you’ve been torturing an innocent man, or get passed over for promotion. Neither is your guitar heroism cut short by an overdose of heroin or rooted in coping with your abusive father. Here is a very un-labor-force-like experience of meaningful activity.

In China and other economies less moribund than our own, you can even get a factory job as a gamer, acquiring “virtual gold” and special virtual weapons, which your company then sells for actual dollars to other (recreational) players from once wealthy nations who are looking to save time on their way to the top of one or another virtual hierarchy. And what do the gamers-for-hire do during their downtime? The Times tells us that they blow a lot of their money on arcade games. Only, here, at last, they play for themselves! That kind of irony has yet to make it into any computer game, no matter how avant-garde they are.

We have sometimes played these games until dawn peeps through the airshaft window. Go and lie down, and the game replays itself on your retina. Part of your brain is now imprinted, perhaps forever, with a map of feudal Japan, and the exact position of your armies at the moment you decided—unwisely—to chance your band of samurai against a much larger group of peasant spearmen. Another bad decision was to spend your allotment of rice recruiting 10 samurai instead of 200 peasants. Elitist! Worse yet was the moral debate, before the console, about whether to reboot at the moment right before disaster—or to samurai on, in the lifelike knowledge that things weren’t working out exactly as planned.

The post-’60s culture consumer no longer wants to be a passive spectator or a mere appreciator, neither of the free beauties of nature nor of autonomous human endeavor. Perversely, the more Nietzschean we’ve become in our attitude to the arts, the more a certain telltale ressentiment shows itself. Like an insulted gentleman, the public now demands satisfaction from its art. We want to be the ones doing it—whatever it is. We don’t want to be left out! Let us play too! Behind every gamer’s love of the game lurks a hideous primal scene: watching other children at play.

A four year old plays Grand Theft Auto

Are you a parent? Would you let your child play one of the most popular, and violent, video games of all time? What if it was an open world kind of deal – and your child taught you a lesson about how perverted your methods of having fun are. That’s what happened to this guy who let his four year old play Grand Theft Auto IV. Here’s how the kid started playing, after having the mechanics of the game explained to him in general terms.

“He finally entered an unoccupied car and began driving. He was very mindful of the other cars and pedestrians. He didn’t know the rules of the road, so he ran red lights and turned down one-way streets in the wrong direction. However, he did stop at intersections if a group of cars gathered waiting for the light to turn green.

At one such intersection he attempted to brake, but he was traveling too fast. Instead of plowing into the rear of the car ahead of him, he swerved to the right and popped up onto to sidewalk. In doing so, he accidently ran over a woman walking towards his oncoming car. He was incredibly ashamed of himself and profusely apologized…”

At that point the father had to explain the difference between games and real life. The girl wasn’t real. The kid was able to continue.

“Only seconds later, he witnessed a policeman jump out of his patrol car to pursue a criminal of San Andreas.  His eyes lit up as he asked if he could drive the police car. I reminded him that it was only a game, and it was fine to take the car. As he drove the squad car, I pressed L3 to turn on the lights and siren.  He asked very excitedly if he could get the bad guys too. With a huge smile I pressed R3 to initiate the Vigilante Missions.  It was as if his imagination had come to life. He was taking down delinquents left and right. As expected, the dangerous work of an officer brought an ambulance.

At this point my son was familiar with the game’s mechanics and hopped into the ambulance. As he put the crime fighting behind him, he wondered aloud if it was possible to take people to the hospital. I instruct him to press R3, and then he was off to save a few lives. He was having a blast racing from point to point, picking up people in need, and then speeding off to Las Venturas Hospital.”

He ended up taking a fire truck and putting out fires too. What a civil servant he’ll grow up to be.

via BitMob.

Your favourite games… now with extra Bible

I’ve posted a couple of times about lame Christian computer games. I’d dig up the posts but that would take me five minutes. Anyway. Here are a bunch of currently popular games reimagined as Christian… they made me laugh.

It’s sad because once upon a time Christian game producers did in fact take a cool game (Wolfenstein 3D) and a Bible story (Noah’s Ark) and mashed them together into a game where you ran around slingshotting animals with food and sleeping pills so that you could pile them into the ark. Lame.

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Religiofying video games

While Cracked is encouraging readers to “rationalise” games, the “Opposable Thumbs” blog is exploring the question of religious video games. There aren’t many – and none of them are good.

It’s odd really. There are Christian subsets of just about every other form of culture or entertainment. But the “Christian” video game landscape is a barren wasteland with the odd “Left Behind” game or a couple of terrible ports of popular games. I remember standing in Koorong one day as a kid playing the Noah’s Ark 3D game – a nasty rework of Wolfenstein where Noah ran around armed with a slingshot putting animals to sleep so he could bundle them onto the ark. Badness.

The Christian market is untapped – and we’ve seen (from the music industry) that we pay over the odds for bad quality just so that we can avoid engaging with the world around us.

Part of the problem, so far at least, is that the poor theology of Christians wanting to make games leads to bad games. Here’s a description of one from that article:

John E. Nelson’s Tribulation Knights seeks to put gamers in a stealth/adventure-based post-Apocalypse setting. Following a series of natural and economic disasters, a corrupt politician’s administration takes control of the globe and manages to convert most of the remaining population into a mindlessly-loyal legion. Some citizens, however, do not convert and find themselves without any rights in the new world society; accordingly, a group called the Knights rises up to protect these rebel citizens from the Gestapo-like Enforcers and gather enemy intel, all while staying hidden and avoiding armed conflict. “I wanted to create a game that had both an entertaining adventure but also hold true to the commandment of ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.'” Nelson explained to Ars. “It was important to do so, and it is not easy. You can defend yourself by stunning Enforcers, or thugs for a very brief time. The goal is the mission, and to avoid direct contact with the enemy as much as possible.”

Thou shalt not kill? What about a game based on Judges. That would be awesome. Assassins Creed: The Ehud Edition. Here’s a potential blurb.

Ehud the left handed rallies support from his fledgling Israelite nation to pay a visit to the fat and oppressive king – Eglon. Ehud fights off animals and marauders on the way to deliver his tribute to the king. He straps his short sword to his leg in order to deliver a message from God to all those who oppose Israel – and he must find a way to hide the body of an obese monarch before evading the clutches of his pursuers.

Yeah. I’d play that. Or what about Mega Church Tycoon – decide what staging and lighting to install in your multipurpose auditorium in order to lure the heathens from your chosen demographic.

Or “The Sins” your chance to sanctify a neighbourhood of sinful sims through the power of hospitality.

There is a Christian version of Guitar Hero out there somewhere – but what about HymnStar – the chance to belt out your favourite hymns, songs of praise, and Christian power ballads – you could have a special “Christmas Carols” edition slated for a December release.

Join me in producing these and we’ll be rich.

YouTube Tuesday: Perils of Gaming

We’ve all read stories about Chinese gamers who die mid session (because they forget to eat) – but here’s a lesser known gaming ailment – First Person Shooter Disease – or Duke Nukem’s Disease. Be careful.