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Computer game religion

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I say this with no irony at all: Computer games were one of the most important educational resources I had when growing up, especially historical strategy games.

For instance, the historical campaigns of “Age of Empires II” taught me much of what I know about great medieval figures, from Frederick Barbarossa to Saladin. And I could probably trace my knowledge of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes and the other Wonders of the World back to all those hours I spent building my empire in “Civilization.”

These games familiarized me with the vast and varied cultures of the world, gave me a grasp of history’s most important moments and trends, and helped shed some light on the fascinating interconnections of militaristic, economic and cultural concerns within a society.

But there is one important aspect of human culture and civilization that these games, admittedly, did not get right. And that’s religion.

Don’t get me wrong: Religious elements play an important role in each of the titles I’ve mentioned. In “Age” for instance, monks are one of the most feared units in the game, capable of converting enemy units to their side. Likewise, in “Civ,” religious buildings like temples and cathedrals are some of the most important in the game, as they keep your citizens content (and productive!).

So, it’s not that religion is absent from these computer games. Instead, it’s fundamentally distorted.

Because while you can do things like build the Sistine Chapel in “Civilization” or research block printing, illumination and even faith at your “Age of Empires” monastery, the reasons you’d do these things are fundamentally non-religious; they have nothing actually to do with God. Instead, religion is repurposed as an aid to other ends: in the short term, keeping your economy humming along, countering your enemies and expanding your empire, and in the long run, outplaying your opponents to victory.

It’d be a lot to expect a computer game to get religion right. But in failing to do so, a different vision of reality, the human person and life’s purpose is being subtly communicated. Rather than the beating heartbeat of a civilization, these games present religion as merely a cultural appendage. It’s a useful tool, but contains no intrinsic truth or value in and of itself.

I think it’d certainly be worthwhile to consider how this presentation of the dynamic between religion and civilization falls short, by comparing it to alternative accounts, such as Christopher Dawson’s “Progress and Religion,” Josef Pieper’s “Leisure: The Basis of Culture,” and even Pope Benedict XVI’s reflections on the indelible Christian character of European civilization.
But in this column, I’d like to ask something quite simple and practical: To what extent do we practice “computer game religion” in our own lives?

Computer game religion, akin to moral therapeutic deism and the prosperity gospel, makes a big deal of religious practices and identity. But underneath it all is the same type of instrumentalized logic regarding religion we see in “Age of Empires” and “Civilization.”

A practitioner might make daily Mass or intercessory prayer a top priority, but not much differently than a “Civ” player might prioritize researching monotheism so he has access to important city improvements. Or, one might wear Catholic paraphernalia and be a staple of the parish social scene, but with a mindset similar to an “Age” gamer who chooses to be the Aztecs because the relics they capture generate gold at a faster rate.

In both cases, religion plays an important role, but only insofar as it helps me achieve “my” goals and win “my” game. Computer game religion reduces prayer to a self-help practice, the Church to a social organization, Christianity to a tribe in the culture wars and God to a grand giver-of-favors. I, not he, am the center of the story. My preferences and desires, not his will or laws, provide the ultimate and overarching framework for my life.

It strikes me that the Gospel readings we’ve heard so far in May provide quite a counter to computer game religion. Taken from John 15, we hear Christ tell his disciples to “ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.”

However, the logic is completely reversed from the self-centeredness and exploitation of computer game religion. The conditions Christ establishes for intercessory prayer simply don’t allow for him to be instrumentalized. Before petitioning the Father, Christ insists that one must remain in him — through his grace, we must adopt the posture of total dependence and humble obedience to the Father, of which the Son himself is the perfect embodiment.

In doing so, our desires will be fundamentally transformed. God will grant what we ask, not because he has been reduced to an in-game feature we exercise control over with the click of a mouse. Instead, the Father gives us whatever we ask of him to the extent that our desires and petitions become subordinate to his will, by remaining in Christ, the True Vine that connects us to the Vine Grower.

This kind of practice of our faith might not help us beat “Civ” on deity difficulty. But it is the only way to practice religion truly, and to achieve the ultimate victory: not the attainment of our meager and limited goals, which cease to exist when the game is over, but union with the loving God who has created and redeemed us, and is drawing us into life-giving intimacy, both now and forever.

Liedl lives and writes in the Twin Cities.

                            <p class="tags"><strong>Tags: </strong> <a href="https://thecatholicspirit.com/tag/computer-game-religion/" rel="tag">Computer game religion</a>, <a href="https://thecatholicspirit.com/tag/computer-games/" rel="tag">Computer games</a></p>                                <p class="cats"><strong>Category</strong>: <a href="https://thecatholicspirit.com/commentary/alreadynotyet/" rel="category tag">Already/Not Yet</a></p>
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