Games history ezine
Religion and games history November 2014
Religion and Issue Five November 2014 games history Volume two
Amsel von Spreckelsen
Pray to heal
Amsel von Spreckelsen and Stephanie Cloete
Magic and divine
JRPGs relate complexly to the European Church Divining the self Sortition as a window onto the Austin C Howe soul God killers L. Rhodes Nietzsche, capitalism and the gamer ethos Meditative gaming Mauricio Quilpatay A dialogue on players in prayer
Sinners & saints
The short-lived religion of the city of Columbia Danielle Perry
The introduction of clerics to tabletop RPGs Jon Peterson
Edited Amsel von Spreckelsen by and Zoya Street
Editorial Amsel von Spreckelsen madnessandplay.blogspot.com
Amsel von Spreckelsen lives near the sea. He blogs about representations of mental illness in gaming at madnessandplay.blogspot.com.
Jack Chick opened my eyes. Chick represents the worst excesses of evangelism: misinformed and misrepresentative of the things it decries, seeking the obliteration of, rather than dialog with, other faiths and other ways of life. I was a teenager, playing role-playing games so religiously that they were close to defining my life, when I first read his tract Dark Dungeons. I thought it was hilarious; a mendacious attack on something the writer was too scared of to ever fully understand and nothing whatsoever to do with my life or my hobby. Yet, here I am, half a lifetime later, writing about games as magical spaces with
the power to fundamentally change who you are and how you see the world. To get here has been a religious journey that started with a childhood of Buddhism, traversed occultism and conspiracy-theory, post-modernism and atheism and is still ongoing, but I cannot deny Chick his part in suggesting to me how I might come to view games. The theme of outside influences suggesting possible future versions of ourself is one of the threads L. Rhodes picks up on in his detailed exploration of the intertwined histories of divination and gaming. Whilst Rhodesâ€™ piece touches on the idea of games and of divination as calls upon external agencies to either aid or usurp human subjective reasoning my conversation with Stephanie Cloete (who also happens to be my mother) seeks to open up and explore the spaces inside those concepts. We talk about games as sacred states and the nesting of realities as well as also touching on the differentiated demands of personal responsibility in a universe with external agencies. These two essays suggest something of a soft division, porous even, between the different states or spaces explored, but there are many religious traditions that offer hard delineations instead.
Good and Evil. Us and Them. Before and after. One of those hard divisions is present in the Christian concept of baptism, a symbolic marker between the two states of a personâ€™s being: before and after the acceptance of Christ. Danielle Perry has crossed another such boundary and entered the game world entirely to give us an in-universe history of the events of Bioshock Infinite. She looks at how the doctrine of baptism holds up both in a situation where the divisions between worlds are not as hard-coded as we are used to, and when the baptised are less willing to accept an external authority. At least a cursory
knowledge of the events on Columbia are recommended, especially if you never studied this fascinating utopian folly at school. Back in our own world, and appropriately enough given its focus on the spaces between states, Perryâ€™s essay is the thematic link, straddling both, between the two major threads that run through the writing in this issue. While the essays mentioned above all look at gaming and games as gateways those that follow focus on the question of what happens to faith as humanity grows in power and assertive self-belief. Austin C Howe takes us through the religious growing pains of an entire genre, as the JRPG begins to question and then revolt against a once cosy relationship with organised religion. This is shown through different gamesâ€™ playful experimentation with, leading to a deeper interrogation of, western mystical tropes. That the games and their designers chose the relatively safe space of a foreign spiritual system to work through their issues with faith and authority reminds you of the social power and control still afforded to structures of belief as well as the tension inherent between popularity and subversion in artistic expression. If Howe takes us through what might be, for many of us with a religious upbringing, a recogniseable period of experimentation and reflection, Mauricio Quilpatay looks at the next stage. When you reject belief, or reject gods as sacred, where does that leave you? Quilpatay argues that in the shadow of neoliberal and capitalist ideologies of personal power and meritocratic agency the greatest game, and the greatest prize, is to kill the gods and replace them.
Is this what Chick was so afraid of, but coming from an angle he might never have expected? And yet, even when we have every intention of
doing so, we seem to find it hard to leave our gods behind. I may not be a Buddhist any more, but it has fundamentally influenced the way that I see the world, the connections that I make between things and the way that I understand causality. Atheism as a position is, ultimately, defined by its relation to theism.
Gods donâ€™t just die, they leave a vacuum. The final essay in this issue is one that I specifically asked to be included. It is in the form of an edited extract from Jon Petersonâ€™s wonderfully detailed history of the creation of Dungeons & Dragons, Playing at the World, and charts the curious, irreligious beginnings of the Cleric class to that game. What started as a hybrid character option ended up introducing and defining divinity deep into the very heart of RPG structures.
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Divining the self
Sortition as a window onto the soul L. Rhodes
upstreamist.net @upstreamism L. Rhodes is the founder of Culture Ramp, a sometime contributor for Unwinnable and the Daily Dot, writes regularly on Medium and tweets about play, philosophy and unworkable ideas.
In schoolyards across the world, you can find children playing one of several games called â€œjacks.â€? Most are played by scooping up six-pointed pieces, the jacks, between bounces of a rubber ball. Contemporary jacks are fabricated from either plastic or metal, but are descended from a traditional form made from a joint found in the feet of sheep, the astragalus.
In some regions, jacks are still referred to by a more traditional name recalling that origin: knucklebones.
The knucklebone, as it happens, is one of the earliest game pieces on record. Some have been identified among the toys buried in Tutankhamanâ€™s burial chamber. Much later, in sculpture and coins dated to the 4th century BCE, we find depictions of women using them to play a jacks-like game. Yet, there is evidence that the astragaloi were also used for prophecy, and it is not always clear which use is implied.
Officially, it would seem, the all-important priesthood at Delphi frowned on astragalomancy, often using its association with gambling to discredit the shrines where it was used. That reproach obscures the apparent fact that a variation was practiced even at Delphi. The Delphic oracle probably involved some form of sortition, a word derived from the Latin sortes, the stone counters used by Romans in drawing lots. Use of the astragalus was not limited to drawing lots, though. Pausanius mentions a shrine to Herakles where tosses of the knucklebones could be interpreted according to divine exegesis. In that context, they were used more like dice, with each face of the astragalus corresponding to a different value. Indeed, the archeological record suggests that dice and jacks share a common origin in the astragalusâ€”in part due, no doubt, to the importance of shepherding in early civilizations. So the practical root from which certain forms of divination spring is shared not only by childrenâ€™s jacks, but also by a broad range of games involving chance, from craps to Dungeons & Dragons. Who made first use of the knucklebones: the gambler or the priest? The historical record does
not tell. We are left with a class of objects neither definitively game piece nor sacred tool. What remains are the features that explain the objects’ usefulness as either.
Dice and coins
The toss of a die creates a veritable indeterminacy. The result may not be truly indeterminate—a strictly deterministic universe would make it, at least in principle, predictable. The important point is that, unless the die is loaded or weighted, human intelligence cannot reliably anticipate the outcome. That outcome always takes the form of a dispensation, and the result will be freighted with value. In a game like Yahtzee, that means accepting the numerical total of the rolled dice. In prophecy, it will more often be understood to mean submission to the will of the gods. In either case, the act of rolling the dice is predicated on our acceptance of that dispensation prior to its being known. It is, at base, a means of sorting, but one carried out during a temporary suspension of human judgement.
It may be convenient then, to think of the entire class of objects, whether used in divination or in play, as sortition pieces. Despite prohibitions on their use in gambling, very few cultures have altogether done without ritual use of sortition pieces at some point or another in their history. A little understood feature of Judeo-Christian scripture are the verses referring to Urim and Thummim, which scholars believe to have been kleromantic objects used to divine God’s answer to binary questions. Sometimes “yes” and “no” were assigned as the available values; sometimes, as in the judgment scene from I Samuel 14:38-46, “guilty” or “innocent.” The earliest extant Greek version of the Hebrew canon, the Septuagint, makes the sortition more
explicit. There Saul prays, “If the iniquity is with me or my son Jonathan, let there be Urim, and if it is with the people, let there be Thummim.” (The reader who supposes that such practices were wholly abandoned by the Christian era may refer to the part played by sortition in choosing Judas’ replacement at Acts 1:23-26.) Though the Urim and Thummim could apparently yield more verbose answers (see, for example, Judges 20:28), their use in deciding between binary options illustrates the most elemental deployment of sortition. In that connection, it brings to mind a more prosaic method, the coin toss, with Urim and Thummim serving for heads and tails.
It may even be permissible to see the emblem of astragaloi on Hellenistic coins as numismatic acknowledgement of the coin and knucklebone’s common use as sortition pieces. We can, of course, distinguish the religious from secular coin tosses by pointing to the agency claimed in each context. Whereas for pre-Exilic Israelites, the results of the Urim and Thummim were held to reflect providence, we typically expect little more from a coin toss than random chance. At the most, we may see in the result some superstitious conception of fortune.
On a strictly functional level, though, both begin with the conceit that it’s sometimes best to take human agency out of the decision-making process. To say so is to suggest something perhaps unexpected: that the use of sortition pieces can be a ritual of prudence. Not all theories have accorded the practitioners so much agency. In writing
about the origins of the I Ching, for example, Richard Wilhelm wrote that, Modern psychology has shown us the substructures of the human psyche, which are the source of our strivings to see meaning and order in what is apparently coincidental. Out of this grows our conscious attempt to fit ourselves into the content of this order, so that, in the parallelism between what is without and what is within us, the position and course of the one may also be meaningful for the other. This attitude is old; indeed, it is inherent in human nature. That, essentially, is the judgment of Victorian social science, which often theorized symbolic rites and rituals as the products of a psychological inclination toward resolving organic disorder into faux meaningful patterns. While Wilhelm recognized the oracular use of the I Ching as a ritual for charting a course of action, his explanation of its origins seek to reduce the individualâ€™s engagement with the book in terms of an irrational human nature. In doing so, he makes it practically reflexive: we consult the book because our inborn drive for practical knowledge misleads us into projecting meaning where there is none. Yet there is a deliberate layer of artificiality that ought to prevent us from treating this form of divination the same as we might the person who takes weather phenomena for good or bad omens.
The person who consults the I Ching does not fortuitously witness the ambient signs afforded by nature, but rather seeks them out in the symbolic order of the book. The I Ching is a remarkable document. At its core is a collection of simple figures constructed of broken and unbroken lines, which may have original-
ly been taken to correspond to “yes” and “no” in an earlier form of divination. Each figure is constructed of a stack of six such lines, for a total of 64 permutations. Attending each of these hexagrams is a symbolic name (e.g. “Deliverance,” “The Abyssal,” etc), a set of characteristics, and an exegesis composed of anonymous comments appended to the text over the course of centuries. Pairs of hexagrams are taken to describe some abstract change of state—a relatively clear example might be the juxtaposition of chien, “obstruction,” and kuai, “break-through.” The full set of symbols (4,096 pairs in all) is understood to typify the form of every possible change in the world of human interest. In that regard, it is several orders more complex and elaborate than any other divinatory system discussed hitherto, and its perceived value rests in its capacity to compass the whole of human experience. That expansiveness does, in fact, depend on interpretation, but to dote so heavily on interpretation, as Wilhelm did, is to overlook a much simpler and perhaps more enlightening point.
Human beings are full of biases and blind spots, any one of which may mislead our judgement. The more momentous the decision, the more we should want to free ourselves of our own subjectivity. That can be done by temporarily surrendering the decision to sortition. That is to suggest that divination has persisted so long, not because humans habitually interpret meaning into nature, but rather because the practice of divination allows us to draw in ideas and perspectives at which we would otherwise have great difficulty arriving on our own. There are traditionally two principle methods for doing so with the I Ching. One uses yarrow stalks as a form of lot; the other, three coins. Wilhelm gives cursory treatment to both in his introduc-
tion to The Book of Changes, but even then his attention wanders to a symbolic interpretation of the yarrow. Yet, I am convinced, we understand more if we begin with the way in which these sortition pieces are used. When the consulter spreads the yarrow stalks and scoops up an indeterminate number like so many jacks, or tosses the coins and totals up their value, all to determine whether the next line will be drawn broken or whole, the effect is to break the pattern of the personâ€™s own thoughts. The first attraction of any pair of hexagrams is that they formed without our having deliberately chosen them. Their benefit is that, because they did not arise from our own subjectivity, they will not be constrained by our biases or judgements. As a result, the meanings they point to are capable of giving us surprise.
The process of suspending the subject, and with it, all the foibles inherent in human subjectivityâ€”that, I believe, is the principle motive behind all sortition as a method in divination. The simplest forms, like the coin toss, are the most constraining; binary answers are too unambiguous to admit of much interpretation. Thus, when Saul used the Urim and Thummim to divine the guilty party, the unpalatable answer left no real room for equivocation. For the same reason, simple sortition has the benefit of absolving the participants of any blame for the ultimate decision. That may be why it figures so prominently in the political systems and situations of antiquityâ€”as for example, in the use of the lottery for selecting officeholders in the Athenian Senate. By leaving the decision to chance or fate or providence, political institutions deflate any partisanship that might have attended an appointment or close election. By adding a symbolic component to the sorti-
tion, more complex systems like the I Ching or Tarot usher interpretation back into the process, opening them up to a much richer spectrum of answers. With that fullness comes a loosening of constraint. As a provision of the ritual, the practitioner agrees to accept the hand as dealt; they are, however, less obligated to accept the judgement, and anyway, these things are open to interpretation. Some answers are easier than others to manoeuvre back toward the biases we had hoped to evade in the first place. Others are so difficult to spin that itâ€™s more expedient to simply laugh them away as superstition. The process only suspends our subjectivity long enough to surprise us, and insofar as it may open us up to courses of action we might not have found on our own, that surprise can be of inestimable value. But if we are not, by some worldview, religious doctrine or superstition, constrained to uphold the decision, the end of the sortition marks the end of our obligation.
We moderns tend to think of our religion as purified, and of our minds as freed from superstition by the age of reason and advance of science. If we are less prone than the ancients to divination, though, that may be due more to our inheritance of a Renaissance worldview that makes individuals the masters of their own fate. A culture given to faith in its own ability to progress toward some ideal state is apt to find abhorrent any suggestion that thereâ€™s something to be gained by surrendering our agency to chance, however briefly. It is, then, not so much that we have moved beyond the magical thinking with which we tend to associate divination, as that we no longer see the prudence in removing our own subjectivity from the decision-making process. For good or ill, we wish
to be the authors of our own fate. For that reason, it is difficult to imagine a modern author producing a long poem based on the Tarot, as Petrarch did with “Sonetti, Canzoni e Triomphi.” The tenor of the age is better suited to Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, in which the travellers arrange the deck to tell their own stories, rather than generate them with a shuffle. The nearest thing we have to a Delphi may be Las Vegas, where fate is left to the sortition that persists in games of chance and the answers are delivered in the language of currency. That is not to say that sortition pieces now belong entirely to the province of games. Rather, we have turned our oracles inward, so that they are as prone now to divine our inner selves as they are to chart the circumstances which may befall us. In doing so, we have blurred the line between divination and play even further, so that many of our games play as much on our character as they do on the fall of the dice.
Another common game among children is played by folding a piece of paper to form a pyramid that can be opened along either axis. The outer flaps and inner corners are labeled with names from selected categories—for example, the names of film stars, of colors, of flowers—and the operator works toward the interior of the contraption by counting off each letter of the name chosen by a consulter. Eventually, they work themselves to the underside of the inner corners to find one of eight predictions. The game admits of a number of variations—one of the earliest descriptions known to me gives it the name “film star oracle,” while noting (without explanation) that in some English counties it’s also called “saltcellar.” Film stars were rarely involved when my friends and I played it in grade school, and the predictions usually concerned who the consulter was likely to marry.
To throw emphasis on its mechanism rather than an admittedly mutable subject matter, then, we may think of it as an origami oracle. In any case, while it is used for play, and rarely taken seriously, the consulters are nevertheless playing at divination. In addition to removing divination to the ostensibly safe realm of play, though, there is another feature of the origami oracle which distinguishes it from traditional divination. The course it winds toward prediction is not entirely arbitrary. Indeterminacy is maintained by secrecy and the numerical treatment of words, but players work through the puzzle of the oracle by declaring a chain of preferential choices. Asked to choose their favorite from a list of three flowers, for example, some mysterious aspect of the consulterâ€™s preference for tulips is expected to guide them to their destiny.
Rather than calling on the gods, then, it is characteristic of modern oracles to invoke some unconscious or subconscious order, and in doing so, direct us to some hidden truth about ourselves. Children generally do not believe that theyâ€™re destined to marry the name beneath the fold. But much as sortition allows us to surprise ourselves with indirectly constructed symbols, the primary appeal of the origami oracle may be the way in which it prompts children to see themselves in alien situationsâ€”romantically involved with a classmate they had barely noticed before, for example. That sort of disorientation may be particularly valuable to children still in the process of
sorting out the basic features of their own identities. It prompts them to play identities that they may later either assimilate into their developing personalities, or reject altogether. Once identified as a muted form of divination, we may begin to see such sortition everywhere. Origami oracles are associated with adolescence, but the Internet is awash in online quizzes aimed at a broader range of age groups. If the sortition piece is virtual, the format, at least, is a similar. Multiple-choice questions guide the player to one of a battery of answers to questions such as, â€œWhich The Wire character are you?â€? What may seem like a pointless exercise in fandom might be better understood as another means of experimenting with identity in terms of the personality types made readily available by pop culture. If finding out that youâ€™re a Bunk Moreland seems like a pretty low threshold of self-discovery, that may be due more to the low expectations that go into writing online quizzes than to their potential as a kind of oracle.
More successfully, many commercial board and video games use sortition to introduce a narrative indeterminacy. A round of the collectable card game Netrunner, for example, adheres to a structure adapted from the narrative conventions of cyberpunk novels like Neuromancer. Even within those bounds, though, shuffling the decks makes the sequence of events unstable. That not only allows either player a chance at winning, but also lets them explore semiotic variations and possibilities as they might with divination by Tarot. With repeat plays, preference for one set of possibilities and tactics may resolve itself into a personal style of play. That style will, in turn, reflect something about the character of the player. Role playing games are even more overtly focused on using personal style to play with identity. There, too, sortition intro-
duces indeterminacy, typically in the form of increasingly multifaceted dice.
games as divination
In varying combinations, video games emulate nearly every kind of sortition piece. By showing a visual representation of rolling dice, the game Crimson Shroud makes the emulation explicit, but even games that keep it covert depend on processes for producing virtually indeterminable results. Yet, most video game indeterminacy is not discernibly focused on producing oracular illumination, but rather on the structure of play. The use of random number generators to place monsters or construct a stage, for example, is unlikely to produce meaningful personal symbols with any regularity. However, in ways related to the narrative possibilities encompassed by table games like Netrunner and Dungeons & Dragons, digital sortition can lend itself to the symbol-laden purposes of personal divination. Frequently, thatâ€™s done by using sortition to navigate branches in a story. It is, in fact, possible to replace the trees usually relied upon to graph branching narratives with a process of division similar to the one used by Saul to progressively narrow down candidates until guilt could be assigned to a single party. The decisions made at each branch or division of the set of possible endings narrow the range of possibilities, but the approach is made indeterminate by the playerâ€™s ignorance of what comes next in the sequence.
To the extent that the player may be taken by surprise by the course those decisions chart, narrative games can be used to as the semiotically complex digital equivalent to the origami oracle.
One particularly illustrative example is The Yawhg, by Emily Carroll and Damian Sommer. The players are given a limited number of turns, represented as the six weeks leading up to the calamitous arrival of the eponymous bogey. The choices made during each turn will determine the range of possible states available to the characters at the end. In part, the sortition is based on the preferential choices of the player, but there also appears to be a purer form of indeterminate sortition taking place underneath the hood. Some conclusions are more upbeat than others, but there are no real conditions for winning or losing in the traditional sense. What players ultimately find themselves working toward are stories that either satisfy or confound, regardless of whether theyâ€™re morbid or redemptive, because they have emerged as a relation between personal choice and impersonal sortition. If that makes for the sort of experience that some players refuse to categorize as a proper game, that may be because it is also a species personal divination, and perhaps more the latter than the former. If the storyâ€™s progress is fortuitous, then the whole narrative process ought to afford the player an opportunity for self-reflectionâ€”to see themselves, that is, as the sort of person for whom that particular story might be told.
The Yawhg certainly does not exhaust the possibilities available with a digital oracle. Rather, it points us to the vast potential of the form. Though we have been slow to recognize it, what we have seen over the last five or six decades (traceable back to the origins of table top role playing, at least) is the development of myriad ways to incorporate symbol and narrative into sortition-based games that tend toward a divination of the self.
Because those functions have been obscured by our inattention to the historical kinship between games and divination, our handling of the elements that make those games divinatory has been chronically haphazard. Recently, though, abetted by a growing interest in narrative gaming, developers and players have grown increasingly sophisticated in the ways that they deploy and interpret those effects. With a fuller understanding of the relationships between play and divination, indeterminacy and meaning, we may find ourselves poised to make and appreciate ever more surprising and illuminating works.
Stephen Benko (1996) “Magic and Divination” The Harper Collins Dictionary of the Bible
Paul Carus (1907) “The Oracle of Yahveh: The Urim and Tummim, the Ephod, and Breastplate of Judgement,” The Monist, Vol. 17, No. 3 W.R. Halliday (1913) Greek Divination Iona Opie and Peter Opie (1967) The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren Berican Tahberer (2012) “Astragaloi on Ancient Coins: Game Pieces or Agents of Prophecy?” The Celator, Vol. 26, No 4 Hellmut and Richard Wilhelm (1995) Understanding the I Ching Richard Wilhelm and Cary F. Baynes, trans. (1997): I Ching: The Book of Changes Image of I Ching tortoiseshell CC BabelStone,via Wikimedia
Meditative gaming A dialogue on players in prayer Amsel von Spreckelsen and Stephanie Cloete Stephanie Cloete is an MPhil student writing a dissertation exploring luminosity in Buddhist meditation and Christian prayer. Amsel von Spreckelsen is hobbyist game player and blogger. They have known each other for the whole of Amselâ€™s life
Dear Steph, In our preparation for this dialogue we were discussing the idea of looking at gaming, and specifically the state of mind one enters whilst playing a game, in the light of meditative and mindfulness traditions. I was hoping that you could explain a little bit about your studies in this area. I have this conception of the game-world as a semi-separate place; linked to but not contiguous with the everyday world. This is something that, for me, best expresses the status of decisions when I am playing a game, i.e. the decisions are meaningful and completely causally related within the sphere of the game, but they only incompletely
impact on or are caused by situations outside of the game. I can be, as a trivial example, in a good mood when I start playing a game, lose the game and then be in a bad mood afterwards. However, the mechanical situation at the end of the game is not carried out of it; if I lost at Monopoly I haven't actually become a bankrupt. The barrier between game-world and real-world is differently permeable in different situations however: gambling can bring material benefit or loss across the divide, whilst a video game might provide increased manual dexterity.
This semi-separateness brings with it another factor, which is the use of a game as a meditative state. I know that my own understanding of meditation is maybe limited, but I have found a great use in playing games as a means of bringing myself out of myself, of abstracting my problems so that I can think about them in a subconscious manner and of providing a locus of physicality into which I can pour my mind, similar to maybe the Sufi tradition of Dhikr, of which spinning or whirling is perhaps the most well known. It can be, in extremis, a form of total concentration, then, that, maybe, has some similarities to the mindfulness tradition in Buddhism? â€ Dear Amsel One of the things I learned on my first mindfulness course was to do mindful washing up! I claimed I didnâ€™t have time to do a daily practice so my tutor cleverly came up with that suggestion and I do it most days now. Debate about, and study of, meditation and mindfulness is very much ongoing in religious and scientific circles. Right mindfulness (samma sati) sits between right effort and right concentration in the meditation or concentration
component of the eight-fold path, which also includes wisdom (right view and right intention) and morality (right speech, right conduct and right livelihood) and is the fourth noble truth, the way to end the experience of life as dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness). All factors of the eight-fold path are integral to each other and to Buddhist practice. Mindfulness based stress reduction was introduced as a secular therapy by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist and subsequently Professor of Medicine in the late 1970s. It took a while to catch on but various forms of mindfulness-based therapy are now widespread. Some are linked to Buddhist organisations, a more recent development I have encountered is a movement towards establishing Christian mindfulness groups. Kabat-Zinn argues that mindfulness is a description of a kind of awareness that is accessible, and can be beneficial, to all and not confined to any religious group, although he is himself trained in Buddhist meditation techniques. Some contemporary Buddhist scholars, while agreeing that anything that helps people should be universally available, worry that when removed from its context in the Buddha dhamma and honed down to what is often called â€˜bare attentionâ€™ mindfulness starts to lose its sacred origins and ethical significance. As I understand it, further to bare attention, at one level, with its connotations of memory, mindfulness helps to build a database of information about value-creating choices, which will usefully influence future decisions. At a deeper level serious practice of mindfulness begins to alter conditioned apperception thereby having a powerful effect on the cognitive processes underlying decision-making.
It can purify the functioning of the mind and, in becoming a way of life, be profoundly life changing for the ardent practitioner.
â€ Dear Steph, So it seems to me that there's a sense of that separateness between meditative states and the everyday states, with your mention of a database of information built up during meditation that is used outside of meditation? Although the practise of bare attention is one that hopes to bridge those states, or at least to make a state of mindfulness more readily accessible to the practitioner? I hope I'm getting that right, but it does remind me of the way that play is used, even amongst animals if you watch kittens playfighting for example, to teach consequences and to test boundaries in a safe environment. Then there is tabletop wargaming, with its roots in chess and in the strategic training exercises of Prussian kriegspiele, which I think really highlights the training potential of gaming. A recent, but interesting trend in gaming is what are called Augmented or Alternate Reality games, which are long form, played in real time and involve actors and staged theatrical interventions on the players; but which happen in an unconstrained space, so players are intermingled with people and situations that are not a part of the game. To play these requires an ability to bring the game-world to the fore when required and at a moment's notice, which makes me think of your description of bare attention. But then, by bringing the game-world too heavily into the real world there is probably a similar worry about losing the significance of the action within the game.
Personally I don't like these games and I think it is mainly because I like my games to be a sacred, or a magical space - although that may just be me.
I think it in some ways depends on your view of what the real world is and whether mindfulness and meditation are about approaching it closer or retreating from it further or both at once. † Dear Amsel
Vivian, (trs.) Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt and The Life of Onnophrius, p.39.
In religious circles the perceived dichotomy between the active and contemplative life and the debate about their respective values goes back a long way. I guess it is always going to be a minority who want to withdraw from the world and spend their entire life in prayer and contemplation. The Desert Fathers were Christians who chose to do that and live in harsh conditions in the desert in Egypt around the fourth century. One of these desert Christians, Timothy, described ‘quiet contemplation’ as: you will welcome the brethren; you will show hospitality to the stranger; and you will earn more than enough through the work of your hands. So their life of prayer was manifest in their actions. People came from afar to visit them. A lot of mindfulness practice is about observation. Bare attention is a way of paying attention to what is going on in your mind without making judgements. So for example, if you have a thought that keeps on recurring, you register that this is what is happening. If you do this regularly, it can start to break down obsessive thinking patterns. Mindfulness therapy is being used by psychologists for stress reduction and in the treatment of depression, so it is intended to help people cope better with life. Nyanaponika Thera, who was one of the first to introduce the practice of bare attention to the west, in the wake of two world wars, hopeful it would have a beneficial influence.
I don’t think it is just you that is looking for a sacred or magical place that is separate from the ‘real world’.
Although, as you say, perhaps we should be getting into the rather deep waters of asking what reality is. The Buddhist analysis of cognition, as I understand it, is quite fluid. Put very simply, I hope not too much so, if you change your perception of the world, your experience of it changes, so one could argue that your reality changes. â€ Dear Steph, I think I am beginning to build a picture from what you've written of religious 'magical' spaces as either interstitial; spaces created between thought and action or between action and reaction, or all encompassing; as in those religious orders or callings which become (separate) ways of life. This is in contrast to the game-space as magical space which is limited and temporary: wholly bounded by the intention to play and the rules of the game. But, there is also a long running fear of games as dangerous in our culture. There is an idea that players will be unable to realise when they are no longer in a game or will start to prefer the game to reality. Or that the requirement for abstraction, or the extent to which both causes and effects are unreal, might bleed through and rob repeat players of their ability to gauge, or even have empathy for, the consequences of their actions. Parallel to this, there are areas of life with very real consequences, that are often described as being games â€“ politics and crime both come to mind here â€“ highlighting the perceived unreality of these spheres for those engaged in them, as well as suggesting a boundary between 'real life' and the game world.
How do these nested unrealities fit together? And is the magical space of religious practice about reaching closer to what is truly real or retreating further from it? I think that, for me, the deep waters of asking what reality is are altogether too enticing.
† Dear Amsel The kriegspiele were a successful form of training leading to significant victories for the Prussian army. Associating gaming with war suggests a potentially dangerous dehumanisation of the pieces (people), as exemplified in the destruction of civilians being described as collateral damage. Denying the humanity of the other side is one of the essential strategies of going to war.
The fear could be that gamers might develop this capacity and then turn out to be on the wrong side?
‘The Depth-Dimension of Religious Dialogue’, Vidyajyoti, May 1981.
In the case of crime too the victim’s humanity is surely diminished in some way. The Desert Fathers used their spiritual training, which they would certainly have seen as bringing them closer to what is truly real, to make them better able to welcome the stranger. When advising how to engage in inter-religious dialogue the Benedictine monk Henri Le Saux, who went to India and became known and loved as Swami Abhishiktananda while remaining a Christian monk, advocated meeting Christ in the other. Similarly Buddhists may seek to see the Buddha. A classic example of sacred space is of course the mandala; the resemblance to a temple can perhaps be most clearly seen in Tibetan examples. It has acquired many meanings, attributes and forms; one characteristic is often seen to be protection, particularly of those contained within it, such as a community of believers. Christian churches were also places of sanctuary. A congruence of ritual, hence magically or spiritually powerful, space and safety does seem to be a recurring theme so presumably meets a human need. My experience of going to a monastery has been of entering a very different, quiet environment, where I focus on
intensive, at times traumatic, spiritual practice, which includes a lot of silent, sitting meditation. I have noticed I find life less unsatisfactory since undertaking this training. † Dear Steph, I think you are right about the fear being that gamers might become too good at the warrior’s trick of dehumanising their enemies - you even see this fear made real in the selling of war via the tropes of computer games to an increasingly technocratised pool of potential soldiers. But, on the other hand surgery is also becoming game-like, with keyhole and robotic surgeries performed by distant surgeons who gain a level of control, presence and detachment that they were previously never afforded.
We can now, via the game-space, both kill and cure from a distance. If the game is a mandala, created through the ritual actions of playing, then maybe it becomes a sanctuary that is the responsibility of the player? Just as, within the outer reality, one has the responsibility to seek the divinity in others, within the enclosed reality of the game the player, who in this world is also creator, has the responsibility to seek the humanity in the playing pieces that they encounter. † Dear Amsel I quite agree about the need for individual responsibility. I am now suspicious of the power of any ‘ism’ to save us all unless individuals make some kind of effort towards what the Buddhists call bhāāvanāā, which can be roughly translated as ‘cultivation’. Lastly I would like to qualify what I said about fear of gamers and dehumanisation of opponents. Yes, there could be selfish fear that they might come
out of the fantasy world and get too good at playing others ‘at their own game’. But there could also be compassionate fear for them, because ultimately to diminish the humanity of another is to diminish one’s own humanity.
I don't think there is any context in which this manifestation of consequence does not hold. Resources Anālayo Ven. (2003) Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization Shirley Du Boulay (2005) The Cave of the Heart: The Life of Swami Abhishiktananda William SJ Harmless (2004) Desert Christians Tse-fu Kuan (2008) Mindfulness in Early Buddhism Nyanaponika Thera (2010) Protection Through Satipaṭṭhāna Nyanaponika Thera (1996) Satipaṭṭhāna The Heart of Buddhist Meditation Nyanaponika Thera (2008) The Power of Mindfulness Tim Vivian, trs. (2008) Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt Mark G Williams and Jon Kabat-Zinn, eds. (2011) Contemporary Buddhism Vol. 12 No. 1 Dharma wheel image creative commons attribution Chaithanya Krishnan
Sinners & saints
The short-lived religion of the city of COlumbia Danielle Perry Danielle Perry played video games as a kid, but didn’t come back to them until she saw that Dragon Age was a thing. She lives in Portland, OR and rides an old Schwinn bicycle.
Imagine a young Zachary Comstock - freshly cleaned of his sinning ways, of all that Booker Dewitt was - born again. What does he know of religion but this: He was a sinner but his sins have been washed away. What those baptismal waters did not wash away, however, was his grifter spirit. He saw in religion a road to power, and as Dewitt once said, “Give a man a little power, he falls all kinds of in love with himself.” Comstock may not have started with much, but he
Though, as Lutece tells her brother, he misunderstood; the device was “a window not into prophecy, but probability” [voxophone, 1893].
knew how to draw people in. He must have been charismatic in those early days, must have been more of a preacher, than during the events of 1912 when he stayed mostly behind the scenes. He must have prophesied Columbia before it existed and told his flock that he would lead them to this “new Eden,” that he was the savior God had sent for them. Comstock knew this wasn’t true; his prophecies were the results of Rosalind Lutece’s scientific experiments. One could draw parallels here to Scientology, whose founder is supposed to have claimed that the best way to make money was to start a religion, but Comstock did begin to believe in his own prophecies after so many years of convincing everyone else they were true.
He remained obsessed with baptism and the effect it has on a person. Baptism, sinners, and saints: these became the most important parts of the new religion Comstock founded, because they were what had impacted him. “When a soul is born again, what happens to the one left behind in the baptismal water? Is he simply...gone? Or does he exist in some other world, alive with sin intact?” he wondered into his voxophone in 1893, the same year that Columbia was launched, the same year Anna Dewitt (more commonly known as Elizabeth Comstock) was born. He knew the answer, or would soon enough, since he made a deal with that one left behind in his own baptismal water to get the child he wanted to continue his dynasty. With the Lutece device, Comstock saw that the one left behind does exist in another world, with all his sin intact. That sinner had the child that Comstock needed, but his existence made Comstock question over and over the consequences of baptism. Several years later, in 1911, the question came up again: “But who is the man who lies submerged? Perhaps that swimmer is both sinner and saint, until he is revealed unto the eyes of man.”
It’s telling that Comstock says that the baptised is sinner and saint until revealed to the eyes of man, and not God. His is, after all, an earthly religion, even as it ascends into the clouds on a quantum city. I don’t think you could find a single crucifix in all of Columbia. Jesus is missing and God is mentioned only rarely. (“Even God is entitled to a do-over,” Comstock said into his voxophone in 1893, but was he talking about God or about himself?)
The resurrection it is most concerned with is personal; it is the second birth that comes with baptism. Comstock excised Jesus from his narrative and he insisted on being his own savior. On arrival in Columbia during its prime, visitors were presented with the following inscriptions as the elevator descended into the sanctuary of the welcome center: “Why would he send his savior unto us, if we will not raise a finger for our own salvation? And though we deserved not his mercy, he has led us to this new Eden, a last chance for redemption.” A visitor would be forgiven for assuming the savior referred to was Jesus, at least until that fourth line, when it becomes clear that it is not. Additionally, in the Hall of Heroes exhibit for the Battle of Wounded Knee, Comstock claimed he was the “savior of the Seventh Cavalry,” despite the fact that no one who was present at Wounded Knee remembered him. Comstock clearly wanted to be a savior, though history would be hard-pressed to name anyone he actually saved in any meaningful way. There was no room for God or for Jesus in Comstock’s religion; there was only Comstock attempting to fill both roles. Eventually there was
[Cornelius Slate, phone, 1912]
also his saintly wife, the Lady Comstock, who said of her husband in 1893, “Love the Prophet, because he loves the sinner. Love the sinner, because he is you. Without the sinner, what need is there for a redeemer?” But Comstock went too far when he attempted to secure his legacy, as Lady Comstock’s journal shows. She never loved Elizabeth and “would have preferred to let the ‘seed of the prophet’ just...dry out on the bedsheets”.
Elizabeth - Lamb of Columbia, Seed of the Prophet - occupied an interesting place in Comstock’s religion. She was the fulfilment of his prophecy - she shall “sit on the throne, and drown in flame, the mountains of man.” (It’s worth noting that when Dewitt entered Columbia he too claims to have had a vision of New York burning.) She was a miracle child, both in the sense that she could do miraculous things and in the sense that science, or a couple past their prime in a sexless marriage, depending on which narrative one hears, produced her. Though her power faded after years of having it drained through the Siphon, as a little girl she could create tears in reality. Her power to find and open those tears as a young woman still seems incredible. Even as an old woman, these powers mostly gone, she would prove to be no less awe-inspiring with all of New York City burning behind her. Yet the general populace of Columbia thought of its Lamb as a miracle child not because of the science that brought her from one reality to another but because she came to the Comstocks late in life. The miracle, then, was how she allowed Comstock to filch another Old Testament narrative and set himself up as Abraham, prophet and patriarch. Elizabeth had little use for Comstock’s religion, as far as the record shows, but she spoke more about God than any other major figure in the religion.
She is said to have asked Dewitt if he was afraid of God - to which he responded, “No, I’m afraid of you.” One can understand why; Elizabeth much more than Comstock is a godlike figure. In the movie room of Comstock House, Elizabeth said over the PA system: “...God put his faith in man once too. It seems we have something in common: disappointment.” Once again she is compared to God, but by the time Elizabeth grew old and her powers had waned, she confided to a voxophone (date unknown): “As the days pass, I believe less in God and more in Lutece.”
Just as Elizabeth was more godlike than Comstock, so too was she more of a savior. Miraculous child, creator of miracles, she sacrifices herself to save the world from the greatest evil she knows. She was a sheltered girl, bathed in privilege, but Elizabeth took up the place that Comstock had made for himself, and not in the way he expected. He wanted her to continue in his footsteps. She was supposed to punish the “Sodom below”; his prophecy, after all, would have had her “drown in flame” the world. Where Comstock made himself a savior selfishly, for the end goal of power, Elizabeth did it genuinely, out of a desire to save the world - or at least, the world she knew. The final piece in the trinity of central figures to Comstock’s religion, Booker Dewitt came to the outskirts of Columbia and discovered the only way in was to be reborn in the water. His baptiser is said to have remarked that “this one doesn’t look clean to me” and Dewitt nearly drowned in the ceremony. While under the water, Dewitt had his vision of New York City burning. Later, in Port Prosperity, Elizabeth asked him if he believed anyone can see the future; he answered with this story. Elizabeth reportedly noted: “Maybe the prophet’s magic is rubbing off on you.”
Dewitt himself was drawn to Comstock’s lifestyle; in the Bank of the Prophet, upon finding out that Comstock gets a 50% tithe as opposed to the more standard 10%, he appears to have joked that, “I gotta get me a job in the prophet business.”
For a man who didn’t belong in Columbia, Dewitt had a prominent place in its iconography: he is the False Shepherd, come to lead the Lamb astray. There were posters plastered all over Columbia warning of this False Shepherd, depicted as a more-or-less generic specter of death, but for one very specific and telling detail: the AD carved into his hand. Comstock had good reason to fear Dewitt; he did, after all, kidnap Elizabeth and bring her around to his way of thinking. He’s better at it than Comstock could have ever hoped to be, mostly because Dewitt never actually wanted Elizabeth to be anything like him. He didn’t want to be anything like him, though he still never felt worthy enough to wash away his sins like Comstock had. Though Dewitt was forcibly baptized in order to enter Columbia, a baptism against someone’s will is generally understood to be invalid, at least in modern times.
That unwilling baptism was just another way to punish Dewitt for his sins. Comstock knew all of Dewitt’s sins, since they were his own. He knew that Dewitt was a murderer, a gambler, a drinker. He feared the influence this would have on the heir to his throne and it seems as though he trained the entire police force of Columbia to be ready to hunt down this one man, if ever he showed up. Before Dewitt murdered him, Comstock told him: “You’ve come to wipe your slate clean, but you will walk backwards in time before you get your redemption.” Comstock didn’t know how right he was. Dewitt’s redemption came not from a riverside baptizer like Comstock’s, but rather from Elizabeth, who took him back to the river where it all began and once again held Dewitt under, this time long enough to drown him. This man, then - the Booker Dewitt who was baptized, who would become Zachary Comstock - died, taking all the futures with Com-
stock in them with him. And so Comstock’s religion ended as it began: submerged in a river. His adversary – his Satan – won. Comstock had made it too easy for him to recruit the Lamb to his side. Like Columbia itself, Comstock’s religion was little more than a shiny facade placed over the obsessions of his mind: sinners, saints, baptism. He used what was available to him, ranging from Old Testament iconography to quantum mechanics to American exceptionalism to build these twin monuments to himself. Columbia, after all, has historically been used to name the female personification of America, though she was displaced by the Statue of Liberty. Comstock took his idea for America and turned it into a city and a religion, following in a long line of American secession. Though it reflected Christian beliefs, the religion was notably not Christian; its savior was not Jesus. Comstock split himself once, from Dewitt, but he continued to do so even after that.
He made himself a trinitarian god, in a way: prophet, savior, and devil instead of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Bioshock Infinite image copyright 2K Boston
Pray to heal
JRPGs relate Complexly to the european Church Austin C Howe
Austin C. Howe is the writer of Haptic Feedback, a guitarist and lyricist for pop-punk band The Breadshots, and an undeclared English major. He lives in Maryland. He owns two bomber jackets that he wears casually.
by this point: any typical Japanese console RPG will feature a story so dramatic and overblown that the only way to properly end it is to have the player party conquer either a creature of godlike powers or an actual deity. This is not just empty spectacle: the earliest JRPGs played into the symbolism, messianic eschatology and mythology of the European, and specifically the medieval, Christian church. But as the genre has evolved, most of the major franchises have developed a scepticism or outright contempt for, in particular, savior narratives and organized religion.
The Church and Messiah Figures in Dragon Quest
Dragon Quest (1986), widely accepted to be the first “JRPG” gives us the figure of “Roto” (also pronounced “Loto” due to the Japanese liquid consonant and localized in English as “Erdrick”). In the first game, you play a descendent of this legendary hero, who brought peace to the land a long time ago, and the King reaches out to the player character specifically because you are a descendant of Roto. In Dragon Quest II (1987) you play as descendants of the first game’s hero, and in the prequel Dragon Quest III (1988) you play as Roto himself in the time he first brought peace to the land. We can read a character like Roto as Christ allegorical because his heroism is in part a destined heroism and also because he emerges to save all of mankind from universal evil. The idea of the “Legendary Hero” recurs throughout the series and in all cases, the series does not hold this idea under any scrutiny.
Dragon Quest’s faith in its messiahs is steadfast. More important to a Christ allegory reading, the design of Dragon Quest has historically placed an important role on churches, and these churches are marke Players must return to churches to resurrect characters that have fallen in battle, as well as purify them of cursing status effects and to save the game, and in each case, a priest always leads a prayer to do so. Resurrection spells cast by playable characters are unreliable, they often fail. The games do a lot to lead you into the church and make you watch your characters pray at the guidance of the priest. The churches themselves are unmistakably Catholic in style: when the party enters, a pipe organ begins playing a baroque religious tune, and the church itself is populated by nuns as well as the priest. In addition, the function of churches in the mechanics is contextualized in a very Catholic way:
saving your game is “confession” and removing status effects is achieved through “exorcism” and “purification.” Thus, we can understand that Dragon Quest supports a favorable view of western Christianity through the alignment of these churches with the hero and their goals. The systems guide the player towards participating in religious ceremonies to rest and find guidance. The church is deemed just by association. This tends to be packaged alongside glowing endorsements of the traditional family unit (Dragon Quest V, 1992) and the series’ persistence in presenting monarchs in positive light. The way the series presents a number of tropes is consistent with a conservative worldview one would presume is held by the creators.
Good is always good. These simplified moral alignments extend even to the games’ Christianity. The player character and his allies are presented as avatars of morality, while DQ villains are always cartoonishly evil, often taking demonic appearances to further reinforce this coding; the demonic Zoma from Dragon Quest III is even named as the ruler of the game’s “underworld.” As time goes on though, most series will abandon this faith, and write their reasons into the story of their games.
Brief Note on Intertextuality
It should be said that as those series that started by emulating the Dragon Quest formula start to deviate from it, I believe they do so in response to Dragon Quest. I read the themes of these games in intertextual relation to each other as well as stand alone works. Thus, when Final Fantasy and other series contradict Dragon Quest, I do not take this as coincidental. Though there isn’t evidence to suggest that the creators of Final Fantasy intended to contradict Dragon Quest’s positive presentation of
organized churches, there is evidence to suggest that in the construction of the Final Fantasy games, they intended to contrast themselves from Dragon Quest as a way to make their games unique in a large market.
Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy III, and Ambiguities of Good and Evil
The Final Fantasy (1987) series has always been more secular than Dragon Quest. Mechanically, in the first three games, Inns play the role that churches did in Dragon Quest, with the religious overtones of the church being sacrificed. The largely derivative original title featured heroes of prophecy, the Warriors of Light, but the series had already begun to complicate the simplistic notions of good and evil from Dragon Quest. FFâ€™s villain, the evil Garland, had once been good, but the strength that made him the heroic knight he once was also led to the pride and thirst for power that results in his turn to evil. By Final Fantasy III (1990), there are Warriors of Dark as well as Warriors of Light, and though the player characters fight against the powers of dark to preserve their world of light, the Dark warriors once had to fight a similar evil born of the light. This complicates Dragon Questâ€™s simplified presentation of good and evil even in ways that christianity already accounts for: Satan was once an angel, after all, and Abel was not always evil. Thus, we can see a series that is beginning to differ from the text by which it is most inspired, but not yet contradict it.
Final Fantasy IV and Redemption
Final Fantasy IV (1991) is, in my opinion, when the series starts to gain its own distinct character, and this is seen prominently in how the game treats its characters.
Final Fantasy IV presents charac-
ters once evil redeeming themselves into heroes. In one of the first major examples of this happening, the hero Cecil is immediately complicit in evil deeds, but under the orders of the Baron (the king, basically.) The Baron is like a father to him, and this leaves Cecil conflicted on whether he should break with the King or continue to serve. He is soon ordered to retrieve the water crystal from the small town of Mist, but is dismayed when a package he is carrying turns into a swarm of Bomb creatures that destroy the town. In light of this, he abandons his fealty, and not long after he abandons his practices as a Dark Knight to become a Paladin. This, as it turns out, is destined for him, as his biological father was a Paladin.
Even though we are again presented with a Hero of Destiny, we are shown that he was once not a good person, but complicit in deeds of genuine evil. Cecil is not born a hero; he redeems himself to become one. Even a destined hero, a messiah-like figure, neednâ€™t always have been totally just. This is likewise true with the game's primary antagonist, Golbez. Although he follows the path of evil too long for the game to allow him redemption without sacrificing himself, he does do the right thing in the end when he is capable of seeing what he has wrought. In all of Final Fantasy, good is corruptible and evil can be redeemed. Good and evil is not a dichotomy, but an ambiguous sliding scale. It is easy to say that Christianity accounts for redemption as well; we are all sinners who, by accepting christ into our hearts, can become just people. But while these early Final Fantasy titles complicates Dragon Questâ€™s concept of good and evil in ways that are still in line with the religious
presentation that DQ aligns itself with, it and other series will soon be making a full break.
Final Fantasy VII and the Negative Messiah
While the series had previously complicated the notion of good and evil, the notion of what a hero is, in Final Fantasy VII (1997) we see the complete inversion of a Christ story. Sephiroth is presented as a villain and paired against the figure of Cloud, the ordinary person not preordained by destiny, as the hero. Jenova, whose name is a mis-romanization of Jehovah, the Hebrew name for God is a creature with inexplicable power but rather than protecting the living creatures of the planet she controls them to force them to do world destroying deeds in her name.
She is not the creator of this planet, but rather a foreign, invasive force that seeks to control it. When creators challenge our conception of what a godlike figure is, intentionally or not, it says something about the idea of a godlike figure. Making Jenova foreign to the Earth suggests that the concept of God comes after the creation of the world itself. That although these beings, or the idea of these beings, may hold incredible sway over a group of people, perhaps that devotion is misguided. Enter Sephiroth: Such is Jenova’s control of Sephiroth (a distortion of Sephirot, a name given to the ten attributes of “the infinite” in the Kabbalah), that she is able to coerce him into unspeakable acts by convincing him that he is The One Chosen To Rule The Planet, and that whatever he does to become the ruler must automatically be just. Key in this is Sephiroth’s mistaken belief that he is born of Jenova, of this godlike creature, and is therefore above mere humans in the totem
pole of existence. In the place of miracles Sephiroth performs superhuman acts of violence: impaling the Midgar Zolom on a gigantic tree branch and singlehandedly murdering scores of men. Again, these inversions show a distrust in the idea of a messiah, in particular by pointing out that someone who believes they were sent by God may not truly be so. And that, whether they truly believe it or not, this idea gives them no moral authority to commit inhumane acts. Final Fantasy VII derives meaning from Sephiroth as a character who believes he is the messiah when in fact he is not, and who cannot be convinced or convince himself otherwise. Cloud, by comparison, is a character who begins the game by acting out the idea of a hero in Japanese pop media: masculine and quiet. But it is only when he is able to reject this notion that he is special that he is able to triumph over Sephiroth. Sephiroth performs his conception of the role of a Christlike hero and Cloud triumphs over him by casting that aside. This is a rejection of the “destiny” narrative, whereby those who emerge triumphant are necessarily born to do so.
Various Series' Negative Presentations of Churches
While Final Fantasy and Dragons Quest benefit from a detailed analysis, during the genre's largest period of commercial success and critical relevance (1997 - 2003), so many different games presented organized religions in a negative or critical light that it becomes useful to merely summarize some of the most prominent examples. Final Fantasy X (2001) The order of Yevon is an incredibly corrupt religion that blatantly lies to the public and which, by refusing to challenge the tradition of how the villain monster Sin is defeated, perpetuates the monster’s existence and the suffering of the people who follow it. Implicit in FFX’s depiction of
Yuna is a deconstruction of the very idea of a Chosen One. Tales of Symphonia (2003) Much like FFX, its depiction of Collette also tears away at depictions of The Chosen One, depicting it as a life of largely pointless suffering. In addition it also pulls away at the idea of a chosen one in the sense that by attempting to keep her suffering to herself, she strongly exacerbates the problem. Finally, it suggests that Colletteâ€™s presentation of herself as a christ-like figure is mostly performance, that there is something more achingly human underneath all of that. Final Fantasy Tactics (1997) The Murond Glabados church maintains political power through propagating the story of the Zodiac Brave to collect Zodiac Stones, which causes the War of the Roses to persist. The iconography of the church is unmistakably Catholic. Xenogears (1998) The Ethos uses its message of faith to mask that their real activities are to dig up gears such that they can gain control over both of the warring nations of Kislev and Aveh, and to twist the knife the game also implies that the orphanages Ethos runs were often used to connect paedophilic priests with their victims. (Itâ€™s a topic for another time, but I feel I should note that that deadly serious topic gets one line and then itâ€™s forgotten forever, its played entirely for shock value.)
The imagery here is largely Catholic. Why? Given how the conventional moral values of the Western world have evolved largely from Christianity, that so many JRPGs come off as so hostile to christianity may come as something of a shock, even for secular audiences. Why would these games be so show such doubt in the system of beliefs that has provided the basis for law and ethics
in America and Europe? There’s your answer. In Japan, a very small number of people identify as christian, less than 1% according to recent statistics, and the history behind this is complicated. Ever since the first Japanese christian, a man named Anjiro, took the western name Paulo de Santa Fe after his conversion in the 16th century, christianity has always represented the West. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate the practice of Christianity was brutally repressed until religious liberties were granted in 1857 during the Meiji restoration. While this might suggest anti-Christianity to be a symbol of oppression in modern Japan, one also needs to consider that just a hundred years later Japan would be under the thumb of the Christian nation. The United States emerged victorious in World War II’s Pacific theatre through bombing runs that would later be described by future Defense Secretary Robert McNamara as war crimes and the only use of nuclear weapons in military history. Many of the games described above contradict Christian mythology while presenting images in line with concepts more common in eastern religions; FFVII’s Lifestream is a force that represents death and reincarnation a la Buddhism and Hinduism, the latter of which has some of it’s gods present as summon creatures. Japan’s state religion, Shinto, which is practiced by most of it’s citizens at least loosely, has more permanent views about death, but Shinto and Buddhism have long intermingled in Japan. FFVII, through these images, implies a connection between all living things and nature. That people and nature are of the same material and worth is presented in contrast with the Christian belief that God created man to be special. In some way, challenging Christian tropes and iconography, the ideology of those who laid Japan to waste, may be a statement reinforcing Japan’s own spiritual and national identity.
Japan has a complicated history as both an oppressed nation and an oppressor of other nations and Japan’s relationship with Christianity ought to be considered as a part of this. One should tread carefully when considering any the distortion of Christian ideas in Japanese media. It might be the death throes of the old imperial fascism. It might be a statement of nationalism from a country that still has US military installations and still operates under a constitution largely written by the US. In all honesty, it is probably a little bit of both.
And Many More
By no means do I intend to for this article to be comprehensive. That said, I hope I’ve given the games I presented and the culture they come from enough analysis to show that while most of these games do end with the defeat of godlike creatures, these games are also aware of what they are implying with this spectacle. The negative presentation of religions resembling Christianity is not empty, and comes from deep-seated, justified scepticism of the power that organized religions hold and the messages they propagate. Dragonquest VI ‘Little Church’ image from RealmofDarkness.net
Nietzsche, capitalism and the gamer ethos Mauricio Quilpatay
Mauricio is a sociologist living in Santiago, Chile. His research concerns the university campus as a discursive site, and he is also interested in gender identity, masculinity and power.
What is the fascination with murdering God? Gamers are god-killers. Either metaphorically or directly many games indulge us in the power fantasy of reaching up to God and committing deicide without remorse. Here I want to question the origins of god murder, its ties with western culture and its treatment in videogames. How is it possible to kill a god? Societyâ€™s relationship with the deity has eroded. Even though we live in an age dominated by monotheistic religions, it is also a world of religious supermarkets. We might have a strong faith and belong to
See Weber’s lectures on Science as a Vocation and Politics as a Vocation, given on 1918 and 1919 respectively.
The famous formulation can be found in aphorism 125 of the Gay Science, published on 1882
one religion, but we see through the window that our neighbour belongs just as strongly to another. We might see in our streets a Catholic church built next door to a Synagogue. Max Weber named this the “polytheism of values”, which is the harsh reality that we are faced with a competing offer of perspectives and values from many religions and systems of thought. This is a disenchanted world, and the consequence, Weber adds, is that we are incapable of asserting absolute objectivity of one’s own values and actions. That’s why Nietzsche by the end of the 19th century announced the death of God. God was always the possibility of transcendental order, which means that even though the world might be dark and chaotic, god exists to provide absolute moral and value scales. But God is dead and we all had a hand in killing him. And with him goes the possibility of objective values.
What is left for us is the mechanistic world of hard working self-made men, of the bourgeois capitalist. And it is no country for old gods. I propose that games let us kill God as a reflection of this cultural change. Only in a society where God is an uncertain figure is it even possible to talk about mortals killing gods. The answer to how lies at the heart of modern games, as Corey Milne’s “Labour of Souls:The Work Ethic of Demon’s Souls” (Memory Insufficient, vol. 2 #4) begins to show us. The world around us demands hard work and accumulation, and carries with it the promise of great rewards. If you study hard enough, work hard enough and are disciplined enough then you can legitimately have the house, the girl and the car you want, assuming you are a white male. This is the bourgeois, capitalist, ideology.
A lot, maybe even the majority of games demand that players pour their time into playing the game to get better at it. The most famous cases are fighting games, Street Fighter or Soul Calibur, and it seems to make sense that in a competitive game the difference in skill is a function of the time spent (plus other factors, of course). The “gitgud” meme synthesizes this, as a call out to players to “get good” at a game by working harder or investing more time on it. But beyond the “gitgud” meme, there’s a road built upon the tears and effort of time spent playing and perfecting one’s knowledge of a game, just as one has to put time into building a skill for a job or a career. These games are a form of sublimation, they take the player’s time and effort and reward him or her for it. Fighting games are the most egregious example, but Souls games (Demon’s, Dark Souls I and II) are another breed of games that directly reward this investment of time. Hard, disciplined effort will lead to success, to power. That is one of the basic promises of the capitalist system, and of bourgeoisie ideology, that is most pervasive in the western world. Work hard and honest and you’ll be rewarded with a good life. It’s the same structure in games. Gitgud at Dark Souls and you’ll be able to finish it. Study and prepare well enough for the journey in ADOM and you just might be able to survive to the end. That’s the hardcore way, the “true gamer” way.
Even though it applies to the secular world, there is a religious, or sacred, component to the gamer creed. Hard work and time invested in a game is rewarded with superiority. This is the primordial means of how “true gamers” judge one another and establish legitimacy and thus produce distinction between casual and hardcore gamers, for example.
See one of Weber’s main works, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
Capitalism and modern western culture follow principles that are quite similar. The hard working spirit of capitalism was analyzed by Max Weber. He proposed that the protestant’s concern for salvation led the way to the birth of a protestant work ethic that became the building block of later capitalism, especially in the case of Calvinism. The protestant ethic transformed work into a legitimate guiding principle for life, and after the bourgeois revolutions of the United States and France, it came to be the dominant ideology. Work, time and money became the sole components of the key equation in the eye of the western world, and the principle of legitimacy for wealth and power. My point at this stage of the argument is that videogames are reflections of this urban, male, bourgeois perspective. Videogames reproduce the fantasy that the individual is the result of his or her own decisions. For with sufficient skill, a product of time and effort invested, videogames make even killing gods a possibility. In the world of hard work, the world defined by capitalist and bourgeois ideologies, the supreme fantasy is that with enough investment anybody can match up to the gods.
Moreover, the gods can be ended because they are illegitimate aristocrats. They didn’t have to work for their power. Gwyn, the god of sunlight, didn’t have to spend his precious mortal time to get there and most certainly did not have to log 92 hours to finish Dark Souls for the first time. They were merely born with power and skill; bluebloods in a time when the noble claim to authority has fallen out of style. In this way games are in continuity with both the (middle-class) hackers and the liberal ideology of personal discipline.
Player-characters, and by extension gamers, can become like the gods, but only through their time and effort spent, to the point that they can even kill them. To kill a god, one must first be able to reach them and what games tell us is that it is in fact possible to do so, after many hours in front of the screen. Spend enough time (or money, which is the same) and your FarmVille or Hay Day farm will grow and prosper; play enough Sim City to learn its system, and you will gain dominion over its population and land; learn the moves, upgrade your equipment enough, and you will be able to kill even Dark Soulsâ€™ god of death himself! The games themselves lend to this mechanistic, quantitative perspective of the world. Power is measured in levels; strength, intelligence and charisma are attribute points with deterministic effects on the game reality. Work and time invested are often expressed in experience points, a quantifiable number that can thus be used by the player to empower his or her characterâ€™s influence on the surrounding world.
Games help reproduce the fantasy that success depends uniquely and exclusively on personal effort and discipline. They maintain the view that the world is a knowable and ultimately understandable system. It is a world subject to rules, where not even gods are exempt from them. Thus, I posit that the (white? Male!) gamer ethos is linked to work and effort as the principle of legitimacy of wealth and power. And gods have no place in these worlds.
Max Weber (1918) Science as a Vocation
Friedrich Nietsche (1882) The Gay Science Image: Gywn, Lord of Cinder, from Dark Souls wiki
Magic and divine
The introduction of clerics to tabletop rPGs Jon Peterson unreason.com
Jon Peterson is an author exploring the history of wargames and role-playing games.
The following is an edited-down extract from Playing at the World, Jon Peterson's Diana Jones Award short-listed history of the creation of Dungeons & Dragons. For more information, related blog posts and to buy the book visit www.unreason.com. Chainmail, the tabletop wargame that was the precursor to Dungeons & Dragons, admitted of no priestly type, and therefore Clerics require more investigation and explication than the other classes of fighting-man and magic-user, familiar from Chainmail, that came to define characters in the later game. When Gary Gygax, designer of Chainmail and co-designer of Dungeons & Dragons, asserts that Tolkien influenced Chainmail more than Dungeons & Dragons, the absence of religion in Middle-earth typified this division and is one
of the more substantial differences between the two games. The fantasy fiction author Lin Carter ridiculed Middle-earth’s impiety, arguing that in historical medieval societies, religious orders abound, and even if we leave aside all the Fantasy Supplement of Chainmail, the lack of holy orders in a realistic medieval wargame is a curious omission. Even so, despite its introduction of these pious characters, Dungeons & Dragons has almost nothing to say on the subject of the divine, on the god or gods that might be revered by Clerics; although later supplements fill this gap, the 1974 woodgrain box gives us priests entirely without religion.
The term “cleric” is an uncommon one in fantasy literature, certainly much less common than the term “priest.” When Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser took straight jobs in the classic story “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” for example, both ended up in the employ of rival holy men who worked the shifting pantheistic religious climate of Nehwon, but there is not a “cleric” to be seen on the Street of the Gods in Lankhmar. Howard’s Conan as well deals with hordes of Stygian priests, but neither is there a cleric among them. In Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, Christian “priests” similarly are abundant. Even Elric crosses paths with a holy man in the “Flame Bringers,” and reminds his partners in plunder that “it’s bad luck to kill a priest.” This is not to say that “clerics” are unheard of in fantasy worlds, unlike “magic-users.” In Anderson’s Operation Chaos (1971), a popular crossover fantasy book of the time, the term “cleric” is used interchangeably with “priest.” Clerics also figure in Anderson’s short story the “Merman’s Children.” Lovecraft peopled some of his temples with clerics, while Lin Carter’s Under the Green Star
(1972) contains a “crusty old cleric.” In Fletcher Pratt’s early fantasy novel The Well of the Unicorn (1948), all users of magic are called “clerks,” harkening to the era when the term was synonymous with literacy and education, both rare medieval commodities. One likely factor in the choice of the term “cleric” over “priest” is the latter word’s close association, in the minds of the authors, with Christianity. Both Gygax and Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Dave Arneson were active practicing Christians at the time. Etymologically, the term “cleric” has its origins in the Greek word kleros, commonly translated as “lot” (as in an implement of randomness), though the term gained its religious connotations through its use in the First Epistle of Peter to refer to the allotted portion of humanity destined for salvation. While the term therefore has substantial grounding in Christianity, it had by the 1960s come to refer to religious authorities in a secular context. Moreover, “cleric” has a medieval ring to it, recalling the time when literacy flourished only in religious circles, and to the illiterate peasantry the most elementary principles of natural science must have seemed magical.
Although Clerics may wear armor, they are permitted the use only of “non-edged magic weapons (no arrows!).” Although game balance probably played a role in this design decision, it also has some historical foundation in the Christian church. The origin of the priestly interdiction against bloodletting probably lies in the Book of Genesis (9:6): “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” At the Fourth Lateran Council (1215 CE), many constraints on the behavior of clerics became canon, including bans on visiting taverns and playing games of chance, but also prohibitions on the practice of “that part of surgery in-
volving burning or cutting” as these actions violated the ritual cleanliness required to perform the Mass. Presumably this would extend to any incisions performed with the intent to harm instead of help. Fortunately, Clerics in Dungeons & Dragons are welcome to bludgeon their foes dead, whereas the Fourth Lateran Council goes on to forbid clerics from executing sentences of death by any means. These mandates seem to have been honored in medieval society once they went into effect, though evidence of clergymen using blunt melee weapons in battle is scarce. The famous Bayeux tapestry depicts Bishop Odo, half-brother of William the Conqueror, holding some sort of mace, or perhaps a baton, at the Battle of Hastings (1066), though it is doubtful that Odo actually fought personally that day. Creasy explicitly puts a mace in Odo’s hand: “He had a hauberk on, over a white aube, wide in the body, with the sleeve tight and sat on a white horse, so that all might recognize him. In his hand he held a mace, and wherever he saw most need he held up and stationed the knights, and often urged them on to assault and strike the enemy.” Religious figures often play this sort of support role in combat; Tacitus records how ancient German priests carried emblems from their sacred groves into battle, and with them supposedly brought the very presence of their deities.
The inability of medieval clergy to perform surgery is at odds with the common notion of a Cleric as a healer. During the Crusades, Christian priests did minister to the wounded as skilled physicians, though in the course of treatment bloodletting and similar activities were relegated to less educated tradesmen such as barbers. Although this may sound counterintuitive to those familiar only with later editions of Dungeons & Dragons, the Cleric class was
originally presented as a sort of hybrid between the Fighting-man and the Magic-user, rather than a class oriented especially toward healing. “Clerics gain some of the advantages from both of the other two classes (Fighting-Men and Magic-Users)... plus they have numbers of their own spells.” As spellcasters, however, Clerics have a much smaller selection than Magic-users—about a third as many to choose from, and of those spells, more than a third copy effects that Magic-users can employ. In all, there are only sixteen spells unique to Clerics, compared with fifty-four spells unique to Magic-users. The implication is that for class balance reasons, Clerics received fewer spell options in exchange for the ability to wear armor and wield more weapons. There is no explicit mention of religion in the description of Clerics; the only suggestion that they are anything other than a hybrid of Fighting-men and Magic-users is the stipulation that higher level Clerics receive help from “above” when constructing strongholds and perhaps in that “faithful” henchmen will serve powerful Clerics free of charge.
The spells unique to Clerics, however, relate primarily to healing, and those spells draw directly from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. A Cleric might summon a plague of insects, turn sticks into snakes, create food and water, deliver a blessing or even speak with animals after the fashion of St. Francis of Assisi. Healing spells run the gamut from restoring wounded flesh to eliminating diseases or poisons and even raising from the dead, the ultimate Biblical miracle of the New Testament. While there are but few instances in the Bible where Christ heals non-lethal wounds resulting from violence, there is a notable one: during the arrest of Jesus, one of his disciples drew a sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, a ser-
vant of the high priest. As told in Luke 22:51, after condemning the violence of his followers, Jesus “touched his ear, and healed him.” After the crucifixion, the followers of Christ inherited the ability to work miracles, according to the Acts of the Apostles—though it pointedly notes that merely invoking the name of Christ was not sufficient to perform miracles (Acts 19:16). The eighth-century church historian Bede recorded a number of healing miracles performed in early medieval England: cures of blindness and disease, even a return from death.
By the eleventh century, resurrection had become so routine that St. Stanislaus would raise a man from the dead on the sole pretext of soliciting his testimony in a property dispute. In the Christian medieval world, illnesses and afflictions acquired a spiritual dimension addressable through prayer or the intercession of saints, and the clergy-dominated literature of the day stressed the importance of combating the metaphysical causes of bodily damage versus treating physical symptoms. As such, many churches, clergymen, relics and natural springs developed a reputation for curative powers that overshadowed the scientific medicine passed down from the tradition of Hippocrates and Galen. The distinction between a wizard and a priest in fantasy literature prior to Dungeons & Dragons is not a sharp one. Conan encounters both irreligious sorcerers and acolytes of dark gods, but their attitudes and actions are practically indistinguishable: both varieties are evil and rely on underhanded tricks rather than honest swordsmanship. Ironically, the very term “magic” comes from the Persian word magos, which means “priest”—magic is what Greek and Roman witnesses originally at-
tributed to Persian priests, and only later did the term come to encompass broader supernatural activities undertaken by any people. The basis of a distinction between the Magic-user and Cleric class, given the strongly Judeo-Christian bent of Clerical powers, probably has its roots in Christian tradition. In the Biblical Acts of the Apostles, for example, Peter encounters Simon, who practices sorcery (μαγευων) openly in the city of Samaria. Although Simon nominally adopts the Christian faith, when he observes the manner in which the apostles transmit the Holy Spirit by laying on hands, he offers Peter money to teach him this power. Peter rebukes him, and suggests that he may have missed the point of Christ’s teachings: “Your heart is not right before God” (Acts 8:21). Implicit in his condemnation is a fundamental distinction between the desire for piety and the desire for power; clearly, Simon falls more into the latter category than the former.
Once a Christian priesthood had emerged, later religious authorities stressed this distinction between magic and religion. At the Council of Toledo in 694, an edict ruled that “it is not permissible for altar ministers or for clerics to become magicians or sorcerers, or to make charms, which are great bindings on souls.” Dungeons & Dragons follows these precedents. Clerics have a moral code associated with the use of their powers, whereas Magic-users are amoral—which is not to say evil. Dungeons & Dragons cannily avoids the common terms “black magic” and “white magic,” instead presenting magic as something akin to engineering, merely a set of practices that lead to a result. It is noteworthy, however, that one cannot change class from a Cleric to a Magic-user or vice versa, whereas it is possible to switch classes between the Fighting-man and Cleric, suggesting that the designers
intended some fundamental incommensurability between priests and wizards. The process of supernatural healing, when it is shown in fantasy literature, rarely takes the form of a holy man praying for wounds to close, or anything along those lines. Often it involved the application of some form of supernatural medicine known to the practitioner. The mythological sources underlying fantasy fiction describe curative herbs that miraculously heal the wounded; for example, in the VĂślsungs saga, a raven (an emissary of Odin) brings such an herb to Sigmund in order to restore Sinfjotli. From these stories, a number of curative herbs make their way through the pages of sword-and-sorcery. In Three Hearts and Three Lions, a head wound sustained by Holger is addressed with â€œa poultice of herbs bound over it with an incantation,â€? which takes effect while he sleeps and finds him whole in the morning.
The more formal notion of casting a spell to heal is rarer in fantasy genre literature. Among the spells surviving from antiquity in the Greek Magical Papyri are procedures that cure various infirmities and even return the dead to life. Where they did not rely on the innate properties of plants, like the herbal remedies discussed above, the spells of ancient Greece and Rome invariably called on some higher power to realize their effect, usually by naming a god or intercessor directly, or less commonly through nonsense words or visual depictions. These did not however require the users of magic to claim adherence to any particular religion in order for gods to honor these appeals; the invoked names reflect a hodgepodge of Greek, Egyptian and Jewish elements befitting the highly pluralist and syncretic character of the period. The spread of Christianity did little to suppress the presence of such forbidden names, but it did add a variety of new ones to the vocabulary of magic: by the Middle Ages, a book of medieval medi-
cine like the Anglo-Saxon Lacnunga mixed herbal remedies with prayers to Jesus and Pater Nosters, as well as occasional mentions of Odin and elves. Norse cultures preferred to carve these spells as runes: in Eddaic poems like the Sigridríformál, we learn runic formulae that “heal the sick and close the worst of wounds” if written “on the bark of a forest tree with eastward-bending branches.” For all that, in these depictions, healing is often a magical rather than a spiritual process, there are fantastic worlds where the distinction between a Magic-user and a Cleric is sharply drawn. In Randall Garrett’s Too Many Magicians (1966), a novel Gygax favorably reviewed, there is a sharp division of wizards into Sorcerers and Healers, the latter of whom are representatives of the various religious traditions. Another novel of the era that Gygax recommended, Kenneth Bulmer’s Kandar, also links healing to divine agency: Kandar enlists the aid of a goddess who assumes many forms, one being that of Umiris of the Healing Touch, who restores mortally-wounded allies by laying on hands.
In Chainmail, before the full development of the concept of hit points, Heroes did not require divine intervention to heal their wounds. The introduction of systems in Dungeons & Dragons for managing non-lethal wounds necessitated the development of healing capabilities in the game, of which the Cleric class is largely a consequence. Meanwhile the notion of a religious aspect was built up around it and went on to gain greater significance as the game developed.
Jon Peterson Playing at the World unreason.com Image: Bishop Odo wields a club, Bayeux tapestry
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Memory Insufficient volume two issue five