The Mass Effect of Games

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I blame it all on Star Wars!

Before the arrival of video recorders (whatever they were?), before dvd, blu-ray, or digital downloads; through the rose-tinted spectacles of a childhood summer, I can remember watching Star Wars (now episode IV: A New Hope), four times in our local cinema.

Science-fiction has been a prominent feature of my life since before the days I reached two numerical digits in Earth years – as you can tell! Through the genre of science fiction possible futures are presented before us. No clearer has this been to me than in the ‘Mass Effect’ video game franchise initially launched on the X-Box 360 games console in 2007. On the new or ‘next’ generation of video games consoles the latest instalment of ‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ is eagerly awaited.

Mass Effect as a gaming experience was presented as a trilogy, which was music to the ears of one nurtured on the original trilogy of Star Wars (just to confuse you that is episodes IV-VI). Apart from the innovative third-person gameplay the significant and lasting memory of the Mass Effect trilogy was the possibility of playing a ‘good’, ‘bad’, or morally ambiguous character within the role playing features of the game. This presented endless possibilities of replayability but also the freedom to explore the subtle and complex experience of the consequences of moral choices. This trend continues in ‘Witcher 3″ and ‘Fallout 4’ to name just two in this video-game genre. It appears video gaming is becoming more morally complex and more sociable with the growth of online co-operative and multiplayer gaming.

Games form part of the human need to escape, explore, dream, and control. They can be traced back thousands of years to the beginnings of chess, and earlier. Human psychology does not need to help us to comprehend the significance of games in human development, we know, and we know that development and need for play does not end with childhood.

And yet there is an aura of respectability that surrounds any admission in the love of playing chess, for example, that is totally absent in the same admission of playing video-games. This is unfortunate as it is commonly catalogued that the video gaming industry continues to out-perform the Holywood film industry and that gamers vary so much than the commonly considered teenage young male playing alone in his darkened bedroom. Perhaps it is time to look again at how we understand play as a generation comes of age that have only ever known the world of the internet.

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As the attendance in traditional Christian church worship continues to decline and become more exclusive to the general population’s experience in British post-industrial society so the numbers in video gaming continue to grow and become more inclusive. Although there is no direct correlation and this would be too simplistic, there should be a recognition that the desire to explore and play runs very deeply within the human soul. Jesus himself said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10: 14-15)

In some ways play has never sat easily with the Protestant Christian work ethic and yet it is God-given. The sabbath is a key concept in the story of biblical creation, and Easter it can be said, of ‘re-creation’. Dr.David Naugle  provides an excellent summary and critique on this subject in his work, ‘A Serious Theology of Play’ and concludes by saying:

“If God is a God of play, and if human play is, indeed, rooted in divine play, then we, as humans, ought to develop our abilities at play and cultivate a spirit of playfulness. This is both our gift and our responsibility in a often-serious world. Whatever forms of “play” you may pursue—whether it be music, reading, sports, furniture restoration, gardening, photography, or drag racing—do it heartily unto the Lord, as a reflection of a rarely recognised aspect of the divine nature. Your life will be an answer to H. L. Mencken’s stereotypical puritan who worries about people having fun, and your example will testify to the Friedrich Nietzsche’s of the world that, indeed, there is—and that you know—a God who dances.”

We need to look again at play in all its forms. The good news is Christian churches are. One experience I can testify to is the value of ‘Messy Church’ which is growing within Christian churches in the United Kingdom. It holds a very simple yet refreshing message, ‘God creates from mess’ – would that more of our post-industrial, even ‘regimented’ forms of Christianity could hear this message. Play gives permission to explore, experience, learn and comprehend with another area of the brain and yet the very phenomenon of ‘Messy Church’ underlines that many of us do not associate the concept of ‘church’ with the fundamental human need for ‘play’.

We are creatures that cannot help ourselves but play and that can take many forms that can be encouraged. Playing cards can be done in a healthy or an unhealthy way, so can physical sports like football, and even video gaming. None are intrinsically bad but three questions do emerge:

  • As communications technology continues to make all of us increasingly more available for work how can we utilise that same technology to give us permission to play in healthy ways?
  • What should Christian churches be doing or saying to help people engage in play and re-creation, something which can be argued to be God-given?
  • Play is a good medium for providing human contact and interaction. What are healthy forms of play in the digital age with a generation who have only ever known the internet?

Fortunately some are engaging with these questions and those with eyes to see and ears to hear are beginning to reassess and appreciate the mass effect of games.

What does it mean to be human.com? Bladerunner Replicated

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‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ was a huge summer blockbuster in 1982.  I remember seeing it at a packed cinema and yet the world portrayed in it seems to now be of the last century. More disturbing is another film released that year which I remember watching at a virtually empty cinema, that was deemed a box office failure at the time, but whose haunting themes and message only seem to resonate more closely with this new millennium. It is now described as prophetic and a cult classic.

‘Bladerunner’ presents a dystopian nightmare of a not too distant future whose complex themes question our human identity. Paul Sammon in ‘Future Noir: The Making of Bladerunner’ (1996), sums this up well when he says:

“Lurking under the film’s pop visuals and trendy special effects is a subtle, dizzying tangle of deeply felt moral, philosophical, and sociological concerns. Take the film’s title a “Blade Runner” could also be interpreted as someone who scampers along the thin edge of life. Or witness the multiple examples of narrative mirroring (or doubling) throughout. Deckard kills two replicants, two replicants save his life. Deckard finds a reason to live; Batty wants to live. Religious parallels are also rampant: Tyrell is literally the replicant’s God, and Batty, Tyrell’s prodigal son, symbolically pierces his hand with a nail, suggesting crucifixion. Even the film’s horizontal/vertical design scheme makes a statement; Blade Runner’s privileged few live in luxurious towers, literally high above the disenfranchised masses below. All the musings are swept aside, however, by the three, key, simple yet profound questions which constitute the core of the film: Who am I? Why am I here? What does it mean to be human?”

These questions resonate even more clearly in our age of the global community.  We can invent the persona of whoever we want to be, dispose of that identity, and invent another one in a matter of minutes online. We are constantly bombarded with information and an endless horizon of possibilities and yet there are suggestions that we are ‘communicating’ less in relation to social interactions, the irony being that we may feel less connected to other human beings within this digital communications oasis. And a Kierkergaardian existential despair may develop leaving us residing at ‘What does it mean to be human.com?’

Human beings are social animals. However badly we may do it sometimes, we are designed to relate, it is within our DNA. The received Christian view is that we are not complete as human beings within ourselves. The wholeness we seek cannot be filled by technology, drugs, sex, or the ever increasing acquisition of material goods, “Stuffocation”, as James Wallman aptly puts it in his book of the same name. Instead we may have to begin by letting go of that which we seek to grasp. Or to quote the spiritual realisation that the replicant character, Roy Batty, comes to at the end of ‘Bladerunner’, “All these moments will be lost in time…like tears in rain.”

The Bible makes it clear that immortality is not the goal of human existence, instead ‘eternal life’ is, which we can experience in this life. At the heart of eternal life is a relationship and most relationships require what is commonly termed ‘give and take’, perhaps even sacrifice. (John 17:3) The digital age presents us with endless promises of acquisition and yet the human soul seems to become enlarged when we face that which we are prepared to lose. (Matthew 16:25). This spiritual practice is not only common to Christianity but to Buddhism and there are numerous instances where a dialogue has developed on this subject. I think it is no coincidence that there has been a continuing rise of interest within medical, secular, as well as religious circles, in the practice of mindfulness in recent years. Although there may be different conclusions on why this has happened, its popular ascendancy within only a matter of a decade cannot be ignored.

Whatever our religious beliefs or philosophical viewpoints, it seems to be true that the human spirit often grows through a healthy form of materialistic detachment, challenge, even adversity, and not consumerist acquisition. The former gives birth to self-realisation and fulfilment while the latter may feed upon our status anxiety and fear. And what we can discern is that the predictions of ‘Bladerunner’ will always be replicated if we persist in ignoring a very ancient yet modern truth, whatever value system we may profess:

The future is only dark if we have no faith in the dawn…