AT Exeter Cathedral last month, I helped to put together an act of worship that incorporated a computer game (News, 18 May). It drew a wide range of responses. What I had not realised was that we had stumbled on a long-running debate in the Church.
“What is wrong with the inspiring hymns with which we grew up? When I go to church, it is to worship God, not to be distracted.” This is not a reaction to the service last month, but a letter written in 1890 about the new-fangled hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus”. Many aspects of worship that come to seem normal are initially criticised as gimmicks, including the pipe-organ.
How much we embrace this tradition of new ideas in the Church, I think, is determined by what we think about heaven. My theology of heaven is, like that of N. T. Wright, that of a city coming down to earth rather than disembodied escape. So my hope is for the best of human progress to survive, albeit unimaginably changed. It is this that explains my inclination to participate in the best of human progress here and now — and where better to do that than in worship?
In my work as a computer-games journalist, this has led me to talk about technology using theological language. I review and write about video games in the media. It feels natural to find meaning among smartphones, tablet computers, and game consoles.
I TRIED to communicate this in a talk recently, and stimulated interest from Canon Anna Norman-Walker from Exeter Cathedral. So a plan was hatched to incorporate a PlayStation 3 (PS3) game, Flower, in an evening service. In it, players control the wind to blow a petal through a hillside landscape and pollinate other flowers. It was a perfect match with the service’s theme of creation.
After a short introduction from me, the game was projected in front of the congregation, as other elements of the service continued. The congregation (which included students and grandparents) passed the controller around, taking turns to steer the petals that we were collecting.
Word of the “Cathedral PlayStation” service spread quickly through the gaming and church media. I was asked on Radio 4’s Sunday programme: “Isn’t this a gimmick to attract more people to church?” and “What sort of people are you hoping to attract?” The irony for me was that, both in terms of novelty and recruitment, the truth was quite the reverse.
Far from being a gimmick, the video game sat comfortably in among the other elements of the service, and, I have heard little feedback about its being distracting. It felt entirely appropriate. If all sorts of technology will make the crossing with us to
our newly clothed world, then of course it is good to use it in meaningful ways now. It is a foretaste of what these things might become one day.
In turn, this changed suggestions of recruitment on their head. The game (and video games in general) benefited more from the relationship than the Church. Rather than being used to get young people into the service, it was actually the place where older people could encounter video games in a way that shed new light on what they were.
ALL sorts of new ideas and conversations were started that day in the cathedral. But the ones that excited me the most were those that engaged people in an unexpected way with new resources to help them make sense of life — and many of these were about video games.
It is here that the parallel between video games and Christianity is strongest for me. Both hold rich resources, ancient and emerging stories, honesty about uncertainty, creative ways to keep talking about the world in the face of loss and pain. But, equally, both are capitalised on by only a tiny proportion of the people around me. The rich pools of stories of video games and of faith are left to gamers and to Christians.
First, among my peers there seems to be a diminishing interest or awareness of what Christianity, or indeed any religion, may have to offer everyday life. The response to Alain de Botton’s call to value what religions offer is testament to how far off the map these issues have strayed (Features, 20 January).
Second, if you talk to non-gamers about video games as offering new ways to tell our human story, or of creating space in which to reflect on the pressing issues of our day, you set yourself up to face incredulity.
I suggest that the way through these twin conundrums is to taste and see what each has to offer. This, of course, is not a new idea for religious engagement, but is a less-familiar way to interact with video games.
AS AN explanation, one game I value alongside more traditionally spiritual “texts” is a PS3 game called Journey. In it, a player controls a Bedouin-looking character as he or she explores desert, cave, and polar landscapes. This starts as a novel idea for some fun, but develops into a moving story of an individual’s relationship with the environment. Along the way you encounter other players (at random through an internet connection, if that feature is enabled), and although you are unable to communicate with them, surprisingly strong bonds are established between you.
The game talks of our relationship with the land, our need for companionship, and the desire to reach a destination. But it does this without words, instead letting the interactions do the storytelling. It creates space where players can reflect on life, find new inspiration for real-world trials, and even recognise their needs for other people and for (metaphorical) mountains to climb.
I agree with de Botton (TED atheism 2.0), when he said: “Religion’s ideas are so intelligent, so subtle, they are not fit to be abandoned to the religious alone.” For me, this applies to video games as well as religion. Video games are too important and valuable to leave to gamers. I was excited about the “PlayStation Cathedral” service — not because of those two words, but because of the new connections made for people between technology, meaning, and faith.
Andy Robertson writes for Third Way about video games. He produces the YouTube channel Family Gamer TV, and runs the Game People community website (www.gamepeople.co.uk).