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Rachel Wagner

As surprising as it may seem at first glance, many of today’s violent video games exhibit remarkable similarities to ancient Jewish and Christian apocalypses. Both video games and apocalypses can be viewed as imaginatively inspired otherworldly journeys with a pronounced eschatological focus. Indeed, we can readily view video games as the most poignant site for contemporary renegotiation of the genre of apocalypse. Game-play, it seems, may have some profound kinship with religious imagination.

One of the easiest ways to observe the structural similarities between video games and apocalypses is to use the standard definition produced by the SBL “Apocalypse Group” in 1979. Violent video games can be aptly viewed as an experiential form of the genre of apocalypse:

An apocalypse is a genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.

John J. Collins explains that in an apocalypse, “There is always a narrative framework in which the manner of revelation is described. This always involves an otherworldly mediator and a human recipient” and always involves “eschatological salvation which is temporally future and presents otherworldly realities.”[1] Video games, like traditional apocalypses, can be viewed as “revelatory literature” with a “narrative framework” about an “otherworldly” location. Video games likewise invite players to actively enter into a “world” accessible to the player only through the medium of the video game console. Games even exhibit the characteristic dualisms of apocalypses in their presentation of the player-protagonist, sometimes with helpers, in a battle against fierce and often deadly opponents.

If we think of God as a “programmer,” then God is the producer of the set of choices we have in history, which is played out according to a set of rules that God has designed. Apocalypses, says John J. Collins, are “augmented [by] a sense of determinism . . . by affirming that the course of history or the structure of the cosmos was determined long ago.”[2] Apocalypses, then, exhibit a sort of theologically-motivated narrative rhetoric.

In video-game theory, this notion is called procedural rhetoric, which game theorist Ian Bogost defines as those “processes [that] define the way things work: the methods, techniques, and logics that drive the operation of systems.”[3] Thus, the “gods” who determines our set of choices in a video game consist of the team of programmers and designers who put it together. As Arthur Asa Berger notes, in a game “the player’s feeling that he or she is in control is only an illusion. Every choice, and its attendant consequences, has already been placed in the story by the programmers, writers, and artists who created the game.”[4]

Procedural rhetoric works by creating what Bogost calls “possibility space,” which consists of the different configurations of choices a player might make as he or she attempts to understand the structure of the system of the video game, essentially as he or she tries to figure out how to “win.” This sense of “possibility space” could be considered a sort of “covenant” with the player —he or she has agreed to abide by the rules of play and, in so doing, has entered into a set of possibilities transcribed by the parameters of the game.

Theological perspectives similarly demarcate a somewhat fixed “possibility space” for believers, who see the world and act in it according to the procedural rhetoric of their belief system. An apocalypse, then, could be said to exhibit God’s “procedural rhetoric” in its narrative description of the unfolding of history in a way that God has designated, but that allows for humans a certain amount of “play” within the rules. By depicting the cosmos as subject to God’s rules and shaped by God’s own predetermined design, apocalypses can be viewed as the ultimate game, shaped by the ultimate procedural rhetoric. As human beings we may have choices, but they are limited by God’s parameters—not ours. We are players in the game, not game-designers.

Another feature familiar to apocalypses that often crops up in video games is the otherworldly mediator. In the Book of the Watchers (En. 1-36), in 3 Baruch, and in 4 Ezra, for example, a seer acquires heavenly knowledge through questions asked of an otherworldly mediator. In video games an “otherworldly mediator” often guides the player through tutorials, offers helpful hints at crucial moments, and helps the player achieve his or her goals in the game. In the enormously popular Halo series of video games, for example, players are aided by Cortana, an artificially intelligent computer who offers back story and strategic information to the player as he or she assumes the role of the Master Chief. Cortana has no physical form, but portrays herself holographically in interactions with the player. Guides, then, are an important component of otherworldly journeys in that they describe for us how the “game” is to be played, or how the cosmos works—and thus offer hints about how to best make our way through it.

We can see the world of a video game as a temporary “world” entered into for the period of play, and distinct from our ordinary experience of space and time. Similarly,apocalypticists depict the otherworldly realm as a place that can be entered into as a temporary world formally distinguished from their regular lives. Take, for example, Enoch’s description of his ascent into the heavens, in which “the vision clouds invited me and a mist summoned me, and the course of the stars and the lightnings sped and hastened me, and the winds in the vision caused me to fly and lifted me upward, and bore me into heaven.” Among other wonders, he sees “a wall which is built of crystals and surrounded by tongues of fire” and “a tessellated floor (made) of crystals.” On theceiling, he sees “fiery cherubim”(1 En. 14). In Enoch’s journey into an otherworldly place, he views sights as intense as any offered in today’s imaginative virtual journeys in the “other worlds” of video games. And, like any game-player, he must eventually return to the mundane world.

Such similarities should, one might argue, not be so startling. In his landmark study Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga observes an intimate relationship between games and religion, noting the similarity between the ritual space marked out for religious experience and the “magic circle” denoted for play and tracing these similarities back to some of the earliest human civilizations. He adds: “Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the ‘consecrated spot’ cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. . . . All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.”[5]Video games and apocalypses both demarcate a separate imaginative “space” for religious experience as play, evincing the functional similarity between apocalyptic storytelling and modern game-play.

Another way of thinking about the relationship between apocalypses and video games is their presentation of time. Both are “temporal, insofar as [they] envisage eschatological salvation” and “spatial, insofar as [they] involve another, supernatural world.” Video games are “temporal” in their explicit division of game-play into levels and time limits, mimicking those apocalypses that divide time into epochs or stages before the final end. They are eschatological in their imminent expectation of the end of the (play) world when either all tasks have been successfully completed or the player has failed and certain destruction ensues. Video games are spatial in their integration of this intense sense of time alongside a presentation of an “otherworldly” space available only in the structured form of the gaming experience onscreen.

Because our reading of apocalypses (at least today) is primarily textual, our sense of the periodization of time and the expectation of an imminent judgment is cultivated through the production of tension in the narrative. In video games, other techniques are used to generate expectation, such as the game design technique called the “ticking clock.” The ticking clock, says game-designer Marc LeBlanc, “stands as a constant reminder that the game will end, and soon.”[6] The ticking clock features of a game convey “a sense of forward motion: as time runs out, the players feel propelled toward the conclusion of the contest.” One way to enhance this experience is to utilize an actual countdown. Another is to give a sense of dwindling resources, “quantifiable assets within the game state that deplete over the course of play and are never replenished.”[7] Ticking clocks are “nonreversible processes” or “changes to the game state that can’t be undone.”[8] These project a sense of linearity into an experience that is moving inevitably toward a fixed outcome. It also makes one wonder if in any oral performances that may have taken place, the early apocalypticists also enlisted interactive elements to heighten listeners’ sense of anticipation.

Video games do, however, exhibit one markedly important difference in comparison to their ancient counterparts in their typical depiction of agency in the end times. In traditional apocalypses, visionaries look forward to rewards for the faithful and punishment for the wicked as enacted by God. As David Aune notes, in ancient Jewish and Christian apocalypses, “the outcome is never in question,” since “the enemies of God are predestined for defeat and destruction.” The period of punishment will be followed by “the inauguration of the new age [that] will begin with the arrival of God or his accredited agent to judge the wicked and reward the righteous and will be concluded by the re-creation or transformation of the earth and the heavens.”[9] The occasional apocalypse does depict human beings enacting judgment, as in the “Apocalypse of Weeks,” but as Collins points out, even here “righteous human beings act in synergism with God or angelic hosts” not on their own.[10] In traditional apocalypses, God alone is in control of salvation and will intervene to end his people’s suffering.

In video games, agency is situated squarely with the player, who may rely upon guides for assistance, but ultimately enacts salvation by himself or herself, often in dramatically violent form. This messianic purpose is easiest to see in popular first-person shooter games like Halo and Resistance: Fall of Man. We see this messianic purpose even in Left Behind: Eternal Forces, the Christian-produced PC video game (2006). Despite its assumption of God as in charge of the unfolding end of the world, it is up to humans alone (and the single player in particular) to enact God’s charge on earth. There are no supernatural agents to assist us; rather, we are more likely to see demonic or evil forces fighting us as we battle single-handedly against them. In many video games, there is no overarching divine power at all. Nonetheless, the player is typically represented in most “first-person shooters” as a singular messianic figure called upon to save the “world” from otherwise certain ruin.

So what are we to make of this different view of salvation? David Hellholm has suggested that the Semeia definition should include the statement that apocalypses are “intended for a group in crisis with the purpose of exhortation and/or consolation by means of divine authority.”[11] The sitz im leben of traditional apocalypses is well known, characterized by the experience of oppression and suffering. In some ways, the sitz im leben of today’s video game players can be viewed as similar, at least in spirit. Think about some of our challenges today: postmodernism, cultural relativism, AIDS, war, terrorism, and the legacy of 9/11. If ever people needed the imaginative comfort that hope for a messiah might offer, today is the time. And if many people don’t believe in God, they can at least believe in themselves as personal messianic agents of deliverance, ridding the world of enemies, or at least of relativism, through the certainty that only comes from knowing exactly who your enemies are and blasting the hell out of them. Video games offer this kind of scripted absolutism.

Indeed, the challenges and anxiety associated with postmodernism are quite distinct from those experienced by early Jews and Christians suffering under Roman rule. Death in video games is temporary, not permanent—thus salvation is also temporary or perhaps even merely imagined. Worlds visited are transient. Enemies defeated are not real. When one turns off the game and returns to one’s daily life, the same hardships, the same problems, the same doubts remain.

Apocalypses may have offered early Jews and Christians comfort precisely because the “game” they invited us to play was infinite, so the rewards of “winning” had some lasting consequences, and so could offer real comfort in daily life. The popularity of fabricated apocalyptic visions of the sort encountered in today’s video games marks both the appeal of the genre and also its ultimate ineffectiveness in times of generally accepted moral relativism. Perhaps the ancient apocalypticists also saw their own otherworldly journeys as mere imaginative play, but it seems likely that if they did, they utilized the elements of play to make much larger claims about their own certainty of meaning in the cosmos and their own hope that God would soon intervene to prove them right.

Rachel Wagner, Ithaca College

Notes

[1] John Collins, ed. “Apocalypse: The Morphology of a Genre,” Semeia 14 (1979):9.

[2] John Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 40.

[3] Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games (MIT Press, 2007), 3.

[4] Arthur Asa Berger, Media Analysis Techniques (3rd ed.; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2005), 191.

[5] Johan Huizinga, “Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon,” in The Game Design Reader (ed. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman; MIT Press, 2005), 105.

[6] Marc LeBlanc, “Tools for Creating Dramatic Game Dynamics,” in Salen and Zimmerman, The Game Design Reader, 446.

[7] Ibid., 453.

 

[8] Ibid., 454.

[9] David Aune, “Understanding Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic,” WW 25 (2005): 236.

[10] John Collins, Encounters with Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 137.

[11] David Hellholm, “The Problem of Apocalyptic Genre,” Semeia 36:13-64 (1986):27.

 

 
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