First-Person Shooter Religion: Algorithmic Culture and Inter-Religious Encounter

By Wagner, Rachel | Cross Currents, June 2012 | Go to article overview

First-Person Shooter Religion: Algorithmic Culture and Inter-Religious Encounter


Wagner, Rachel, Cross Currents


The things we do in video games, says garner theorist Galloway, "are an allegory for the algorithmic structure of today's informatic culture" (17). But our fascination with algorithms is hardly new. Indeed, religious history is infused with a host of scripted, coded forms of interaction, facilitated by religious authorities who have typically acted as the moderators of consistency--the operating systems for culture, if you will. As scripts for interactive behavior, rituals are traditional forms of "algorithmic culture." Rules about behavior, about textual interpretation, and about how to interact with others are often coded into religious systems, as algorithmic in design as any computer-based script. This is especially true of the Abrahamic, revealed religions, since these three faiths typically include a belief in God as Programmer and propose that the world unfolds via the interaction between God and his creation. Because they seem for so many people to depend so much on the idea of a Programmer God, these religions also have the most at stake in a consideration of algorithmic culture.

Galloway is one of a growing number of interdisciplinary thinkers interested in how digital culture is meaningfully shaping our lives. A highly respected media scholar, an expert video game player, and a philosopher engaging with the cultural landscape, Galloway draws on his interest in "algorithmic culture" to propose that video games should not be viewed as sheer entertainment; indeed, he argues, the forms of "configuration" found in video games "express processes in [broader] culture that are large, unknown, dangerous, and painful" (16). Religious practice, too, can be viewed as a reflection of larger cultural processes, sometimes compassionate, but sometimes also hateful. Given the decline in institutionalized religious identification that is happening at the same time as video games become increasingly popular, is it possible that video games might be performing some of the same functions as religious activities? And if so, what does that mean? Both religion and games, after all, provide us with structures founded in worlds that we enter into, providing us with temporary escape from our daily lives. And both, of course, are products of human culture: they both represent the kinds of things we as humans do and make, the ways that we script our lives. Both can provide interpretive maps for how the world works. And both offer a sense of order and purpose, however temporary, to the people who "play" them.

Religion: the game

The first major obstacle encountered in an inquiry of this sort is huge and, frankly, insurmountable. How can I compare religion and games, when both terms are so riddled with definitional controversy and complicated by so many participants weighing in that there is no obvious agreement? How can I pretend to know what religion is, especially enough to even label it as a "game" for the sake of argument? Instead of trying to define religion and games, I perform an exercise in synthesis and provocation. By composing an assemblage of resemblances between religion and games, I reveal my interest in the common concerns that emerge. Any similarities, however, should aptly be viewed as thought-provoking, not as normative. Indeed, the comparison reveals a list of shared features that is fluid, incomplete, and enthusiastically open for debate.

1. Both religion and games are often described as predominantly social, although both also have lesser "played" forms that are solitary. Salen and Zimmerman (2004, 462), two of today's leading video game theorists, point out that "over the centuries, games have been valued as social experiences, as a way for people to relate to each other, as a way for people to play together." Many theorists of religion, including Emile Durkheim, Victor Turner, and Jonathan Z. Smith, among others, have similarly noted the social aspects of religious experience, especially religion's ability to offer a sense of identity and purpose for a group of people, often in distinction from other groups of people. …

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