The pews are made of ballistic nylon infused with plastic pellets. In front of each rests a rack, not for hymnals, but gaming magazines. There’s an altar, but it’s not at the far end of the room, under a crucifix, it’s right in front of you, and it’s made of plastic and glass. This is the church of gaming, my friends, and services commence whenever we feel like worshipping. We’re a devout bunch, we are, but we don’t get out enough to proselytize.

The windows may or may not be stained glass (more likely they’re posters) and depict our own brand of iconography: Miyamoto coming down from Mt. Fuji holding hands with Mario and Zelda, Will Wright casting the unfaithful out of the SimGarden, Cliffy B curbstomping The Devil. We pray to them by hurtling insults (and controllers) when their worship demands sacrifice, we tithe (and then some) to stay in their good graces and we congregate en masse on web forums and message boards to compare and contrast our devotion to the deity … and fight over whose is better.

And then there’s the games. We huddle over them like shamanic medicine, breathing the fumes of “new plastic” and seeing fully-rendered, high-res visions in a quest to soothe our souls, expand our minds or attain oneness with our unique group consciousness. The games are the Alpha and Omega of our shared religion, and through them we relate to each other and the world. Within them we find peace and a vague sense of security, and because of them and the community their worship engenders, we find a home for our wandering souls; a place where we are understood and feel “of worth.”

Narrowly Defined
That we play games, read about them, argue about them and even make them does not begin to describe the sum total of the experience to those of us on the inside. That we, as gamers, are misunderstood does not even touch upon the matter. We’re beyond misunderstood; we’re often willfully unapproachable, wearing our 1UP Tees as a shield against belonging, blotting out our windows to reduce both the glare of the sun and the chance of being seen. We live both for and in the games, and it is there that we feel most secure, most powerful and most real. This is not an illusion.

Consider the peyote cactus which, according to Peyote.org, is “employed as a religious sacrament among more than forty American Indian tribes in many parts of the United States and western Canada.”

These [Huichol] Indians still assemble together in the desert 300 miles northeast of their homeland in the Sierra Madre mountains of western Mexico, still sing all night, all day, still weep exceedingly.

Those on their first pilgrimage are blindfolded, and the participants are led by the shaman to the “cosmic threshold” which only he can see. All stop, light candles, and murmur prayers while the shaman, imbued with supernatural forces, chants.

The Huichol Peyote hunt is seen as a return to Wirikuta or Paradise, the archetypal beginning and end of a mythical past. A modern Huichol “mara’kame” expressed it as follows: “One day all will be as you have seen it there, in Wirikuta. The First People will come back. The fields will be pure and crystalline, all this is not clear to me, but in five more years I will know it, through more revelations. The world will end, and the unity will be here again. But only for pure Huichol.”

The phrase “only for pure Huichol” echoes sentiments seen on gaming blogs and in Wii lines everywhere that only those who’ve been indoctrinated, only those who are in can understand and partake of paradise – or Final Fantasy. It’s a setting apart of one’s group from those on the outside and suggests that the shared experience has more value than simply the effect of the drug – or the game.

But what, really, are the effects of videogames on the mind, and can they compare to the psychoactive effects of the peyote plant? Alan Pope, a behavioral scientist at NASA Langley Research Center in Langley, Virginia believes so. Pope, in an attempt to prove that the same meditative effects experienced with techniques like biofeedback-controlled meditation training could be replicated with videogames, conducted a study with 22 children (PDF) suffering from ADHD. Half of his group was treated with biofeedback meditation, the other half with videogames. The results were startling.

After 40 one-hour sessions, both groups showed substantial improvements in everyday brainwave patterns as well as in tests of measuring attention span, impulsiveness and hyperactivity. Parents in both groups also reported that their children were doing better in school.

There may be far less singing (unless you’re playing Singstar), dancing (DDR) or weeping (Final Fantasy VII) but playing videogames indisputably focuses the mind, providing clarity and improving concentration, creating a shared experience similar to consuming the bushy, hallucinogenic cactus plant of Mexico. But what of the social component? According to Science Blog, Constance Steinkuehler, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Dmitri Williams, a professor of speech communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, claim that some games “promote sociability and new worldviews,” which sounds a lot like organized religion to me.

The researchers, claim that MMOs function not like solitary dungeon cells, but more like virtual coffee shops or pubs where something called “social bridging” takes place. They even liken playing such games as “Asheron’s Call” and “Lineage” to dropping in at “Cheers,” the fictional TV bar “where everybody knows your name.”

“By providing places for social interaction and relationships beyond the workplace and home, MMOs have the capacity to function much like the hangouts of old,” they said. And they take it one step further by suggesting that the lack of real-world hangouts “is what is driving the MMO phenomenon” in the first place. … “To argue that … MMO game play is isolated and passive media consumption that takes the place of informal social engagement is to ignore the nature of what participants actually do behind the computer screen,” the authors wrote.

The doors, as William Blake (or Jim Morrison) would say, are being cleansed, and we begin to see games as they truly are. Providing both a social and mental stimulus, playing games, in this light, can be seen as quite similar to the benefits of organized religion, offering a sense of belonging, a shared mythology and even the physical stimulus akin to drug-induced spiritual visions, like those experienced by the peyote worshippers of Mexico.

That we get something real and physical from games is only beginning to be understood, but those of us who are in already know it feels good to be a part of the culture and to play games. That’s why we play them, why we belong. But can you go so far as to describe videogaming as a “religion”?

Philosophy of Life
Merriam Webster defines a religion as “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.” Encarta agrees and further describes religion as “an object, practice, cause, or activity that somebody is completely devoted to or obsessed by.” According to these two reference sources, videogaming could very well qualify.

Mirren at Zelda Universe connects the dots between the Zelda universe in particular and organized religion fairly convincingly, starting with the yellow, triangular symbol adorning the T-shirts of many a gamer: “The Symbol. Every religion has one (or even several) major symbol/s. Christianity in all of its branches has the Cross or Crucifix, Judaism has the Star of David, Islam has the Star and Crescent, Taoism has the Yin and Yang etc. What does Hyrule’s religion have? I think any Zelda fan should know; the Triforce.”

Tom Rhodes, writing in Issue 66 of The Escapist shares Mirren’s perspective on the religious significance of the mythology of games and suggests that gaming as a religion unto itself may be evolving because of such strong symbolism. “With the increasing influence that gaming is having on the collective psyche,” he writes, “[social integration of games] can’t be too far behind, and with it comes controversy. We may have never connected religion and gaming before in any strong way, but that day is arriving soon enough.”

That day may already be here, but is videogaming a religion or a cult? Consulting our references, Webster defines a cult as a “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work” Again, Encarta goes a bit further defining a cult as “idolization of somebody or something: an extreme or excessive admiration for a person, philosophy of life, or activity” and “sociology elite group: a self-identified group of people who share a narrowly defined interest or perspective.” And here we have conflict, since videogaming, based on definitions alone, could be either.

Idolization of Somebody
Last month marked the 10-year anniversary of the infamous Heaven’s Gate mass suicide, a brutal act by a cult who all believed (or were led to believe) that a spaceship riding (invisibly) behind the comet Hale-Bopp would whisk them away to the extraterrestrial kingdom of heaven if their souls were freed from their bodies at the exact moment the comet passed overhead.

According to all definitions, anecdotal evidence and statements from former members, the Heaven’s Gate community was a cult, and its members were mostly disaffected outsiders (computer geeks) who raised money for the cult by producing web sites and doing various computer consulting. Whatever trials and tribulations the 39 members of Heaven’s Gate faced in their daily lives, their burdens were sufficient to convince them that a better life lay in store for them in the arms of an unknown alien race, about which the only evidence for existence lay in the mind of one man, Marshall Applewhite, aka “Do.”

On March 26, 1997, following instructions from Do, the members of the cult, ate poisoned pudding and died. According to Harry Jones, writing for SignOnSandiego.com, family members of the cultists suggested they’d joined Heaven’s Gate “searching for answers and goals. … Applewhite offered a simpler, more focused way of life that also isolated group members from the outside world and fostered a shared belief system.”

Which is very similar to what users experience upon entering the cult of gaming. I learned this firsthand, taking part in the ritual of adoration that was Shigeru Miyamoto’s keynote speech at this year’s GDC. As at most Nintendo keynote speeches, there was cheering, standing, yelling “Woo!’ and shouting of encouraging pleas such as “You can do it!” and “We made it!” The looks on many of the faces were bordering on manic. There was clearlyadulation, identification and love for the man who made Zelda and the brand he represents. At the suggestion that Nintendo had finally beaten rival Sony, the crowd, literally, went wild.

Jim Munroe at The Cultural Gutter speaks of his confrontation with the obsessive fans of one particularly symbolic game: “When I posted my bad review of Zelda: The Legend of Windwaker (Nintendo, 2003) to this site it immediately inspired a flood of outraged comments … over 8,000 words about a column that was about 800 words long. … One of them said that one of my points ‘bordered on blasphemy.'”

Wired columnist Clive Thompson, writing about his Final Fantasy “virginity” paints a similar picture:

Consider, for starters, the fan base. Gamer culture is already insular, but Final Fantasy fans were so wild-eyed and devout that they seemed like a monastic order living inside craggy caves on an unnamed planet. They’d hang out in clusters, painstakingly dissecting snippets of character dialogue, musing on the subtle distinctions of green magic versus the black stuff, bitching about how recurring characters like Bahamut – Bahamut? – had been reskinned for the latest version.

Eventually, it became terrifying for any self-respecting gamer to admit that you hadn’t played a Final Fantasy game.

A Self-Identified Group
Game developers haven’t cured cancer, fed the poor or eradicated global strife. They make games. And yet many are treated like saints, more respected than the president of the United States and loved more deeply than most gamers love their own kin. And yet, to those of us on the inside, this is not an aberration. This is, simply, the way it is. It may seem strange unless you belong, unless you’re in.

Love, as Shakespeare says, makes fools of us all. The poor Heaven’s Gate folks loved Do deeply, and believed in him and the way of life he represented. We love games, and the people who make them, and from the games themselves we get a physical and spiritual sense of well-being, and a communal feeling of belonging. For the games we do truly foolish things like stand in line, overnight, outside, for the chance to (maybe) spend buckets of money on devices that do (essentially) the same thing as the ones we’ve already bought, five times over.

Is this the same as swallowing a poison pill to get to heaven? Are gamers at risk of becoming a massive cult rivaling all the religions of the world, drawing in the young and disaffected, focusing them toward the goal of … something? Perhaps not. Perhaps there is a wide disparity between wearing a T-shirt and committing mass suicide, and one would have to argue that the cult of gaming itself reflects multiple cults, each seemingly at war with one another over rival systems and even games. But the similarities are unmistakable, and one must ask oneself what would happen if Miyamoto weren’t such a gentle soul?

What if, standing before the assembled might of his fans, he hadn’t said “My vision does not have to be your vision. I am only one person,” but rather “If our will is so strong that no hardship and suffering can subdue it, then our will and our [Nintendo] might shall prevail?”

Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He has written and produced for television, theatre and film, has been writing on the web since it was invented and claims to have played every console ever made. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.

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