The countdown began: 10…9…8…
“Where is it?”
“I dropped it!”
“Whew, we got it.”
Sound familiar? Anyone who’s been in an arcade and fought with the machine’s unbearably short countdown to put a bevy of quarters into the slots has been in this exact situation (though I toned down the language a bit). Though arcade attendance has declined, there’s still nothing quite like it. The smell of the place, the sticky floor, the machine that’s been touched by who knows how many other hands. Not magical, by any account, but it has its own certain charm.
But back to the quarters. Unlike home systems or the PC, where you’d ordinarily have to cheat to keep surviving, your relationship with the arcade is honest. You give it more quarters, it allows you to continue breathing – honesty.
But what about those quarters? The other day, I was pumping some into a machine across from a movie theater when I was struck by something: the possibility of immortality. Not in the metaphysical sense, but in gaming.
Consider that prior to the late ’90s the majority of games on consoles were dominated by a market oriented in Japan and overseas. Religious values there versus here in the U.S. are quite stark: We have a 77 percent Christian population, they have an 84 percent dual Shintoist/Buddhist population. In Japan, 0.7 percent identify as Christian, similar to the Shintoist/Buddhist populace in the U.S. (1 percent). It’s quite obvious that both countries are concerned with very different spiritual origins and planes, yet there is little to any religious quarrel in regard to gaming.
Most disagreements are over violence, blood, sex and profanity, but never religious meanderings. But why? After all, the greatest part of the gaming experience is being able to keep going, to “continue.” Short of being the greatest of all gamers, everyone has used continue screens and save points to come back from their destruction. Whether you misjudged a ledge and caused Mario to fall into the lava pit or were blown apart by Combine troops marching from Black Mesa, restarting fresh and new has been a part of gaming from the beginning.
Consider the meaning of that. More importantly, consider the meaning of arcade games, letting you keep going as long as you have the right requirements (in this case, money). Feeding those quarters one after another into the machines is like prolonging existence, ascending each “level” until you find your grand reward at the end of the road. A birth-death cycle not unlike that of the search for enlightenment and Nirvana in Buddhism, no?
Examine the stories of some of our most cherished games: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time offers us the view that Link’s universe was created when three creator goddesses gave life to the world, leaving behind the Triforce, an object made up of three golden triangles arranged to create an upside-down triangle in the center of it. Three is a sacred number in many religions, of course. In Christianity it represents the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In Buddhism, however, it represents the Three Jewels, or “Triratna” (which can look quite similar to the Triforce). It shows that you fully accept the teachings of the Buddha, hold him up as an enlightened teacher, and support those who share the same ideals. In the world of Zelda, the Triforce grants the desires of the man who possesses it. Its location is purported to be in “The Golden Land,” which Link briefly reaches after a fierce battle with Gannon at the end of A Link to the Past.
There are many examples of using metaphor and allegory to communicate religious beliefs. One of the most famous of which is C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, which espouses Christian beliefs in a mythical setting. Could Zelda be doing the same with Buddhism? I couldn’t find much of anything on game designer Shigeru Miyamoto’s religious affiliation (other than vague connections in his games to Shinto legends), so I can only speculate.
Regardless of whether that’s true, it seems that sweeping legends and vast worlds of myth are commonplace in many of the best games. Final Fantasy has often produced games that emphasize universal oneness and interconnection, such as the Lifestream in FFVII or Gaia in FFIX. Xenogears goes in a completely opposite direction, saying that humanity was the creation of an alien technology that produced us so that we could power its escape eons later. All this, yet Harry Potter gets flack for having witches and wizards.
Perhaps this is simply the result of gaming being less socially integrated than film, television, or literature. With the increasing influence that gaming is having on the collective psyche, that 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.
Is this a bad thing? Hard to tell. I think it’s positive in the sense that it allows us to examine our preconceived notions about the world, God, and religion in general, like all good art can. One should always try and explore things like that with an open mind. It could only be negative in that it further denigrates a (recently) mainstream medium that is trying to find legs among the general population. After all, if there’s concern that violence in games can have undue influence on the youth, imagine what would happen if the manic media reported that it’s converting children into Shintoists.
Ultimately, these weighty issues are ignorable if the game is fun to play. Until I sat down to write this article, I hadn’t considered what all that mythology meant, let alone appreciated that it may have greater implications. However, if Roger Ebert is right, if gaming is merely a lengthy distraction from more important things, then we’ll happily never have to worry about any of these issues.
But if Ebert is wrong, I’m happy to worry.
Tom Rhodes is a writer and filmmaker currently living in Ohio. He can be reached through Tom [dot] Rhod [at] Gmail [dot] com.