Book Plunge: Playing With God: A Theoludological Framework For Dialogue With Video Games

What do I think of Matthew Millsap’s dissertation? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

“And Matthew Millsap wrote his dissertation on video games and Christianity.”

My ears perk up as I’m in my systematic theology class last semester and hear these words. I immediately look up this man and find him on Facebook and send him a message. Before too long, he’s happy to send me his dissertation. In preparing to write this also, I contacted him and asked where others could go if they want this dissertation as well and he said you can contact him on Twitter.

So theoludological. I had never heard that word before and my spell check doesn’t even recognize it. It is a combination of ludology and theology. Great! That explains it! So what’s ludology? It’s the study of games. Amazing I never even knew that there was a name for what I have been doing through so much of my life.

Millsap and I are quite similar. We’re both gamers and we’re both at this time 42. We have both been playing games for pretty much all our lives.

Fact check true on the above meme.

When you go through the dissertation, it’s clear that he has a great knowledge of games. Something interesting also for me is that the games he plays seem to be more of a different genre for the most part than the ones that I play. He seems to enjoy first person shooter types and other similar games and I am much more into the RPG and JRPG genre.

Still, he has got me curious about the Bioshock series at least. (Available on the Nintendo Eshop if anyone is feeling generous)

This dissertation is divided into seven chapters. The first is about interaction with pop culture and the lack of interaction with video games. The second is about the origin and history of video games. The third is about narrative themes in video games. The fourth is about theology’s dialogue with other forms of narrative material. Chapter five is where the meat of this work is and shows how this interaction takes place and why video games are different from other forms of media. The sixth shows it in practice with a look at the game Journey. The final chapter discusses implications and further areas of research.

One possible researcher being the one writing this blog.

I was definitely pleased reading this to see how much Millsap definitely is familiar with video games. To some extent, probably a little bit jealous too picturing him getting to read so much about games and at the same time consider it theological research. I could easily picture him, seeing as he’s married, sitting on the couch playing a game like Bioshock and his wife saying “Honey! Can you take out the trash?!” “Not now, dear! Doing research for my dissertation!”

One of the rare times that excuse would work.

If you are unfamiliar with the history of video games, Millsap will give you a good crash course on it in this dissertation. He is also right in there is very little interaction with this medium. When I gave my talk at Defend this month, I was pleased to see how many people showed up. Why? Because this is a topic we need to talk about and there were people of all ages and of both sexes in there.

That being said, the narrative aspect is key. Yesterday, I watched a video on Final Fantasy IV and considered just how much a story difference there was. Final Fantasy IV when it was released over here was Final Fantasy II as Japan kept the next two games in the series to themselves. (And why did we just not declare them our political enemies at that point?!) Something I was surprised I hadn’t noticed was the marked difference in story between I and II. I was a bare bones basic account, but II was a dialoguing adventure with personal characters with real names and twists and turns.

Many games today do have stories. Many outsiders don’t realize that, but just as you watch a TV series or a movie or read a book because you want to know what happens next, so also you play a game because you want to know what happens next. Of course, there is the difference of player agency. It doesn’t really take skill to watch a TV show or movie or read a book to find out what happens next. With a game, unless you look it up on YouTube, you have to play the game successfully to know what happens. Some games even make it harder by having different endings and only those who do the game well will get the good ending.

When we look at the fifth chapter, I mainly noticed his interaction with Craig Detweiler. Consider this quote that he has from Detweiler.

Am I equating cinema with Holy Scripture? Heavens no! The Word of God is a special revelation unequaled in human history. I am not baptizing all art as sacred or all inspiration as divine. Yet God has revealed himself in ways beyond the written word. The Bible itself is a litany of unlikely communiques. Christ promised if his people did not praise God, the rocks would cry out (Luke 19:40). Perhaps those
rocks have recently taken on pop cultural forms. It does not denigrate a sacred text to study other texts; I am merely affirming what the Spirit is already doing. God does not discriminate. The Spirit can communicate via inspiring films like The Shawshank Redemption (IMDb #2) or cautionary tales like The Godfather (IMDb
#1). We need role models and warning signs. While the religious community questions prophets’ credentials, divinely inspired artists keep on singing songs, telling stories, making movies.

While I do think the phrasing can be bad here some, I think when Detweiler speaks of God revealing Himself in movies, I don’t think he’s saying the movie is like Scripture. However, I think what He is saying is that one can see in a movie sometimes an idea of who God is. I remember hearing about a Jehovah’s Witness who left the cult after watching the Passion of the Christ and realizing they didn’t have to go through everything the Watchtower said. One can get theological insights watching popular media like movies and certainly God can use a movie, a book, a video game, a TV show, to draw someone to Himself. I also don’t doubt that Millsap would disagree with this.

At the same time, Millsap did think there was a lowering going on when Christianity was explained in gaming terms.

Jesus dropped into the game of our world with both remarkable (even divine) skills and crippling limitations (of humanity). He explored many comers of his Middle Eastern “island.” Among his contemporaries, he made both friends and enemies. A tightly knit, dedicated community arose around him. Jesus and his clan experienced plenty of grief from aggressive and uncooperative rivals. He was eventually fragged during a deathmatch on an unexpected field of battle. He submitted to the rules of engagement, even while resisting them, proposing an alternative way to play. After three days, Jesus respawned, took his place as Administrator, and redefined the way the game is played

I understand Millsap’s concern here in that this can seem like crude language at times to describe Christianity. After all, respawning in a FPS is really normally not a big deal. Everyone does it. However, I also thought, “What if someone wasn’t a Christian and was a gamer and I was trying to explain Christianity to them?” I could use language that is similar to this. We could say that Jesus was the true respawner much like Lewis said Christianity is the true myth. What we can do in a game, Jesus can do and did do in reality.

Despite all of this, Millsap is definitely right in all of this in how we need theological interaction. The stories he gives from Bioshock I found particularly fascinating. I have listened more than once to the introduction from Andrew Ryan in the first game on YouTube. If you want to listen to it, you can do so as well.

Many of us would agree with some of what Ryan says in this. A man should be entitled to the sweat of his brow. Many of us could also say that while God doesn’t claim all of it and lets us have some of it, we should give some of what we receive to Him.

In the third game, he tells us the story is about a “prophet” who has a cultic form of a Christian type of religion and how someone has to go to his floating island to rescue someone. Despite what some people might think, games like this wrestle with moral decisions and questions. There are many games out there that are extremely philosophical. Consider even Final Fantasy X where the game is all about a quest to defeat a mindless, destructive beast known as Sin.

In the sixth chapter, we look at Journey. I had bought this game and I didn’t get much into it, but perhaps some weekend when I have a couple of hours, which is how long Millsap says it takes to finish it, I could do that. Millsap chose this game because it is an easy one to learn and there is no violence done by the character and it tells a story. Another one I would consider would be Stray, because after all, who wouldn’t enjoy getting to play as a cat?

I definitely agree with his conclusion. There are plenty of areas for extra study. Games are becoming one of the main features in our culture, especially with the rise of smartphones. We Christians have too often been behind the times on this interaction. We need to change that.

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)

Playing To Win

What if this is a game? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

I’ve been speaking about my talk at Defend 2023 lately and the research I have done as a result has been fascinating to me. For those who don’t know, we had to bring in chairs for people to sit in during my talk and at the end, an organic discussion broke out among the audience. Something about this topic really hits home and connects people.

Why?

Before the talk, I went to the Unbelievable? facebook group and I asked participants to talk about a time they were emotionally moved by a game. Now in most threads there, you will see a lot of antagonism towards others. It’s Facebook. It happens. Atheists and Christians and everyone in between don’t always get along.

I didn’t see any of that here. If someone didn’t say explicitly and I didn’t know, I wouldn’t have been able to tell who was who since everyone was getting along amicably and sharing together their experiences.

I don’t count that as a bad thing.

But why was it happening?

Then I thought about being at a seminary and how our semesters go. You can remember this from your schooling times even if it was never higher education. You would often learn and study hard for that test, take it and pass, and then you would gradually just forget everything. Why? You never used it. It was never relevant. I love math and I enjoyed my math classes, but that doesn’t mean I can tell you how to do quadratic equations off the top of my head.

However, I do have two experiences from 6th grade I remember. One was instead of Math, I took computer keyboarding and used Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing and learned to type in that class. Today, I still maintain that skill and I can type about 80 words per minute.

I also remember free time in my Social Studies class which was also a lot of geography. I remember going to the GeoSafari system and I knew my state capitals already and so I decided to do the game to learn the South American capitals. I still remember a lot of them to this day.

And how did I know my state capitals? We played a game in the class regularly in 5th grade to see how well we knew the state capitals. We had a map of the states on the wall. Two students would see who could identify which state got hit with the teacher’s pointer first and the winner would progress. It was the goal to see who could have the longest streak.

Then I compared this to growing up gaming. You know how many times we failed at a game and yet we got up and tried time and time again? I learned a lot of perseverance with that. I played RPGs where you had to save up money to get the best equipment and I would regularly not progress forward until I had all the money I needed to buy what I wanted. You know what? To this day, I’m still a money saver and I try to get the most out of every penny.

As long as I can remember also, I have had good versus evil built in me. My DivorceCare leader explained it to my parents. I have played games all my life. I want the real adventure. The fantasy adventures I go on are meant to build in me a yearning and a desire to seek the real adventures, and that is the result.

Also when we were growing up, we didn’t have the internet. I didn’t have that until I was in high school. Want to know how to beat a boss or find a secret in a game? You have to go with word of mouth, read it in a magazine, write to Nintendo themselves, buy a strategy guide, etc. Did you hear that rumor about Mew being under that truck in Pokemon? Many people tried many rumors to see what was true and what was not. You couldn’t just go to GameFaqs or you couldn’t just watch a YouTube video.

In other words, we worked at play.

This isn’t just me either. Paul says the same thing in 1 Cor. 9. Every runner trains, but only one gets the prize. People training for the Olympics of their day would work to no extent to be the best. There were great rewards for them after all. They had great honor and sometimes their could be tax exemptions for them and their people as a result.

We still have similar today. People that want to be good at sports work really hard. I have heard that Michael Phelps swam several several hours every day and ate well over 10,000 calories a day to keep up.

Today, fans can be the same way. There are fans that know pretty much every statistic about the sports teams that they watch. I don’t understand this honestly. I think it’s foolish, but they probably think the same about my interest. I still remember Peter Kreeft saying sometimes he fears he’s a bigger Red Sox fan than he is a Jesus fan.

We had a speaker at Defend saying about our faith that what we are doing is not a game. I suspect the implication was “Therefore, take it seriously.” I get what he was saying, but here’s the problem. It’s often the things that we don’t really enjoy that we don’t take seriously.

I shared this on my wall last night and was told there are already people working on this and it’s called Gamifying. This is where we use the principle that game makers have learned on how people want challenges and to succeed and they will take on a big challenge if they think the payoff is worth it. As Thomas Sowell has said, it’s all about tradeoffs.

So what if we treated it this way? What if evangelism became a quest, a quest for the glory of God and He does promise a reward. Why would He promise a reward unless He wanted us to pursue that reward? Jesus regularly points to our own self-interest. What we do brings glory to God, but we benefit as well.

There’s a saying that if you enjoy what you do, you never work a day in your life. Think back to what was likely the best job you ever had, or maybe you have it now. Why is it the best? Is it because the pay is really great or the benefits are really good? How about this? It’s the best job you’ve ever had because you enjoy what you do.

I would honestly prefer a job with less money where I enjoyed my work than a job with more money where I hated my work. I suspect I am not alone. Work is something that we also do for fulfillment. We want to make a difference in what we do and if workers think they’re replaceable cogs in a machine, rightly or wrongly, they will not work as well.

What if we made our education enjoyable? I remember my first semester in Greek in Bible College and I did really well. What do I remember most? We had a computer program that was a game of sorts and I being a perfectionist wanted to get perfect on every single section of that program. I would not move on until I could do perfect three times in a row in every lesson.

Guess what? I did well in that class.

This could be especially so for men who love to compete for the most part. I am also remembering again in 6th grade that in my science class I had the top average for the first 6-week period. That kept happening and then the teacher gave an assignment so that you could increase your class average by 20 points. Did I need that to pass? Nope. Did I take that task on even though I didn’t need to? You bet I did. Why? Because I wanted to keep up my top average all year long, and I did just that.

So ultimately, this is all asking why do we do what we do and what can we do to make us want to do more of what we ought? For myself, if there’s something I enjoy a lot, it is a good debate. I have had gaming sessions when I lived with my parents where I had my laptop right next to me and then someone would respond to me on Facebook in a debate and I would pause immediately and jump in. As much as I enjoy gaming, I enjoy a good intellectual exchange even more.

I contend also that Christianity promises us this great adventure and this adventure extends even into eternity. Eternity is not the end. It is if anything the glorious beginning for us. I don’t know what work we will do in eternity, but we will do it, and we will enjoy it.

So the speaker here said this isn’t a game. I know what he meant, but I want to contend the opposite. This is one. You have to play it, but you better play it well.

When we have that excitement about the game and that this actually has a purpose and there is a great benefit, I think we can actually take it more seriously. I know when I have a big debate coming up, I certainly spend a lot of time reading on the topic and usually much more than for other things because I willingly take on the debate and can see immediately what the serious ramifications are. I know I will be before an audience and I want to do well.

So could this all be a great game the creator has made for us? Perhaps it is, and if so, we had better play it well. He does not allow any do-overs, cheat codes, or anything like that. (Although I hear he left us a great strategy guide.)

We are on the ultimate adventure. The plot is far better than any we could have dreamed up because God Himself is beyond it. There is no greater good in this world worth fighting for and if need be, worth dying for.

Play this game well. It is worth it.

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)

Life Is A Game Walkthrough Part 4

What is a danger we don’t talk about in our society? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

As we continue our look at Edward Castronova’s book Life Is A Game, we come to him diagnosing a major problem in our world today. We are bored. Now some of you might be odd to think that is a problem. “What? So the remedy to the world’s problems is to just have some fun and all is well?”

Not necessarily.

Let’s start by looking at the problem. To some extent, we all know that he is right. I sit here in my apartment at the seminary. I have a TV with multiple streaming services and free services as well so I can watch virtually anything that I want. I have a PS4 and a Switch so I can play a huge multitude of games. I have the internet so I can find many more things to do. I have numerous books and I have a Kindle so reading isn’t a problem. I have a smartphone with even more things to do on there.

Even if you don’t have everything I have, odds are you have plenty of things. I wager still that you are likely bored sometimes. How many times have you gone channel surfing through streaming and said “There’s nothing on.”? How many times do you open up Facebook and just stroll for half an hour or so because you’re just looking for something?

Castronova tells us the monks actually had a word for the boredom. Acedia. It’s a restlessness in life so much so that just to get some excitement, some monks would actually put themselves in places of temptation. Acedia is a real problem.

We have that problem in our society because there is very little struggle. Our ancestors had to fight and work hard just to survive. They couldn’t go to the grocery store and didn’t have central heat and air and indoor plumbing and couldn’t go from place to place super easily. They didn’t have countless medications to treat most every disease out there.

And guess what happens when you play the game and it gets too easy.

I love doing math, which I’m sure is odd for you, but I would hate the thought of being asked to come and do some math problems, thinking it would be something complex, and get to a sheet of paper that just has adding single digit numbers together. Boring.

Now it could be there could be some degree of excitement in it if, say, I was put in a room with other math geeks and we all tried to see who could finish all these simple problems first, but the problems in themselves are not problems for me anymore. Without challenge, life is boring.

The same can happen in church services. I understand pastors want to speak on a simple level to reach everyone, but you can’t always speak on the lowest common denominator or the people who are not there do get bored. Yes. I get bored often in a church service because very rarely is anything new said.

Now to an extent, there is some good in this. If I stayed at a simple level in theology forever, my life would be lacking. I can even take those simple concepts and go deeper with them. Let’s consider the song we grew up with. “Jesus loves me this I know. For the Bible tells me so.”

Okay. Who is Jesus? He loves me? What is love? Why does He love me? The Bible tells me so? How do I know that’s what it really says? How do I know it’s reliable? How do I know it’s authoritative? Those simple questions can drive you endlessly into deep theology, but if you just stay on the surface, you miss that.

That’s just one of many reasons men hate going to church. This also ties us into quests. We need quests because we need excitement in our lives. We need to be challenged.

If we don’t have that, we fill it up with artificial entertainment. Castronova says that we have sex with one another as if wolves were about to devour our species. (No need for them to. Through abortion, we do that ourselves.) Whereas our forefathers would see sex as something pleasurable, yes, (Aquinas even said had the fall never taken place, the pleasure of sex would be even greater so thanks a lot Adam and Eve.) they also saw it as something deeper, a sacred demonstration of a covenant between two people and a revelation of God Himself. Turn on most any sitcom today and all you see is the pleasure principle.

We have a problem with obesity in our country. We often don’t eat to live, but we live to eat. We gorge ourselves and snack because we are bored. Many people on diets trying to lose weight are often told, and I think rightly, that they are eating not because they are hungry, but because they are bored.

Today, we have people on social media sites doing stupid challenges, like the Tide Pod Challenge, and while these challenges are stupid, note what they are called. Challenges. People want to do something risky. They want a goal to live for. They want something greater in their lives than just 9 to 5.

And often, we will invent grand problems so we can say we are fighting against a great enemy. It’s easy to talk about climate change and present it as a great disaster and then fight so you can say you’re fighting something. While I am skeptical of it, I understand that it can be fulfilling for people to have something to fight against.

Could this also be one reason why wherever the church has it easy, it tends to lose its effect? The church is growing in nations where persecution is rampant. Here in America, persecution is not yet rampant and yet people who identify as transgender, less than 1% of the population, seem to have more say than so many people that say they are Christians.

Without challenge also, it’s easy to wonder what we are living for. I have been pondering lately that could it be part of our educational troubles is our livelihood does not often depend on what we are learning. Do tests really help us learn? I don’t know if anyone has done the study, but I would be curious to see. After all, how many people study hard for a test and then promptly forget it all? They got the passing grade. How many of us passed tests in high school and now don’t remember what we learned?

Could this also be why gaming works so well? In 6th grade I used one of those geo-safari toys, I think that’s what they’re called, and got bored with North American stuff so I went and learned South American capitals. I don’t remember them all perfectly, but I know a lot more of them today than I normally would.

As someone who plays video games, I could still to this day turn on the original Legend of Zelda and go through both quests and find where everything is and beat the game. Did I ever have to sit down and take a test on this? No. I did it because it was fun and challenging and I learned.

When I first arrived at Southern Evangelical Seminary years ago with my roommate who I knew through TheologyWeb, we found we were doing quite well with our peers in knowledge. Why? Because we had been arguing this stuff for years online long before Facebook on that site. (If you want to debate my articles, go there also.) We had to know this stuff and it became a challenge. We used apologetics so much that we just knew it. We didn’t need to take a test on it.

When I was in Greek in Bible College, I did very well. Why? We had Parsons Tutor as our guide and it was a game of sorts and I would keep going through a lesson over and over until I got 100%. The challenge made it fun!

I am not saying this as someone who hates tests. I normally do great on them so there’s no reason for me personally to want to abolish them, but I am asking what really helps us learn and not just for the moment, but long-term?

When I am doing a game also, I voluntarily look up the information and research it. I want to know how to finish this quest? I will look it up. Back in the day also, something young gamers do not understand, we had to buy strategy guides and there was a lot of trial and error. There was no internet to look things up. We had to try again and again and work hard, but it was fun! When someone managed to beat a game, and normally that was me, the game prodigy, that was a cause of awe and admiration. What’s the result? I know this information long-term.

The prescription for our society then? Challenge. We need quests. We need to know what we are living for and why. Every man wants to provide for his family, but he also wants meaning and purpose. Wives will often want to provide and usually by being good housekeepers, but they also want meaning and purpose.

Christianity gives us that and we don’t know it. We sit on it not realizing our birthright. The Christian life is meant to be hard, but should it also be, dare I say it, fun?

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)

 

 

On Gambling

Should you roll the dice? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Yesterday, I am browsing Facebook and I see someone ask if gambling is a sin. I see most people jumping in and saying yes, immediately, but I am contrary I suppose and have more questions about the matter. It starts with asking what is really gambling.

We could just say it’s playing a game of chance, but is that simple enough to explain it? After all, while luck is involved, there is some skill and strategy involved in games like Poker and Blackjack. If that is the case, could we say the stock market could be a form of gambling as well? After all, one has no guarantee that a stock will shoot up, like GameStop for example, and one could really lose everything and some people have.

How about this scenario? You’re at home one day and there is a knock at your door and there are some small school children there. They are selling raffle tickets to do a fundraiser for their school. The prize is a big screen TV. Now you have a good TV, but the ticket only costs a dollar and it goes toward a good cause. Do you buy a ticket?

How about also you get together with a few friends for a Poker night? You get together and you have a maximum bet everyone can make and you just play cards. Most of the time, this isn’t done so some person can get rich. It’s something guys mostly do just so they can hang out together and the chance adds an element of fun to it.

We could get even more technical here. Let’s suppose you go to an arcade, which used to be a really popular hangout in the past and I even worked at one for awhile. Now you could put some quarters in a game that will offer you some moments of pleasure but nothing beyond that. On the other hand, you could also put it in the crane game, a game of chance, and see if you could win something that you could keep.

There were times in the past I know I won Allie something in a crane game. Long before that, one time I was at a bowling alley with a friend who was telling me that he wanted to win a stuffed elephant in a crane game there to give to a girl and he had spent $5 and not had any luck. I put in a couple of quarters and managed to win it for him immediately.

In the past as a teenager, I remember my Dad and I would sometimes drive up to Kentucky from Tennessee. The drive took a couple of hours both ways. We would have about $20 with us and we would just play scratch-off games together. It was never about winning. It was just about an excuse to get to travel together and have some bonding time. I still remember one time we actually won $50 doing this and just stopped at a place called Oasis Pizza on the way back.

So as you can see from this, I am not 100% opposed to gambling. So what would I recommend here? Good stewardship. If you have money for entertainment purposes and want to use it here responsibly, I don’t really have a problem with that.

What about Scripture? Well, it says nothing yea or nay. Casting of lots was more about divining the will of God. We also know the soldiers gambled for the clothing of Jesus, but that doesn’t make it evil any more than the soldiers standing guard around condemned criminals would mean police officers shouldn’t stand outside of jail cells.

So the principle is more about how you use what you have. If you are going and betting your life savings or your wedding ring to gamble, then you have a problem and need to stop. On the other hand, we could compare it to drinking. If you can drink responsibly and not get drunk, then I don’t have a problem with social drinking and I see gambling the same way.

So if you want to get together with the guys and play Poker, I don’t have a problem. If you go to Vegas and have a couple of spare bucks and want to even try a slot machine, go ahead. If you think you could get addicted however, you might want to step back from doing that and consider some other hobby. I would say if you want to play a game of chance, it’s better to play one where you have a reasonable chance of winning, aside from buying a ticket to a raffle just to support a good cause more than actually winning anything.

Have fun with what you do and do remember this is side money. Make sure you have done your charitable giving first and provided for your family. Then if the goal is to just have fun mainly, then do that and enjoy the company of your friends.

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)
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