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.
(And I affirm the virgin birth)