David Brenner recently made the case that the world needs stories. Not just any stories, but the right kind of stories. I wholeheartedly agree, especially with the latter point.
It has become rather fashionable these days to opine on the centrality and necessity of capital S “Story” for brands, politicians, and almost anything else. Storytelling is a big business, and successful authors can often leverage their bestselling book into a lucrative career teaching others how to tell their story.
But what stories matter? Or, more pointedly, what stories are the right stories? This question is a foil, revealing our fundamental values and cultural formation. As such, the question can quickly evoke the kind of polarization that has plagued the liberal west in recent memory. Allow me to ask a different question: What can interactive entertainment, video games, uniquely offer the world right now?
The Imladris Community
A few months ago my company, Soma Games, hosted a retreat called Imladris. We gathered some of the best and most influential Christian video game developers in the country as well as other faith-driven creatives from films, music, and more. This small but growing group meets annually to consider the philosophical and practical aspects of the gaming industry, how our faith intersects and undergirds our work in interactive entertainment, and the questions about storytelling as posed above. Our mission is to establish a set of guiding principles and a strategy for the next 10 years that brings Christian values to the content, community, and infrastructure of interactive entertainment.
I had the chance to ask this gathering the following question: “What can interactive entertainment uniquely offer the world right now?”. They simply answered: “Hope”.
Given the recent global tribulations of war, disease, recession, and more, hope seems to be the most powerful medicine to counter our trauma, despair, and confusion. Hope, along with faith and love, form a holy trinity of soulful balms. To be clear, by “hope” I do not just mean optimism, but rather the settled confidence that something genuinely better is coming. The world needs Hope today, perhaps as much as any time in modern history.
This article is part three in an unintentional series on how Christian believers might see interactive entertainment differently. I previously considered video games as a modern apologetic , and then as a controlled substance. Now I consider games as a kind of delivery device for soul medicine – in this case, Hope specifically.
Games as a Delivery Vehicle for Hope
I believe that games could meaningfully, and even uniquely, deliver the medicine of Hope. But how?
First, it is worth recognizing that gaming, as a medium, is an enormous and growing part of our shared cultural landscape. If the wider world, and especially people of faith, persist in thinking of games as mere toys or distractions, they will fail fail to apprehend their deeper nature and function in society. Subsequently they could miss a profound opportunity to share in and shape the culture-making engine of the next century.
My friend Brock Henderson, another member of the Imladris Community, incisively writes :
“Does the world have enough games?…if we shift our perspective on games and think about them as delivery vessels for the things people need—like love, community, friendship, beauty, adventure, and purpose—we could never have enough.”
We could just as easily ask, “Does the world have too many books? Too many movies? Too many plays or songs or operas?”. Certainly not. We understand that each of these mediums are artistic expressions of an individual human soul and, by extension, of God’s spirit. We create because we are made in the image of our Creator.
Games are no different. They are simply a recent incarnation of that intrinsic human desire to build, create, and express our inner lives imaginatively. When we begin to see interactive entertainment as an art form, then the myriad possibilities intrinsic to that medium become available – from comedy and tragedy, contemplation and inspiration, satire to exposé, constructive and destructive.
If we consider these expressions of the human condition as a tonic that is potentially medicinal or poisonous to our souls, then we can see interactive entertainment as a delivery device like a capsule or a syringe. Games therefore act not as the medicine itself, but only the vehicle.
Second, we ought to reconsider the common belief that gaming as an industry is monolithic and meaningless, without nuance or gradation. There are certainly risks that the industry could become that, as money and influence drive the adoption of “Big Gaming,” driven only by profits and exploitation. However this is not yet the case. The gaming industry remains in flux, fluid, and is still subject to being steered towards a better course. We remain in a season where men and women of good character, acting collectively through groups like Imladris, can make decisions and distinctions, thereby laying the foundation for lasting principles of the entire gaming industry.
Games empower us.
Empowerment is unique to the interactive medium as compared to other expressions. In Reality is Broken, author Jane McGonigal discusses the allure of gaming in a broader life context, which often imparts a feeling of powerlessness. When we find our lives or circumstances unbearable, and ourselves feeling powerless, gaming can give us an otherwise unavailable awareness of potency and purpose. This sense of power and purpose is not the fantasy – rather, it is the sense of powerlessness that is the illusion.
Despair and ennui destroy our ability to act. Slaying a dragon or saving a galaxy in a virtual world may have no real-world impact, but it builds confidence in the player who may be inspired to turn and face their own dragons. For example, if a player can solve a virtual mystery, then perhaps they can solve complex problems in their work. Or if a player can find the courage to storm a virtual castle, then perhaps they can find the courage to work on their marriage. In a world that needs Hope, The Story of Empowerment – both individual and corporal empowerment – is a story we can all see as valuable.
Games foster solutions.
Not long ago, scientists were faced with the seemingly intractable problem of how a protein folded. The problem continues to be difficult for humans and computationally expensive for supercomputers, but can offer incredible insights for biochemistry and drug design. Computational biochemists at Stanford University therefore gave the problem over to the online community in the form of a video game called Folding@Home. After just three weeks, a target protein structure was successfully identified by the community of gamers.
From wargaming to alternate reality games (ARGs) we see that problem-solving is one of the fundamental attributes of interactive entertainment. In a world where serious problems are common and legitimate solutions are rare, the opportunity to harness the creative, iterative, problem-solving power of gamers is uniquely attractive. More to the point, as we face deep uncertainty about our lives and the world, games allow us the chance to work through problems and feel productive, even if the game problem is fantastical. The Story of Clever Solutions is an urgent counterpoint to The Story of Hopelessness that all too often haunts our steps today.
Games create empathy.
Art has always excelled at bringing the truths of the soul to us while skirting our more judgmental faculties. Jesus told parables, or little stories, that were often misunderstood unless they were heard with the listeners’ hearts. As effective as stories are at creating sympathy, empathy in art remained a more difficult effect until the advent of interactive games. In other art forms, the artist’s creation is objectively identical for every viewer and at every time. The portrait of Mona Lisa for viewers today is the same as it was for Leonardo Da Vinci 500 years ago. Metropolis is the same movie today that it was in 1927. A game creator, however, creates an experience that can shift and change depending upon the player’s decisions. A player is incarnate in a game in a way that is unique to the medium. We call this feature “player agency”, and it is the irreducible aspect of any game.
Consider a further example. When one reads the story of Odysseus, we view his decisions from a distance. This allows us to judge and evaluate his choices and draw our own conclusions from the safety of an armchair. But when one plays a game about that fabled journey home, every decision becomes our own. We must choose how to deal with the Cyclops. We must decide to sail near Scylla or Charybdis. In fact, we decide whether to go home at all. Each decision is made in the moment, by oneself, and the consequences are ours to bear. A talented game designer crafts a game around the player’s embodiment and the implicit moral dimensions of the game play. Others may generate tension between the two.1
The outgrowth of this unique feature of player agency is and expression of empathy. As a player engages with the medium they no longer merely sympathizing with Odysseus, rather they are empathizing with the homesick sailor. We experience the complexities and nuances of every moment in that story. We are allowed to walk a mile in another man’s shoes and to gain personal insight, from personal experience, into the lives of others we might otherwise never understand. I would encourage readers to try the game Papers Please, if you are dubious of this claim.
In a world in need of hope and suffering from societal polarization, few stories are more needed than The Story of Mutual Understanding.
Ultimate Medicine Surprisingly Delivered
In conclusion, empathy, clever solutions, and personal power are core ingredients for the Hope. This is the Hope that the creatives gathered at Imladris agree is the medicine the world needs at this moment, and that interactive entertainment can uniquely deliver. Of course, the ultimate best medicine is the same today as it always has been. The Good, the Beautiful, and the True remain the truest medicine for our weary souls. A surprising truth is that video games are one way to deliver that timeless cure.