How Does Video Game Religion Impact Life Off-line?

August 6, 2019

Many video games create immersive worlds complete with their unique cosmology, metaphysics, deities, religious lore, and mythical stories, while others incorporate religious symbols and rituals from existing religions. Video game storylines explore notions of good and evil, and moral decisions guide the development of in-game characters. Liel Leibovitz argues that “the human construct with which video games have most in common isn’t television or literature or warfare but religion. … It is a practice in rituals, ethics, moralities, and metaphysics.” Video games create virtual sacred spaces and online communities of devout followers where players increasingly find spiritual/religious satisfaction tied to their gaming activity.

Patrick Crogan calls the characteristic philosophy espoused by most video games the “ontology of the enemy”: whether pirate or space alien, the simple aim of the game is to kill them all. Yet, while video games contain a great amount of violent elements, evidence does not support the charge that they lead to increased chances of criminal activity or delinquency. There is not one role that religion is assigned in the ontic space of video games; sometimes players fight against evil religion, but in other cases they receive help from or even inhabit the role of benevolent religious characters. Religion is both a positive and negative force in video games.

Research shows that virtually all U.S. teenagers play some form of video game. Around the globe children and adolescents spend increasing amount of time in virtual environments, decreasing time interacting with peers and adults in real life and making video games one of the key places where young people learn the rules of human interaction and, generally, principles guiding moral life. Even if video games are only pseudo-religious and only exist virtually, they exert very real consequences.

This week, the Berkley Forum asks: What are the possible consequences of the diverse portrayal of religion in video games on players, particularly children and adolescents? Whether defined as a new religion, pseudo-religion, new religious movement, implicit religion, or religious placeholder, do video games help or hurt spirituality and religiosity? Should established religions be concerned about the appearance of religion in video games, or should they welcome and support it?

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Kids playing Pokeman video games at the San José Public Library