Xenia Zeiler is associate professor of South Asian studies at the University of Helsinki, Finland. Her research is situated at the intersection of digital media, religion, and culture, with a focus on India and the worldwide Indian community. Other foci are digital humanities and Tantric traditions.
The interrelation of video games and other digital media genres with religion is many-faceted and comes about on many levels. That is, games shape religious practice and belief and are simultaneously shaped by it. Thus, on the one hand, it is surely important and worthwhile to study the impact of religion as portrayed in games on the people playing them. On the other hand, I (just like colleagues before and with me) suggest that it is beneficial to widen the lens of our questions and interests. Just as Digital Religion does not simply refer to religion as it is carried out online, but overall studies how digital media interrelate with religious practice and belief, the study of games and religion should include a number of broader categories and terms.
The first broadening of perspective which I propose is to include the vicinity of video games in our reflections—the so-called gamevironments. This approach (which has methodical and theoretical implications) merges the terms “games/gaming” and “environments.” One of the concept’s main arguments is that it extends the focus beyond media-centred approaches. Specifically, gamevironments (which denotes not only the concept but also an academic journal promoting research on games, religion, and culture) highlights actor-centered research which reaches beyond researching only active gamers to include all persons who are influenced by games (for instance, persons producing or watching gaming videos). Another important benefit of the concept is that it includes both the technical and the cultural environments of video games and gaming. As much as the concept acknowledges the benefit of studying, for instance, game production as a technical environment, it also acknowledges the specific, partly regionally defined cultural and social contexts.
This is important as many aspects of games, such as game aesthetics and narratives as well as gaming practices, are diverse around the globe. For instance, in my specific regional and cultural area of expertise within the research of games and culture, India, we increasingly find some very distinct features. When it comes to religion, Indian games such as Asura or the forthcoming Raji or Antariksha Sanchar consciously implement regional traditions, such as Hindu mythology or specific aesthetics. In other cases they toy with and intermingle cross-cultural religious, aesthetic, and heritage features altogether. But it seems that overall globally, regional cultural specifics play an increasing role in game development. Numerous award-winning games attest for this, such as Never Alone, a collaboration of game makers and Alaska Native Iñupiat storytellers and elders.
The second broadening of perspective which I find beneficial regards the term religion itself. Religion, of course, is not only institutionalized religion. But even when acknowledging this fact—as well as the complexity and contested nature of existing definitions for the term religion overall—we might still be unnecessarily limited in our attempts to understand the diverse interrelations of games and religion. For instance, how do people in the vicinity of games themselves receive, discuss, and define what academics or religious actors would (possibly) term religion? Is it the same content which game producers, the person playing games, and researchers would include in such a category? May ethical and moral choices (which are characteristic for many games) be termed religious content? Given such considerations, colleagues and I are currently discussing the benefit of widening the study of video games and religion to video games and value systems. In our understanding, broadening the lens in such a way will better account for the complex field of research on games and religion.
In short: Broadening the categories of games to gamevironments and of religion to value systems, as well as adding the global perspective to both, will surely support us in further understanding the ever expanding, complex interrelation of video games and religion.