It’s official: gaming has taken over the hobby landscape. Once a niche pastime enjoyed only by people perceived by others to be “nerds” or shut-ins, gaming has experienced a renaissance over the last few years, driven not only by hugely popular games like Minecraft and Fortnite but also by artistic endeavours such as Undertale and Spec Ops: The Line. There’s no doubt that gaming will continue to grow in popularity (and controversy) as time goes on, but one question burns in the back of our minds: is spirituality important to gaming? Is it a key concept that gaming has embraced and that informs developers and players as they work?
If you hadn’t already guessed, our answer to this question is an emphatic “yes”. We believe that spirituality is crucial to understanding why gaming works as an art form and as a pastime. Before we explain why, however, we should clarify what we mean by “spirituality”. This term doesn’t necessarily refer to religion and can be used in a secular, non-religious sense. Instead, we’re talking about spirituality in a broader sense; the concept of morality, the idea that life potentially persists after death, or even just a metaphysical approach to the world can all be considered part of the broader spirituality church, so to speak.
So how does spirituality inform gaming? Well, the first thing to note is that you don’t have to be a spiritual person to take advantage of the spiritual aspects of gaming; you don’t need to know everything there is to know about psychic reading if you want to see where spirituality has taken root in the pastime. All you need to understand is that even in an invisible sense, spirituality is shot through gaming, whether or not you personally subscribe to any particular spiritual mode of belief. If you do have a belief system, you’ll likely spot more instances where gaming and spirituality intersect, but if you don’t, you’ll still have encountered it in some sense.
Let’s take traditional morality systems. Developers like BioWare, Bethesda, and Obsidian regularly implement “karma” systems into their games, methods by which the innate morality of a player’s actions is judged. Of course, these systems are by definition fairly simplistic and reductive, but morality is a spiritual concept; while not inherently defined by religion, morality has been the cornerstone of religious and spiritual organisations since time immemorial. Some games try to eschew the idea of ascribing karmic value to actions and attempt to have non-player characters judge players on a character-by-character basis, but morality is essential to gaming.
If we think about what gaming can offer us from a humanistic perspective, the connections between gaming and spirituality should be obvious. Out-of-body experiences have long been written and talked about, mostly in an apocryphal sense; after all, it’s impossible to prove whether an individual has had an out-of-body experience. However, does gaming not offer the opportunity to experience an out-of-body sensation? After all, you’re taking direct control of an individual distinct from yourself; this offers the chance to experience life as someone else, which is a spiritual concept often talked about in religious texts.
Of course, there are also many games that actually incorporate themes of spirituality into their narratives. 2012’s Journey is a game all about resurrection and having the dedication to follow through on a quest. It’s an entirely wordless game, the narrative of which is told without dialogue. You could also argue that games like 2011’s Dark Souls contain elements of spirituality; Dark Souls is about accepting failure and moving past it to find success, which is a huge part of the spiritual outlook. There are also more overt explorations of spirituality out there like The Stanley Parable and The Talos Principle, both of which combine philosophy with spirituality.
It’s not just within the games themselves that you can find spiritual elements. Approaching games with an open mind – understanding what makes a game work in its own right, irrespective of the prejudices you bring to it – is a huge part of enjoying gaming as a discipline. When was the last time you stepped outside your gaming comfort zone? Spirituality means more than just embracing a god or following tenets. It’s also about achieving inner peace, and that’s something that understanding the merits of games and what they bring to the conversation will do for you. That’s the beauty of gaming.
You could also look at the way you personally approach games through a spiritual lens. How you deal with things a game throws your way – sudden failure states, for example, or inferiority in an online multiplayer game – is largely tied in to spirituality. After all, when was the last time you got seriously angry at a game? Have you ever looked inside yourself and tried to master your feelings, understanding where they’re coming from and overcoming them? That’s mindfulness, and it’s a cornerstone of many secular spiritual disciplines. Every day when you game, you’re practicing lots of the tenets of spirituality, you just haven’t noticed it.
We think we’ve amply proven that spirituality and gaming are inextricable from one another. What do you think? Are there any ways in which spirituality has personally touched you during your gaming experiences? Let us know!