Are video games the next frontier for spirituality? The indie video game Journey takes players on a, well, journey through a vast desert dotted with ruins, an “underworld” patrolled by menacing stone automatons, and finally an ascent up a mountain. The player may collaborate with other players they meet along the way, the two journeying characters becoming companions as long as they stay together through the levels. Players are unable to communicate with each other except for a musical “chime” sound.
Critics have praised Journey for its visuals, soundtrack, and story. Much of the praise, however, focuses not only on gameplay mechanics and visuals but on the experience of playing. Reviewer Christian Dolan of Eurogamer calls the game’s aesthetics “a kind of sparse… Biblical imagination” and called the game “an attempt to manufacture a kind of non-denominational religious experience for players: to make them feel like a small yet crucial part of something vast, mysterious, and powerful.” Finland says that the efforts fell short until he encountered a companion player: “all the convenient metaphors and artificiality melt away. The game’s lunges at profundity disappear, and you’re left to focus on the core of the experience: a pilgrimage.”
The description of this game as a “pilgrimage” caught me by surprise. the characters’ garb may recall religious wear, and the vast beauty of Journey’s setting can amaze and inspire, but do these elements create a sincere pilgrimage – even a truly spiritual journey – for the player?
It isn’t unusual for video games, especially rpgs set in fantastical worlds, to have their own religions and pantheons: the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age franchises, for example, both boast elaborate pantheons of gods who often meddle in mortals’ affairs and send the player on quests, but few would call these interactions with a programmed deity a religious experience.
Though there are many video games that focus on real life religions, That Dragon, Cancer was the first I’d heard of that achieved widespread acclaim. That Dragon, Cancer boldly and directly shows the creators’ spiritual journey and Christian faith as their son Joel fights terminal cancer. Their faith is never reduced to a game mechanic, but the player is an intimate witness to their spiritual evolution: one of the most powerful moments of the game, for me, was when the player (as Joel’s father) is unable to soothe cancer-pained Joel; after trying everything without success, the father prays, and finally Joel is able to find piece and fall asleep.
Journey doesn’t profess allegiance to any real-life faith or even claim a directly religious message – the player is free to interpret everything, including the large white-robed figured that occasionally appear, however they like. The open-ended nature of the game means that many, like Donlan, draw comparisons to a spiritual or secular-spiritual journey. Can video games like Journey or the very difficult That Dragon, Cancer share a genuine spiritual/religious experience with players, or can games not (or should not) convey sun an experience? How do technology and new media influence or transform how we interact and interpret the “sacred?” Have you ever had a spiritual experience with a cheek game or encountered a game that tried and failed to achieve that experience?