Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Gamers in the Hands of an Angry God: Purgatory, Deicide, and Religious Critique in Video Games

Back in April, I wrote about deicide in video games on Bitmob. It was promoted to the front page, and within a couple of weeks had a quarter of my personal blog's lifetime hits. I received some amazing feedback, and the idea of expanding on it has been growing in the back of my head. At last, those ideas have begun to come to fruition.

Below is the research proposal I submitted to the National Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association academic conference--a step up from the regional conference I've attended in the past. Pulling heavily from that original post about deicide, I've broadened the topic a bit to argue that many games now feature a kind of religious critique that we should analyze and understand. I really enjoyed studying video games through a literary lens at last year's conference, so I'm definitely looking forward to continuing that work. But this time, I thought I'd open the topic to a wider discussion before I really get into preparing the presentation (which I'll be giving this April).
Every so often, video game trends give us new enemies to face without feeling too guilty about destroying their throngs of followers—Nazis, zombies, Nazi-zombies—but the new final boss of choice is God. Really, in the adolescent power-fantasy that is the average video game, what could better serve as the ultimate attack on authority? Yet for every spectacle of deicide, there is also a critique.

In the video game departure from the epic poem, Dante refuses to accept his death and a one way trip to Hell for his sins, instead journeying through the nine circles to rescue his fiancĂ©e, kill the overseers, and decide for himself who should be damned. Meanwhile, Demon’s Souls sticks players into a kind of mournful, depressing purgatory, from which the only proposed “escape” is killing god—assuming the player manages to get past the punishingly difficult first level.

Religious themes and allusions in video games are certainly not new. Infamous' Cole loosely resembles Christ. Bioshock demonstrates man's inability to live without religion whenever the player stumbles across boxes of smuggled Bibles. But even the cutesy Little King's Story continually pokes fun at religion with its Church of Soup, whose followers end prayers with "Ramen." But the sheer number of games to employ this type of criticism in the past year is indicative of the times and deserves critical attention in return. After all, if we can kill god in our games, with what does that leave us afterward?
Questions? Quibbles? Controversies?


Andrew Wales said...

It sounds very interesting. Kudos to you for taking a scholarly look at something that intrigues you. Hope to read your work on it some time. Good luck!

Ben Villarreal said...

Thanks Andy!

dr. b said...

I love PCA/ACA -- always a blast!

Ben Villarreal said...

Yeah, I always have a good time and learn a lot at the regional conference. I can't wait to see what the national conference has in store :-)


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