Scholar's Top 5: Rachel Wagner on Religion and Digital Gaming

In my recently released book, Godwired: Religion, Ritual, and Virtual Reality, I look at a number of related themes all dealing with the intersection of religious practice and digital media. One of the key themes in the book is how videogames work like religion in their invitation to interactively engage with predesigned myth; in their ability to cultivate social cohesion; in the difficult questions they raise about symbolic violence; and in their nurturing of desire for entry into an “otherworldly” space where new, and usually very structured, rules adhere. Games, like many religious worldviews, can invite in us a strong sense of fascination with the way we wish things could be. At the same time, they invite us to consider new rules of play, allowing what might in other context be considered taboo behavior. Indeed, the parallel of game play with ritual performance is the most apt analogy, with all of the complexities of comparison it invites. In Godwired, I invite readers to think about how critical awareness of gaming’s ability to work as implicit religion obligates us to think also about the scripted structures in our real lives, that is, to examine how digital media is shaping what we think is possible in our own ordinary modes of communication, but also how societal structures are already “scripted,” and thus invite us, perhaps require us, to learn how to re-program those that are limiting of human flourishing. I welcome continuing conversation on these fascinating issues!

For those interested in exploring the intersection between religion and gaming, I would also recommend the following sources.

1. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan (eds.) (2004) First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. This book offers the best single introduction to gamer theory that I know.

2. Bogost, Ian (2007) Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Bogost’s compelling (nay, “persuasive”) book will show you what “procedural rhetoric” is in terms of new media, and make you want to immediately go apply it yourself to ritual theory.

3. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman (eds) (2006) The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. This book contains essays by the most important figures in gaming theory, many of them with philosophical roots. After reading this, you’ll know exactly who you’d like read more about.

4. Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman (2004) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. This book is foundational for anyone wanting to understand gaming theory. Salen and Zimmerman define the field for us and offer a number of extremely useful conceptual frameworks.

5. Schechner, Richard (2002) Performance Studies: An Introduction, New York: Routledge. The relatively new field of performance studies is another very important cousin to religious studies, communication studies, and gamer theory, and helps to bridge the gap between all of these and ritual theory.