This month, the Ontological Geek has a theme: religion and/or theology in games. We have a great bunch of articles lined up, from the very personal to the deeply theoretical, from both regular OntoGeek contributors and several guest writers. We’d love to hear from you with your thoughts on specific articles and the month as a whole – comment freely and e‑mail us at email@example.com!
One of the three great contenders with Christian thought in the last few centuries has been the positivist view of human knowledge.1 Deeply undermining philosophical assumptions of previous generations the adherence to “that which only can be proven empirically” has cast doubt on the concepts of metaphysics which underlie ideas as basic as cause and effect. What has resulted is a stripped-down but practical understanding of human knowledge. In nearly full retreat are many of the old theological concepts that once stood as great pillars in the cities of Augustine, Aquinas and even Luther or Calvin. The modern and post-modern ages have seen Christians rethinking concepts such as the Omnipotence, Eternity and Immutability of God. As well, other doctrines such as the Incarnation, Miracles, the Second Coming and the Resurrection of the Dead have all been found embarrassing by many and in need of reworking. Traditional understandings of these ideas appear only in the staunchest defenders of orthodoxy whether they be fundamentalists, academics unconvinced of the validity of this new epistemology, or the faithful who refuse to budge from “the faith once given.”
In the face of all of this, it may seem strange to propose a metaphysic, one which opens the doors to all of these categories in their old robust splendor, derived from virtual worlds. That we should propose that Pac-Man might save the Incarnation or Gordon Freeman preserve the concept of Obediential Potency may seem absurd. Yet this is what I will attempt in this short piece.
We begin by asking what virtual worlds are. At their base, virtual worlds are constructs based in our own world which have relationships in themselves dependent on the rules of our own world, but which are worked out in a system that is no longer identifiable as equivalent with our own world. We might call these Ontological Frameworks. Here we define an Ontological Framework as a collection of entities in relationship with each other so that they have potential mutual causality over each other. When we say “Entities” we mean whatever a “thing” might be in that particular framework. In our world, an entity might be a stapler or a planet, in Halo it might be a grunt or an sticky-grenade. We say that the mutuality is potential due to the fact that it must be conditioned by the laws of the Ontological Framework. So the stapler potentially could have some effect on Jupiter, though due to the laws of our universe, that doesn’t seem likely. Things stop being in the same Ontological Framework the moment they stop having this potential mutual causality over each other. My stapler and a sticky-grenade do not have the same kind of relationships the stapler and Jupiter do. Thus we can see that the bounds of a framework end where mutual potential causality ceases and we understand how that causality is conditioned by means of the laws of the framework.
And interestingly enough this is exactly what we can draw from observing a game of Pac-Man. We have entities, a field of play, a Paku Paku man, four ghosts, pellets, power pellets, walls, portals and fruit. These are each entities in the Framework and they all have potential mutual causality over each other which is conditioned by the laws of the Framework. Thus the walls bound Pac-Man; the Ghosts can change his state and he can change theirs. The ghosts cannot affect the pellets but Pac-Man can and power pellets can affect him.2 Had the programmers wished it they could have changed the laws of the framework to allow the ghosts to consume the pellets. There would have been no change to the bounds of the framework in that case.
We see most clearly what is meant by the bounds of the framework when we consider two things: our relationship to a game of Pac-Man, and the relationship of two different games of Pac-Man. In our framework which contains Jupiter, books of Shakespeare, the event of Caesar crossing the Rubicon and quantum mechanics, changes of state in energy and matter are happening. Yet within the dependent framework (an Ontological Framework that exists within another Ontological Framework) of Pac-Man’s world, different kinds of changes are happening. That which is the change of the state of energy in our world is the movement from left to right of Pac-Man. It is a kind of asymmetrical change that is not one-to-one which reveals the different levels of reality involved. When a ghost changes state in Pac-Man’s world there is not a corresponding ghost in our world changing state instead something totally different happens. As well the entities in Pac-Man’s world are not accessible to me in the same way that they are accessible to him. In fact the entities in Pac-Man’s world are not even accessible to the energy states in our world which form them in the same way that they are accessible to him. This reveals the division between one Ontological Framework and another. The power pellet and I do not have mutual potential causality over each other. I have potential causality over it but only by translation into my framework (visual representation on an arcade cabinet) does it have any kind of potential causation over me.
In addition, we may observe two games of Pac-Man played next to each other. The entities in each of the two frameworks have no natural potential causality over each other. The ghosts in one are not, as far as the other game is concerned, ghosts at all. They are foreign, external…supernatural.
Now there are a number of conclusions we can draw from this several of which are very interesting to theologians. First this gives us a model for understanding how parallel frameworks might exist and what their mutual causality might be considered. This is because two Ontological Frameworks dependent on the same overarching framework might interact with each other only by means of that overarching framework. Thus I bump you while I’m playing Mortal Kombat and you misfire while piloting your X‑Wing in the 1983 Star Wars game. But more importantly, we are able to see a number of very important things about how a parent framework relates to a child framework.
1. The Parent Framework’s nature (actualized laws and objects) completely determines what kind of child frameworks it can host. Thus the rules of our world fully determine what kinds of virtual worlds we can create. We can easily imagine worlds and indeed create worlds in which virtual worlds are impossible due to their simplicity. For example, the world of Super Mario Brothers, no matter how we arrange the pieces, is not complex enough to host a dependent virtual world of its own. For theologians this relates to two questions: What kind of framework could potentially be the Parent for our reality, and what would that relationship look like? What must the most basic relationship look like from the ultimate Parent ontological Framework? What would the relationship between the Trinity and the World look like? What would the Nature of the Trinity be if perhaps the Father was the ground of the other two persons?3
2. There is an epistemological limitedness to a child framework as to its own nature. For the laws of that framework are not defined by the entities in its own world but by the entities and rules of the parent framework. Thus the rules of Pong are written in our world, which is inaccessible to Pong. Should a sentient being exist in that world, he would only ever be able to determine the rules by experimentation and observation. Yet the laws themselves would never be accessible to him. He might even come to the conclusion that the question as to “why” the ball bounces as it does is inappropriate. Relationships with the sciences here are reconsidered given the potential ramifications of this model.
3. Furthermore epistemological questions are reframed because of the analogous nature of existence. We might say that Pac-Man is played on a 2‑dimensional plane but we are really speaking in analogies. The world of Pac-Man is like a 2‑dimensional plane on an x/y axis but it is not really so. The relations of Pac-Man to ghosts are not really spatial but only analogously spatial, for space is a thing that exists in our world, not in Pac-Man’s world, where the ghostly “movement” is achieved through the assigning of values to variables, not the physical relocation of an object.4 Thus we can speak only in analogies of even our child frameworks and they could only speak of our world in the same way. Theologians here are concerned with concepts like the Analogy of Being and the whole world of thought that comes in with it. What do we mean when we say that “God exists?” Does existence there mean existence as we take it in our universe? Does the apophatic tradition, which speaks of God being “beyond existence” have something substantial to contribute at this point?
4. It might be impossible for a child-framework to have epistemological certitude about the framework that is hosting it. Try as we might we must always communicate with it on its own terms. Thus all interaction with it must be in the terms of its own framework or else all communication will not be received. Therefore, yell at the screen as I might when my video game character does not move as I have directed him, he cannot receive the input. Instead, all input must be in terms he can receive. Theological models of revelation are of course brought in here for consideration.
5. Dependent Ontological Frameworks can be designed with their own integrity, so that they function without outside interaction. But they can also be made with the potential as well as the purpose of being interacted with from their parent Ontological Framework. Thus when I control Gordon Freeman he acts as he is supposed to. If I do not interact with him, the world goes on; and if I do, the world still goes on. Yet it is changed because of my interaction. That interaction is by definition “supernatural” to the child framework. In fact, we observe that we create these virtual worlds very often for the express purpose that we might interact with them. They are not “complete” until we do. Here the whole constellation of ideas including miracles, Obediential Potency, the Incarnation, Resurrection, Sacraments and the Eschaton, is reintroduced as completely compatible with creation.
6. Value systems are imbued primarily from the parent framework into the child framework. Thus interactions in an MMORPG might indeed be interactions of virtue or vice due to the agents who enact them within our own framework. A virtual elf killing another virtual elf is not morally good or bad but a friend betraying a friend in this manner to get an orange drop very well is. The questions for the basis of our moral systems are here introduced for theological thought.
With regard to these conclusions we find that the old robust theological doctrines of Christianity are once more put back on the table. Miracles, Revelation and Obediential Potency all are suggested immediately by this framework as really possible and observably modeled by our interactions with video games. The state of our epistemological problems in science, such as the inability to get at the “why” of nature instead of merely the “how”, are also clearly suggesting that our own Ontological Framework is in fact a Dependent Framework, or in other words, a creation. Finally, the Incarnation itself is modeled as the in-breaking of the parent-framework (the divine Trinity) into our framework in order to communicate with us on our own terms and to enact other real changes in our framework both in terms of our natural state and supernatural elements.
In closing, a few things should be said. First with regard to the relationship between the Trinity and the Created world, this theory would not propose exactly the same kind of relationship as our world has with our virtual worlds. Instead, because the relationship is defined (as in #1 above) by the parent framework the relationship of the Trinity to this framework would be totally defined by the Trinity’s nature which theologians have consistently identified as God’s free creation of the world from nothing. This would be possible and within the bounds of this observed framework if indeed such a being as the Triune Christian God exists. Secondly, this model should not trivialize God as creator or as incarnate in the terms of “God playing video games.” We may currently use our virtual worlds merely as recreation, but this does not indicate the totality of potential relationships and means for such virtual worlds in humanity’s future in general or the concept of child frameworks as a whole. This is not a proposal for “why” God creates (i.e. for some form of entertainment) but, instead, a proposal for how we can observe from our own creative processes what is inherent in the relationship between a “ground of being” and that which is grounded.
- The other two being of course the question of evil and the question of pluralism. [↩]
- Here of course personal pronouns are used at the level of convenience. Pac-Man the Ghosts and all other entities are merely “objects” in their world realized entities. This however should not be confused with the term “object” either in a three dimensional sense nor in the sense of Object Oriented Programming concepts. [↩]
- The work of Metropolitan John Zizioulas with regard to personhood and being is in mind here. [↩]
- This is not to assume that original chip-sets in Pac-Man games used the same concepts for programming as modern day programming. [↩]