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 firstname.lastname@example.org!
One of my favorite video games as a child was Paper Mario. The colors, characters, story, gameplay — it was some of the most fun I ever had with video games, even more fun than when I finally managed to get all gold trophies in every single level of Mario Kart 64. It was the first RPG that I had ever played, and I loved it fiercely. We had Super Mario 64 at home, but I didn’t like playing it: the first few levels were fun, but then the puzzles got trickier, the enemies were harder, and I failed more than I succeeded. Paper Mario never let me fail. I have beaten Paper Mario more times than I can remember, but I have never yet beaten Super Mario 64. I haven’t played Paper Mario for a long time now. I tried, not very long ago, but it didn’t have the same fun for me as when I was a kid. I was dissatisfied.
However much I want to, however many fond memories I have of Paper Mario, playing it will never be the same, because I am no longer a child, yet, I feel that I am not yet an adult. I have plateaued in my development, and I am not just referring to video games: I’ve come to a standstill in my religious life as well. I cannot blissfully believe with the trust and openness of a child, but neither can I grasp religion with an adult and mature understanding. I am frozen with questions and doubts. Thankfully I am engaged to a man who is much more sensible than that. He told me the only person that could help me is myself, and that gaming is not an innate skill but a learned one. So, with an incredible amount of skepticism, I started a journey, to improve my ability to play video games. It is looking to be a long, slow process. During one of our late night chats, my struggles with religion came flooding out to his sympathetic ears. After calming my near rage quit, my fiancé said that my faith can and should be developed. Expecting someone to believe that they can improve in videogames is one thing; wanting them to believe they can improve their faith life is quite another. However, he has yet to steer me wrong (even his root beer and pina colada icee concoction was amazing), so I am embarking on yet another journey, this time to ignite my faith. The parallels in these two endeavors surprised me.
I have never been very good at video games. My skills seem to be forever frozen at beginner level, leading me to rage quite with spectacular enthusiasm. That’s one of the reasons I still haven’t beaten Ocarina of Time; I started a year or two ago, but I get so mad at the game that I refuse to play it. The puzzles and enemies in video games seem so simple when the solutions are pointed out to me, but in the moment something always blocks me and I just can’t seem to understand anything. Climbing trees was always a bit of a struggle for me, but I never minded, because I didn’t want to climb them in the first place — they’re covered with ants and bugs and spiders and all manner of nasty things — but I want to be good at video games. I want to be able to beat a boss in Metroid: Fusion on the first try. I want to be able to play a first person shooter and actually make it to at least the second cutscene without dying, but yet again, my incredible lack of anything remotely resembling skill stops me.
I’m starting with older games recommended to me by my fiance, an avid gamer. He started me on Link’s Awakening, Metroid: Zero Mission and Metroid: Fusion. After a year, I managed to finish both Link’s Awakening and Metroid: Zero Mission, without using any sort of cheat or walkthrough (other than the natural cheat of having a gamer fiance). Both of those games, while incredibly fun, were the most difficult games I have ever beaten. They were also the second and third games I have ever beaten. (I don’t count unlocking Rainbow Cloud in Pokemon Snap.) Most of the year I spent playing them was spent not playing them. I spend most of my time in a stage of rage over my inability to advance. I am now working on Metroid: Fusion. As I am writing this article, it has been two weeks since I started playing, and thirteen days since I last picked up the controller. I hate Serris as I have never hated before. I am at a standstill in this game, fighting the same boss, failing the same moves, and dying over and over and over again.
I have also never been very good at religion. I know what the correct thing to do is, and I try to do it, but most of the time, it is devoid of any true conviction. Even when I am alone and try to pray, it is sometimes nothing more than the attempt to do what is expected of a good Christian. For a long time I was at peace with this existence. After all, the alternative would be to seek answers, and I wasn’t sure I was going to like them. I am fond of taking the path of least resistance, so ignoring my questions and acting the part of a happily religious person seemed like the easiest choice. The only time it caused me any pain is when I talked about it, so I chose to not talk about it. Ever. Moreover, I have never had much confidence in my ability to make logical, sound decisions. My lack of belief in my own mental prowess decreased considerably whenever I looked at the people engaging in religious activity around me. Everyone always seemed so sure of themselves — even the atheists had more conviction than I did! I came to the conclusion that my lack of faith was because something was wrong with me, and, quite frankly, the more I continue this journey the more I am convinced that I am correct.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not about to erupt into angst. While I do have a few obstacles to overcome, video games and religion are both frustrating in and of themselves. Some video games are supposed to confuse and frustrate you, and trying to grasp at the mysteries of theology has never been described as easy. I’ll admit, sometimes I feel like there is something wrong with me, though I do not mean to imply that I am somehow broken because I cannot get a headshot the moment I pick up a weapon. It is my attitude toward religion and video games that is creating this insurmountable wall. To put it simply, I don’t trust them. I don’t trust the game mechanics, and I don’t trust the workings of religion. It’s hard to trust that something you’ve never seen will work for you and help you to succeed. I get tense and worried and feel that I must control everything so that nothing will go wrong. Of course, everything goes wrong.
A magical moment happened to me over Easter weekend. I was playing Ocarina of Time, which has taken me almost two years to get through. I was fighting the final boss of the Shadow Temple and was failing epically, as is usual for me. I had one and a half hearts left, no more fairies and I was sure that I was going to die, again. I was failing epically, unsurprisingly. I had been dying and complaining all day long, and I was sick and tired of it. So, rather than throw my controller across the room, I silenced my Brechtian monologue of doubt and despair, and just relaxed into the game. I let the z‑targeting do its job; I stopped frantically pressing the c button for arrows; I stopped running around like a chicken with its head cut off and I beat that boss without getting hit once.
As I write this, that stupid voice is back in my head, telling me that I probably won’t be able to repeat that feat, and, anyway, how on earth could this possibly apply to my problems with religion? Are you saying that you can just relax into faith?
Serris will probably be harder to beat than Bongo Bongo, but I can manage it, as long as I stay relaxed and focused and don’t get lost in inventing new insults for myself. As for religion, relaxing isn’t really the best word. Letting go of control is better. I do not, cannot, and will not have all the answers. No one does. There is no way to empirically prove that one answer is better than the other. Let’s face it, there is no way to empirically prove God at all, and even if there was, I’m sure people would challenge it and continue to not believe. The only thing I can say with definite certainty, the one thing I know above all else, is that God is Love, and if that is true, He will not let me, or anyone, fail if they have a true desire for Him. I cannot truly know whether or not I am on the correct straight and narrow path, but I am trying to stay on it to the best of my ability, and if I falter, God will guide me.
If only there was a way for God to help with video games, I’d be set for life.