Dominic J.S. Mejia, MDiv Candidate at the BU School of Theology, recently reviewed Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler. Find the full review below.
Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. 248 pages. $25.00.
Faith and Video Games: A Brief Survey and Response
Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God edited by Craig Detweiler – This volume, written in 2010, is a compilation of standalone essays that seeks to introduce theology as a methodology by which video games might be assessed. The first of three parts offers different approaches to studying video games through the lenses of storytelling (narratology) and/or game design (ludology). The second section is composed of interviews with game designers and reflections by players regarding their experiences of video games. The third section offers meditations on personhood, community, and imagination in light of the digital worlds that gamers inhabit. Detwiler concludes the volume with the corniest chapter I have ever read. All but one of the chapters focus on Christian theologies of video games, with the exception being a fascinating look at “Islamogaming,” which explores the ways Muslims use a medium that often objectifies them to subvert expectations and offer alternative messaging.
Of Games & God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games by Kevin Schut– Kevin Schut opens his book stating that he is seeking to help Christian communities develop “a balanced approach to computer and video games.” He sticks to this commitment throughout his book, weighing the dangers of gaming (the glorification of violence, the potential for addiction) with the gifts gaming offers (alternative realities to be explored, tools for education, foundations for community). Ultimately, he argues for robust Christian criticism that pays attention to the context of a game, draws on different critical perspectives, uses scripture and Christian traditions as a means of evaluation, and does not view games as essentially good or bad. Throughout, Schut remains committed to an evangelical understanding of the Christian faith, seeking to discern how video games, and the community around them, might serve as foundations or media for evangelism. At the same time, he decries Christian cultural insulation, whereby Christians produce material for Christians to avoid engaging with outside cultural materials.
God in the Machine: Video Games as Spiritual Pursuit by Liel Leibovitz – The subtitle of this book is a misnomer. Rather than seeking to show how playing video games might be a spiritual practice, Leibovitz instead suggests that video games are more like spiritual practices than they are like other forms of media. He writes, “Religion, then, is exacting but modular, rule-based but tolerant of deviation, moved by metaphysical yearnings but governed by intricate, earthly designs. Religion is a game.” He attempts to make his argument first by looking at how game design sets the parameters for engagement, then by describing what embodied persons do when they play video games, then by exploring the nature of “cheating” in single-player videogames, before ending with the fairly bold claim that video games are the ideal means by which people might experience timelessness, and are thus similar to religious experiences.
Halos and Avatars – The essays found in this volume highlight several different loci to take into account when constructing theological considerations of video games. Throughout the book, authors take different approaches, either privileging the narrative of a game (narratology) or the design of a game (ludology) as their primary grounds for interpretation. For example, “Wii are Inspirited,” looks at what the Nintendo Wii console, by its design, says about humanity’s embodied nature; whereas “From Tekken to Kill Bill: The Future of Narrative Storytelling” focuses on how the narrative style of video games, namely, the structure of video game levels, might influence filmmaking. If one takes a narratological methodology for interpreting a game, especially for the sake of doing theology, one is likely to be disappointed. As Chris Hansen writes, “Perhaps the surface pleasures of gaming can only reduce the complexities of film.” Video games are not primarily a narrative medium, though narrative plays a crucial role. The essays that take a ludological approach tend to raise many more interesting questions. For example, Jason Shim explores the intricacies of a virtual wedding afforded by the design of the game Second Life, and the questions of identity and embodiment raised by these phenomena. Video games are not films, just as films are not novels. To treat them as such is to fail to recognize the unique manner in which Gospel might emerge in the medium.
Of Games & God – Schut’s primary project begins with the Christian person. What does it mean for a Christian to play and make video games? In this regard, Schut’s work is consistently concerned with ethics. This work begins by considering the many facets of video games. He argues that video games communicate through signs (visual, aural, spoken), narrative, and game design, are filled with interactive and systematic information, and mean nothing without a player. Schut places the onus for responsible engagement with video games on the player. In a chapter based on interviews with several Christian video game developers, Schut speaks a warning against reducing the church to a marketing demographic. While all video games are not created equal, and the narrative or design of some games, particularly when it comes to violence, addictive design, or over-sexualization of women, should be cautioned against, Schut suggests that it is the faithful who bring faith into a game through how they interact with the medium. In this regard, for Schut, the way for a Christian to critically engage with a game is to look at that which emerges in the dialogue between the game and the player.
God in the Machine – Leibovitz takes video games deadly seriously. He writes, “What’s truly frightening about the question is that playing video games—like kneeling in prayer or making love or running a race or listening to music or any other heavily sensual and deeply emotional undertaking—is an experience that does not readily lend itself to description.” Similar to Schut, Leibovitz finds the meaning of video games in the experience of the player – although he is interested more in what the player experiences in the state of play, whereas Schut was concerned with what it means for Christians to play video games. Leibovitz states that video games are code, not art, which limits the possibilities found in video games. As such, it is the experience of playing video games which is crucial to understand them, as video games in and of themselves cannot “mean” anything more than they are programmed to. Unlike Schut, however, Leibovitz is not concerned with the external goods of games, such as discerning meaning or finding community through playing. Rather, the value of video games is that they are a means of wasting time in a modern context that emphasizes productivity over all else. In this regard, playing video games might be similar to religious practice, in that spiritual disciplines are not necessarily concerned with a result, but are valuable in and of themselves – as playing video games (when not done professionally) does not produce much.
Halos and Avatars – It is with confidence, having now completed my course work for my Master of Divinity degree, that I can say Craig Detwiler offers the most cringeworthy paragraph regarding theology and pop culture that I have ever read. He writes,
Jesus dropped into the game of our world with both remarkable (even divine) skills and crippling limitations (of humanity). He explored many corners of his Middle Eastern ‘island.’ Among his contemporaries, he made both friends and enemies. A tightly knit, dedicated community arose around him. Jesus and his clan experienced plenty of grief from aggressive and uncooperative rivals. He was eventually fragged during a deathmatch on an unexpected field of battle. He submitted to the rules of engagement, even while resisting them, proposing an alternative way to play. After three days, Jesus respawned, took his place as Administrator, and redefined the way the game is played.
Detwiler’s quote represents the worst of the volume. It is a cheap one-to-one mapping of a Christian message over video games through an arbitrary and inappropriate cooption of gamer lingo. It is simultaneously insulting to people who play video games and crassly trivializing of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Not to mention ableist or generally misanthropic, depending how one takes “crippling limitations (of humanity).” The worst essays in the volume fail to understand that video games are fundamentally different from other forms of expression, as Detwiler fails to engage theology with video games and vice versa.
At its best, Halos and Avatars offers thoughtful reflections on different aspects of and potential in games. Mark Hayse explores how Ultima IV allows the player to explore and discover a world where the moral rules are unclear yet impact each aspect of gameplay, offering an interesting playground for reflecting upon real-world ethical systems. Kevin Newgren combines narratology and ludology to show how BioShock, through gameplay fixed within a robust narrative, might challenge both Randian objectivism and raise questions about the extent to which the protagonist, and therefore the gamer, can act with free will. Rachel Wagner explores different games that represent Christ to show how games do not lend themselves to fixed narratives and therefore can be offensive when portraying sacred stories. It is theologically complicated to actively interact with and potentially change sacred narratives. These robust essays engage the medium in general, as well as particular games, with thoughtfulness and consideration of what makes games unique; exploring the pitfalls of video game interactivity, showing how narrative and game design are interwoven in the most theologically generative games, and highlighting that interactivity and exploration are the fundamental frames through which theological consideration of games might take place.
Of Games and God – Schut succeeds in his task of offering a balanced approach to video games from an evangelical Christian perspective. His most interesting work is in his careful attending to how Christianity specifically, and religion and general, can be cheapened and mechanized through the creation and marketing of interactive media. While responding to concerns that video games promote the demonic and anti-Christian, Schut sneaks in a critique that video games often reduce religion to a character statistic, a faction, or a power, thus making faith a means to an end, as opposed to a way of life valuable in and of itself. This is not restricted to non-Christian games, as the author highlights how the game Left Behind: Eternal Forces makes use of a “spirit level” which determines if a character is in the “Christian Tribulation Forces” or in the antichrist “Global Community.” There are many theological issues with that particular game that they barely warrant mention. To get the ball rolling, Left Behind reduces evangelism to a function, tacitly encourages Christians to kill their enemies, and reduces God to some kind of magical ally that helps in human war; all of which reflect a narrow and harmful eschatological understanding
Fundamentally, Schut successfully troubles the categories of “Christian” and “non-Christian” in video games. So-called Christian games can be reductive and insulting to the Christian faith; so-called secular games can be deeply theologically generative for Christians. More than striking a balance, Schut offers different criteria of evaluation more meaningful than the marketing and symbology of a particular game. Video games offer opportunities for players to encounter God in new venues, explore their ethics and how they play out in a digital world, and connect with other players. The content of the game must be weighed against the value of these characteristics, and how the act of play engages these characteristics, in any title. Instead of asking if a game is marketed to Christians, one should ask if a game is theologically and faithfully generative when engaged with by Christians.
God in the Machine – Ultimately, Leibovitz’s book is not worth the read. He cites figures such as Maimonides, Descartes, Hegel, Augustine, Aristotle, and others from the pantheon of great (male) Western philosophers to say little more than video games are made of code, wasting time is okay in a modern context, people’s bodies respond to video games, cheating in single-player games is okay because the developers put the cheats in, players feel empathy for the characters they control, video games have stories with characters, and video games are composed of a series of events; all of which could have been stated in an article, or simply didn’t need to be said. He hides the pointlessness of his work behind technical philosophical jargon and overdramatization of the “work” of playing videogames.
This emptiness is revealed through his assumption that all religious practices are the same (they’re not) and by a methodology for assessing video games that was based on his taste in video games, and not in through a broader study of different forms of games. His favorite games tended to be linear, single-player adventure games and arcade games, thus limiting the scope of what he could say about games in general. I agree with Robert Geraci, who writes of this text, “Ultimately, the book ignores scholarly work on games and on religion, investigates only a very few games, offers little empirical evidence, and never defines key issues, such as ‘spiritual pursuit’ or the religious ramifications of gaming.” I hoped God in the Machine would eventually make a point more profound than what can be gleaned by my playing of games on a Friday night. Instead, I found a text that is simultaneously too jargon-y to be approachable and too theoretically milquetoast to be meaningful.
As revealed through all three texts, either by their success or their failure to engage theologically with video games, the foundation for the assessment of video games is found in the playing of them. Sports games such as Madden NFL play entirely different than first-person shooters such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or open-ended adventure games such as Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. More than simply being different genres of games, swapping one set of aesthetic principles for another, different games have different goals and means of engaging that demand different postures of reflection. Perhaps the locus for theological engagement in Call of Duty will be related to the ethics of Christians killing digital figures, whereas Legend of Zelda might prompt exploration of the in-game religion that emerges as the player encounters the world. The reason for playing – either to score the most points, or to defeat an international terrorist organization, or to be the last surviving player, or to triumph over ancient evil – shifts the meaning of the act of playing.
This said, I propose three theological loci for engaging with video games, gleaned from the texts that I read for this project. The first is theological anthropology. This foundation asks the question, “what does it mean that we play like this?” This form of inquiry is found in Kallaway’s essay on embodied play through the Nintendo Wii, which he uses to speak against disembodied Neoplatonism in the Christian tradition. This is also highlighted in Schut’s and Leibovitz’s work, who highlight the importance of the embodied experiences of the player as they engage with a game. Detwiler, Leibovitz, and Schut all draw on the work of Dutch sociologist Johan Huizinga to suggest that people, on some basic level, are created to play. A theological anthropological approach to video games seeks an inductive understanding of what it says about people, and therefore God, the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of creation, that we are inclined to play. I’m reminded of Psalm 104:24-26, which suggests God desires for creation to play.  Furthermore, if one agrees with Barth that human nature is perfected in Christ, and agrees that it is human nature to play, one could argue that play is an aspect of the Incarnate God’s nature as well. From there, one might begin to explore what it means for this person, to play this game, in this way.
The next theological locus is the ethical/imaginative. In preparing for this project, I read Hauerwas’s writing on the ethics of pacifists reading murder mysteries. While arguing why the particulars of murder mysteries make the genre helpful for Christians to read, Hauerwas offers a few theoretical points that might apply to video games: first, that “popular” media can serve as a crucial means of speaking to the “eternal yearnings of the human condition”; and, second, that even violent media might speak to the Christian belief that evil is bounded by good. The imagination is shaped, but the violence isn’t “real.” This resonates with Schut’s careful consideration of finding a balanced approach to video games, as well as several articles in Halos and Avatars that discuss how video games allow people to play with the ethical ramifications of decisions in a context that does no real harm. The player is encouraged, in other words, to explore their ethics in a game world. As Daniel White Hodge writes, “By engaging in narrative, gamers are able to experience God in an entire new dimension and are allowed to find God on their own terms within that story – not within the confines of a prepackaged salvation formula.” Might some games lead to misshapen ethical imaginations? Yes. That is why careful critical assessment is necessary. But no genre of video game should be dismissed without consideration.
A final theological consideration is to name the possibility that God might be encountered within a digital landscape. To paraphrase John 3:8, the Spirit blows where she will. Video games might be a means of grace. In times of social isolation, video games are a reprieve from our one-bedroom apartments and offer worlds to explore. For some who are grieving, video games provide a way to externalize and process the pain, as well as serve as tools for the training of caregivers. For others, some games are simply so beautifully constructed, so joyful, so narratively compelling, that the player might experience a moment of transcendence. Truth, goodness, and beauty are encountered differently when the subject can interact and engage with the components that manifest them. Sure, they’re games. But games matter.
Auxier, John W. “That Dragon, Cancer Goes to Seminary: Using a Serious Video Game in Pastoral Training.” Christian Education Journal 15, no. 1 (2018).
Barth, Karl. “Barth: Christ and Adam.” In Readings in Christian Theology, edited by Peter Crafts Hodgson and Robert Harlen King, 157–61. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.
Callaway, Kutter. “Wii Are Inspirited: The Transformation of Home Video Consoles (and Us).” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 75–90. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Campbell, Heidi. “Islamogaming: Digital Dignity via Alternative Storytelling.” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 63–74. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Detweiler, Craig, ed. Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Geraci, Robert M. “God in the Machine: Video Games as Spiritual Pursuit. By Liel Leibovitz. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton, 2013. Pp. Xii +144. Cloth $19.95; Paper, $10.47.” Religious Studies Review 42, no. 2 (2016): 100–101.
Hansen, Chris. “From Tekken to Kill Bill: The Future of Narrativve Storytelling” Focuses on How the Narrative Style of Video Games Migh Influence Filmmaking.” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 149–62. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Hauerwas, Stanley. “McInerny Did It: Or, Should a Pacifist Read Murder Mysteries?” In A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism. Democracy. And Postmodernity, 201–10. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2001.
Hayse, Mark. “Ultima IV: Simulating the Religious Quest.” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 34–46. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Humanitas, Beacon Reprints in Humanities. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.
Leibovitz, Liel. God in the Machine: Video Games as Spiritual Pursuit. West Conshohocken, Pa.: Templeton Press, 2014.
McAlpine, Andrew. “Poets, Posers, and Guitar Heroes.” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 121–34. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Newgren, Kevin. “BioShock to the System.” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 135–45. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Schut, Kevin. Of Games and God. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2013.
Shim, Jason. “’Til Disconnection Do We Part: The Initation and Wedding Rite in Second Life.” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 19–33. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Suderman, Peter. “Opinion | It’s a Perfect Time to Play Video Games. And You Shouldn’t Feel Bad About It.” The New York Times, March 23, 2020, sec. Opinion. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/opinion/video-games-covid-distancing.html.
Wagner, Rachel. “The Play Is the Thing.” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 47–62. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
White Hodge, Daniel. “Role Playing: Toward a Theology of Gamers.” In Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, edited by Craig Detweiler, 163–75. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
 Craig Detweiler, ed., Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
 Ibid., 9
 Ibid., 20-22.
 Heidi Campbell, “Islamogaming: Digital Dignity via Alternative Storytelling,” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 63–74.
 Kevin Schut, Of Games and God. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2013).
 Schut., 2.
 Ibid., 51-108.
 Ibid., 29-50, 109-170.
 Ibid., 176-177.
 Ibid., 127-169.
 Ibid., 168.
 Liel Leibovitz, God in the Machine: Video Games as Spiritual Pursuit. (West Conshohocken, Pa. : Templeton Press, 2014).
 Ibid., Kindle location 62-63
 Leibovitz., location 75.
 Chris Hansen, “From Tekken to Kill Bill: The Future of Narrativve Storytelling” Focuses on How the Narrative Style of Video Games Migh Influence Filmmaking,” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 19–33; Kutter Callaway, “Wii Are Inspirited: The Transformation of Home Video Consoles (and Us),” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 75–90.
 Hansen, 28.
 Jason Shim, “’Til Disconnection Do We Part: The Initation and Wedding Rite in Second Life,” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 149–62.
 Schut, 27-28.
 Ibid., 140-141.
 Leibovitz, Location 533.
 Ibid., Location 133.
 Ibid., Location 453.
 Detwiler, 196.
 Examples: Hansen, “From Tekken to Kill Bill: The Future of Narrative Storytelling.” Hansen decries the influence of video games on film, nameley, the Tekken series on Kill Bill, by arguing that video games are not narratively robust; Andrew McAlpine, “Poets, Posers, and Guitar Heroes,” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 121–34. McAlpine argues that Guitar Hero is bad because people aren’t making real music. Both misunderstand the nature of video games.
 Mark Hayse, “Ultima IV: Simulating the Religious Quest,” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 34–46.
 Kevin Newgren, “BioShock to the System,” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 135–45.
 Rachel Wagner, “The Play Is the Thing,” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 47–62. This in itself raises interesting theological questions. Would the life, death, and resurrection of Christ remain salvific if things played out differently? I would argue that the Gospel would have still made salvation.
 Schut, 34-40.
 Ibid., 39-40.
 To start, the reduction of evangelism to a function, the problematic nature of having Christians kill their enemies, as well as a particular, narrow eschatological understanding.
 See Schut, 140-141.
 An example: “The game did me violence: it forced me to bend my hands and twist my fingers and strain my wrist in an effort to achieve the correct grip on the controller, and it subjected me to a stream of perpetual virtual battles, each causing me to tense my shoulders, arch my back, and furiously flick my thumbs. But the longer this violence occurred, the more ready I was to reenter the world of the game—this time, however, armed with new ways of being.” Leibovitz, 1121-1125.
 Robert M. Geraci, “God in the Machine: Video Games as Spiritual Pursuit. By Liel Leibovitz,” Religious Studies Review 42, no. 2 (2016): 100–101.
 Callaway, “Wii Are Inspirited: The Transformation of Home Video Consoles (and Us).”
 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955).
 “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to play in it.”
 Karl Barth, “Barth: Christ and Adam,” in Readings in Christian Theology, ed. Peter Crafts Hodgson and Robert Harlen King (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 157–61.
 Stanley Hauerwas, “McInerny Did It: Or, Should a Pacifist Read Murder Mysteries?,” in A Better Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism. Democracy. And Postmodernity (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Brazos Pres, 2001), 201–10.
 Ibid., 202 and 207, respectively.
 Daniel White Hodge, “Role Playing: Toward a Theology of Gamers,” in Halos and Avatars: Playing Video Games with God, ed. Craig Detweiler (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 165.
 Peter Suderman, “Opinion | It’s a Perfect Time to Play Video Games. And You Shouldn’t Feel Bad About It.,” The New York Times, March 23, 2020, sec. Opinion, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/opinion/video-games-covid-distancing.html.
 John W. Auxier, “That Dragon, Cancer Goes to Seminary: Using a Serious Video Game in Pastoral Training ,” Christian Education Journal 15, no. 1 (2018).