With ‘Playing with God’, cultural theologian Frank G. Bosman wrote a sparkling argument not to shy away from games, like the free PC Games at junubgames.com, in a religious context, but to take them seriously as an expression of people in search of meaning. Eric van den Berg spoke to Bosman for Nieuw Wij about his latest book, which can also be used for catechesis or in lessons in religion or social studies.
Frank, games, and religion. That does not seem to me to be a self-evident friendship. Sex, swearing, and extreme violence, that doesn’t suit believing church people, does it?
“Yes, that’s what a lot of people think. With my book, I try to adjust that image. A while ago I read the story of an adolescent, a YouTube celebrity with the incomprehensible name 00WARTHERAPY00. He got an old game console from his father and together they played for many hours. His father died when he was six years old. For ten years he ignored his Xbox. Then he picked it up again and went to play his dad’s favorite racing game, RalliSport Challenge. And as he raced, he saw his father’s ghost looming. Literally, because this game projects the fastest racer to improve your fastest time. And now 00WARTHERAPY00 tried to catch up with his father for weeks. He succeeds, but he doesn’t let his father die again and saves him from a second, digital death. When I tell this story to fellow theologians or in parish halls, people start to look at games differently.”
You call yourself a “game theologian” in your book. Isn’t that a bit of an exaggeration?
“No. Because the two worlds don’t understand each other. Christians are full of prejudices, and theologians don’t understand that games should be objects of scientific study. That’s strange. There is a lot to analyze and address when you play and study games. That is what Moltmann tells us: theology must study all of life. Or when Paul Tillich, whose opinion I share, writes that in the theology of culture you have to trace the religious dimension. Games and religion thus become an extremely fascinating duo. A search for the Deus incognitus, the hidden God in our society. That’s what game theologians of the future are doing.”
You’re trying to build a bridge.
“I’ve been working professionally on games for about 10 years now. I give guest lectures to high school students about this. Funnily enough, not a little tilts their worldview after my story. Theology is not boring, because you get paid to play games in the boss’s time. Then they want to study theology. And in order not to dampen that enthusiasm, I’m not talking about hours of meetings and attending conferences.”
Do you get rich from playing these games?
“Ha ha ha. Well, I’m not sponsored if that’s what you mean. I didn’t get any compensation to discuss the games in my book. In fact, I buy all my games neatly myself.”
Should more clergy become game theologians now?
“Of course, you don’t have to. Let me give you another example. Often after lectures, I hear from real die-hard gamers: ‘I know Wolfenstein very well, but I have never seen this in it.’ Then I think it’s already successful. That is precisely why I am doing this. There are therefore possibilities to use games in catechesis. Whether that concerns reading groups, student associations, or study programs.”
Let’s go back to the extreme violence in games. That seems to me to be a reason for Christians to ignore games.
“I understand very well. In successful games like Half Life 2,’Father Grigori’ shoots his own parishioners. In other games, the blood splashes against your screen and you see severed heads and pierced chests. Especially in so-called shooter games, violence is abundantly present. Is that new to Christians? No. Read back to the Old Testament. Jeremiah, Judges. Plenty of texts with violence with the approval of the Most High. Ignoring games is ignoring your own Bible history.”
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But still. Violence in games evokes violence outside of games. You can’t deny that.
“I would like to put that right. Of course, there are games that preach violence, racism, and porn. However, scientific research from the last eight years contradicts the link between games and violence. The reasoning is also often wrong in my opinion. When an American kid shoots his classmates, violent first-person shooter games are found during house searches. Then the conclusion is quick: you see, he played games. However, is that true? The detectives will also have found a lot of other non-violent material. I believe more that violent games can be an indicator of possible problem behavior, but not as a cause of a massacre.”
In your book, you point out many examples of religion in games. How do you explain that?
“I’m not sure if the creators of a game are aware of putting religion into their games. Some leave the interpretation to the players. Others will confirm arguments put forward to promote sales. Keep in mind that there is a tension between exegesis and eisegese, explanatory science, and inlay science. Most games balance the two. One game, like metro: Last Night, explains itself, while another, like Nier: Automata, resists a clear explanation.”
What do you think is a connecting factor of games, from a religious perspective?
“It is particularly fascinating that the Christian history of salvation can be found in video games. I find it very encouraging that ‘our’ Christian story retains a lot of appeals. Two seemingly far apart universes meet.”
If religion teachers want to start with games in the classroom… Where to start?
“It is wise to start with quiet genres and watch a walkthrough. Then you look at the whole game through the eyes of experienced gamers. Games require a lot of time and preparation. You can also search YouTube for a game title plus ‘the movie’. Then you will see the storylines in games, which you can use for your exegesis. For example, about philosophical themes such as life and death, the afterlife, and the religious view thereof. Extremely exciting, and extremely necessary to build a bridge with young gamers: they can play the game, but the religious dimension makes it even more fascinating.”