Of Games and God: An Interview with Kevin Schut

Book Reviews, Gaming — By on May 10, 2013 at 7:00 am

What follows is an interview with Kevin Schut. He’s a delightful fellow, and he happens to have written a book about video games. It’s called Of Games and God, and you should probably read it. There’s a lot to digest in the book, and the interview below is no different. Enjoy. Much thanks to Kevin and Baker Publishing Group for their participation.

Wow. A book on Christians playing video games. When I first heard about the title, I assumed you’d be firmly in the “pro-gaming” camp. And while you’re definitely a self-described gamer, you’ve got a lot of cautions about the industry, and Christian engagement with games. Have you been met with many who simply won’t read the book, because they believe you’re just an apologist for silly entertainment?

Hmm.  No, I can’t think of any reactions where people outright and vocally refuse to read the book.  I’m sure there are people like that, and they simply won’t make a fuss and just not read it.  I’ve had at least a couple of online commenters that I can remember basically arguing that I’m not hard enough on video games, but they’re not complaining about the “silly entertainment” thing—they’re upset about their perception of filth and/or degradation in the medium.  This is the thing: everyone knows how big video games are today, so even people who don’t play much are unlikely to dismiss games as nothing worth thinking about.  I guess more to your question, though, I’ve been happily surprised that most people reading the book seem to go in with an open mind.  I’ve not had many angry comments about how pro-game I am, and none about me being anti-game—even though if I’m truly balanced, I should be upsetting a few gamers too.

When it comes down to it, this is the kind of guy I am: I am inclined to believe there’s at least some truth to most points of view.  I know a lot of gamers who want to basically say that any time a non-gamer attacks video games that the those critics are just talking out of ignorance.  Sometimes that’s true (and I hope I make that clear in my book), but I think often outsiders get unique views of things that insiders miss.  So I take the critiques seriously, even as I continue to play video games myself.  And to be honest, there’s lots to be upset about.  I’m hardly alone in saying many games are sexist, overly bloody, and poorly constructed by an exploitative industry.  But there’s also lots to be excited about, which is why I continue to love gaming.

 

You talk a little about religion in video games, often citing Dragon Age (which, I’m beginning to gather, is among your favorite games). What about games that explicitly have some religious message, like Assassin’s Creed 2, where the final ‘boss’ of the game is a boxing match with the Pope, or The Binding of Isaac, which centers around a character thrown into a basement by his ‘Christian’ mother, because God told her to?

I’ve not played through the AC series (more on this below)—I’ve watched a good chunk of it and skimmed a few synopses, so I’m speaking out of partial knowledge, which is a dangerous thing.  I have played The Binding of Isaac and watched cinematics of the endings (I’m not skilled enough to get there myself, unfortunately!), but I played it too late for it to end up in the book, sadly.  My perception of the AC series is that it takes the religion-is-social-power-masked-as-heavenly-power line that I describe in the book.  It seems to me that many of the antagonists and powers in both the first and second game wear the trappings of religion, but simply use their supposed beliefs as justifications to engage in highly cynical power plays.  I’d be interested to hear how my perceptions are wrong about that, although learning that the player engages in fisticuffs with His Holiness (I didn’t know that!) certainly suggests I’m not far off.  Such games are not so unusual.  I’d argue it’s part of the bias of games—it’s easier to deal with conflict and manifestations of physical power than it is to deal with mystery, grace, holiness and peace.  But in so doing, such video games really only tackle part of what religions really are.

Isaac is a different sort of beast, in my mind.  Because its narrative and fictional world are so spare and suggestive rather than smooth and coherent (a la the Uncharted-style narrative games) it’s hard to summarize what it’s all about and what it’s saying.  It has a large degree of interpretive flexibility—you can easily understand it in a lot of different ways.  It is definitely all about shocking sensibilities.  It gets into the realm of the grotesque and it really questions certain aspects of religious experience.  Dung, and fetid animals and rot and twisted signs of childhood innocence are everywhere.  And they’re framed with a story of insane devotion to tele-evangelism and an apparent voice from heaven.  But what, exactly, does that all mean?  The ultimate conclusion of the story suggests that the game isn’t exactly critiquing religion but is instead critiquing what people do with religion (just as Monty Python’s The Life of Brian isn’t a critique of Jesus—it’s a critique of Christians).  I don’t know what to make of it, honestly.  But what I can say is that that game has suggested to me the possibility of different ways of grappling with religion than games traditionally have done, and that, at least, is a positive thing.

 

That’s a good take on Isaac. I hadn’t considered it (and, honestly, put the game down after 30 or 45 minutes) that way. Maybe I’ll go back and give it another go. Have you played any games that deal with real-world religions (as opposed to one invented for the game) that deserve a shout-out?

Not really, no.  The most common appearance of religions in the games I play are in strategy games like Civilization and Europa Universalis.  And for reasons I outline in the book, I’m not entirely comfortable giving them praise in that regard.  I think they are noble tries, but a strategic simulation of culture at a very high level can only really simulate what I see as the least important aspects of religion.  There are stories like AC that have real religions in them.  But I can’t think of any that I really like.  There are probably a bunch I should be playing.  If anyone has a favorite, I’d love to hear from them, so I can add it to my repertoire.

I should note that there are lots of games that do very interesting stuff with ethical and moral choices.  Many of the big narrative RPGs let players make decisions that are very interesting and challenging in terms of deciding what is right and wrong.  I find it interesting that something like that is well done, but religion—which so often informs decisions about right and wrong—is pretty weak in most video games.

 

As I read your text, I found there were few games I hadn’t played (mostly the oldest among the games you referenced). Occasionally I found myself wishing you’d bring up other games (Minecraft for a discussion of play, though you do bring it up eventually; Heavy Rain for your discussion of the relationship between film and gaming; Bulletstorm for your chapter on gratuitous violence; Mass Effect for a discussion of narratives in games). A book of this scope is necessarily limited, so I wanted to ask this: what games do you really wish you could have talked about? Are there any favorite games of yours that either didn’t find a space, or the space they found was smaller than you’d have liked?

Ha!   I love how you try to provide me an easy out here: there are all these great games you don’t mention, but you probably didn’t have space for them, right?  Well, the shameful truth comes out here: I haven’t played any of those games.  (Well, that’s not strictly true.  I played Minecraft version 0.32 for a while when I first heard of the game, and I’ve been planning to play it for real this summer.)  The reason is this: the world of video games is huge.  And it’s substantially unlike researching, say, movies or TV in terms of the amount of time involved.  It’s true I could play a substantially fair amount of, say, 5 or 6 puzzle games in the time that it takes me to watch Argo.  But a lot of the games I’m talking about really require the equivalent of dozens of movies to really appreciate them.  On top of that, my natural inclination is to be a completionist—I have a hard time leaving a game before I’ve played all the way through the main campaign.  And (another confession) I’m a pretty slow game player.  I know people who can finish a game of Civilization successfully in 30-40 hours, but it sometimes takes me about twice that.  It took me north of 120 hours to finish Fallout 3.  I got about 35 hours into Skyrim and had to move on, and I’m guessing I’ve only seen about 15-20% of the world.  And because I have courses to grade, lectures to prep, administration to do, church to attend, a family to live with, and so on, I usually do this all after everyone goes to bed, which means that if I want to get more than 5 hours of sleep, I get about 7-10 hours a week of play time.  Phew!  I’m glad to get that off my chest.

The real reason I tell you and your readers about all that is to make it clear that I can’t keep up with everything important, and that’s why I tried to write my book so that it wasn’t about specific games, and more about general principles and issues that could apply to lots of games and hopefully will still be worth reading a few years from now.  A better place for discussions of the here-and-now is the Internet, because it can stay current.  I love that sort of stuff—I love it that within weeks of Bioshock Infinite of coming out we get Jordan Ekeroth’s article on Kotaku: “In Defense Of Religion In BioShock Infinite” (this is going to sound weird, but I haven’t read it yet because I don’t want to get spoilers—as soon as I’m done the game, however, that article’s on the top of my reading list).  But I can’t keep up-to-date like that in the book—as I’ve already mentioned, I don’t have time to play enough games, and the writing and publication process takes too long.  My hope is that readers look at my use of Dragon Age: Origins (all over the book, because I played it right before writing) or really ancient games like the original Sid Meier’s Pirates and say, “Hey! You could make the same point with game X.”  If so, I’ve succeeded.  I recognize that you can’t generalize everything, and that adding new games would add new nuances, so on that level, I’m sorry I didn’t get in more.  I’ve heard Heavy Rain and Alan Wake are both fantastic narrative games, and I really want to play them because I’m sure they’d give me new insights, but I haven’t yet.

Of course, I’m not expecting every gamer to like and/or understand this limitation.  One of the things I’ve found is that gamers tend to be very tribe-ish.  If you’re a Madden fanatic, video games means what others would call “sports video games.”  I can’t tell you how many gamers I’ve met who are absolutely shocked that I’ve never played any version of a Zelda game, because that’s really 40% of their childhood.  And while I’m into indie and art games, I’m quite certain I’ve not played nearly enough to please the true avant-garde gamers (I don’t even know which titles I’ve missed that I should be playing!).  None of those people are wrong about my limitations as a gamer: I’ve got some real gaps.  But we all have our favorites, and we’re all going to have gaps, and we’re going to most notice the gaps of others in the games and genres we like to play.  Honestly, as much as I sometimes feel guilty about not covering enough different stuff, in the end, I really like that localized, tribal passion.  It makes for vibrant communities and great discussions.  I think all together, our conversations cover a lot more ground than any one book can do.

You are right, by the way, that I didn’t fit in everything I like, although most titles I like a lot make at least a cameo.  Where I wanted to put more in but didn’t was all the games I played growing up.  I know you note the book covers titles that are old, but you wouldn’t believe how many ancient games I didn’t mention!  I don’t know if I even mentioned the old Sierra Quest for Glory series that I poured months or years into in the late 80s and early 90s. Masters of Orion (currently updated by games like Galactic Civilizations) was big for me and I don’t believe I touched on it.  I poured quite a few hours into text-based adventure games (the one I remember is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and a lot of time into cracked (illegal—but I didn’t get that at the time) Commodore 64 Epyx titles Winter Games and Summer Games.  But the odd thing about games is because they build on previous titles so much, that just about anything worth saying about those titles is also true of newer games.  So I only threw in a few to indicate that there’s a historical trajectory to just about every game we see today.

 

I assume a fair number of people who read this book will be concerned parents or youth pastors. People who don’t necessarily game, but who are interested in making decisions about the medium. Do you think it is necessary for these people to play at least a game or two, rather than just watching others play? Additionally, do you have any recommendations for games that are accessible, that “show off” the benefits of the medium, or else would be good for someone interested in exploring video games as an outsider?

That’s a great question.  My personal belief is that it’s hard to have a really deep understanding or engagement of something that I haven’t experienced myself.  That’s not to say that I’d have nothing valuable to say about, say, paragliding, after only observing it (rather than doing it).  I just wouldn’t have the authority to say anything about the experience for certain.  I also think it’s much easier for people to actually listen to an outsider who has at least tried the in-group’s activity before talking about it.  Many gamers tend to ignore the pronouncements of non-gamers, whether that’s fair or not (and I think this kind of behavior extends to all kinds other groups; I think many Christians don’t really care what a Muslim has to say about the Christian faith).  So yeah, I think it’s  a good idea to play just a little bit, so you know what all the fuss is about.  You gain empathy, insight, and a small measure of credibility.

That having been said, nobody should expect a non-gamer to become a high-end gamer.  Occasionally this happens, but it’s pretty rare.  It’s like reading, writing and all kinds of other acquired skills: it takes time to become a very good player of video games, and the later in life you start, the harder it is.  And it’s not really necessary.  We can’t be all things for all people, so all non-gamers need is a bit of familiarity and an open enough mind to trust experienced gamers who are willing to explain gaming experience.

I think if you want to get started on games that are fun to play with other people, you still can’t beat some of the simple Wii games, like Wii Sports.  They require zero skill, Wiis are just about everywhere (although they’re starting to get boxed up now), and they’re light fun.  If you’re just a tiny bit more coordinated, MarioKart Wii is even better for that sort of thing.  If you want to see what nonviolent beauty looks like in a simple video game, you can’t go wrong with Flower or Journey (except that, for the time being, you need a PS3 to play them).  There are billions of good puzzle games and most supposed non-gamers have, in fact, played some casual puzzle games.  For range of experience, I might introduce them to Circadia or something like Amazing Alex.  I also think Tiny Wings is a great choice to convince people that video games don’t have to be violent or disturbing.  Those are the easy ones.  There are categories of games, however, that are harder to find good recommendations for people who don’t play a lot of games.   If you want to experience a shooter, I’m kind of at a loss, as I’m terrible at those sorts of things.  I liked Battlefield 1942, but I really haven’t played much since then.  Actually, I think I’d tell most noobs to avoid shooters, because you don’t get much mercy in them—at least online.  I’d love to hear others’ suggestions.  RPGs are also a bit of a tough category, because they typically ask for a lot of investment, and it’s hard to find good non-violent ones.  Again, suggestions would be nice.  Strategy and simulation games are also often a bit daunting for outsiders, although I think the SimCity series is pretty friendly to non-gamers—assuming EA has, in fact, worked out all the kinks!  If people want to experience online multiplayer, have some tolerance for violence and racy portraits, and are willing to learn, League of Legends is about as easy to get into as it gets—but it’s still hard, so I’d only recommend that to certain kinds of people.

I’m not sure that list does it justice, though.  It’s a very practical question and one worth thinking about, so I’d encourage other gamers to make suggestions in the comments.

 

Because we’re talking about gaming, I’ve got to ask: what are you playing now? What are you most looking forward to, on the gaming horizon?

I just finished end-of-the-semester grading, which is always the most stressful time of year for me.  When I’m really wigged out, I retreat to comfortingly familiar games to keep me awake during those marking sessions that go to 3 or 4 am.  This almost always means Civilization; I just finished a campaign as the Carthaginians, and won via the diplomacy victory.  Now I’m trying to rapid-fire cover a whole bunch of titles that have piled up on my computer.  I played Atom Zombie Smasher for a couple of nights, then finally tried World of Goo (something I’ve been meaning to do for years), I’ve been playing Word Realms (my first Kickstarter title that has actually come to maturation), and just last night got in my first session of League of Legends in a couple of months (and only the second session I’ve done since hanging it up in January 2012).  I’ve got a busy summer lined up.  I just bought the re-imagined Tomb Raider, and plan to play AntichamberMinecraftDear EstherMonacoSpec Ops: The Line, and I might get to a few other small titles I’ve got kicking around like Stacking and Might & Magic: Heroes VI (if Ubisoft ever gets around to making it playable again).  But first up—and I’m quite excited about this—is Bioshock Infinite, which I now have budget and time for.  You’ll notice, by the way, that I frequently don’t play games right as they come out.  Often, it’s hard to schedule the newest and shiniest stuff.  But as a scholar, I also operate on a different time scale than reviewers and bloggers and online writers—I can still sometimes turn a two or three year old game into a publication, although I like to be more current than that if I can be.

By the way, I’d like to give a shout-out to some of my favorites from the last few months.  10,000,000 (I played on iOS) is one of the best puzzler/RPG games I’ve ever played, and it had the very weird effect of causing a very temporary (and very strong) obsession that was absolutely finished when I completed the game after about 6-10 hours of play.  Best type of game, in that sense.  I love Orcs Must Die 2 (loved the first too), and very much enjoyed The Unfinished Swan, which I reviewed back in January.

 

My final question is this: any parting thoughts? Anything you really wish people would ask you, but we always manage to avoid?

I’m not sure how much I want to add—I’ve already been plenty verbose by internet standards.  :)  I do want to say thanks for the opportunity to talk about the book from a different angle.  I really value the opportunity to have a conversation, since I really mean for the book to be about that.  It’s not that I don’t have opinions, but my real passion is for the Christian community to learn how engage video games in a healthy way, and that’s not going to happen without many voices speaking about games.  So I love the opportunity to move beyond the book.  Video games are such an important medium, and they have expressive potential that’s different from books and movies and radio and television and comic books.  Christians need to do more than just learn to live with video games—I think we have a calling to make them well, play them well and think about them well, because that’s part of what God made us for.


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