Finding ‘Eden’: Can Games be Spiritual Experiences?

“Do you think a game can be a religion?”, a friend asked me recently. The question came as part of a conversation that we have had about fandoms and content worlds for more than a year now, and it emerged without consideration to works such as Jason Rohrer’s Chain World or the Left Behind games. Valuable foregrounding points though these titles are, they weren’t on my friend’s mind. Final Fantasy VII was.

We agreed in fairly short order that, as religions and fandoms both tend to organize themselves around stories and looking to characters as models for behavior, a case could indeed be made for games as religion. But what a discourse such as ours should really be exploring is whether games — denotatively — can function spiritually for the player. That is, whether there is some systemic quality to games that can generate a deep-seated emotional experience that is quite apart from the creation of elaborate narratives and rules for conduct that are more accurately the hallmarks of organized faith. Can games reach us emotionally on a level that we might term as producing something like a “spiritual experience”?

Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s recently released Child of Eden is a prime starting point to explore this idea. The game borrows liberally from Hinduist iconography while the title itself is a reference to the religious reverence we’ve afforded technology. But it is the spiritual component that I’ve observed in several commentators responses to the game that truly makes it unique:

We spent some time in Child of Eden’s incredible fourth archive yesterday morning, Passion, and I don’t know if it’s a spoiler to say that you play the part of time in an interactive opera based on human technological achievement. If that happens in any other game, ever, I must have missed it. What we’ve got here is a shooter in reverse, one where you make every entity more beautiful with each shot. The raw clusters of instinct you encounter aren’t just corrupt: they’re so broken that they don’t want to be fixed, and they’ll kill you for trying.

I don’t know. That communicates to me (Jerry Holkins, “This Week’s Villain”, Penny Arcade, 17 June 2011).

Holkins’s and Krahulik’s accompanying comic (shown above) is an even further comment on the note of difference that Child of Eden strikes. For all its frenetic energy and at times vicious difficulty, it is a game about positive emotion and spiritual transcendence. Your two weapons act as purifiers, while the stages you explore are a set of technorganic ballets representing said rites of purification. It very much is in the nature of religious ritual, as much as a passion play or holy communion, in which the outcome is often a heightened awareness or sense of the sublime for the participant.

In one of my early reviews for PopMatters, I quoted Rock, Paper, Shotgun‘s Quintin Smith (in his three-part series on Pathologic) saying that:

[G]ames have incredible untapped potential in the field of negative emotions. Just as the lowest common denominator of any art form appeals to ‘positive’ emotions, whether it’s humour, arousal or excitement, so it is that our young games industry is obsessed with the idea of ‘fun’. […] No games developer’s going to try and make its audience feel sad, or lonely, or pathetic, at least not for long stretches (“Butchering Pathologic — Part 2: The Mind”, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, 11 April 2008).

I still agree with this assessment, but I would amend it to say that I believe that there is similar potential in the field of positive emotions. Much of the joy and pleasure of games comes from base feats, often cathartic and frequently violent. There is nothing wrong with this, but surely there is room for more variety — games which evoke tranquility, promote kindness, energize and inspire. Games, in short, which suggest a higher order or purpose or that at least provide the player a powerful new perspective on existence.

There is some research to validate the existence of such games, such as a recent study from Ohio State University. The study led by psychology professor Brad Bushman found that subjects who played the Wii game Endless Ocean “reported feeling more happiness, love, joy, and other positive emotions” than subjects who played a violent game (Elizabeth Armstrong Moore, “Study: Relaxing video games make people ‘kinder'”, Health Tech – CNET News, 6 June 2011). Bushman states that these results are unprecedented largely because “until recently…such games didn’t exist”. But let us not discount the additional factor of publication bias, especially toward forming the popular perception of games and emotional affect across generations of development. If we begin now to see evidence (like that in the Bushman study) that games have a vast emotional range at their disposal, it may influence how we think about “outlier” games like Child of Eden or Endless Ocean.

flOw (thatgamecompany, 2007)

thatgamecompany’s flOw is a spiritual game in much the same vein as Child of Eden. By this I don’t refer to their similar ecological themes and aesthetics, but rather, the way in which both games act as systems of becoming. While Child of Eden tracks the ascent of organic life into a higher-ordered, collective intelligence, flOw illustrates the same transition in microcosm, depicting microscopic organisms growing and competing in a drop of water. That both these games as well as Endless Ocean emphasize water (and in Eden‘s case, space as ocean) is most certainly no coincidence for reasons either Freudian or scientific. Rather, this trend only further emphasizes what Mitu Khandaker writes about in her blog post “Are Games Astronomy?”:

It is […] instead about the potential that games have to teach us about our beautiful, flawed, complicated selves. To teach us about the universe, and way things work. Both games and cosmological software attempt, on varying scales, to model the universe. To model all there is, and all there ever will be, and try to understand it (, 21 May 2011).

Khandaker goes on to further illustrate this point by citing late astronomer Carl Sagan, in doing so emphasizing the value of systems and microcosms in contemplating the vastness of the whole:

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known (Pale Blue Dot, Random House, 1994, pg 7).

“Pale Blue Dot”: Earth as seen from the Voyager I.

This leads me to another passage from elsewhere in the book — controversial for some — but incredibly salient for any discussion on the spiritual or religious potential of games:

How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way” (pg 50).

Electronic games, the product of electrical signals passed among metals and relayed to us as light and sound, authored and then enacted by human hands descended from ages-dead supernovae and the ancient seas, are indeed the epitome of “star stuff contemplating the stars.” If games like Endless Ocean can change us emotionally, if Child of Eden and flOw can produce a sense of the sublime, aren’t we cheating the medium by continuing to call them games?