‘Bloodborne’ and Firewalking: Play As Social Ritual

Playing Bloodborne is like willingly partaking in a rite of passage, an individualized ritual imbued with social meaning.

Last week here on PopMatters, Scott Juster compared playing Bloodborne to exercising. He’s right. Playing the game can feel like a gradual and painful investment towards self-improvement. But what of the social elements of Bloodborne? How do the in-game and meta social interactions surrounding the game contribute to the experience of play? To me, Bloodborne is a lot like walking on flaming hot coals.

It sounds strange, but hear me out. Firewalking and and playing Bloodborne really are quite similar, and not just because both sound excruciatingly painful. If you want to compare the two, you can pretty easily create your own firewalking experience at home. First create a small bonfire, traditionally made of hardwood. After a few hours, rake the coals into a rectangular bed of about eight or so feet in length if you’re looking to take a short stroll or upwards of twenty feet for a longer jaunt. Now step onto the coals and walk as briskly as possible without losing your dignity.

This could be a region in Bloodborne.

If done right, you won’t burn yourself walking on coals. The ash-covered chunks of carbon are actually poor conductors of heat. As you speed across the coals, your feet simply do not touch the coals long enough to do much damage. There is no magic or mystery to the process, just the properties of thermal conductivity. So why do people do it?

Like Bloodborne, there is a mythology around firewalking. Walking across flames looks far more dangerous and thrilling than it is. Likewise, Hidetaka Miyazaki, the creator of Bloodborne has built up an infamy for creating brutally difficult and punishing games. To willingly step into Bloodborne is to confront a notorious, seemingly impossible challenge, while to walk on hot coals is to intentionally put yourself in danger for the sake of achieving some greater transcendence. Neither experience is all that difficult, at least if done right and, in the case of Bloodborne, with a great deal of patience. No, the reward from these experiences isn’t found in the challenge, but in the social ritual of play.

Those who engage in the practice of firewalking often describe it as a spiritual act. In some cultures, it has become a rite of passage, an exhibition of personal or religious faith. It is often done in a group environment as well, bonding practitioners together, be they members of a tribe or a team of coworkers. The sociologist Émile Durkheim describes rituals like these as producing “collective effervescence” or “mutually shared emotional arousal,” a phenomenon that creates a sense of solidarity between ritual participants. Generally, you walk the hot coals with a group of other support participants. Their presence and encouragement, witnesses to the challenge, creates, for some, a religious experience.

Words of encouragement.

For those engaging in the social elements of Bloodborne right now, the game induces a similar feeling of collective effervescence. One of the first things that I do when I defeat a boss or enter a new area in Bloodborne is to talk about it with friends. We speak with excitement at overcoming the game’s challenges and with awe at its baffling world. Jump into the myriad of online communities, and you’ll find the same storytelling and sharing around Bloodborne. From those delving into the game’s lore and crafting theories around its fiction to those swapping tips for facing off against some hideous boss or another, half the experience of playing Bloodborne right now is to partake in the collective challenge of the game.

Even the in-game social elements contribute to the sense of play as a social ritual. Ghosts of other players appear ephemerally as I play, tying my individual struggles to others who have come before me or are confronting a challenge along with me. Notes of encouragement dotted around the game are more than user-generated tips, they turn Bloodborne into a mutually shared struggle. Playing Bloodborne is like willingly partaking in a rite of passage, an individualized ritual imbued with social meaning.

I once compared Dark Souls to chopping your own arm off. It’s a game that speaks to “a universal truth: everyone has the capacity to transcend expectations, even you.” Bloodborne accomplishes this same feat, binding players together in the collective act of play as ritual. Through our shared experience, the paths of blood we leave behind, the emotive cheers we share with strangers, and the stories that we tell as we play, Bloodborne becomes, in many ways, a unifying collective journey. The joy may not last long, but for now, I am glad to be your fellow hunter.