Nostalgia is powerful. Witness the immense success of the retro gaming industry, the existence of television channels like Teletoon Retro, or the surprising prevalence of blogs devoted to remembering the games/cartoons/films of yesteryear. It is clear that the entertainment industry recognizes the money that is at stake when it comes to nostalgia, but I believe there is much more to the recent boom in media nostalgia than corporate cash-grabs, and sad geeks [my own tribe] longing for a past they now see only through rose-coloured glasses. I believe there is something much more profound to this phenomenon, something religious.
A Gamer’s Eschaton
October 11, 1994 was a day of eschatological significance in my life. As an early adopter of the role-playing video game genre, the release of FFVI (then called FFIII) had almost messianic import. From the beginning, it was clear that this game would be big, and as screenshots and info were released via now-defunct news outlets like GamePlayers, EGM, and Nintendo Power, my anticipation grew. Add to this the fact that I was living in the already snow-covered town of Inuvik, NT where the steam rising from our frozen homes shared much in common with Narshe (the game’s starting locale). When the game finally released and proved to exceed my expectations, I entered into one of the most euphoric eras of my childhood. A couple of weeks of hardcore weekend gaming and after-school play ensued before my good friend and I completed the game. But my experience with FFVI did not end there.
One day, a non-RPGer friend happened to join us for one of our marathon gaming sessions. He fell in love with FFVI and then disappeared for a couple of weeks as he carefully played through the game himself. We continued to invite other non-RPGers to join us in the FFVI experience and were pleased to find that we soon had many eager converts. One year after the game’s release, our small circle of RPGers had grown from 2 to more than 10.
I suspect that most retro-game lovers have had an experience in which they were one of the characters in my story. Either the early adopter who converted others with a religious zeal, or the later convert, stubbornly won over to the faith through a numinous experience.
Games as Numinous Experience
I call the RPG experience numinous because I believe it has much in common with religious experience. Numinous is a term coined by early 20th century theologian, Rudolph Otto, referring to an experience in which one feels terror (tremendum), fascination (fascinans), and personal communion with that which is “holy other” (The Idea of the Holy). I believe that one of the things that sets RPGs apart from most other game genres is that it provides a sort of numinous experience for the gamer. Unlike fantasy novels and film which allow the audience to view characters who connect with the holy other (often in the form of magic, or in actual meetings with divinities) RPGs actually invite the gamer to experience those connections. This is one of the great novelties of gaming; it is more participatory than other forms of media (it has even been demonstrated that gaming experience shapes gamer self-perception and identity [Blake et al.]).
Final Fantasy VI is a seminal work for discussion of numinous experience because of the world it inhabits. The game opens in a bleak, post-industrial world where reason and technology reign, and where magic and the gods have long since been relegated to myth. Yet, as much as setting aligns itself with post-industrial Europe, there is much of the post-modern West here. This is a de-supernaturalized world where industrial might trumps transcendental longings. It is into this world, then, that the game’s opening inserts the discovery of a tremendously powerful magic-wielder, Terra, whose most fumbling early attempts at using her powers bring shock and awe upon those who join her. As her name suggests, Terra, is intimately connected to the ultimate reality of this planet, and yet she is also “holy other” to the lived experience of the planet’s inhabitants.
A Role-Playing Liturgy
Beyond the provision of numinous experience, RPGs also function as religious experience through their use of a liturgical form. Liturgy generally refers to the customary practice of a religious community. Liturgies are much more than traditions, however, for they are also sacramental, functioning as symbolic enactments of shared beliefs—as the Eucharist enacts a belief in the life-giving power and the community’s participation in Christ’s death; or as a specific service’s liturgy might bring the congregation through an enactment of Christian ontology (by singing/reciting about the move from creation, to Fall, to redemption, etc.). Some congregations prefer a traditional, and carefully thought-out liturgy, while others feel that their shared beliefs are best represented through a more spontaneous form.
RPGs also have liturgies. Much as many Christian churches have been rocked by debates about the use of traditional forms of worship versus modern styles, so too the RPG genre has long been divided between traditional forms (e.g., the random encounters, turn-based battles, experience points and levelling that make up “Japanese RPGS”) and modern innovations (often embodied in the term “Western RPGs”).
Much like Christians debating matters of worship, gamers feel strongly about their personal beliefs regarding RPG liturgy. Traditionalists see the value of older forms–experience points and levelling are a sort of sacramental symbol of the individual’s potential to develop and grow; random encounters could be symbolic of the volatility of life and the need for individuals to progress and develop in order to meet life’s unpredictability. Besides sacramental value, these traditional forms serve the functional utility of making it easy for gamers to jump into new games. Meanwhile, more innovative “liturgies” allow developers to create use forms that best fit their intended audience and game–a move that is highly functional, but risks the loss of whatever meaning gamers might attach to the discarded forms.
J. R. R. Tolkien liked to say that real art is that which helps us escape to true reality (for him, a reality in which the love of God, in Christ, was the dominant force) (Wood 5). Tolkien saw fantasy as one great avenue for this escape, and I believe that video game RPGs represent an evolution of the opportunity afforded by fantasy (and sci-fi for that matter). Regardless of one’s religious creed (or lack thereof), I believe that these games provide an opportunity to escape a world that is sometimes more shadow than truth, and find a numinous experience. This is a world steeped in its own liturgy—via tropes and forms that represent shared beliefs of gamers (whether traditional or not)—and whether one believes that this world points to something greater, or is an end in itself, I believe it is a world that can enrich the human experience by opening us up to the reality that the world as we know it is not the ultimate reality.
Blake, Christopher, et al. “Identification With Video Game Characters as Automatic Shift of Self-Perceptions.” Media Psychology. 13 (2010): 323-338.
Wood, Ralph C. “The Baptized Imagination: C.S. Lewis’ Fictional Apologetics.” The Christian Century. 112.25 (1995).
Otto, Rudolph. The Idea of the Holy:An Inquiry Into The Non Rational Factor In The Idea Of The Divine. Kessinger Publishing, 1924.