For the Amusement of Youth

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This post is a followup to Dara’s previous post about spirituality in video games. It is recommended that they be read in order.

Shangri-La, invented by a British novelist in the 1930s, is in most ways similar to other hidden worlds of history. Like Atlantis, its location is a mystery. Like El Dorado, Shangri-La harbors untouched, tantalizing treasures. Most importantly, like Shambhala, Shangri-La is a place of great spiritual interest. The people of Shangri-La live in serene moderation, following an enlightened mix of Eastern and Western philosophy. They are unburdened by vice or prejudice, able to enjoy earthly pleasures without excess or addiction. Finding Shangri-La is a matter of complete chance, but living in Shangri-La is an experience so profound that the monks do not allow occupants to leave.

And like these other worlds, Shangri-La has appeared in video games with little concern for that spirituality. The Shangri-La in Call of Duty: Black Ops is a “legendary shrine lost in an exotic jungle” populated by exploding “napalm zombies.” The Shangri-La in Far Cry 4 includes a fight against a “flying bird demon.” In the original Tomb Raider, Lara Croft’s objective is to recover an Atlantean artifact hidden somewhere in Peru. In The Fate of Atlantis, Indiana Jones travels to the lost world itself to solve puzzles and thwart Nazis. These mythical locations, objects of profound historical and spiritual interest, are reduced to video game verbs: jump, climb, shoot, use.

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Dara wrote that “spirituality in video games is a rare beast,” and I agree. But video game designers have no qualms exploiting the trappings of spirituality. Roleplaying games craft elaborate religions, as Dara says, to give “simple color” to an invented world. Monks abound in the gaming world but almost always as vaguely pious martial arts experts. Doom and Quake drape themselves in the trenchcoat of satanic imagery. Ancient relics become objects for Lara Croft to retrieve. Shangri-La becomes another place in which to shoot zombies. If we count games by dressing rather than substance, spirituality in video games is not rare at all.

This dressing, though superficial, demonstrates a groping interest in religion, spirituality, and other topics of personal importance. Game designers are clearly concerned with spirituality as historical backdrop, as inspiration for fictional worlds, and, yes, as pretense for one character to shoot another. But even the most sophisticated of these games are notoriously simplistic and base. Designers who might have something to communicate about their personal beliefs are frequently hamstrung by their reliance on conventional game design.

The difficulty of these subjects perhaps explains why some of the most overtly spiritual and religious games have been created for children. Wisdom Tree, the publisher of a famously silly Wolfenstein clone based on the story of Noah, may not have been very good at making video games, but they nonetheless had the explicit goal of promoting Christian beliefs to young children. Never Alone, a (much better) game about the values and mythology of an indigenous Alaskan people, was intended to “connect with young people.”

We can go back much further: the 1822 religious board game Mansion of Bliss is a simple dice-rolling game similar to Snakes and Ladders and “designed for the amusement of youth.” Land on a virtue—cleanliness, fidelity—and advance. Land on a vice—truancy, cruelty to animals—and you are instead set back. (View the complete board.) While children can wrestle with their beliefs as much as adults, they’re starting with the basics—ideas that can be boiled down to a space on a game board. Few video games attempt to stimulate or challenge adults.

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The possibility is there. Dara gave his own story of a spiritual gaming experience, but his story is only one example—a rare example, to be sure—of the deeply personal appeal that games have held for many years. This appeal is described well in the 1981 book The Directory of Possibilities. The authors include a section on being “in form,” their term for being “in the zone” or otherwise losing yourself in a game. They refer to a physical game or sport, but I believe this description will feel familiar to anybody who plays games of any kind.

Anyone who has experienced being in form will recognize that, not only is it different from the soldier’s automatic response to a command, it is at the opposite end of the scale from the reduction of man to robot. It is fulfillment, not limitation. And this fulfillment is the true justification for games which become a discipline and a rite that enable the whole person to live in the physical activity itself.

To be in form is to move at once, without calculation. This sense of ease is something other than self-confidence. The self and its confidence are irrelevant. And the self-loss experienced in a team game feels like self-fulfillment when relived in memory. Moreover, there are moments of such self-loss when awareness of detached joy in unity comes upon one as if by surprise, a wondering realization of existence. ‘So this is what the world is like, and here am I in it.’

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The Directory of Possibilities is not a book about games or sports; it is a book detailing “more than 500 spectacular or supernatural phenomena that are possible,” including the existence of Atlantis, time travel, out-of-body experiences, mediums, mystical revelations, and transcendental meditation. The authors believed games fit somewhere in that list.

Like Dara, I’m not religious. I don’t believe in mystical revelations or transcendental meditation. But I’ve been to Shangri-La. It’s a small town in southwest China, originally called Zhongdian but renamed in 2001 to attract tourists like me. It was a perfectly nice city with plenty of nice restaurants and cafés and stores selling mass-produced prayer wheels for what would be about two US dollars, and there’s nothing wrong with buying souvenirs in Shangri-La just like there’s nothing wrong with blowing up zombies in Shangri-La. I’ll just never feel much possibility in either.

Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag.