Awe in video games

Girl playing online video games

This is a copy of a paper I wrote a while ago about how the emotion ‘Awe’ is induced in gameplay. Game designers can intentionally manufacture and induce this emotion in gamers due to gameplay. Typically this emotion is found in nature and linked to an existential nature of God. How do game designers use this in games? Read the paper below.

Introduction

The proposed study will examine the dynamic relationship between spiritual experiences and video games. The study will explore the question: can video games induce spiritual experiences in its users? This involves an investigation into a budding trend in the video game industry – the inclusion of spiritual elements in game-design and game-play, which lead to a sense of awe. The study will explore how the intention and inspiration behind game design can influence the experience of gamers. Contemporary Spiritual experiences come in many forms, some Christian, others from traditions such as Buddhism or the New Age movement, and some that do not associate with any formal religious tradition. It is beyond the scope of this assignment to detail all the different cultural types of spiritual experience but the specific types under discussion will be identified in the text. A working definition of what constitutes ‘spiritual experience’ is provided in the literature review.    

Before carrying out a contextualised literature review, this introduction will outline the background to this study, which will provide a better understanding of the topics addressed. There are currently few significant works from Christian scholars that specifically research spiritual experiences, and none that specifically look into spiritual experiences induced by awe in video games, thus other useful studies will be drawn upon to contribute to the discussion, which will help identify research gaps for future research.

Video Game Design and Spirituality

Modern video games have eclipsed the days of Pong and Tetris – the technology has advanced, users have dramatically increased, and budgets are now in the tens of millions. The meteoric rise of video games has entered the hearts and imaginations of 3 billion gamers globally, and numbers are expected to rise. This impressive evolution and rise of video games has taken place in the relatively short time of about fifty years, establishing video games as a popular feature of contemporary culture. One game in particular; Journey has gone beyond traditional video game design to offer gamers different experiences that might be considered spiritual, which is outlined below.

The earliest video games have been influenced by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s 1975 work; Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: The Experience of Play in Work and Games, which introduces the concept of flow – a state in which people are so engrossed in an activity that they transcend everyday concerns and pursue the activity – sometimes regardless of the cost. Game designers have mastered and incorporated this psychological concept into their video games. Jane McGonigal adds that through scientific research and psychological insights such as flow and awe, which are imbedded in game design, video games offer a superior human experience to what users find in real life, and thus she calls Game Designers “Happiness Engineers.” The combination of video games and psychology have led to the popularity of video games, now however, video games have taken a new turn towards the inclusion of Spiritual elements, which lead to a spiritual sense of awe. 

Awe can be evoked naturally in humans through experiences of looking at vast natural landscapes such as the grand canyon or the night sky. Historically, awe has been produced by artist and film makers through art. This has been a particular aim of religious artist when creating religious paintings, thereby giving the viewer a spiritual experience. Rudolf Otto says that experiencing awe is part of a spiritual experience, which he calls experiencing the “numinous” or “sacred,” terms he uses to refer to God.

In their book The Spirit of the Child, David Hay and Rebecca Nye give a framework to make sense and define contemporary spiritual experiences without using religious language; they have three separate categories – Awareness-sensing, Mystery-sensing, and Value-sensing, within their framework they mention the concepts of flow and awe. Flow is mentioned and linked with spiritual practices and religious rituals. It is during the practicing of these spiritual exercises that focus and attention is required and it is in the mastery of these practices that develop a flow, through which an an awareness of God is raised; “There is an experience of concentrated attention giving way to a liberating feeling of the activity managing itself, or being managed by some outside influence, so that an activity that previously demanded an effort-filled attentiveness transforms into a single flow.” According to Isabella Csikszentmihalyi this concept of flow in spiritual exercises can be seen in the Jesuits Ignatian Spiritual practices created by St. Ignatius of Loyola. This awareness is followed by Mystery-sensing which results in a of feeling awe and is described as the beginning of the questioning of human existence through a natural experience or a sense of wonder towards towards God in religious ritual such as the partaking of the sacraments. Ultimately these experiences lead to value-sensing or meaning making, in other words the outcome of the experience of awe is; individuals have a new understanding of perspective of themselves in relation to God, which they claim is part of spiritual growth and experience. This framework is useful as video games mirror the same concepts and are what gamers have experienced in video games. Gamers have reported feeling a sense of awe, which is the primary way they have expressed spirituality when playing Journey. In Journey, the player-character takes on the role of a floating, cloaked, scarfed figure, who is trying to make his/her way to a distant mountain top through miles of vast desert terrain. The game is language-less, and uses grammy nominated music to inspire the player to their ultimate destination of the mountain top. It is during this element of game-play that the player experiences flow. Once the player reaches their destination, they are lead to a blinding light where they are peacefully lead to their death. A light then shoots up from the mountain top and seems to head towards the location where the beginning of the game started. It is in the emotional ending of the game and the vast scenery of the desert and mountain top that players experience awe.

Video game designers intentionally imbed awe into video games and it is what gamers claim to experience when gaming. A Spiritual Experience in this context of video games, therefore, is the experience of awe in relation to God, which gamers have claimed to have experienced in game-play, this experience of awe in particular is the focus of the study below.

Awe is a powerful emotion, one that has the power to alter the state of the person while playing video games. Whilst studies on the experience of awe in video games are limited from a Christian perspective there are few works from secular scholars of game studies, such as, Daniel Posner work, that have contributed to this field of study and his findings will be explored later in this work . 

This field is growing because video games now regularly contain moments that induce awe in gamers, which is achieved through immersive gameplay, graphics such as vast landscapes and music, all of which are part of the entertainment factor in video games, but are elements that induce awe in gamers. The game Journey in 2012 marked a new era in video game design. Although other games have incorporated elements of spirituality or have been interpreted as having spiritual elements, Journey was the first to appeal to mainstream audiences, winning several industry awards. An interview with Journey’s game designer, Jenova Chen, revealed that he used insights from a spiritual psychologist as well as concepts from Christianity and Confucianism when designing the game. Chen additionally speaks about incorporating the concept of flow into his game design, which along with these elements of spirituality, leads to a powerful digital experience that has a potent impact on gamers. 

Gamers have described Journey as a spiritual experience, calling it “contemplative”, a “quiet meditative game”, and reporting  a sense of “awe” when playing it. One gamer reported feeling as if they were on a pilgrimage, describing it as a sense of “death and rebirth” and went on to explain “that it feels so sorrowful, so joyous, and so true, each and every time.” Another gamer shared his experience: “It’s rare to find a video game, especially one so short, that can evoke such deep philosophical thoughts about your own existence (no exaggerating).” The game Journey has given gamers a powerful experience they remembered after the gaming was complete.

Video game That Dragon, Cancer (2006) (hereafter TDC), imbedded elements of Christian spirituality into its game play,  such as the reading of scripture, prayer, and lighting candles. The developers reported being inspired by their faith to openly share their struggles with God during the time they lost their son, Joel, which is depicted in the game so that people can understand more about the Christian faith. Gamers of TDC have reported powerful feelings, such as sensing “God’s presence” whilst playing as well as feeling awe during moments when they were in a Church in the game lighting candles. This game won a BAFTA in 2017 and has been used to teach pastoral care in seminaries in the United States.

The experience of awe is important because according to Keltner and Haidt’s paper on awe, which argues that moments of awe provide an opportunity to learn something new, that they are something that the human brain has not been accustomed to and needs readjusting or accommodating to such experiences. It is something that uproots our current understanding of God, in the sense that was mentioned above, it provokes questioning ones existence and a higher power. They reference Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus in Acts 9:3-7 to highlight the transformational capacity that awe inspires. What makes awe in video games a spiritual experience is the addition of Christian inspiration or Christian religious spiritual elements.

Feelings of awe inspired by games mark a transition in the experience of the gamer that differs from everyday mundane experiences. With the addition of the intentional inclusion of Christian Spiritual elements or inspiration as mentioned above, there should be no reason why the Holy Spirit’s presence could not be involved as mentioned above and these experiences being genuine Christian spiritual experiences. The inclusion of psychological insights leading to feelings of awe leads us towards the understanding that spiritual experiences exist in video games. 

Is Awe in Video Games Bad?

In this section I will investigate game theorist Daniel Posner’s studies on the experience of awe in video games to further illuminate this area of study.

In a 2018 article Daniel Posner’s contributes to the study of awe in video games. He recognises that the emotion awe in video games is relevant because; “video games should be highly suited to evoke awe, as they often contain potential elicitors of the emotion—stimuli that are perceptually vast and do not fit into established mental structures.”  In video games this is done through vast landscapes, large buildings, massive enemies or music, the result of this experience in games according to the authors is that apart from “pleasure and entertainment” they add meaning to games, which enhances the game. The authors define awe as “awe is an emotional response to vast stimuli that requires accommodation, and to feel awe should most often be positive, highly meaningful, and pleasurable experience.” They make an interesting argument that because gaming already lays a huge cognitive demand on gamers, which awe does as well. The inclusion of awe within game-play should be a “rare” element in games, not something that happens commonly or frequently. They mention that because this is a rare happening in the natural world, it should remain a “special emotion,” if it is used to simply entertain it will lose its value over time and use.

In a follow-up to their 2018 study Daniel Posner Christoph Klimmt, and Nicholas D. Bowman conducted qualitative research on gamers who played the game Fallout 76. They were investigating how the game induces awe on gamers and how affected players through a six week study. What they concluded was that the emotion of awe did not lessen nor was it diluted through repeat play. In their words, Fallout 76 was “reliable” in giving players awe inducing experiences, which was done through “‘great graphics’ and rich virtual worlds.” They concluded that the awe is a contributor of the entertainment value of video games and one of the elements contributing to re-playability. Their research did not focus on the religious effect of awe, rather focused on the value it added as entertainment.

These studies by Posner are interesting, he seems to value the natural experience of awe. Yet his studies show the power and advancement of video games in the reliability of inducing awe in gamers effectively and continually. Although these experiences bring meaning to the game and to the player, they do not mention a religious aspect or references to God or Christianity. If awe is meant to only be felt in the vastness of natural wonders or religious practice than perhaps it is best to reserve this emotion for experiencing God. Next, the study will focus on how Christian scholars have made sense of religion or spiritual experiences in video games.

Spirituality in Video Games

There are limited studies that deal with the precise relationship between spiritual experiences and video games. The study of video games have taken different approaches, which some include: studying video games for their evangelical potential, investigating the characteristics of the types of communities that gamers form, the apocalyptic and religious imagery and concepts in video games, or the study of didactic video games used as Christian educational resources. 

Recently, there have been few studies by Christian scholars that demonstrate types of religious content in games such as Justin Anthony and Richard Ferdig’s typologies, but few studies concentrate on how these games might induce spiritual experiences. Frank Bosman has contributed significantly to video game studies by writing a systematic theology of video games, he has built on the typologies of previous scholars and added to his own framework. Some games contain churches and religious figures; such as Priests, nuns, monks, popes, bishops, messiahs, and others contain elements of religious spirituality.  Game developers do this to “add some emotional flavour to the game,” whilst at the same time adding an awareness-sensing to the gamers experience. Although these representations sometimes to ridicule or criticise (institutionalised) religion.” Games also have references to scripture as part of the narrative or theological themes are in the games. Sometimes games have the players participate in a religious act itself such as baptism. It is therefore as Bosman says, “common” to examine games for hints of religion. It is these different types of interactions that he later in his book categorises and gives us a better understanding of what these appearances and contributions of religion mean in video games. These typologies are what get us closer to examining the literature when it comes to spiritual experiences in video games.

Through exploring the definition of video games, one can begin to see the potential for spiritual experiences to occur.  Bosman views video games as containing both ludological and narratological elements, in other words, he views video games as containing both elements of play within a narrative: “Video games are digital, interactive, playable, narrative texts.” His definition is complex and multi-layered because of the nature of modern video games: “As a text, a video game is an object of interpretation. As a narrative, it communicates meaning (or at least can be conceived of in such a way). As a game, it is playable. And as a digital medium, it is interactive in nature.” Video games are therefore something that humans interact with in the mode of play, they shape and mould the experience themselves, and subsequently learn from them, intentionally or unintentionally and they have the potential to unfold spiritual experiences in and through the communication of game-play. 

Bosman argues that “the act of playing particular games can, in some specific cases, be interpreted as a religious act in itself.” Here, he quotes  Taliaferro for the definition of religious act: “Prayers involving praise (worship or adoration), petition and confession, vows, commissions such as ordination, funeral rites and burials, communion or the Eucharist [. . .], feasts, fasts, alms giving, vigils, lamentations, blessings, thanksgiving, grace before meals, and contemplative or meditative prayer.

Bosman  includes elements of Christian spirituality, such as prayer and praise, however he leans more on the specific elements such as; “sacramentality and liturgy” but considers religious acts much more in line with Rachel Wagners concept of gaming as religion. He does not consider the inclusion of flow or awe into the game-play or part of the religious act or spiritual experience that gamers partake when gaming, even though he mentions awe as part of his definition of spiritual experiences in video games he does not elaborate on this concept. Part of Bosman’s identification of spiritual experiences in games is related through the term hagios – “The unspeakable, intransferable, immediational ‘core’ where the holy, may it be as a person, an object or an energy, is experienced directly –”  which is the experience of the awe or numinous, which corresponds with the type of feelings of awe and transcendence gamers experience when playing certain games. While Bosman’s work suggests that certain spiritual experiences (predominantly Christian) can be achieved while gaming, he does not explore how game design contributes to inducing such experiences, nor does he touch on how this can affect the gamer.    

In Bosmans’s typology, in particular “Shape 4. Ritual religion” he shows that by games carrying out certain religious actions –“praying, dancing, worshipping, pilgrimaging and the like” – they have the potential to induce spiritual experiences which “occurs when players are involved in in-game behaviour that is traditionally associated with religion, either stimulated/forced by the developers or spontaneously.”’ Furthermore, Bosman does not elaborate on how participating in these religious acts may affect the gamer, he does not mention the reported feelings of awe or transcendence which would be indicative of a spiritual experience. Even though Bosman argues for the use of an “actor-centred approach” or “game-immanent approach” to study video games, which are focusing on the experiences of other gamers or the experience during play of the researcher him/her-self. He does not employ either approach in regards to his concept of the five stages of religion in gaming. What Bosman is missing is qualitative data on the experience of gamers and the researcher when experiencing his stages typology, this data would give significant insight into whether these are genuine spiritual experiences.

To further understand the potential of video games to induce spiritual experiences it is crucial to understand the concept of the magic circle. Video game theorists have built on the foundation of Johan Huizinga’s 1955 concept of the magic circle, which is where play occurs. This can relate to any type of play – traditional sports, board or video games. For Huizuinga, there is something magical about play, we enter a unique space, the magic circle, that takes us to a different place, where out of this world things happen and give us unique experiences, and therefore new understandings of self and life that are not available to us outside of play. In line with Huizuinga, Michael Faber views games as powerful pedagogical tools in which  “experiential learning” takes place in the magic circle. In this context is the potential for spiritual experiences to take place in video games. The idea that a magic circle exists allows for in-game experiences to evoke a sense of awe in gamers in a digital world.

In her book Godwired, Rachel Wagner builds on Huizingas magic circle by introducing the concept of religion as gaming. Wagner argues that video games nurture the spiritual needs of humans in the same way religion does, through creating or building worlds and storytelling, games reflect or induce the human need to bring order to chaos as well as storytelling. She argues that “both religion and virtual reality can be viewed as manifestations of the desire for transcendence, the wish for some mode of imagination or being that lies just beyond the reach of our ordinary lives. Both raise profound questions about what it means to be human, to be embodied, and to be more than just in bodies.” Wagner therefore argues that both games and religion reflect a human desire for transcendence from mundane existence. While Wagner’s work provides some useful parallels between games and religious discourse, she does not address the role or intention of the game designer to bring about these transcendental experiences, nor does she evidence the experience of the gamers themselves which could provide a richer understanding of the relationship between games and spiritual experiences. In the context of Wagner’s work, it should be noted that that while some gamers may experience feelings of transcendence, they wouldn’t necessarily recognise them as religious unless they were from a religious background.

In Of Games and God, Kevin Schut poses the question is there “any spiritual good [that] can come from the video game medium.” He argues  that there are very few Christian representations of religion in video games, yet there seems to be plenty of examples or references of “non-Christian ideas about faith and spirituality.” Schut provides examples of invented religions and identifies secularised Christian concepts and references in video games. He also points out that the protagonist  in video games usually has to do evil things to win, such as kill or destroy, which do not align with Christian values. Because of this he concludes that “video games are not exactly the friendliest environment for orthodox Christian spirituality. When religion is actually present, it may be dark and disturbing or it might not align with Christian teachings.” Writing at a time when video games were less sophisticated and concentrating on the lack of Christian values in them, Schut’s book does not fully appreciate the ways in which games have since embraced wholesome spiritual values and experiences In contrast to Schut’s dark vision of video games,  Daniel Hodge demonstrates that games can also provide “a sense of the mystical or sublime.” He argues that they do this through the landscapes and imagery that provoke a sense of transcendence and awe in gamers. . It is in these moments of the mystical or sublime that we may experience meaning making moments.

In their pamphlet; Exploring Spirituality in Video Games. Alaistair Jones and Andy Robertson examined TDC. They stated that while playing TDC they experienced the real-life connections, which reminded them of their own times of vulnerability through the main character. They call this a spiritual experience because it gave them a better understanding of what they went through in real life. They further encourage readers or gamers to seek these ‘spiritual’ experiences through applying Kolb’s reflective cycle, with their gaming experience. The authors are very vague and brief when they touch on topics such as having a spiritual experience, not giving a definition of a spiritual experience and they do not go in depth when mentioning Kolb’s reflective cycle. What was useful from their reading was a case study mentioned; the authors had a group session of playing TDC and the gamers in the session reported feeling the presence of God through the game-play. As mentioned above TDC was made intentionally to include elements of Christian spirituality. This shows us then that video games are “able to carry and communicate religious ideas and concepts,” through the inclusion of elements of Christian spirituality which in this case translated into gamers having a spiritual experience.

Mark Wolf examines of the work of video game designers. He states that through game design, spiritual experiences can be added into games that “make players more aware of their role in the world, or of Creation itself.” Wolf states that the creation of video games is similar to God’s ability to create. However, he argues that because game designers do not create from nothing like God, this can only be considered subcreation. Wolf’s study does not analyse how these spiritual experiences may affect the gamers or why they are included in the games, but rather considers subcreation a spiritual experience. This relates to the topic of the study in the sense that if creating a video game can be a spiritual experience, the spiritual experience can be passed down to the user. The intention of the designer is taken into consideration and is part of the argument made against Wagner that the intention of the game designer matters in the types of religious experiences felt by the user. 

Christian scholars have engaged with the field of game studies through a linking of religious practices and in-game representation or through theological engagement of game and religious activities, they say that spiritual experiences are possible, yet do not go in-depth into the phenomenon. Currently, there are no Christian studies that have focused specifically on the sense of awe gamers feel when playing certain video games, current studies give us an understanding that there is the possibility of having a spiritual experience in video games, through the magic circle and through an understanding of typologies.

Although the inclusion of spiritual elements in game-design in this literature review is considered to be a positive thing, which brings gamers closer to God. There have been instances in games where the inclusion of religious or spiritual elements have brought a backlash. The forced baptism in Bioshock has been criticised heavily by Christians and non-christians, gamers reported feeling uncomfortable to be forced into a religious practice unexpectedly. There is a danger here, video games have the potential to be misused to manipulate gamers into spiritual experiences.

Conclusion

In summary, video games are now including psychological concepts such as awe that transport gamers into altered mind states. Through the inclusion of spiritual elements including Christian spirituality, these games are inducing spiritual experiences upon the gamers through imbedding awe in the game-design, the gamers are generally unaware of the game designers intentions and methods. These powerful experiences are literally leaving gamers in awe. The wider theological implications of these digital experiences are significant. Christians and gamers alike have to ask the question; is it a good idea to accept a version of awe that is manufactured through video game use and be put into a perpetual state of awe? Or is awe an experience that should be reserved for genuine encounters with God? On the other hand, perhaps the experience of awe in video games is something that Christians can master and use responsibly to supplement and resource the Christian faith.

The scholars studied here have contributed to examining Christian/spiritual elements in games (Bosman for example), but have perhaps not explored in any depth how spiritual experiences are induced in games or how they are effecting people. To advance this body of research there needs to be more qualitative research carried out to see how gamers articulate spiritual experiences, since most of the relevant scholarship focuses on identifying religious/spiritual representations in the games rather than exploring the experiential phenomena of the gamers themselves.  

Heidi Cambell states; “video games reflect and shape contemporary religiosity.” I agree, these experiences are rich in what they offer gamers and in their potential contribution to Christianity. A combination of different media elements, latest psychological insights, built into the latest technology. Video games are unique and these games are mere glimpses of what the future hold in store for gamers and Christians alike. When combined with the intention or inspiration of sharing a religious element of Christian spirituality, these games offer gamers legitimate spiritual experiences that can evoke emotions similar to religious paintings or film, this is what current and future contemporary spirituality looks like. Due to the popular rise of video games and the significant amount of earth’s population partaking in these experiences it is a field that has to be more closely looked into and handled appropriately.

 

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