Just a Game

You may have read about Chain World already. During the annual geek holy week of the Games Development Conference, guru Eric Zimmerman issued a challenge to a handful of the digital games market’s most august players: design a game that is “Bigger Than Jesus,” a game that plays like a religion.

The winning entry was a game called Chain World created by indie darling Jason Rohrer. Before the outside world could muster any of its own outrage, it caused a firestorm of interest and controversy from the largely-secular world that saw it firsthand. There was an unlikely first apostle, a betrayal, and even a faith-healing of sorts. Wired online recounted the event for a broader audience, fanning the flames and the mystery further.

What is Chain World? In a nutshell, Rohrer’s game is a tiny alternative world contained on a hard drive. A single player enters that world, and plays through a life exactly once. Then the drive is passed to the next player, with the Fight Club-style promise to never reveal what the experience was. Each life that passed that way will leave a mark on the world inside the flash drive, like each human life—changing it in ways good and bad.

The first heresy in this saga happened when the second player after Rohrer himself—an enthusiast named Jia Ji—decided to alter the rules, and auctioned off next-player privilege on eBay. “You’re the god of Chain World,” Ji says, according to Wired. “You can set edicts.” But, as any disciple who alters course can tell you, playing God doesn’t mean you’re going to be popular. Soon Ji was charged with spoiling the nature of the game through his auction. Tweets flew, message boards erupted, and the game world—hardly a hotbed of theological thought—asked themselves for a while what it means to be religious.

That’s an area I’m very familiar with. I’ve had long talks about religion and games with both Eric Zimmerman and Jane McGonigal—the man who constructed the Games Development Conference challenge and the ostensible fourth player of Chain World, as of this writing. On the other side of the divide, I’ve worked with spiritual communites, and earlier this year created a game-based church service for Union Theological Seminary. I’ve spoken at many games and ideas conferences about the long history of games in religion.

So, unsurprisingly, I’ve had many people ask me—is Chain World really a religion?

Being a “just a game” certainly doesn’t disqualify it. Games have been a long and rich part of religious practice. Most Ancient Greek religious festivals that reached a certain stature included games. (The Olympics are a legacy of this.) Easter Island once boasted a games-based religion. You can argue that the Zen koan is a hairsbreadth away from a classic riddle game. And some of the only buildings we have left of the Aztecs and Mayans are the sacred ball courts, a ritual contest ripe with meaning and even enjoyed by the gods.

But Chain World specifically? I can’t say without playing, but I’ll say this: Rohrer, a self-described atheist, has pushed the metaphysical boundaries of what happens in front of the computer screen time and again. One example: ritual scholar Ron Grimes recently led a demonstration at Union Theological Seminary, where he shared a meta-ritual he called “Passage.” With bells, string and incense, it guided the seminarians through the life crises they might face in their lives, in the way that rituals often do.

In response, I shared one of Rohrer’s games, also called Passage. Passage is a powerful experience. (In fact, you’d should really skip the rest of this paragraph, and just play it for yourself.) There are no instructions, and it only takes a few minutes. You navigate an avatar though a crude bitmap world that moves relentlessly from left to right. As in life, you can’t see much of the path stretching out in front you, and your destination blurs in the distance. Your “score” ticks off in the upper right part of the screen, but you never know quite how that score is calculated. You may be joined in love, you may not. And as the minutes wear on, your avatar ages, and dies, with no closure and no seeming sense.

Different playthroughs can affect what happens, but the landmarks—birth, aging, and death—never change. There is no winning. It’s the Buddhistic tale of suffering in 5.1 playable megabytes.

Rohrer excels at these digital rituals, and Chain World may well be his greatest. But is a ritual the same as a religion?

In his defense, rituals arguably play a far greater role in the longevity and identity of a faith than holy books, creeds and theologies. Atheists, according to a recent study, have a better store of Bible knowledge than those who go to church. That hardly makes them better Christians. Could it be that it’s not knowledge, but rather the rituals of going to church—sitting, praying, singing—that makes the believer? Rabbis have said for centuries that “More than Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.” That unbroken legacy of a shared ritual has remained constant, where moral codes and concepts of God have shifted to fit cultural norms.

So if a game can be a ritual, and rituals are central to religion, has Jason Rohrer invented the genuine article? I don’t think so. My primary objection to thinking about Chain World as a religion is this: it lacks community. Passage may be a profound meditation, but it misses the spirit captured in this colloquy between the Buddha and his disciple Ananda:

“Lord, is it true what has been said, that good spiritual friends are fully half of the holy life?”

“No, Ananda, good spiritual friends are the whole of the holy life.”

Thinkers like Josiah Royce and Thich Nhat Hanh have gone further, saying that it is in fact the community, not the individual, that stands to be the receptacle of the return of the redemptive divine spirit. In last year’s American Grace, sociologists David Campbell and Robert Putnam are at pains to explain their research about how the social and psychological tonic of our communities of faith actually works. People are happier, more generous and involved when they are religious, but only when being religious means showing up and worshiping alongside a community of others.

That said, I’m full of joy that the realm of thinking about games has permeated the world of the Games Development Conference. As our culture does more communicating through games—reality TV, foursquare, flashmobs and the like—it’s only a matter of time before games once again become a part of our spiritual equation. The next challenge, it is clear, is to get the players away from their computer screens and boldly, deeply interacting with the flesh-and-blood people all around them.

Jason Anthony is an writer and games designer. His articles about religion have appeared in the Christian Century, Washington Post and Boston Review among other places. His games, including Shabbat-Put! and Sacrifice Play have been staged in the U.S. and U.K., and earlier this year he staged a fully-gamed church service at Union Theological Seminary. His largest project to date is the Ten Year Game, a fully-gamed new religion to start in the fall of 2011.