Gaming and the Divine

A New Systematic Theology of Video Games

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Frank G. Bosman
Routledge New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , April
     2019.
     290 pages.
     $140.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138579569.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

“Well, that’s definitely … different.” Commented a colleague upon catching sight of the title of Frank G. Bosman’s latest publication, Gaming and the Divine: A New Systematic Theology of Video Games. “What have video games got to do with theology?”

For anyone working in the interdisciplinary field of religion and game studies, such comments are hardly a rarity. Echoing the language of Tertullian’s polemic about the relationship of religion and philosophy—what has Jerusalem to do with Athens?—they reveal the joint lack of understanding with which each discipline tentatively approaches the other; what Bosman terms “this ’double blindness’ … running through the development of the still-young academic discipline of game studies … and mutatis mutandis … within the context of religious studies” (4). However, whilst the study of religion and video games may be relatively uncommon, according to Bosman, “if we confine ourselves to theology and video games, the void is immense” (4). It is this void that Bosman’s Gaming and the Divine seeks to address, offering what can comfortably be described as the first systematic theology of video games.

To guide this ostensibly ambitious undertaking, Bosman proposes two hypotheses regarding “the relation between (Christian) religion and theology, on the one hand, and modern video games, on the other” (9). The first hypothesis can be understood as a direct challenge to the present disconnect between the two disciplines; “video games are genuine loci theologici: sources of God’s self-revelation as Creator (Father), Saviour (Son) and Whole-Maker (Spirit)” (6)—an argument which rests heavily on Bosman’s use of cultural theology, as outlined in chapter 1. Meanwhile, the second, and arguably more contentious, hypothesis proposes that gaming can have a distinct theological-performative quality which equates to religious practice; “the act of playing particular games can, in some specific cases, be interpreted as a religious act in itself” (8). Bosman’s discussion in the remainder of the monograph focuses principally on Christian religion and theology, and on single-player video games (those with a defined endpoint) produced in and for a Western market. Both limitations are largely practical responses to the untenability of faithfully discussing all world religions, or covering the exceedingly diverse array of video games within a single volume.

Given the still-developing nature of game studies, and the likely unfamiliarity of much of Gaming and the Divine’s intended audience with the discipline, Bosman provides an engaging primer for the uninitiated and novice alike, before embarking on his theological explorations. This detailed, but brief, sketch provides a useful outline of the emergence and current state of game studies, whilst laying-out the foundation for the following chapters and further underscoring his methodology. Despite the oft-tedious nature of such technical chapters spent framing arguments, defining terms, and tackling fundamental yet challenging questions such as “what is a video game?” (38), Bosman maintains a broadly accessible style that is one of the hallmarks of Gaming and the Divine.

The second section of Gaming and the Divine, chapters 3-8, contains Bosman’s principal defense of his two hypotheses. Drawing on the framework of “the classical theological tractates from Christian tradition” (9), Bosman introduces a number of video game case studies that explore the themes of each chapter. For example, he draws on classic god-games Godus and Black & White to explore creational theology and theomorphism; first-person shooter (FPS) Half-Life and role-play games (RPG) Mass Effect and Child of Light to discuss Christology and the idea of the Christophoric character/player; and FPSs Wolfenstein: New Order and Metro Last Light as examples of video games engaging with theodicy and the problem of evil. In keeping with his aim of Gaming and the Divine being accessible to non-gaming scholars of theology and religious studies, Bosman introduces each major video game case study with an appropriately themed narrative description, often lifted directly from the video game itself, simultaneously opening the video game to the reader and locating the video game within the theological category under consideration. Although this approach could tend towards a charge of parallelomania, Bosman’s detailed and balanced handling of the video game case studies and their relevant theological categories avoids this potential pitfall.

Having laid-out his argument over the preceding 200-or-so pages, Bosman returns to his two initial hypotheses; that (1) video games are a genuine loci theologici; and (2) that playing video games can be a religious act. Both cases are well argued, and it would be difficult to contend that video games were any less of a genuine loci theologici than any other aspect of—popular—culture, or that (as Bosman appropriately caveats) “playing video games (not all, but many) can be interpreted as a religious act” (253). However, what is likely to prove more controversial amongst both the games studies, and theology and religious studies scholars, is Bosman’s subsequent concluding remarks. Pre-emptively addressing the apt critique around whether the hypotheses are contingent on the player’s potential awareness, or obliviousness, of any theological significance to the game or their interaction with it, Bosman effectively doubles-down. Drawing on the language of sacramental theology and the 4th century Donatist controversy, he not only affirms his original two hypotheses but also concludes that, “video games are sacramental to say the least, and operate with or without the player’s awareness” (256).

Whether or not you’re convinced by Bosman’s arguments, it’s hard to deny his passion as a gamer and his skill as a theologian, both of which are regularly apparent throughout Gaming and the Divine and make for compelling reading. Despite the complexities of the subject matter, Bosman maintains a level of accessibility that should open this timely resource to the non-gaming scholar of theology and religious studies. As a rare voice in the immense void, Bosman’s Gaming and the Divine is likely to remain a significant touchstone for scholars engaging with the intersection of religious and—popular—culture/digital studies for some time (the Routledge price-tag notwithstanding).

 

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan D. Stubbs is a doctoral student in Theology in Video Games at the University of Manchester.

Date of Review: 
October 3, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Frank G. Bosman is Senior Researcher at Tilburg Cobbenhagen Center, Tilburg University, the Netherlands. He is currently involved in multiple research projects concerning cultural theology and video games. He published various articles on theology and gaming in journals, such as Games and Culture, Gamenvironments, and Online, Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet, and in academic series, such as Jewish Christian Perspectives, and Studies in Theology and Religion.

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