Identity, spirituality, and video games

I remember vividly the first time I encountered the problem with identity. I was 14 years-old.

We’ve learned that the brain is a collection of electrical impulses. And it is only a matter of time before we will be able to manipulate DNA and clone our bodies. If I can decode the series of electrical impulses that determine my personality and knowledge, and continually transfer them into new clone bodies, have we discovered immortality?

I chill ran up my spine. My brain reeled at the possibilities! What is identity?! Is it your personality? The electrical impulses in your brain? Your body? The mind-body connection? The continuation of personality, knowledge, and experience? Could this be considered immortality? On top of the usual questions, my knowledge of Mormon doctrine compounded the problem even further. I noticed that I had stopped breathing. Eerie, futuristic music filled my ears as I staggered at the very idea.

No, really. Eerie, futuristic music really did fill my ears. I was playing the video game Chrono Cross.

The last General Conference had speakers talk about video games, and I will admit, I shifted uncomfortably. I fumed. What were the video games these General Authorities played? Minesweeper? Grand Theft Auto? Bejeweled? I can see why you might not like those games, but have you not encountered the sweeping artistic grandeur of some of these games?!

Of course, Roger Ebert tapped into this vein a couple months ago by saying video game was not, and could never be, art. This sparked a firestorm of controversy and it was kind of crazy, guys. And, not surprisingly, I will defend the art of the video game to my dying breath, because a lot of what video games taught me made me what I am.

Earthbound was perhaps my first encounter with smart, sarcastic, self-referential humor. “Kids shouldn’t be out here this late at night!” a policeman warns the protagonist. “You should be inside playing video games!”

Never into sports, Secret of Mana was the first real activity that taught me the value of teamwork. One of the first multi-player games worth playing that involved more than one player, my brother, sister, and I would get together and play this game, each taking our individual roles, bonding together as we saved the world and beat up bad guys.

Final Fantasy III revealed to me the first epic story. Sure, I read the Hobbit, and I read my share of fantasy books and all that, but Final Fantasy III was so cleverly crafted, so engrossing in background story and character development and had one of the most clever plot twists (M. Night Shamalayan, eat your heart out!) that I feel my value as a writer and story-teller increased forever-fold just by my interaction with this epic.

Chrono Trigger revealed to me an entirely new dynamic of storytelling – multiple endings. Sure, some were canon, some were non-canon, and some were throw-away humor endings, but the storytelling itself is incredibly tight and compact, and like Final Fantasy III, is an epic worth experiencing. It really challenges the idea of a strict narrative form for storytelling.

Chrono Cross was my first encounter with some serious philosophical stuff. The problem of identity, ethical and moral quandaries, the power of choices and consequences. Where do alternate time streams go? How do we navigate the tension between nature and progress? Who are we, really? If we switch bodies with someone and everyone treats us as our identity and not our old identity, do we become that new identity? This sparked my interest into philosophical questions, to the point where when people told me that the Dark Night dealt with moral/ethical quandaries and I saw what it was, I merely said in classic Internet forum fashion, “Meh. Been there. Done that. What’s next?”

I could go on. Final Fantasy Tactics could possibly be described as the first true tragedy of video games with an incredibly unreliable narrator, forcing you to piece the narratives together. Okami completely changed the way I looked at deity (in a good way). Dragon Age takes those ethical quandaries and forces me to make decisions, painful, horrible, terrible decisions. Braid challenges my perception of time, experience, and forgiveness.

Video games can be a fruitful, incredibly fulfilling experience. They can also be destructive and addictive. But that’s the case with movies and television spots and cable broadcasts and Twitter and Facebook and blogging. We still use this technology to progress the Church’s message. I’m patiently waiting the day when we make a Church iPhone game. Video games are just a medium, and some of them have great messages. Let’s not paint them with a broad brush and forbid them. Because I’ll have you know – more people in the North American Church have read Twilight than have played Chrono Cross. I can assure you that the latter deals with much more erudite and spiritual material than creepy, pasty vampires staring through windows at flimsy damsels in prepetual distress.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Identity, spirituality, and video games

  1. dteeps

    I loved this post. When you started talking about the art of video games, and how they can be amazing, the first games I thought of were Final Fantasy III and VII, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. For exactly the reasons you mentioned.
    I think we’re falling into the same trap again and again. When we hear someone say something we hear what we want to hear – we either hear them agreeing with us and we like them, or we hear them disagreeing with us, giving us a reason to dislike them. Elder Packer’s talk is a perfect example, but so, too, are the talks about video games and sleepovers. I was following Conference on Twitter, and saw so many people react to the statement about sleepovers, both positively (Yes! Now I have prophetic justification for not allowing my kids out of my sight. The world is an absolute untrustworthy place, they need to be within arm’s reach forever or I could lose them!) and negatively (Well, I went to sleepovers all the time when I was a kid, and it didn’t affect me at all. I’m perfectly fine, and I think I know what my kids need more than some old guy who doesn’t even know me!).
    What I heard was – “Be careful, be cautious, when sending your kids to sleepovers. They could be exposed to dangerous temptations.” I didn’t hear him say No Sleepovers Ever! I heard him say, “Parents, it is your responsibility to care for your children. Get involved, know where they are and what they’re doing. Love them and protect them.”
    For me, this Conference was all about individuality, all about asking the members to seek for personal revelation and the Holy Ghost to guide them in their lives and tell them what they should and should not do. Maybe that’s what I heard, because that’s what I was listening for. But that is the gospel I believe in. There are certain commandments, ordinances, and laws that are universal, for everything else you have to have the Spirit with you telling you what you should do.
    Video games aren’t bad, video games are good. Video games are. It is the way we treat and think about video games that give them a moral value. If we spend too much time on WoW and disregard our duties to our families- video games are bad. But video games could also be the tool used to bring our families together. I had a Bishop once who had a large family, and he bought the family a boat. There were many members of the ward who murmured at that – that he was frivolously wasting money on a boat. He explained once that he saw his family drifting apart as his kids grew older and wanted to spend more time away from home with their friends,etc. Buying a boat, and going boating with the family on Saturdays and in the summer is something that kept the family together.
    Almost everything in this life can be either good or bad, it is in how we use it and how we treat it, and in how we think about those things that truly matter that we find whether a thing is good or bad. And for that we need to have personal revelation and a personal relationship with diety in our lives.

  2. awsome post my friend, i loved playing grand theft auto and final fantasy. enjoyed reading this article very much.

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