July 24, 2013

Finding Meaning (In Games?)

This post is in response to a video done by the excellent, excellent group at Penny Arcade who work on the Extra Credits videos. I highly recommend their discussions on video games, as they are thought-provoking, smart, and, in general, of very high quality.

I first watched Extra Credits at the direction of a friend, and then quickly became hooked, watching all their old episodes and also religiously viewing their new releases the day they come out. However, I don't really belong to their target audience; in fact, if stereotypes held in practice, I ought to belong to the enemy camp. There has been a lot of caution about video games from traditionalist Catholicism, and rightly so: the exploration of a new artistic medium inherently involves the risk of expressing ideas contrary to the Faith. Since I'm definitely a traditionalist Catholic, most people expect me to perform the same knee-jerk reaction against something "Satanic" like interactive moving pictures on a screen. However, I find that video games also open up a new artistic channel through which we can express the truth that we, as Catholics, hold dear. As such, I support Extra Credits wholeheartedly, since we both push for a more artistic, more expressive, and more truthful use of this new artistic medium of games.

I don't always agree with them, however. In their most recent episode, discussing game compulsion, they present an ontology that I can't fully support. They begin well by accurately addressing the underlying issue, but subsequently fail in their presenting of a solution. Let's take a closer look.

James Portnow (the writer behind Extra Credits) accurately identifies the problem with humanity: we need an overarching meaning for our lives - a purpose for our actions and existence - which the world outside, from our jobs to our leisure, cannot sufficiently provide. Especially in a modern age, where it is all too easy to fade into the machinery of a society of millions, it is hard to realize the meaning of our actions, and as a result we feel ourselves to be powerless, insignificant, and ultimately nothing. This is a problem: we at once feel the need to mean something, to stand before the world in a clear statement of ultimate being, and yet cannot do so because our world does not provide us with the means. We want to integrate out lives with meaning, so that our every breath, step, and action communicate that we matter, but our society, as it increasingly grows and expands, does not provide sufficient reward and acknowledgement of our most successful and highest qualities. We long for meaning in a world which cannot provide it, and which, in some cases, actively fights against it.

In this feeling of meaninglessness, James continues to point out that video games provide an easy answer. The exaggerated agency, the cohesive narrative, and the overarching and clear purpose provided by games creates a space where meaning is more accessible. This heightened sense of meaning can used two ways by the player: rightly and wrongly. Rightly, games create a medium through which we human beings can communicate our authentic experiences of meaning to each other. I, for instance, have spent some time (fruitlessly...) developing several game mechanics which attempt to communicate my experience of the cumulative meaning of our actions, through virtue. I never finished these, but I definitely feel that the medium is capable of communicating such things, and my feeling is justified when I look at games like Braid, Kingdom Hearts, and Bioshock. (Other games also: those three happen to be my favorites) These games actively present something outside of ourselves and themselves which we can experience, learn from, and then integrate into our own lives. In other words, they can communicate truth and meaning. On the other hand, games can also be used wrongly to create a false world for ourselves, where we engage a fake meaning rather than a real one. By constructing a highly engaging and cohesive narrative world, where we seek an invented meaning rather than an ontological one. James accurately calls such meaning an illusion: we psychologically delude ourselves into thinking that an invented meaning is our ultimate purpose, rather than an external, ultimate meaning which actually exists. His criticism of this use of games, in essence, is that we try to make something real for ourselves which isn't.

What's the answer, then, James? He gives an answer, but I find it rather unsatisfactory, both as a person longing for meaning myself, and also as a person intellectually examining the answer he gives. If the problem is that we don't have meaning, it seems to me, the clear solution is that we have to find an ontological, ultimate meaning beyond ourselves, which can be communicated through daily life, personal interaction, spiritual insight, and artistic media like games. Our life is not meaningless: we have a purpose, which can and should inform everything about our person, from thought, to action, to essence; from hopes and dreams to waking up in the morning and going to bed at night. Is this what James presents in his conclusion? No. He suggests that we find meaning for ourselves: that instead of interpreting our lives as without agency, instead of interpreting our lives as meaningless, we simply need to interpret differently. James suggests that we can create our own meaning. His presentation is rhetorically effective and convincing: we can have meaning, we just need to realize it ourselves! However, the implications of this supposed solution are perhaps more depressing than the problem it purports to solve. If the solution to meaninglessness is to create our own meaning, then an invented world, such as Azeroth (World of Warcraft) would be an acceptable answer. After all, it's a meaning that human beings created: if I want to find meaning in the satisfaction of clearing a dragon raid, why shouldn't I? I find agency in such action. More to the point, if our feelings of inadequacy are an illusion because they are merely our perception; if our feelings of agency in getting 70 stars and kicking Bowser's butt are an illusion because they are human-generated and not real; then this principle needs to be applied unilaterally across the board. If we followed James' argument to its conclusion, human-generated meaning would be all that exists, and since all human-generated meanings are illusions, there is no ultimate meaning. According to James in this presentation, ultimately, if you follow his argument all the way to the bottom of its rabbit hole, we are meaningless beings, who create illusions of meaning to make ourselves feel better.

I absolutely reject such a picture of the world. Our desire for meaning points directly outside of ourselves to an ultimate meaning. As a student of philosophy and theology, after years of study, I have found that meaning to be best expressed in Question 1 of the Baltimore Catechism: "Why did God make us? To know, love, and serve Him." This is the belief I've come to, because I find it both the happiest and the most rationally consistent. Other attempts at an ontological picture of meaning exist, but this is the one that I find, after much examination, to be the fullest, most complete, happiest, and best. I pray that we all find the meaning which lies behind our lives, and conclude our lives in the ultimate fulfillment of that meaning in union with our Creator in heaven.

I hope this is clear and helpful. Although I've spent a lot of time criticizing one of James' works, I still hold him in the highest regard, and hope he continues writing about video games. Further, I don't think that he actually holds the nihilist view which his video implies. Rather, I think there is an intentional watering-down of ultimate meaning presented in this video, to make it have a wider appeal. I'd be very interested to hear a response to this reaction of mine from James himself, perhaps in a later video, especially since I'm not the only person making this criticism. Plenty of people in the Penny Arcade forums themselves have been voicing this same concern.

Also, as always, feel free to respond yourselves in the comments here. I will answer as best I can.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

God can also be a meaning created by people who didn`t have theirs. Far away from religion and Wow, I can`t really see the difference between the two.

July 24, 2013 2:16 PM  
Blogger Ambrose said...

Anonymous, I don't have the space here to give the answer your statement deserves: a full-fledged defense of Christianity. If you want that, I recommend Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis or Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton: any library would have either or both of those, and they're fun to read.

Rather, I'll say two brief things. First, saying that God is just another meaning invented by humanity has the same problem which I talked about James' "solution" having: it leaves no ultimate meaning. God is, if you want to view him this way, just the ultimate, personal meaning that our lives have, as philosophers and theologians through the ages have talked about him (and also, as he's revealed himself to us). In other words, the concept of God we have in the Catholic Church is what I find to be the most sensible way to talk about the meaning our lives have outside of ourselves.

Second, I'll give a brief account of why I find the Catholic view of God to make the most sense. In short, I guess, it is the theory which best explains my spiritual experiences. I have this longing for an ultimate meaning that nothing I've found on Earth has fulfilled; I have this sense that my actions are truly my own, and have meaning; I get the feeling that someone is watching me, taking care of me, and organizing things such that they work out in my favor. No other system has fit these experiences together so consistently, so beautifully, and in a way that rings so true as the Catholic Church has. It's almost empirical: the data of my spiritual experience is best explained by the hypothesis of Catholicism.

That is a short, inadequate, but personal account of why I turned to the Church for answers, which I have found. I hope it helps.

July 24, 2013 2:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not the same anon as before.

You said that James' ultimate conclusion was "we are meaningless beings, who create illusions of meaning to make ourselves feel better."

Witch in itself is true.
Religion was created by man to fulfill that need and make ourselves feel better. Science was created for the same purpose.

The key here is the "feel better" part. Isn't that the ultimate goal? I mean, if we have or not an ultimate meaning, we all try to be happy. Witch in itself its the meaning of life.

Its not the destination, its the journey that matters.

If in the church you've found answers, good for you. In atheism I've found my meaning: You only have one and only life, this one. So make it worth it.

July 24, 2013 3:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think God is a self-sufficient answer to this problem. You also need people.

Without some source of outside validation, I think you can be just as lonely and unfulfilled in God as without. So you need the input and feedback of other like-minded individuals to give you any sort of sense of place.

This could be the church, and that is a great source of strength and likely to be a stable source of validation, but anyone will do in a pinch to solve the problem under discussion. Other groups of people are more likely to come with their own problems though, at least with regards to picking up habits counter to your religion.

July 24, 2013 11:49 PM  
Blogger Ambrose said...

2nd anonymous:

I apologize for not answering your post sooner; I guess I wanted to think about it overnight. At this point, we're trading assertions. You're stating that God does not ontologically exist, without supporting evidence or a philosophical argument. I'm asserting that he does, with a minimal philosophical and evidential account. I don't think there's a way to resolve this issue over comments at the bottom of a blog post, but I can at least point out one thing. If you deny that there is any ontological meaning outside of ourselves, even the happiness you describe is an illusion: a sequence of hormones and dopamine in our brain, and nothing more. Once again, I rejected that view, both because it is depressing and because my experience of a spiritual reality speaks otherwise. I can't convince you of my experience, though. At any rate, continue thinking and pursuing truth.

Anonymous 3: (this is getting silly)

You're right: the journey of faith is much, much easier when we have others like ourselves to turn to. I, in no way, meant to imply that we didn't need a Church. I love my Church. =D

I would like to point out that, theologically, we have to say that God is sufficient. If a human being were to make enough of a direct connection to God through prayer and grace, that human being would be able to not only survive and progress, but achieve sanctity through their relationship with God alone. This is what the hermits did. However, that is far outside the norm: most human beings are weaker than this, and as a result it is usually the case that a society of like-minded people with similar religious goals is helpful on the path to Heaven.

July 25, 2013 10:29 AM  
Blogger pifanjr said...

The whole point of religion is that you do not know if God exists, you just choose to believe he does. And in choosing to believe in God, you choose a meaning in your live. It is still a human-made meaning, a meaning stemming from your choice to believe.

And the hermits chose to replace human validation with the belief that their actions where validated by God. It doesn't mean they didn't need any validation any more, they just got it somewhere else. But your right to say that it takes extreme dedication to someone's belief to fully replace human validation with the belief of God.

Now I want to make a slight nuance in what I said about choosing your belief, because I know from experience it doesn't quite work that way. I was raised religiously, but I am uncapable of believing. It is not really a choice, because if you could choose, it wouldn't really be belief anymore.

I'm sorry if this doesn't make complete sense. English is not my first language, and this is a very difficult subject. Even in my first language I find it difficult to find the right words to express my ideas.

July 26, 2013 7:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Before I post, just call me JupitersAura, my usual gamer-tag. Hopefully it helps in the Anon-confusion.

Thank you for your thoughtful post. I am religious myself, and agree with your points. To help give a little more insight with the other post about our needing other people, I would just like to state that from my own observation and experience, God uses other people to touch our lives. I have come to see this life as a university of learning, and the lessons are often how we interact with each other (we are, after all, related to each other in the grand scheme of things).

This means that we can either influence each other in a positive or negative way. I feel that most of the reasons why the world feels like such a messed-up place, is due to many individuals making certain decisions that affect others.

We can change the world, and it is often by small means--making one person's day better at a time. By many little good things, it can multiply profoundly.

Anyway, thanks for the insights. I, too really enjoy this series, Extra Credits.


August 09, 2013 5:04 PM  
Blogger Ambrose said...


I agree that it is extremely difficult to know, with certainty, that God exists, and to act like it. I readily admit that every day, when I'm forced to decide between doing something God wants me to do and something He doesn't, I ask myself how I could possibly know which is which. However, while it is certainly hard to know, it is nonetheless possible to know. We are able to know that God exists, because He revealed Himself to us. This is a rather essential point, and it's not easy to get through. Either we can know God, or we can't, and our entire existence hangs on the answer to that question.

About belief: I suggest you read John Paul II's Fides et Ratio. It is the second encyclical on the list I linked there, and it is available in a ton of languages, so I hope you can find your native tongue. It talks, very intelligently, about the precise role of both belief (faith) and knowing (reason).


You're absolutely right, and I agree. We not only can have a giant impact on the lives of our brothers and sisters, even on the other side of the earth in this global age, but we have a responsibility to cooperate with God in the work of bringing everyone to Him. However, I also think that it's important to maintain that it is God who, ultimately, does the work of saving people. We can, and are called to, help in this work, but it is ultimately His work. We can't save ourselves by working together, only Jesus saves.

That's a rather subtle distinction, though. Thanks for pointing out the role we all have, and thanks for reading!

August 11, 2013 2:14 PM  

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