Gods and Gaming: A New Kind of Hero

Another comment on an old post about gaming made me decide to post this here.  Let me know what you think!

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In the beginning, Tiamat the elder goddess of chaos found the younger gods to be noisy and annoying, and planned to kill them.

Terrified, they looked to the strongest among them, Marduk, to save them.  But Marduk was also crafty, and added a condition: if he saved them, he would be king of the gods.  They agreed, and he went to face Tiamat in battle.

The battle was suitably epic.  Faced with a much larger, older, and more powerful foe, Marduk managed to overcome the odds.  He let his guard down for a moment, and when Tiamat (often portrayed as a sea monster, Leviathan) opened her massive jaws to finish him, he used his godly power to force the wind down her throat, blowing up her belly like a balloon; then he shot her in the belly with an arrow, popping that balloon.

You know, like how Richard Dreyfuss killed the shark in Jaws.

From the messy corpse of Tiamat, Marduk crafted the world and its inhabitants.  And so you see, order comes from the forceful suppression of chaos, and life is born out of violence.

This is the Babylonian creation myth, and it’s inescapably woven into our culture.  From it, we get our concept of what it means to be a hero: be stronger and craftier than your enemies, meet violence with greater violence, and rely on your ideals and virtues to justify your actions.  Violent suppression of violence, in the name of peace.  Theologian Walter Wink refers to this narrative as “the myth of redemptive violence”.

Of course, it sounds negative when you say it like that.  But really, that’s the story we’re told over and over again, in novels and comics and movies, but perhaps more in video games than anywhere else.  Video games involve us like no other medium: while a movie or novel lets us act out the part of the hero vicariously, video games put us in that role almost completely.  We get all of the hero action, with none of the mortal danger!

But our desire to be part of this hero narrative isn’t just in our cultural media.  We do it in church, too.  I’m writing this on a Sunday night, and I have a song from this morning’s service stuck in my head: “You are a mighty warrior, dressed in armour of light!  Crushing the deeds of darkness, lead us on in the fight!  Through the blood of Jesus, victorious we stand!”  We hold evangelistic “crusades”, we practice “spiritual warfare”, and we sing “Onward Christian Soldiers!”  We seem to incorporate the Babylonian myth of redemptive violence even into our religion.

We’re not the first.  The Bible occasionally refers to God in this sort of way – we call it “the divine warrior motif”.  But there’s a very important distinction to be made: when the Bible portrays God as a divine warrior, it’s usually being ironic.  It’s giving a nod to the myth of redemptive violence, acknowledges that it’s there, and then sweeps its legs out from underneath it.  Here’s how.

First, the myth of redemptive violence is based on a sense of struggle that goes all the way back to creation: the world was created from the bloody corpse of an elder goddess, and from a violent matricide all mortal life is born.  All creation myths of the Ancient Near East have some form of this, except for Israel’s: our God creates the universe with a word.  Our God is not an underdog who must overthrow the oppression of chaos by violent means; God is the perfection of power, and there are no forces who can stand against God except by the grace of God’s mercy.  Peace and order do not come from violent struggle, but from the character of the God who creates them and continues to will them.  Violent struggle is not something that we inherit from God, but something that we create for ourselves.

Second, it uses violent symbols and images, but subverts the violence of those symbols with non-violent content.  Revelation portrays Jesus as riding on a white horse (classic symbol of [violent] good: the white knight) and leading armies to victory with a sword.  But the armies he leads are made up of the saints, who are wearing the white robes they were given for being willing to be martyrs – that is, they walked to their own execution for the sake of pledging allegiance to Christ rather than to the oppressive empire.  These are not warriors!  And Christ, the “rider on the white horse”, has a sword that comes from his mouth.  Our God doesn’t use violence to create the world, but words; our Lord doesn’t use violence to destroy his enemies, but words.  Revelation says that we have overcome Satan “by the blood of the lamb and the word of their [our] testimony” (12:11).  We don’t use violence to overcome evil, we use words.  So the form of the literature is violent, and in that way it fits right in with the myth of redemptive violence; but the meaning of the text undercuts that violent mythology.

So what does this mean for us?  We’re surrounded by the myth of redemptive violence: American culture in particular is deeply rooted in it, and it finds its way into the church and even the Bible itself.  Obviously we can’t avoid it, but should we embrace it?  The Bible uses the form of the myth to undermine the myth, and as long as we do too, it’s not particularly bad or harmful.  The trouble is, we have a long history of seeing the form and missing the meaning; we use the tongue-in-cheek violence of the Bible as justification for real-life violence against others, forgetting that we serve a God who’d rather die for what’s right than fight for it.  We let the myth get under our skin, and buy the lie that says that violence is the only way we can really protect the light, the good, even peace itself – as if those things are anything but the gift of God, freely given.  All good things come from God; do we need to protect God?

As for video games: they allow us to act out the role of the violent hero, and that can be good or bad.  We seem to have a built-in desire to be this kind of hero, even when Christ (our true hero) is the opposite.  But when I say built-in, I don’t mean we’re born with it, but rather that we’re taught it from our first G.I. Joe action figures.  Maybe gaming is a positive outlet for this urge, and playing Battlefield is keeping us off of real battlefields.  Maybe gaming reinforces the myth of redemptive violence, and keeps us looking for heroes like Marduk rather than like Christ.  Or maybe it’s all in good fun, just a rush, and has no real effect on us.  In order for that to be the case, we need to remember what kind of a hero we serve; we need to remember that we are not literally “Christian soldiers” armed with a “sword” and buffed for battle by the blood of the lamb; we need to remember that a true hero walks to his or her own death for the sake of truth and justice, not just to battlefields to fight about it.

Maybe when we can get this idea of heroism into our heads, our games will change because the violence won’t feel so justified and satisfying anymore.  In the meantime, play critically: what’s the meaning behind the violence in your games?  There are plenty out there that are full of meaning, but there are also many that are seemingly meaningless.  Are we just taking on the role of Marduk, again and again?  Or are our games, like the Bible, using the form of violence to undermine the myth of redemptive violence?

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9 thoughts on “Gods and Gaming: A New Kind of Hero

  1. I wonder if this “myth of redemptive violence” has crept its way into our prayer lives. I have been very drawn this past year to quiet, meditative, liturgical prayers. Prayers said in secret, in the quiet, alone. And I have seen more from these prayers than from anything I have ever prayed before. I have long found myself repulsed bye the ultra-charismatic “prayer-warrior” model of praying. I witnessed this taken to an extreme level last summer where people were running around yelling and screaming and shaking people, as if by the intensity of their violent prayers, they could somehow drag down God’s power into the sanctuary and cast out the demons or perform the healings necessary. I stood their in bewilderment wondering how such violence and chaos could possibly resemble the Christ who’s custom it was to withdraw to pray in secret. Now I don’t want to make some sort of moral judgement on one or the other types of praying as being more or less right, but from reading your post, it would seem that the latter model takes its cue from the ethic of Marduk rather than the ethic of Christ.

    • Amen!

      Particularly as a Pentecostal, I’m troubled by the violent imagery that pentecostals and charismatics use when referring to prayer, and even “spiritual warfare”. You’ve hit the nail on the head, Ryan, and I love the phrase “the ethic of Christ.”

      • Mmm, yes, I’ve seen this, too. I think it’s a common characteristic of mid-level maturity in the faith; I appreciate their enthusiasm and boldness but if you really examine down to the nitty-gritty level, there’s still traces of fear within them that provoke such an approach; it’s proof of buying into the lie of the violent, competitive culture as the necessary model. The truth is, as you’ve hinted to by referring to Christ’s approach, a truly confident and powerful person doesn’t so much as flinch and may not even say a word. If you’ve ever been around a person like that, it’s almost creepy how still and confident they are. Jesus never had to shake a person, He just calmly spoke. Belief is not measured by volume. In a recent post of mine, I wrote about how spiritual warfare isn’t necessarily competitive or violent; I wrote that we need to stop using the boxing approach and instead use the baseball approach. It really makes a big difference.

        But in general prayer time with God, I say “keep it real.” It’s supposed to be a heart-to-heart, not an intellectual exercise, so do what feels right. I, too, sometimes prefer to barely whisper from my pillow late at night. Other times, I just go wailing to my Abba. I just keep it honest and let it be what ever it is. Sometimes it even changes midway.

        But I do think the better place for that bursting energy and activity is in praise. Praise is supposed to be active, interactive. In my experience and observation, when you’re truly filled with worship, you’ll either bust out (verbally and/or physically) or you’ll become so humbled you’ll practically collapse in speechlessness. Hopefully some of those, shall we say “wild” Pentecostals will continue to grow and mature in their faith to a point where they can more efficiently direct their energy.

  2. I’m not troubled at all by the violent imagery in games.

    I believe I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but it’s a matter of distinguishing between the world presented before you and those of others. If, for example, you’re developing some kind of sadistic bloodlust while playing Call of Duty, then you should seek medical help and should stop playing immediately.

    However, if you’re playing for the joy of the challenge, and for the social aspects that come along with that challenge, or a beautiful aesthetic/story, then the violence within the story should have a moral character within the metaphysical construct of that game universe. Certainly, I’m not going to be playing Carmageddon or something like that any time soon, but with Final Fantasy VII? Absolutely.

    There’s a resonance with the characters in the story and the situation in which they’ve been placed that basically doesn’t allow for another non-violent solution. To say that a Sephiroth-like personage would suddenly arrive in our time and place doesn’t even make sense to evaluate in moral terms from a Christian standpoint. When have we ever had an alien being visit with intentions to destroy us for reasons we can’t even begin to fathom? Better yet, have we had the ability to inject one of those persons with alien cells to create a hybrid super solider? It’s difficult to say what kind of standpoint we could take in that sense.

    The character enact violence because this is the solutions their worldview represents. They fight because if they don’t, the Planet will die, and everyone along with it. We, as a society, have had similar experiences in the path; it’s not much different than, let’s say, a World War II. It’s not so much a myth of redemptive violence, that violence solves anything once and for all, but that some conflicts must be fought, whether with the word or the sword.

    Video games are framed around the concept of conflict and resolution, mental or physical. They require a challenge, whatever that might be. That video games haven’t become more diverse or creative in seeking less violent subjects over time owes more to the lowered expectations and market forces, but I think we gamers could demand a little more from our product creators with our wallets.

    Do I think myself a hero? Not really. I’m just enjoying the mechanics and the challenge. When it comes down to it, a person who enjoys the game is first enraptured by the sights and sounds, and then the game itself. That’s where the interactivity truly forms a unique bond. It’s a relationship with a media product unlike any out there, and that is why its hosts such a unique community, especially those who aren’t of the more mainstream variety. In almost every case, the player inhabits a specific role, whether of a self-created identity or otherwise, and they merely fulfill that role. But the player has the right to decide what to do in that role, or to even accept it in the first place.

    If you can’t accept violent video games, fine, that’s your choice. But there’s much to be found that is exemplary, beautiful, human, and redemptive in even the most violent subject matter.

    • Thanks for this excellent comment, Zachery!

      I agree with much or most of what you said. I think the reason that we can justify violence in video games is because we’re presented with another world. The bad guys are dehumanized to such an extent that non-violence becomes meaningless; orcs or zombies are inherently evil, usually mindless, and kill indiscriminately. Within such a context, it’s possible for us to enjoy a level of violence that we wouldn’t or shouldn’t be comfortable with if its object were human beings made in God’s image. What’s troubling is that in real life, we tend to characterize our enemies in the same way – and if you doubt this, re-examine the rhetoric that became standard fare after 9/11 in the US.

      Regarding the Myth of Redemptive Violence, it’s inherent in our culture; but as we’ve both just said, it’s only really justifiable in a made-up world (though you referenced WWII, and I think that’s an excellent example of a context in which we’ve justified a level of violence that was not actually necessary in its context; we tend to dehumanize Nazis as much as zombies!). Our culture is informed by our art (and I staunchly believe that video games are art), and this myth is continually reinforced by almost all of our media and cultural narratives. My concern is not that someone will try to emulate a violent video game, but more that they implicitly reinforce the notion that “some conflicts must be fought” in real life.

  3. Pingback: Violence and Videogames, Part 2: Theological Perspectives | Theology Gaming

  4. I’m not a gamer, and have purposely avoided watching Jaws, so the first part of your post made no sense to me. I was like, “Who? What? It’s only the first sentence and I’m already lost.” Ha ha ha! But, when you got to the part about how pervasive the concept of redemptive violence has become in today’s cultures, even in church cultures, and the impact on our faith, I really liked what you wrote. I don’t think I’ve come across the term “redemptive violence” before–I really like it, I should jot it down–but what you said was so very right. The most intriguing part to me, though (and I just love it when somebody gets me from left field and leaves me pondering) was the idea that Christ’s return as the Lion of Judah to settle the Epic Battle forever might be far less violent than I previously considered as a possibility. That is, the effects of His words and commands may be rip-roaringly violent but He Himself may sit there cool as a cucumber. And I find that really neat to consider. Though, I must say, being that He is even more passionate than we are, I don’t know how He could possibly hold it all in–He may only speak words, but I bet they will be roar-like as His name would suggest. In my stand for some loved ones, I am never violent in the traditional sense but my passion comes out in a way that feels so. Righteous anger for what Satan has done to my most beloved cannot be kept down. Come to think of it, I remember a pastor who shared his testimony of visiting Heaven, in which he said that Jesus was anything but quiet, demure, and shy. He was loud and assertive at the time of his visit. He was shouting something like, “I’m going after him, and her, and her, and him, and every single one of those the Father has given Me and I will NOT give up until every one of them is safely in My hands!!!” Kinda sounds like a rally, doesn’t it? A battle cry, of sorts? Makes me want to cheer. Everything in the Bible was chosen very carefully and purposefully, so while your post makes me consider that non-violence and calm, steely confidence may be worth expecting for portions of our future not previously considered, the battle imagery would not be found in the Bible at all if it weren’t an appropriate description. It’s not called “spiritual conversation” or “spiritual debate,” it’s called “spiritual warfare.” Satan doesn’t play nice or fair. It’s not checkers, he’s out to decimate. He uses cancer, divorce, hatred, terror, starvation, rape, torture, death, etc. Thus, the Bible says we are to become Devastators ourselves (just not of each other. I think we tend to goof on that a lot because we’re physical people in a physical world, so we tend to aim for that which we can see for lack of an alternative. Evil should rue the day God removes their invisibility cloak). Perhaps there is more subtle richness to understand about the topic before just chucking it into the “imagery” category.

    I will continue to ponder this. Thanks!

  5. Pingback: Babylon and the Myth of Redemptive Violence « Select

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