“The same spiritual fulfillment that people find in religion can be found in science, by coming to know if you will the mind of God.” -Carolyn Porco
There came a point where I just had to stop engaging with Rick Dakan about things. It wasn’t that I didn’t value his opinion, or him as a colleague, but in the end he was right: Child of Eden was deeply subjective for me. I don’t find that to its discredit–if anything, that makes it more valuable in my eyes. But it becomes something over which it’s difficult to have a satisfying debate. I saw things in Eden no one else would see for the same reason I can look at The Passion of the Christ and see torture porn instead of a testament to faith.
For the record, I do think The Passion of the Christ is thinly-veiled pornography, or as Christopher Hitchens puts it, “an exercise in sadomasochistic homoeroticism” (God is Not Great, Hatchet Book Group, 2007, pg 111). But I recognize it’s not for me, that its iconography has a significantly different impact for evangelical Christians. I might have judgments about a religion where faith is expressed by watching a representation of its central figure beaten and tortured to death with the best of Hollywood’s gore effects, but that’s neither here nor there at present. What is “here” is that watching that movie with my biological father eradicated any remaining traces of my belief in the Christian God.
If I was a person who was interested in preserving religious faith, I would be very afraid of the positive power of evolutionary science–and even in science generally but evolutionary science particularly–to inspire and enthrall, precisely because it is atheistic (Richard Dawkins, “The Design of Life”, TED, 2008).
I have a suspicion that Christians (maybe many religions) are taught to yearn for an impossible thing. I also suspect that between my upbringing in Catholicism and a rotten childhood full of emotional abuse, this yearning for impossible things has been programmed into me. Etched into the very fiber of my being, as it were. So it is that at my most vulnerable I still search for “God” in things–if not divinity of some sort then some overriding divine principle or order which can explain all the messiness and cruelty of life. No, I daresay that’s what most faith is to begin with.
I found faith in science. But it’s hard to make science a religion; the very idea goes against what science is. But technology, artifacts, they get a little bit closer to the mechanisms of faith. We can look to this or that thing as being the perfect model for what we’re trying to understand, something which captures the mastery and elegance of the natural world in a pure and concise way. Totems. Rituals. The great complex universe rendered beautifully simple.
That is flOw for me. And perhaps for no one else in the world, but I don’t much mind.
My first experience playing flOw, in my shoebox-sized undergraduate apartment on a tiny 13″ standard definition television sometime in early 2008, was a moment in which I was “filled with the Spirit” as my bio-dad would say. I was guiding a creature through a drop of water, a white microorganism against a luminescent pink glow coming from somewhere beneath, Austin Wintory’s score filling the room, and I felt it. Everything is all right, the game was telling me. Everything makes sense. Everything fits together.
In a macro sense, yes, I know not everything conveniently fits together. We recognize patterns after the fact and assume they were intended for us–the great fallacy of “design.” If the Moon were the work of an omniscient creator its phases would be exact whole numbers and sync up perfectly with the Earth’s yearly revolution, which would not dare to be an odd number of rotations because odd numbers are so messy. Instead we’re bombarded with fractions and approximations and numbers which refuse to line up, laws of physics which cease to function the further out you go, unaccountable dark matter, imperceptible extra dimensions, and black holes which leak. It’s a catastrophe of inelegant math and partial systems, a bricolage of small-t theory.
And yet on the micro side, it’s difficult not to admire the beauty of nature. That DNA arose by chance and governs all life on our planet from microscopic organisms to us. That great cycles of diversification and mass extinction can become rhythmic patterns, a veritable pulse felt across the entire surface of the Earth. That I can play as my bacterial ancestors in a symbolic representation of their early success in the ancient ocean. This strikes me as having quite the same spiritual resonance as participating in a nativity play* or any other sort of “origin” ritual where believers enact the roles of their creators. When flOw lets me “play god,” it does so in a way much different than conventional “god games.” It does it more scientifically, I think. It does it better.
The elegance of Darwinism is corrosive to religion, precisely because it is so elegant, so parsimonious, so powerful, so economically powerful. [...] The God theory is not just a bad theory, it turns out to be in principle incapable of doing the job required of it (Richard Dawkins, “The Design of Life”).
flOw is a system in the most absolute sense: it is physics, chemistry, and biology. It is life itself. Like all gamic systems, it’s a simplistic representation, but far from crude I would venture to call it the most beautiful, abstract, thoroughly artistic depiction of natural order ever committed to code. Contemplating flOw occasionally brings me to the edge of tears. This must be what believers feel.
We are formed of a beautiful, subtle interrelationship between simplicity, and complexity, and this too is something that games help us elucidate. Our thoughts, our behaviours, all of our cognition are made up of complex systems.
Seeing the world as a series of systems, with our behaviour as emergent properties of this, is a part of procedural literacy. To be able to take some part of the human experience, and break this down into a symbolic way of representing the world through procedures, is what game design does (Mitu Khandaker, “Are Games Astronomy?”, 21 May 2011).
I don’t feel that I am made smaller by taking games as artifacts of faith. I believe I’ve found the greatest god of them all, for what other god is the size of the entire cosmos but can be represented in a drop of water–or blood? If games are systems, and God (as natural order) is a system, then God is the game we are playing right now and have been since the dawn of time. It’s the spin of electrons that as much give rise to life as computer games. And games are one of many ways in which we, the universe knows itself.
Child of Eden is at best a shade of what I experienced while playing flOw. But Eden also works upon themes of human nature too complex to be represented by the plight of microorganisms. I’ve yet, for instance, to see an article on how Eden communicates how Hope is hard, the hardest of all, even after the full biological and technological ascent of man. It’s grand poetry while flOw is a painting, I suppose, or maybe flOw is the word and the rest is commentary. In any case, I hardly expect my interpretations of these games to be universal, just as I wouldn’t expect the vast majority of humanity to be coming at them from my vantage point. It is subjective. But it’s fulfilling anyway.
All of this isn’t about the idolatry of science or technology, of course, simply achieving a feeling of fulfillment through its artifacts. We’ve occasionally looked to games as means by which to soberly model scientific ideas, or in Khandaker’s examples as models for human behavior, but I, like her, am a Carl Sagan fangirl first and foremost: I like the awe that contemplating the natural order of things brings me. I want to sing the praises of the cosmos and that which pays tribute to it. Science is the subject of my faith; gaming is my religion.
*I did participate in a nativity play once for the Girl Scouts. I played Mary, because I could provide my own plastic crying baby doll to represent Jesus. Joseph was played by a crossdressing Junior Scout with coffee grounds on her face. Even then I found it ridiculously handsome.