Praying at the Altar of Darwin: A “Finding ‘Eden’” B-Side

“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.

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Comments

  • Zach A  On 06.29.11 at 12:07 pm

    So I wasn’t able to get too into Fl0w on the PS3, but the first time I played Flower… Well, I wasn’t sober, exactly. But to me, Flower was 1) aesthetically gorgeous and fairy unique (IE not a brown corridor shooter, but an open field). 2) fun to control (the rush of flying close to the ground, the sound, the excellent scoring) 3) well designed (leading you to the right places through natural features of the landscape) and 4) emotionally compelling.

    I mean there wasn’t a “plot”, right? At face value it was a flight sim with petals. But the first time you are blown into a valley, you frantically try and collect all the petals, the music soars but you are too busy trying to focus on finding the right path, and all of a sudden you are unceremoniously dumped out where you started. At this point the SO looked at me with raised eyebrows and said semi-seriously: “It’s a metaphor for life. You got so caught up in what was in front of you, you just ended up where you started and went nowhere”.

    Again, I was not sober at this point. And she wasn’t entirely serious. But once I started looking at the game through that lens – daaaayyyuuuuuummm. *

    ANYWAY, MY POINT: Yup, there is no way to convince anyone that this is My Authentic Emotional Experience without making it sound like i am deranged, an empty husk that searches for meaning in every artificial corner. But Flower, and Child of Eden, and in your case Fl0w are all packed full of meaning and symbolism above and beyond “Bad guy is bad / we must kill him / bad guy is good / good guy is bad”. We are not told what, exactly, we are doing in these games – we just do them, and explore them, and make them our own – until their meaning unfolds for us, based on what we have done and (I can not stress this enough) not what we were told. So it doesn’t matter much that CoE or Flower were closed, linear experiences as much as any other game – they gave us space for emotion, and then pumped up the intensity until we had to retreat into those emotional spaces. it’s brilliant, and very human-centric design.

    *yes even my comments need footnotes**
    **ACTUAL FOOTNOTE: A lot of people shit on the stage with the electric wires in Flower, but to me that stage is redeemed by two things: The overall structure of the game (which is – of course! – structured after life itself, from birth to aging to death to renewal), and the structure of the level leading into it (the aforementioned ageing – the twilight set in the rustic countryside that slowly – terrifyingly – gives way to industrial Death, where you wander around the dangerous hellscape in search of an exit). Those bits give the level so much context and meaning that I don’t resent it at all (except for the stupid fucking trophy for finishing that stage without damage, god damnit).

    • Kris Ligman  On 07.03.11 at 11:01 pm

      Funny, I wasn’t even AWARE there was so much hate on for Flower’s electric wires stage. Granted I avoided playing that one more than necessary (flOw is great but Flower I play to feel happy), but I didn’t feel it broke with the tone of the game going through the “story” of it all. The designers rightly identified that harrowing, awful things need to happen to more fully appreciate beauty and completion–heck, it’s practically a Disney movie in that respect. I definitely felt reduced to a child again in that stage, battered and terrified, and I wasn’t even on any chemicals at the time. XD

      Moreover, I liked how Chen sought to make some sort of Hegelian synthesis out of it, by combining nature and urbanism in the last stage. Technology doesn’t have to equal death; it can become an extension of the natural world, just as humans are. I’m sure Sagan would approve.

      (And probably play it while high. I mean, let’s be honest.)

      For me it’s always seemed quite natural to think of games in terms of emotional affect, but it’s only been with recent reflection that I found a way to articulate exactly where my ambivalence about SAYING SO came from. It isn’t simply that I was raised Catholic, or that I was threatened with hell for the sort of innocent things you unthinkingly pick up on the playground–that shit’s traumatic, but it isn’t what makes a subject like “are games religion?” a tendentious one. It’s that, in the words of a friend of mine, our western culture has arbitrarily divided our narratives into high canon and low canon. Low canon is too vulgar to ever be elevated beyond some sort of middle-brow thing, and high canon is forever above criticism. When in fact, it makes far more sense to recognize that either all ideas are low canon or none are. So even though it might seem as silly to derive meaning from a game as to worship cargo planes, it’s not really any MORE absurd than finding fulfillment in skybeards, quantum mechanics or a religion described in Star Trek.

      And I think even “low canon” can be terribly uplifting in the nature of religion. Stories about good guys and bad guys are found in the Bible just as much as trashy TV and shooter games. And let’s face it, part of Flower’s emotional affect is very, very Hollywood and plays on terribly obvious human emotions–and that is perfectly okay, in fact it’s brilliant, I wouldn’t begrudge it for a second. Because it’s really THAT element of tapping into raw humanity that helps stories of any medium strike a powerful chord in people.

      Oh cosmos, I am just going to keep rambling until this hunger headache makes me pass out. But I’ve always sort of wondered why games captivate me as “my thing” moreso than any other hobby I’ve ever had, and now I think I know: they let me feel the sort of things I can’t get from anything else. Why should I feel embarrassed about defending them, then?

  • Jack Porter  On 06.30.11 at 10:41 am

    Brilliant, moving article. I really like the places you’re going as a writer. Not to mention that you somehow managed to use the phrase “gaming is my religion” in a totally plausible way!

    • Kris Ligman  On 07.03.11 at 11:02 pm

      It’s easy with the power of a shakily-applied TRANSITIVE PROPERTY *glasses flash*.

      Also, it’s officially the 4th of July! Happy 4th! Call or text in the morning and let’s make plans, yeah?

Trackbacks

  • [...] We also have two pieces on Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s newest game Child of Eden. The first, from Brendan Keogh at Critical Damage, compares the themes contained in it and its spiritual predecessor Rez. The other, from our own Kris Ligman at her blog Dire Critic, discusses how she sees the game as a spiritual experience. [...]

  • [...] have written effusively–in not one but two articles thus far–about the tremendous aesthetic experience Child of Eden is. But it bears [...]

  • [...] “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.”[12] [...]

  • By Happy Carl Sagan Day « Dire Critic on 11.09.12 at 2:07 pm

    [...] written before about finding spiritual fulfillment through science and technology. If Sagan left us with anything, it is the reminder that there is enough around us in our natural [...]

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