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God in the Machine

Video Games as Spiritual Pursuit

Liel Leibovitz

If he were alive today, what might Heidegger say about Halo, the popular video game franchise? What would Augustine think about Assassin’s Creed ? What could Maimonides teach us about Nintendo’s eponymous hero, Mario? While some critics might dismiss such inquiries outright, protesting that these great thinkers would never concern themselves with a medium so crude and mindless as video games, it is impor­tant to recognize that games like these are, in fact, becoming the defining medium of our time. We spend more time and money on video games than on books, television, or film, and any serious thinker of our age should be concerned with these games, what they are saying about us, and what we are learning from them.

Yet video games still remain relatively unexplored by both scholars and pundits alike. Few have advanced beyond out­moded and futile attempts to tie gameplay to violent behavior. With this canard now thoroughly and repeatedly disproven, it is time to delve deeper. Just as the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan recently acquired fourteen games as part of its permanent collection, so too must we seek to add a serious consideration of virtual worlds to the pantheon of philosophical inquiry.

In God in the Machine, author Liel Leibovitz leads a fas­cinating tour of the emerging virtual landscape and its many dazzling vistas from which we are offered new vantage points on age-old theological and philosophical questions. Free will vs. determinism, the importance of ritual, transcendence through mastery, notions of the self, justice and sin, life, death, and resurrection—these all come into play in the video games that some critics so easily write off as mind-numbing wastes of time. When one looks closely at how these games are designed, at their inherent logic, and at the cognitive effects they have on players, it becomes clear that playing these games creates a state of awareness vastly different from that which occurs when we watch television or read a book. Indeed, gameplay is a far more engaged process—one that draws on various faculties of mind and body to evoke sensa­tions that might more commonly be associated with religious experience. Getting swept away in an engrossing game can be a profoundly spiritual activity. It is not to think, but rather simply to be, a logic that sustained our ancestors for millennia as they looked heavenward for answers.

Today, as more and more of us look screenward, it is important to investigate these games for their vast potential as fine instruments of moral training. Anyone seeking a concise and well-reasoned introduction to the subject would do well to start with God in the Machine. By illuminating both where video game storytelling is now and where it currently butts up against certain inherent limitations, Liebovitz intriguingly implies how the field and, in turn, our experiences might continue to evolve and advance in the coming years.

Introduction / ix

Chapter 1: Thinking inside the Box 
Game Design, Glory, and the Search for God / 3

Chapter 2: A Ballet of Thumbs:
What We Do When We Play Video Games / 31

Chapter 3: The Sweet Cheat: 
The Utility and the Ecstasy of Breaking the Rules / 71

Chapter 4: The God Machine:
On Being and Time in Video Games / 101

Acknowledgments / 127

Liel Leibovitz has thought more deeply than anyone I know about the meaning of video games; he has managed to persuade me, without overloading my circuits, that they belong not to the seventh circle of hell—where I'd consigned them— but to the great American tradition that turns a dark theology of sin into redemptive popular entertainment.

Jonathan Rosen, author of The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey Between Worlds.

The New York Review of Books (October 8, 2015)

“Leibovitz’s book is brief but wildly ambitious, studded with references unexpected in writing on this subject.”

Gabriel Winslow-Yost

The Christian Librarian, Volume 58 (2) 2015

“Many dismiss video games as a worthless pursuit, and some even go so far as to consider them a harmful and addictive activity that sets individuals towards violence. Liel Leibovitz defies those assumptions while explaining gaming’s allure and place in the world… . this work is a thoughtful, well-written, and concise scholarly analysis of a popular pastime. As such, it is a recommended resource for college and university libraries.”

Sarah E. Keil, Trevecca Nazarene University

mphilliber.blogspot.com (April 2014)

God in the Machine shows depth as well as breadth. It would be a fitting addition to a book discussion group or theological reading circle. Whether you come to the same conclusions as the author did or not, God in the Machine will change the way you see gaming here on out. I recommend the book.”

Michael Philliber