Everybody knows it’s easy to get a little too serious about games sometimes—but can we really compare that emotional intensity to religious fervor?
Killscreen’s Stephen Hershey interviewed anthropologist Ryan Hornbeck to find out why Hornbeck thinks video games are a type of religion. The results might surprise you. I was entirely skeptical at first—games are typically a fun pastime or hobby, not a system of values or beliefs, after all—but I was somewhat swayed by Hornbeck’s analysis.
The basic premise is that games and religion can fulfill a similar need—particularly games set in expansive virtual worlds where social interaction is a given (MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft). People who get really intense about these games tend to be lacking something in the rest of their lives. Friendship, camaraderie, wealth, structure, and fairness are all easily achievable in MMOs, and much less so in our day-to-day lives. Hornbeck cites teens in China as an example. They’re exhausted by the everyday corruption they face; teachers can be paid by wealthier parents to spend more time with certain students. Games offer what Hershey calls a “promised land of sorts,” where they have more power and control over their own lives, and where morality is something they can actually achieve.
The confusion about what actually causes problematic gaming behavior is also a factor when we look at the intersection between gaming and depression. It’s been noted time and time again that games don’t really cause depression—in fact, they can help—but rather, individuals who are depressed or struggling with emotional problems use games to self-medicate, which can lead to problematic gaming behavior. When games are the only source of order and relaxation in life, some people play them a lot, perhaps to the exclusion of more important activities. From the outside, this can seem very much like religious zealotry.
Hornbeck suggests we ask “what’s there that’s not here?” when we’re talking about game addiction or escapism. Sometimes it’s dragons and magic, but often it’s something more essential—social structure, safety, agency. Put in these terms, gaming and religion do have some parallels, though I would prefer the term “spirituality”—an attention to the spiritual (emotional) self, rather than the physical.
Without getting caught up in terminology, I think the main thing we can take from all this is that games probably aren’t religion (I think most gamers and non-gamers would agree, regardless of whether they’re religious themselves) but they might fulfill some of the same spiritual or emotional needs, or provide the same social supports, that religion does. We shouldn’t overlook that when we’re discussing game addiction.