Type JournalArticle
Date 2016-12-29
Volume 11
Tags nonfiction, religion, game studies
Journal Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet
Pages 28--45

The Word Has Become Game: Researching Religion in Digital Games (Link)

Time for another entry in my widely spaced series on academic literature relating to video games. This post will just collect a few of the notes I took when reading the article; perhaps by forgoing full write-ups I can produce these posts more regularly, while still serving the purpose of drawing attention the academic side of things.


These are formatted as a brief quotation from the article, followed by my notes ‘in the margin’ at that point.

What is a video game?

It will be nice when the day comes that articles about video games needn’t spend a few pages meditating on the nature of their subjects. I don’t feel that this section contributes substantially to the main work of the article; the discussion on how to study religion in video games, and the framework for its description, would not have suffered if the details of the definition of ‘video game’ were neglected.

video games are digital systems that have the following features

  1. an interactive and reactive nature,
  1. volatile signs and variable displays,
  1. multiple sensory and semiotic channels, and
  1. networking capabilities.

This seems to be a misreading of Ryan. She enumerates these four elements as “properties of digital systems . . . that [she regards] as the most relevant for narrative and textuality”, but does not, I think, expect that all games should exhibit every property.

Despite its interesting nature, Anthony's typology cannot – as we will see – cover all cases of religion in video games or of scholarly research of them.

Bosman does not make explicit any examples which this typology does not cover; he does not mention it again. The statement is accurate, but beside the point. Bosman’s system is more akin to Ferdig’s than Anthony’s, describing the religious content rather than the category of game, so his categories are orthogonal to Anthony’s.

The fourth level at which religion can be found in video games, is the ritual level: players who are involved in in-game behavior that is traditionally associated with religion.

This is the most interesting idea in the article. I would frame it somewhat differently, however: this seems to conflate religious actions by the player character with religious actions by the player.

The observation that players can engage in religious behavior in the digital space is a good one. These may be sincere religious activities that take place in-game, or the semblance thereof, performed for dramatic reasons.

Sincere religious activities may be explicit, e.g. evangelism in a multiplayer game, or implicit, e.g. choosing the player character’s actions according to the player’s own religious imperative. The memorials mentioned in the article probably fall under this category, with religion broadly construed.

Anthony’s section on allopolitical games (p. 41) is relevant.

Methodology of Studying Religion in Digital Games

The approach outlined in this section seems reasonable enough, but has no specific relationship to the study of religion in games. It is also a rather obvious approach: first, study the source material (i.e. the game); next, study other primary source material from the creator of the game; last, study secondary materials.

The second step is internal research: collection of all the in-game information, for example (the list is not exhaustive), texts, audio, video, pictures, NPC stories, and such like.

It is not clear how this step is differentiated from the first step. Reading the in-game text, talking to the NPCs, and other such actions are an ordinary part of playing the game, surely. If the first step involves “playing the game multiple times (playthroughs), including main quest (mission) and side quests (missions), reaching every possible ending”, then what remains to do? This only makes sense if, in the first step, you are meant to play the game repeatedly without paying any particular attention to it, so that you miss all the little details.

In the third step, external reading, the gamer/researcher must become less of a gamer and more of a researcher. His or her identity as a researcher takes over from his or her identity as a player.

However, those materials (e.g. novels) are intended to be experienced by the players of the game as players of the game. For games with a focus on world-building, this kind of ‘research’ is in fact an ordinary component of ‘play’.

The fourth step is external research, the gathering of all out-game information that is not provided by the developers of the game themselves

This step combines ethnography (e.g. watching playthroughs by other players) with a study of the existing literature, which seems an oddly careless combination for a process that somehow distinguished between ‘playing the game’ and ‘playing the game, but really paying attention this time’.


In this article, the author proposes a multi-layered methodology for researching religion in video games. The author differentiates between five levels at which religion can be encountered in video games and/or video game research: material, referential, reflexive, ritual and meta level. These levels range from explicitly religious to implicitly religious, from game-immanent to game-transcendent, and from developer-intended to gamer-experienced. In this context, the author proposes a four-step methodology, which incorporates insights from both game-immanent and actor-centered approaches: internal reading (playing the game), internal research (collection of in-game information), external reading (mapping the intermedial relationships), and external research (gathering out-game information). Before doing so, the author proposes a new definition of video games as ‘digital, playable (narrative) texts’ that incorporate both ludological and narratological elements.

Name Role
Frank G. Bosman Author