Games Lamas Play

This is the extended / original version of an article I wrote for The Cursor, the journal of the International Game Developers Network, of which I am Editor-at-Large. It was the feature article in our first issue, April 1997, under the title "Doom Goes to Church" -- and will also serve as the rough draft of part of a chapter for a book in progress about games and spirituality.

Charles Cameron


Shadow Warrior:

"Meditation is the way to the heart..." said the ad, in English and what looked like Chinese. And it said it on a black ribbon against a blood red background, which led the eye directly to a beautiful spherical "yin-yang" sign -- or "tai chih" to give it its proper name -- which had a neat bullet wound drilled where the "white" dot in the "black" swirl should be, oh yes, bleeding, though not profusely.

"Meditation is the way to the heart..." But then we flip the page and read the punch line: "Shadow Warrior says go straight through the rib cage."

That's pretty direct, that's excellent advertising, that says it all...

What's interesting, though, is the fact that we've been set up. Every ounce of warm feeling, every religious or spiritual fiber in our being -- everything that hopes for peace on earth and would prefer it if some bizarre ex-Russian sub-state didn't run out of funds and sell nukes to the local Mafia -- every part of us that's glad when there's a shoulder to cry on, or a gesture of friendship, or a moment when the treadmill of work and rent comes to a stop -- all of that comes up to the surface to greet "Meditation is the way to the heart..." and is slammed back into oblivion by the punchline.

Compassion, love, "spirituality", anyone? And then, when the soft, twitching nose of good will peeks out for an instant, phht!, the soundless sound of a silencer -- and the still-twitching corpse of good will can be strapped to the rack of the sports utility vehicle and carried home -- venison! -- to feed the kids through those long winter nights.

I think that's brilliant. And I think it tells us a great deal about the tone of games in general, not just Shadow Warrior. "Go straight through the rib cage." Puncture the heart.

I happen to be interested in seeing the process work the other way around -- I like it when life triumphs over death -- but that doesn't stop me admiring the way that ad was put together. And it makes me think, once again, of the link between games and religion.

I think it's important.

The received religions don't cut it any more, for an increasing number of people the very idea of "religion" seems obsolete -- but we still need to model this human existence, we still need to find a way to talk to ourselves about life and death. And modeling -- running a micro version of life'n' death ahead of time, and learning from it -- is what religion is really all about.


Choosing a Story:

Think about it: a life is structured pretty much the same way a game is.

By which I mean, life works like a game: it offers us a dazzling array of choices, which could in fact be represented by a logic tree -- but making those choices defines a singular path through life which thus becomes our story. So that in retrospect, "looking back from the high hill of my old age" as Black Elk says, narrative is what makes sense of the whole thing, while in prospect, looking forward from the almost infinite potentialities of youth, making choices is the thing to understand.

Life is a matter of reconciling multiple choices with eventual plot.

Shamans, visionaries, poets, and philosophers have thought about this issue a great deal, but not in these terms: their insights and proposals are worth looking at because they have dealt with, recorded or invented dozens of "realms" or "kingdoms" adjacent to our own "waking" reality, peopled with angels and demons and who knows what else -- and a whole slew of ways of getting "from here to there". They have been designing game-like models of reality since the dawn of time...

Game designers have thought about these things, too -- but in the appropriate language, with the appropriate concepts in place. *Our* insights and proposals are worth exploring as cosmological propositions, I'd suggest, because we are the only people with lived experience of what makes for rich (fascinating, absorbing) game experiences -- in terms of both choice and story. We're the ones whose *work* demands that we think through this business of making good story out of a multiplicity of possible choices within a constrained system...

Speaking as a game designer, then, I suspect the world's religions and visionaries -- Buddhism to Blake -- have much to teach us about the "depth psychology" of games: the power of symbols and images to engage both the known and the suppressed energies of the psyche. And speaking as a theologian -- BA in Theology, Christ Church, Oxford, way back when -- I think that those who are looking for a viable "story of human existence" should chat up some game designers: designers like Chris Crawford in particular, those of us with an existing bent for seeing the bigger picture and spinning theory out of practical experience.

Because game design is the only field I know where the contrasting emphases of choice and story mix and match.


The Lama and the Game Designer:

Tibetan Buddhism offers its advanced practitioners an extended training in visualization.

The idea is that with meditative practice, you will be able to hold -- in the mind's eye -- a complex three dimensional architectural structure -- so that you can pass through it in imagination, visiting now this "room", now the next, encountering a preset variety of, well, "demons", "wrathful" and "peaceful deities".

There are all sorts of objects decorating the rooms you visit: plates and goblets, food and drink, bells, flags, flowers, jewels, daggers, skulls. And take a look at the "phurba" dagger, with its three angled blade: that's a curious piece of weaponry. Look again: that trumpet was hollowed out of a human femur, that drum was made of a couple of human skulls joined back to back.

I'm describing an advanced mandala-based meditation in Tibetan Buddhism here -- but I could almost be describing a game design.

The Tibetan lamas who designed these meditations have motives, of course, beyond simply providing an engaging landscape through which to travel. They are interested in what we might call "heaven realms" as well as "hell realms", and they lead the "player" ("meditator") in a very structured way into states of consciousness that most shrink-wrapped games don't attempt. But at the simplest level, I for one find this similarity between visualization and game design pretty striking.

And think for a minute about those demons and wrathful deities. Tibetan graphics are stunningly designed, and the wrathful deities are not pretty. Here, for instance, is a description of an important deity named "Mahavajrabhairava". This worthy

must have a body of very deep blue colour, nine faces, thirty-four arms and sixteen feet. The legs on the left side are advanced and those on the right drawn back. He is able to swallow the three worlds. He sneers and roars. His tongue is arched. He gnashes his teeth and his eyebrows are wrinkled. His eyes and his eyebrows flame like the cosmic fire at the time of the destruction of the universe. His hair is yellow and stands on end. He menaces the Gods of the material and the non-material spheres. He frightens even the terrifying deities. He roars out the word *p'ain* with a voice like the rumble of thunder. He devours flesh, marrow and human fat and drinks blood. He is crowned with five awe-inspiring skulls and is adorned with a garland made of fifteen freshly severed heads. His sacrificial cord is a black serpent. The ornaments in his ears etc. are of human bones. His belly is huge, his body is naked and his penis erect. His eyebrows, eyelids, beard and body hair flame like the cosmic fire at the end of the ages. His middle face is that of a buffalo. It is horned and expresses violent anger. Above it, and between the horns, projects a yellow face.
I'm inclined to think a Tibetan meditator accustomed to facing Mahavajrabhairava in all his full and terrible splendor might find some of our game demons a little tame...


Doom:

Erik Davis -- currently my favorite cyber-journalist -- once interviewed an eccentric Buddhist technophile, a fellow who was among other things translating a "Bonpo" text about the Chod rite, which happens to be another of my interests: it's a Tibetan shamanic ritual for compassionately feeding the demons called "hungry ghosts" one's own flesh -- to make them full, so they can go back to sleep...

It turned out that the Buddhist technophile played computer games a lot, and Doom in particular. When Erik asked him why, he said:

Doom is a digital hell-realm, enlivened with violence and fear and excitement...

You know, the Bon text I'm translating is all about Chod, a shamanic practice that was incorporated into the Kagyupa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The aim of Chod is to cut away the ego by exposing yourself to demonic entities. Typically, a Chod practitioner goes to the charnel grounds at night. You invoke demons, offering up your body and mind as a tasty feast. But once you've generated these horrors, you are meant to perceive their ultimate emptiness, that the demons are without substance or self, that they are projections of your own unconscious processes.

Okay, so this is what happens when a Tibetan Buddhist gets his hands on Doom... There's an instant recognition -- but also a deeper purpose at work or play.

Then there are the hungry ghosts themselves -- the "pretas", to give them their official title. Fortunately, the Buddhist scholar William LaFleur has made a list of them for our convenience:

ones with bodies like cauldrons, those with needle-thin throats, vomit-eaters, excrement-eaters, nothing-eaters, eaters of vapors in the air, eaters of the Buddhist dharma, water-drinkers, hopeful and ambitious ones, saliva-eaters, wig-eaters, blood-drinkers, meat-eaters, consumers of incense smoke, disease-dabblers, defecation-watchers, ones that live under the ground, possessors of miraculous powers, intensely burning ones, ones fascinated with colors, inhabitants of the beach, ones with walking-canes, infant-eaters, semen-eaters, demonic ones, fire-eaters, those on filthy streets, wind-eaters, burning coal consumers, poison-eaters, inhabitants of open fields, those living among tombs (and eating ashes), those that live in trees, ones that stay at crossroads, and those that kill themselves.
These people have given a lot of thought to their demonology...

What I'm trying to say is that the imaginative and meditative aspects of religion have a lot more in common with our games than we might expect if we just think "religion: rigid old style morality with its roots in an outdated and unscientific worldview". And I should add that I could almost as easily have drawn you a similar parallel using exclusively western sources -- from the classical, medieval and renaissance meditative practice called "the Art of Memory": the demons wouldn't have been as interesting, but there would have been plenty of fantastic mythological beasts to compensate.


Strange Bedfellows:

Religion and games, Doom and Buddhism may seem like strange bedfellows. But they have more than a little in common -- and there's one man this wouldn't surprise at all, one man who would know exactly *why*.

Dr. C.G. Jung.

This great Swiss psychologist is the man who has understood the most in our century about what it is that makes humans tick, deep down inside: where the choices we make -- and the story of our lives that emerge from those choices -- matter most. He's also the one who introduced "mandalas" to the western world -- the rigorous "floor plans" which Tibetan meditators follow in constructing those extraordinary "palaces in air". And if that still doesn't convince you, remember it was Jung's disciple and friend Joseph Campbell whose book *Hero with a Thousand Faces* inspired George Lucas to put together "Star Wars" the way he did.

Jung's our point man for depthful story telling, myth, dreams and dreaming, and the workings of that compelling universe "the unconscious" in our times.

What's more, he's sympathetic to our situation: he *likes* game designers -- though it's a category in which he'd also include the inventors of "sports" like tennis. In fact he's even said so.

I was pretty amazed when I discovered this, because although I think "spirituality" and "games" have some important areas of overlap, I wasn't quite expecting to run into Carl Gustav Jung MD thinking and talking along similar lines. But he was, and he did, and this is what he said:

One of the most difficult tasks men can perform, however much others may despise it, is the invention of good games -- and it cannot be done by men out of touch with their instinctive values.

"Meditation is the way to the heart..." said the ad. Let's do it. Let's shoot for the heart.


Go to:

Shadow Warrior and Doom images
Cornell 3-D mandala project
Significance of the Vajrabhairava mandala
Vajrabhairava, Potala Palace, XV century


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