High Scores: Talking video games, weed, religion in “God in the Machine” author Q&A

If you’ve had a religious experience while playing video games and smoking weed, you’re not alone.

And, as it turns out, you’re not insane either. Plenty of gamers flock to their controllers and bongs because video games provide a release. We use them to relax and turn off our conscious brains for a few hours. But what exactly are we turning on?

Academics have their own theories as research into the subject has continued to ramp up over the last decade. But one of the most visionary is Liel Liebovitz, an assistant professor at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

His new book “God in the Machine: Video Games and Religion” looks at the spiritual component of gaming — namely that playing video games (of any kind) creates a state of awareness vastly different from watching television or reading a book. It’s a new form of engagement that evokes sensa­tions more commonly associated with religious experience, he argues.

And since weed is used by so many gamers to enhance that experience — and as a daily ceremony in itself — we thought Liebovitz might have something to say on the subject for the latest installment of High Scores. And we were right.

This book caught my eye when I got an e-mail with the subject “Five Popular Video Games With Religious & Spiritual Meanings.” And then it lists Super Mario Bros., Little Big Planet, The Legend of Zelda and others. Where did you get the idea for this book?

First and foremost let me say that I know it’s a weird book. But I think [the idea] started out early on when I was getting my Ph.D. at Columbia around 2003 and began doing this kind of research. The state of video game research and my own interest in it were pretty marginal then. Even now, we’re still at the stage where you can ask the great big questions about video games, because they’re not really being discussed. Basically: why do people play and how does it differ from other forms of visual entertainment, like watching TV? So I was doing a lot of ethnographic work with gamers and sort of videotaping myself playing and keeping a journal of it. And what came to mind is that there’s a fundamental difference between playing video games and other types of activity.

It’s certainly more physical than reading a book or watching TV, if only by a little bit.

Right, it’s a largely physical activity, much more that we give it credit for being. And in some very fundamental way it neutralizes your subjective self because at the same time you’re the player on the couch, you’re also the avatar on the screen and some weird third amalgamation of both. You engage in this world with someone else’s rules, which have consequences, but not really, and you’re constantly wondering if you have free will amid all these algorithms. So the more I played the more I thought this actually has much more in common with religion than it does with the movies. This is a form of ritual, of engagement that recalls the same questions we asks ourselves when we ponder complex theological questions.

Was there one game that really got you thinking about it?

Yes, Shadow of the Colossus. What a mindfuck. Here I am trying to slay these 14 creatures and I ride my horse in this incredible landscape and I keep on expecting that the same thing will happen that happens in other games — that there will be all kinds of pixelated mean guys jumping from every corner, and I’ll have to click a lot of buttons furiously to survive. But then nothing happens! You find yourself meditating as you ride across this vast landscape, and then this creature appears and it doesn’t want to die. You try to kill it but the battles last a half hour and it gives you all this time to reflect. It’s a deep spiritual shock when you play that game, to realize that games can do that. And then you stop and realize that not only does that game do that, but all games do that. Not quite as brilliantly or evocatively, but they do still do it. It’s like the Job-like aspect of Max Payne, or the kind of musings about karma you have when you’re truly immersed in any Mario-type game. It’s a deep thought process.

Journey features open-ended exploration and uncommon themes for a video game.
Journey features open-ended exploration and uncommon themes for a video game.

I felt that way when I was playing Journey, which is still one of my favorite games of all time. No points, no score, no characters, no dialogue. Just pure atmosphere and intuition in this cool environment with beautiful music. But that game seems like it’s all about open-ended spiritual exploration, whereas most games are not.

It’s nice if a game is like Journey and it actually intelligently does that sort of work for you and provokes you to being in the spiritual mindset. But my claim in the book — which isn’t anything conclusive but more of a thought exercise — is that the act of playing all games can be like that. Even if it’s the shittiest, schlockiest game you’ve ever played, the most commercial shoot-em-up ever, fundamentally what you’re doing is the same.

What’s a good example of that?

Let’s say you’re playing Mega Man. You are dropped into a new world all of a sudden, there’s movement in this world, there are patterns, and the patterns are unknown to you — just like your path through life, which is trying to discover what those patterns are. They’re put there by some unseen creator. So you say, “I wonder what the limits of my freedom are?” You try to jump down this hole and you die. Your agency is limited but you can still affect the course of gameplay. In some games you can be good or bad, you can complete the main task or the side quests. But all game playing is a sort of negotiation between yourself and a world you don’t completely understand. In a very practical way you know that your actions have tremendous consequences. That’s the opposite of watching TV where you’re basically running scenarios in your mind and judging them according to your own status. This to me is where the spiritual component comes in, and this is a claim I try not to make but end up making anyway: it’s almost as if video games tend to make you more morally aware.

Like religion is meant to do?

Religion makes you face up to the consequences of actions, following rules you don’t always understand, but that matter a great deal — all while negotiating the amount of free will you may or may not have. This is very much what video games are about.

So let’s talk about weed. Do you smoke?

I am very open about the subject, but my attitudes and practices, I’m afraid, are disappointingly bland. Like everybody else, I assume, I too partook sporadically, primarily while in college. And like many others, I abandoned the habit as jobs and relationships and children beckoned. Which, I suppose, means I have no strong opinion on the matter either way.

So what do you think about people who smoke pot and play video games together. Does it enhance the spiritual aspect? How do you think it changes game play?

I think it makes a world of sense. The whole purpose of taking drugs is and probably always will be to try to transcend the confines of logical subjective thinking. You smoke pot because you want an altered state of consciousness. I believe strongly that you play games because you want the same thing. You want to be the little plumber on the screen jumping into pipes and finding coins. You want to have a communion with that character. It’s very hard to have communion with another soul or transcend the strict boundaries of your personality when walking down the street. It’s easier to do it with video games, and easy to do with drugs, and far easier to do while playing video games on drugs.

Grand Theft Auto IV
Grand Theft Auto IV

And weed is a lot mellower than say, cocaine. I remember in Tom Bissell’s “Extra Lives” he talks about the dual addictions of snorting coke while playing Grand Theft Auto IV, which is both terrifying and relatable. But to me, weed is much more trance-like, which definitely leads to a more spiritual experience when playing than, say, a compulsive one.

I don’t think there could be any doubt that it’s trance-like. I’ll tell you very briefly one the experiments I did: I had this sinking suspicion that video games are actually much more like a trance than we’ve imagined, which if true would mean that the only clear factor that affected you while playing the game was how long you’d been playing it — rather than how far you were in the story. So I did this with myself then repeated it several dozen times with others. I had people play for five hours, then I had assistants interrupt them at different segments. Some were really high-action moments in the middle of a fight, and others were players wandering around a field.

Which game did you use?

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. So you had researchers asking these questions with somewhat easy mathematical equations, then we made people go back into the game and we measured their ease of sinking back into it. We used a bunch of criteria that were fairly subjective, like their body language, their performance in the game, etcetera. And what we found almost without exception is that it was much much easier for someone to get right back into the game if we interrupted that person in a middle of a super-exciting fight scene 25 minutes into playing — much easier than if you interrupted them walking through a field at 4 and 1/2 hours into playing. This is precisely the trance-like state you have, and when you smoke marijuana, it’s precisely that same, flowing passage of time that we perceive very differently. In fact we perceive self, space — all these things — very differently.

What kind of conclusions did you come to?

That plot didn’t matter at all. With games, you engage in the process and the flow of the game, not necessarily the plot. And if that’s the case, we’re looking at a very different medium here than movies or TV. Games are far less about storytelling and far more about ritual and engagement, and the experience of play itself. I think these are tremendously far-reaching conclusions. In other words: don’t freak out killing hookers in Grand Theft Auto V! The fact of that doesn’t matter. What you’re actually doing is very, very different. You’re playing a game which is a physical and trance-like and ritualistic process that engages you on very different levels than other media. It helps explain why people love it so much and why people tend to smoke weed when playing games. These are similar pursuits and desires being fulfilled as in religion.

Are you a big gamer?

I’m a huge gamer myself. I used to be a hardcore shooter kind of guy, but I’m moving towards different stuff currently.

Same here. I actually still lover shooters but I’ve kind of rediscovered the simple pleasures of platformers and puzzlers, mostly through my iPhone.

I’m very much enamored with the 3DS. This may sound very childish, but I think the new Pokemon is fantastic. I try to gravitate towards games now that change the definition of what games are. Papers Please is another game like that I’ve played again and again. You feel this moral weight revolving around every decision in that game, even though you’re engaging with nothing but the most crushing, bureaucratic, procedural processes.

I’ve heard that game is great. What else?

I thought Borderlands 2 was amazing. The characters and humor and the whole atmosphere was just amazing. I loved Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon. I find that the more I play the more I gravitate toward games that have not necessarily clever mechanics or storytelling or plot, but just great atmosphere. If I like hanging out in that world, I’m happy to keep on doing it.

Read more video game news and reviews at Game On, The Denver Post’s video games site.