Cathedral Embraces PlayStation, Wins Converts, Ignites Conversations

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Sacraments Mingle with Video-gamesSacraments Mingle with Video-games

Sacraments mingle with video-games

When you hear about an institution, not least an ancient religious one, embracing new technology all sorts of alarm bells start to ring. Similarly when a community you are part of decides to experiment with new ways of doing things it can feel a little uneasy. Add video-games into this mix and you have an explosive concoction.

However, there has been very little of this kind of rhetoric around my work with Exeter Cathedral to help them incorporate the PlayStation 3 game into their evening worship service. In fact I’ve had some of the most engaging conversations in a long time about faith and about video-games.

There were converts, but rather than to an ideology or dogma this was in the form of fresh understanding and debate about both faith and video-games. As Anna Norman-Walker, Cannon Missioner at the Cathedral, said, “I’m open to the possibility that they might be part of my own story, may even be a part of my story as a priest. So, yes, you’ve got yourself a convert and I’m the one supposed to be doing the converting.”

In good GeekDad fashion these were conversations that crossed the usual generational and technological divides. People of all ages were talking about video-games and meaning, in ways they never expected to before the event.

If you missed my previous post about this, let me fill in a few gaps. This all arose from a TEDx talk I gave entitled “Sustainable Perspectives in Videogames.” Some clergy from the Cathedral attended the talk and were keen to discuss things further afterwards.

Andy Robertson Introduces Flower's PS3 ControlsAndy Robertson Introduces Flower's PS3 Controls

Andy Robertson introduces Flower's PS3 controls

Having laid down the gauntlet in my TEDx talk for this new “Priesthood of Player-Critics” who engage with games on this level, Exeter Cathedral stepped up to be a most unexpected partner in my experimental journey into a world where video-games are meaningful stories in their own right.

They had the theme of creation and were looking to include a game that would not only work with this but provide a participatory element to the worship. Once they had seen Flower, plans grew to use the game as a thread running throughout the entire service. The videogame would be front and center, much as the pipe organ it stood near.

They decided to back-project the game behind the other elements of the service and I suggested that we could pass the controller around the congregation each taking turns, playing a part in the journey, collecting our swarm of petals as we went.

The stage was set and technology set up in the grand old building. The hour arrived and people began arriving, lots of people. Extra chairs were swiftly found. An air of excitement and intrigue was in the air as the service began…

That much I had anticipated; what I hadn’t bargained on was how moving and natural the experiment felt. The game sat comfortably alongside the other elements, and although at times distracted a little, it more than made up for this with moments of holy-synergy as its events complemented the congregation’s other passage through Eucharist, worship, reading and singing.

There was very little shock or oddness to the whole affair. In fact it felt as this was the most natural thing in the world to be doing. Anna Norman-Walker opened proceedings:

John Milton’s epic 17th century poem Paradise Lost concludes with Adam and Eve being cast out of the garden of Eden, an image of Paradise.

The Christian narrative has always been that things in our natural world are not as they should be and that humanity has the capacity to both heal and harm and throughout history has done both.

Tonight we are going to worship somewhere in the midst of that very tension – both as those who long to be good stewards of the earth and its resources and yet are aware of the part we play in bringing unbelievable damage to it.

Our readings and actions will embrace these tensions, we shall destruct and we shall create. We shall hear words of hope and words of despair, and we shall share in bread and wine – fruits of the earth and work of human hands and pray that they will become for us the life of Christ to nourish us on our journey of discipleship.

We chanted Veni Sancte Spiritus as a congregant tilted the Dual-Shock 3 to visit the circle of red flowers at the top of the first hill. The camera withdrew and the hill bloomed green as the red of each petal ignited thoughts of blood and sacrifice and renewal. We traveled on into the following field bearing with us the first flashes of red petals from those flowers.

Flower EucharistFlower Eucharist

Flower Eucharist

Using this kind of religious language to talk about a game all sounds mildly suspicious I know. But rather than a heavy-handed colonization of the videogame for purposes of the church, there was a playful back and forth here. Christian ideas of sacrifice danced with the game’s rendering of an enlivened hillside. The certainty of hope benefited from the game’s chaotic journey and uncertain destination.

The game benefited too. Its perfect rendering of the world was granted presence and history in the old building. Projected through the arches of the cathedral, obscuring the screen in places, integrated it with the history and design of the ages. Its sound of wind and chimes and orchestra felt all the more noble and fitting as they echoed round the many chambers of the Cathedral.

Tip-toeing around as this was all going on, capturing footage and photos of the event, it felt like a first step into a new place. Playing beneath the great pipes of the Cathedral organ it was impossible to ignore previous negotiations around technology in these places of worship.

As I discovered preparing for the event, the church has a long history of using ground breaking technology in their worship, and this is a controversial thing:

“What is wrong with the inspiring hymns with which we grew up? When I go to church, it is to worship God, not to be distracted.”

This is not a response to Exeter Cathedral’s videogame enriched service last night, but an ancient letter written about the use of a “newfangled” pipe-organ in a service. As Henry Bruinsma wrote: “Within a period of less than 100 years, concerning the use of the organ in worship services the iconoclasm of the 1560s [gave way] to the general acceptance of the organ by the Church by 1640.” It seems that someone beat us to it. The use of something very new in amongst the very old church traditions has a long a prestigious history.

Anna Norman-Walker, responsible for the Holy Ground Cathedral service, reflected on this as she talked to me about proceedings just after things had concluded on Sunday…

Video-games aren’t supposed to be meaningful, religious, corporate or sacred, we all know that. They are entertaining, exciting, sometimes violent and usually expensive. Increasingly though, I come across games that seem to have forgotten this, that aren’t playing by these rules. Games like Flower.

The 100 years it took from the first use of a pipe-organ in church to them being widely accepted reflects how early the church was to start using this ground breaking technology. It was a relationship that helped the organ on its way as a broadly experienced form of music.

First Play of Flower by One AttendeeFirst Play of Flower by One Attendee

First play of Flower by one attendee

Video-games could well be another conversation on this liturgical journey. This is real significance of the Cathedral’s use of a PlayStation and Flower. While there may be some novelty and short-term influx of attendance (and headlines), the church grants video-games many more benefits than it gains itself.

Games are changed by being used in spaces like the Cathedral. As people of all ages (from 10 to 70) played Flower the response was one of enjoyment, surprise and intrigue. Was this what video-games were like? Suddenly they can no-longer be seen as something that is merely entertainment, juvenile or even dangerous. Instead they become undeniably interesting and engaging for adults as well as children.

We played Flower on a PlayStation 3 which is $249.99 on Amazon, Flower is a download game that costs $9.99. The service will be held for a second time at the Greenbelt arts/activists/thinkers festival 24th – 27th at Cheltenham Racecourse in the UK.

Images provided by Tobit Emmens.

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