Skyrim and the Other Reality

Editor’s Note: This post was written by guest writer Jordan Ekeroth. Jordan lives in sunny San Diego, where he studies Theology and writes about videogames.  You can see his ongoing project at Follow and Engage.

If there’s one thing that humans have been proven to be good at, it’s survival. Our history is made up of stories of people enduring even the most adverse conditions. However, that gift bears with it an unfortunate side effect. We are also very good at settling for less. There is something in every person that yearns for more, something that dreams of “life and life more abundantly.” But when we don’t see those dreams become reality, the temptation is often to simply keep dreaming or fantasizing, and stop hoping and believing. Somewhere along the way, many people become disillusioned with reality as we know it and so descend into a sort of sub-reality, full of entertainment and escapism. As a Christian, I’ve felt that pull myself, away from community and into isolation. Away from the vigor of a life worth living and into mere passive existence. So why do we do this to ourselves? And is there a way out?

A couple of years ago I saw Avatar for the first time. If you recall, the film is about a crippled Marine who is given another chance at heroism as he mentally inhabits the body of an alien by means of advanced technology. Of course he ends up saving the day, but something didn’t feel right to me. I had too many questions about how such technology would affect our world if it really existed. What if through technology you really could live out your life in another body? I realized that I was not alone in my musings, but rather had stumbled onto a major theme in contemporary thought. Namely, the nagging fear of what we might become if we settle for living a fantasy. You find it in other films too, such as Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece, Inception, which asks: “What would happen if we got so confused by our created worlds that we forgot which one is real?”

Then there’s animation, like the Pixar blockbuster WALL-E, that wonders: “What if humans were spoiled beyond belief? What if life never had any challenges?”

It’s definitely in sci-fi literature, such as The Reality Bug, the third book of the young adult fantasy series Pendragon by D. J. Machale, which poses the questions: “What if there was true virtual reality that you could live inside of? What would happen to society?”

In every situation the consequences are terrible: Suicidal lovers, impotence and morbid obesity, the collapse of civilization itself. On one level, I was worried by a far off future that offered complete immersion in an alternate identity. Yet on another level, I realized that the future wasn’t so far off, for I had just seen it come to life before my eyes. Immersion wasn’t just a theme of the story of Avatar; it was a theme of the movie experience itself.

When Avatar came out, no one really cared about the story anyway. Most were blown away by the incredible CG and unprecedented use of 3D. I saw it in IMax 3D — it was the most immersive movie I had ever experienced. And that’s what got me. The future I feared was coming, but it was also already here.

Video games are a step toward that future: controlling an avatar as a projection of yourself. As the years have gone by, video game graphics have become more lifelike, the experiences have become more thrilling, and the experience of another reality has become more complete. We play because we’re not satisfied with our normal eating, drinking, going around. Though on many points we’ve settled into being comfortable with “ordinary,” we still long for more than an ordinary existence has to offer.

And all the Christians said, “Amen.”

Paul put it like this: “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” (2 Corinthians 5:1–4)

The fifth game in The Elder Scrolls series, titled Skyrim, was released on the eleventh of November of this year to massive critical acclaim. The game is pure escapism. Cliff Blezinski, a leading game designer, commented that even the act of walking around inside the game world was “magical.” Here on CaPC, Drew Dixon talked about how Skyrim reminded him of heaven, saying “Skyrim is but a foretaste of the world to come. One day we will stand atop snow capped mountains marveling at the fields, trees, waterfalls, and villages below free from the bitter sting of cold. Because of what Christ has done for me, one day I will inhabit a world where death will no longer reign and where I will rejoice in God and what He has made.”

The whole discussion reminds me of something C. S. Lewis said one time: “If I discover within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Gamers, you were made for another reality. This revelation puts two things in a healthy perspective. First, we can best enjoy games when we understand why it is that we enjoy them. That is, God’s plan is to give us more than this life has to offer, and viewed in the right light, video games don’t become a distraction from that truth, but an illumination of it. Second, when we as Christians seek to engage the world around us, we need to constantly remind ourselves that the desires which drive some people into unhealthy lifestyles are the same desires that we have. Not that games illuminate our sinfulness, but that they illuminate our God-given desires which are often so easily perverted by sin.

I felt compelled to start my site, Follow and Engage, because there are millions of people spending countless hours lost in digital worlds, and I know why. My desire, and I pray that it becomes yours too, is to learn how to reach out to our friends, whether down the street or around the world, and introduce them to a more abundant life, one that their game worlds have only hinted at. I’m not an expert yet, but I’m praying for God to use me and others like me as we start talking, praying, and dreaming about this. You should pray too, for our God is able to do exceedingly and abundantly above all that we could ask or imagine in the gaming community and in the world at large.

About Jordan Ekeroth
  • Steven Sukkau

    Amen brother! I love your illustration with Avatar, on one hand embodying an avatar and living in another world is complete fantasy, but on the other hand, watching a movie like Avatar is the same thing. I even think of how a movie theatre itself is designed to diminish the reminders of our reality and enhance the fantasy. No outside lighting, surround sound, and now with 3D. I’ve even heard of people leaving the movie depressed because the real world isn’t quite as satisfying as Pandora. (The quote from C.S Lewis beautifully illustrates this point.)
    I heartily agree with you, videogames, if only in a small way, allow us to trade our “earthly tent” and put on our true heavenly guise, sometimes in the form of an awesome warrior and commander of justice like in Mass Effect, travelling the galaxy and putting right everything that is wrong.
    But is this healthy? Is this diverting our zeal for justice in the real world to the virtual world? Or do you think videogames can help inspire that same zeal for righting wrongs and “questing” for Christ?

  • http://followandengage.com Jordan Ekeroth

    Thanks, and good questions, because games absolutely have the potential for “diverting our zeal for justice in the real world to the vitrtual world.” In fact, in the short history of games, most stories we hear have to do with exactly that happening. Children would rather play games than do well in school. Teenagers become disengaged from reality. Adults become disengaged from society. The list goes on…

    And to be fair, I think that this is only the natural result unless another element is added. I now play games with the revelation of what I just wrote about in the second to last paragraph, and it is that revelation that enables me to approach gaming as a healthy experience that I can almost always take something away from.

    I’m compelled to write about that revelation because I see even in some of my own friends a lack of understanding about what games can mean to us as Christians.

  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport

    While an important topic to discuss, every point you make is a quite terrible example of how christianity (and most religions) kill peoples zeal for the real world, the one you have now. I shutter at people who approach, or insist everyone else approaches movies, games or books (or paintings, or music, or sculpture, or theatre, or dance) for their “escapist” qualities. All of these things are dialects of art. Art is a language that instantly connects sensations to the conceptual; allowing artists to communicate empathy, and viewers to see the world in a different way. The reason people love stories/art/etc are because they show them the world that could be, the world they can fight for. Many may not realize this, instead settling for the world the gamers make, etc. But that is not a reflection of the art, it is a reflection of the viewer. The world can be a hard fight, art’s place in society is to allow empathy and hope to be *felt* instantly, giving people an emotional strength (while also rendering religion useless) to continue on and a clear vision of what they’ve wanted all along.

    The C.S. Lewis quote you provide gives a false (and harmful) conclusion:
    “If I discover within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

    I would argue that the most probable explanation is this: You have created an imaginary world with unreal expectations and given up on the one you actually have. You are pessimistic and a defeatist. (I say “you” in a general sense). If you feel these feelings, ask yourself what you’ve given up on and if there is any way to achieve it in this life. Any thing/one that tells you you cannot achieve this (the bible, for instance), ask yourself, “Why not?” I cannot imagine you’ll hear coherent reasons.

    “God’s plan is to give us more than this life has to offer”

    You can believe this, waiting your whole life to die, or you can believe the infinitely higher probability that this life is all you have, and it can be made beautiful, and you can be sublimely happy in this life alone.

    You urge gamers:

    “you were made for another reality…God’s plan is to give us more than this life has to offer”

    As you do not need a god to be happy, nor another life to wait for, I would urge the following:

    Gamers, you were made IN THIS reality… the only option is to live it to it’s fullest. Take note of the feelings you get while gaming and turn your life into a story filled with those feelings.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    I’m a bit torn. On the one hand I’m with Steven Newport on the critique that blanketing gaming with the escapism claim seems obtuse (I hate it when people do that with literature and I hate it when people do it with other communicative mediums), but at the same time the rest of his complaint is of the same caliber as the guy who wanders into a discussion on the merits and deficits of Modern Warfare 2 and proceeds to argue that there are no such thing as games and so the whole discussion is baseless. It’s kind of a weird thing to do, but since I’ve never been one to care about the sillies, I’ll focus on what’s useful from Steven Newport’s comment.

    I don’t know how many people actually play games for escapist reasons. I’m sure there are some. But I don’t know if I ever met any. Most of those I know play because they enjoy the exercise of skills. A few like the involvement in the stories portrayed. All are at least tacitly interested in the concept of play. Personally, my game-playing features exactly zero amounts of escapism. I play for the pleasure of play and because I enjoy story. Occasionally, I enjoy games for how they tax my mind (a la Spacechem).

    I’m also not a fan of the Lewis quote (“If I discover within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world”). It overstates wildly on insufficient evidence. It’s kind of like the ontological argument for the existence of God in that sense. Also, I’d say that from a Xian perspective, we were made for this world. The earth was our intended domain. We were just intended to have a better experience in it.

  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport

    Seth, good points. But let me change the game to speak about what I believe you had issue with; correct me if I’m wrong:

    In all fairness, if someone were to come into a similar discussion of WoW and suggest the merit of that game was to prepare people for the inevitable and eventual evolution into elvish creatures and the digression into a Medieval society based on rupee or gold economics, it would not be unfair, off-topic, or in bad taste to suggest that idea to be unfounded, unnecessary and useless to the discussion of WoW and games in general. But since the relationship is being drawn between games and christianity and not WoW and Elvish futurelands, for some reason it is taboo to join the conversation and call a spade a spade.

    Jordan is not just writing about Skyrim and Christianity. He is writing about gaming and spirituality. He is joining a culture-wide discussion, not creating his own. His main point being that gaming’s highest value is the perspective they give you for the afterlife is too broad of a statement and too unfounded.

    If games can be useful to mold your vision of the afterlife, in a reality of no after-life the same logic can and should be used to say it can shape your vision/outlook of your current life and therefor be useful for more than just fantasy. I would like to suggest that the thought and hope for a Heaven is more escapist and much more useless than the rankest of videogames.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    If I am honest, I probably played videogames for escapist reasons in high school quite a bit but I think now that I am older–that doesn’t factor in much to my reasons for playing.

    I play for story but even more than that, I play for dynamic stories that books and movies are incapable of giving me (and I love books and movies)–games thrill me in a unique way.

    Next week I will have an article up on TC on Skyrim in which I discuss how open world games no longer give me an inflated sense of self. I appreciate Jordan’s article here and his passion to reach people in the gaming community but perhaps that article will provide a bit of nuance to this discussion. Also–Lord willing, it will be my last article on Skyrim for a while ;)

    Anyway, enjoyed your article Jordan–keep writing!

  • http://followandengage.com Jordan Ekeroth

    Fair enough. Here’s a few thoughts.

    First, the Lewis quote is simply rhetoric, I used it to illustrate a point, not prove a point.

    Second, is it possible that escapism can be sought subconsciously? If, for example, Lewis was right and we were made for another reality, Is it conceivable that our desire for that higher reality can be present in our decisions without our being aware it?

    Third, I believe that we were originally created for this world, but the world itself became corrupted when sin entered through Adam. We presently live surrounded by the effects of this fallen condition (hard to argue with that), but simultaneously, through the work of Jesus we can experience a new type of life. Note that my point was nowhere that we should wait our whole lives to die to experience another life, abundant life starts now. That’s the theology that this whole article is founded on, so I suppose if we don’t agree on that, it will prove difficult to discuss the finer points of this piece. Haha.

  • http://followandengage.com Jordan Ekeroth

    And thanks Drew, just saw your comment!

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    I play for escapist reasons on really bad days. It’s practical for me – I pray, dwell on stuff, and then I play Skyrim or something to get myself out of a funk. In extreme unfortunate life situations, it can be a pretty healthy form of dealing with things.

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    @Steven Newport:
    I like your WoW vs elf-evolution example but I think it’s missing something. These conversations have to be taken in their context.

    If the elf-evolution conversation takes place in a WoW forum, it’s easy enough to just say, “C’mon man, that’s patently ridiculous,” and move on. If the conversation is taking place in a forum dedicated to elf-evolution, however, the conversation kind of rests in this land nestled in shared preconceptions. To come to a conversation where everyone presumes that elf-evolution is a reality but are discussing its relationship (if any) to WoW and then say that the conversation is useless because elf-evolution is a silly faerytale—that’s what I was describing as being weird.

    I’m seeing it as more of a time-and-place issue than anything. Basically, you could go on every single article on this site (each of which flows out of a shared presumption that Xianity is true) and post similarly to your end point here, since each one bases itself on a foundational principle that you disagree with adamantly. That seems more troll-y than useful. I suppose it could be cathartic, in some sense, but it does little to engage the purpose of the article.

    That’s why I preferred your initial critique, related to the nature of game-playing. It seemed more on-topic.

  • Steven Sukkau

    @Stephen, great points man, I’ve never thought of videogames that way, I agree with you when you say, “Gamers, you were made IN THIS reality… the only option is to live it to it’s fullest. Take note of the feelings you get while gaming and turn your life into a story filled with those feelings.”
    I love the idea of filling our lives with those feelings.

    You also challenged my thinking when you talked about heaven killing peoples’ zeal for the real world, can you expand on that?

    Cause I think you’re right, to always have your head in the clouds means you’re probably missing out on what’s in front of your face. But I am struck with the sadness of having nothing to look forward after this life, how do you deal with such feelings?

  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport

    Jordan,

    ” Lewis quote is simply rhetoric, I used it to illustrate a point, not prove a point.”

    Your writing was eloquent enough that I did not assume you would use such a quote to ‘base’ your argument on. For fragile minds whose feelings may resemble C.S. Lewis, however, it would be an easy trapped-door to label oneself with the approval of a once great mind. I simply wanted to offer a slightly more optimistic opposition to that mindset for those that may be feeling that (as I have in the past).

    Second,

    Anything can be thought subconsciously, which is why it is critical to BE critical of yourself and your beliefs/thoughts. And yes, in a reality where an afterlife is an axiom, that knowledge/belief could and probably would creep into subconscious decisions and existential experience. But, with that true, you must also submit that merely a belief (even if it were not true) in the after-life could subconsciously creep it’s way into not making the most out of what you have and always assuming your current happiness is flawed because it’s on this earth.

    Third

    Obviously we disagree on this, but in respect to the point above: if you always believe there are better things unobtainable ’til you die, you risk accepting less during this life assuming there can’t be better ’til you die. Just the simple fact that you ‘believe’ when you are told “this life has a limited potential for happiness” is a mindset that would affect your outlook and decision making while you’re still alive.

    Richard,

    Nothing wrong with relaxing and exposing yourself to some adventure to get out of a funk :-)
    IMO

    Seth,

    Again, fair enough. I have a slightly different perspective in that, yes, there are [many] pocket’s of communities that engage in conversation to affirm what they already want to believe. We all do it, I suppose, in different ways. And you are right in that I could write similar words in many or all of this site’s articles. I am not decided on whether I find it useful or not (for me or others.) But I am unsure when, exactly, it is appropriate to criticize an argument. That may be a flaw of my own, but I personally desire to be criticized as much as possible (or as much as I have time for), so my assumption is that there are others out there with the same desire. I do not, however, wish to beat a dead horse or speak where I am not desired! I would not sit here and rant if my only responses were “Get out of here!”

    My main point that I want to emphasize was not to disprove religious beliefs, but to defend the gaming habits and Artistic intake of us mere mortals as something of high value, minus musings of the afterlife.

    As a side note, I see articles of this site from time to time posted on Facebook from friends. I have a bit of a personal constitution to speak up when I see fallacies publicly posted. I do not go around looking for places to fight. The issue I have is public proclamation. If it is brought up in a public sphere, I assume it is ready to face criticism.

    Steven,

    It’s not just videogames, it’s all art, IMO. I know for me at least, art allows me to feel things I may have forgotten. It makes my emotions more tangible and my hopes more realistic. I think most people feel the same whether they realize it or not. This alone does not do anything for one’s life, but it does give some drive/motivation when you’re in a rut, or just want more out of life. This, ironically, is what people turn to religion for. I find art to be completely sufficient for it.

    I expounded a bit above, but I’ll try a bit more!
    I’ll use both Heaven and Hell:

    Imagine you are forcibly entered into a race and told to run and continue running even if you feel like you are going to die. Upon completion of the race, you are told, you will never have to run again and will be greeted by beautiful women, a mansion with a full-service spa and a feast of carbs. Now imagine you are instructed to enjoy the race to its fullest (but don’t stop running), and make the most of it.

    With those caveats, you may notice the roses as you pass, but probably won’t stop to smell them. You may feel the wind in your face, but it is only a relief from the heat, not a subtle, beautiful pleasure.

    Now imagine you are told that if you slip below 3mph a fiery beast is going to eat you alive where you will roll and tumble in his steaming stomach for the rest of eternity. This beast can only run 2.99mph, you see.

    With this knowledge, you may notice a a babbling brook at the beginning, but you will not pay much attention to the sound. You will probably stop noticing roses, flowers and the blue sky. You might start to grow bitter at the wind because it does not sufficiently cool you down. You’ll start to despise the slower people you almost trip over that could cause you an eternity in flames.

    If you believe these premises, you will probably just run til you die, to avoid the beast and reap your reward. Besides, what’s wrong with that? Running is a a virtue, you are told!

    But if this were all a big lie that you never discovered, you might have never asked yourself, “What’s around THAT corner?” “What would that feel like?” “Why am I running?” “what do I really enjoy?” “What makes me really feel alive?” “Is there more to life than running for your life?”

    My point is, you cannot possibly be unaffected by things you believe to be fact (whether or not they actually are fact). Fallacies about your reality will always cause you to act *against* reality, simply by definition.

    It can be quite depressing at first to face death as an ending (I was raised religious). But it is only depressing if you feel like there was more to begin with. Once you see the true potential this singular life has, I think it gets a lot easier. Being taught fallacies through your vulnerable years creates a subconscious that is hard to rid ones self of, but like anything, it just takes personal drive and training.
    But I won’t act like I have it down, because I don’t. I couldn’t force myself to believe if I wanted to, so it is just a process of dealing with it and discovering the beauty actually present with us now, here on earth.

    —–sorry for the length—-

  • Steven Sukkau

    Hey Stephen, thanks for the thorough and thoughtful response. I think you’re onto something here, many Christians’ lives have become a race to the finish or worse, a rat race to try and look holy.

    You make a great point, one that I think many Christians forget: in some ways we are already living in heaven. In a way we see Jesus in the flesh everyday. When we feed the hungry or help the poor, the bible says we take on God’s hands and feet. When we feed the hungry, we are feeding Jesus.

    In a strange paradox, we’re both right: we don’t have to wait for heaven because heaven is here, but it’s also coming.

    Reminds me of Switchfoot’s new album: http://www.christandpopculture.com/asides/music-at-mars-hill-switchfoots-vice-verses/

    I know we’re not about to convince each other because neither of us has proof obviously, but I love the discussion. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

    In the mean time im gonna play some more skyrim, looking for meaning and keeping an eye open for the beauty of heaven right here on earth (and in skyrim.)

    Also, Drew I don’t mind more Skyrim articles, keep em coming ;)

  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport

    Steven,

    In a bit of irony, I am surrounding myself in a circle of garlic and wiping blood on my doors to keep skyrim and the inevitable vacuum of time it will create in my life away! I don’t quite have time for it, but I am sure I will give in sooner than later :-P

    And now worries, good discussion is always healthy.

  • http://followandengage.com Jordan Ekeroth

    @Stephen Newport, I agree with Mr. Sukkau, you seem to have a great comprehension of the danger of overemphasizing the importance of the afterlife at the expense of finding joy in this life, and in bringing this up you’ve laid your finger precisely on one of the major tensions of the Christian faith. I’ll be the first to admit it’s a paradox. Thanks for joining the discussion, really appreciate all the thought you’ve put into this!

  • Matt

    I’m a little weary of the “escapist” label, since I hear it mostly in reference to games/gamers. I hardly think the escape vehicle-of-choice matters.

    I do agree with a lot of the discussion here, though. As Christians we eagerly await the return of Christ–that’s hope, right? But it not too big a leap from hope to escapism. If I ignore the present Kingdom and the life that it calls us to, I am escaping. It’s a constant battle for me as an introvert with a tendency towards laziness.

  • Steven Sukkau

    What muddies the water in regards to hope/escapism, is Jesus’ regular retreats into the wilderness by himself. Was Jesus escaping from the “real” world? Do we need to escape to recharge, and thus become better equipped to live here on earth?

  • David Kennedy

    Hope in God’s promises in scripture as well as reflecting on His promises already fulfilled are inextricably linked to the here and now. Take this quote by Scott J. Hafemann from “The God of Promise and the Life of Faith: Understanding the Heart of the Bible”:

    “God’s actions of provision in the past lead to trust and hope in Him for the future, which in turn brings about obedience in the present… Only knowing God Himself as He is revealed in His Word can create the kind of hope in His promises that brings about obedience to His will.”

    We can live Spirit filled lives now because we know what is to come: “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming… So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.” (2 Peter 3:12, 14)

    Escapism as an end in itself is not what God calls us to do, but to live our lives in light of the life we have received.

  • Steven Sukkau

    I play to “escape”. But it’s healthy.

    “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisioned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?. . .If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!”
    ― J.R.R. Tolkien from his essay, “On Fairy-Stories”.

    I think the same can be applied to videogames, that when we get a glimpse of joy from the aurora of Skyrim, or stand in awe of a misty mountain peak or bring justice to evil, we satisfy a deep longing, a longing for a good and just world. Something that doesn’t often occur in our daily lives.

    That often comes from fantasy, through their happy endings, a phenomenom Tolkien dubbed, “eucatastrophe” or the sudden turn from darkness to light. These moments give us a glimpse into the grand mythological nature of the cosmos, that things were meant to be better than they are.


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