Gaming and the Divine: A New Systematic Theology of Video Games, Book Review

Title: Gaming and the Divine: A New Systematic Theology of Video Games
Author: Frank G. Bosman
Publisher: Routledge, 2019
Price: $49.99 (amz)  
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 265
Should you play video games?

This question has been debated for as long as video games have existed. For millions of people, the answer is a resounding, yes! Video games are now widely played and represent an entertainment industry that rivals or dwarfs many comparable mediums such as music, movies, and spectator sports. 

But, should you study video games? Because of the pervasive popularity and increasing sophistication of modern video games, they have been studied from a variety of scholarly disciplines. Would it make sense, in this scenario, to analyze games from a theological perspective? Because the story and gameplay of many video games treat theological topics either directly or indirectly, theological analysis on some level is actually required to understand them fully. However, by and large, theological engagement with video games has been lacking. Religion is not a popular topic to research within games studies, and theologians rarely study video games in the same way they might consider literature, music, or film.

In Gaming and the Divine: A New Systematic Theology of Video Games, Frank Bosman seeks to remedy this scholarly lacuna. Noting that “video games have become one of the most important cultural artifacts of modern society” (i), Bosman aims to demonstrate the value of theology to the academic study of these games. In the opening chapters, Bosman provides a theology of culture that guides his theological reflection (chapter one) and also a method for studying digital games (chapter two). 

Here Bosman argues that both a proper understanding of the discipline of theology and also a working knowledge and experience of games themselves is required for this type of study. He also lays out the variegated ways that religion might appear in a video game (see 46-51). The game could explicitly include religion in its story or environment (material religion). A game could make reference in some way to religious traditions and practices (referential religion). A game could develop themes that are usually associated with religion (reflective religion). A game could ask players to enact or participate in rituals that have religious connotations (ritual religion). Finally, the playing of a game itself might be understood to be a religious act (gaming as religion).

With this broad framework for religion in video games, Bosman examines seven theological topics and provides several case studies for each theme (chapters three through eight). Some games position the player to function like a divine figure within the game’s world (theomorphism: creational theology). Other games involve self-sacrificial heroes that echo the actions and movement of Jesus Christ (Christophorism: christology). A common feature of games involve artificial intelligence and robots. These storylines prompt questions about what it means to be human (Homo roboticus: theological anthropology). The presence of violence and evil in the world is a frequent theme in many genres. If God exists, these games pose, how does he relate to the suffering and violence that also exist in the world (Kyrie eleison: theodicy and the problem of evil)? Moreover, within the story and gameplay of many games, there is a morality system and a series of ethical choices of various stripes that the player must navigate (The wicked problem of being alive: ethics). Finally, the theme of death itself is treated in several different ways both as a feature of the story and also of the player experience (Game over: thanatology).

Bosman ends his book with a chapter examining the spectrum of ways religion is critiqued within video games. In most of the case studies mentioned above, Bosman highlights instances where “inspiration from religious traditions, especially Christianity is used to create believable worlds and to inspire game narratives.” However, he also shows the way games “shed a much darker light on organized and institutional religions” (205). Religion is variously depicted as 1) a fraud or illusion; 2) a system that requires blind obedience; 3) an institution that incites violence; 4) an indication of intellectual madness or chaos; or 5) a form of intolerance and suppression. Bosman develops these categories in order to demonstrate that video games are cultural artifacts that embody these types of theological critiques of religion. They participate in a kind of “digital iconoclasm” that illustrates or assumes social discourse about the effects of religious practices and beliefs (see 240-43). Rather than simply reject these critiques of religion, Bosman argues that religion criticism in games “can have great theological value if the faithful let themselves be inspired to critically examine their own collective and individual behavior and history” (243).

These chapters represent the bulk of the book and also one of the substantive contributions of this work. Through his detailed and thorough analysis of a wide range of games, Bosman demonstrates that theological training enhances our understanding of the message and experience of many video games. Moreover, video games themselves warrant careful study for their theological message, their engaging narratives, and their implicit and explicit interaction with religion (whether this be appropriation or repudiation). For example, the game BioShock Infinite begins and ends with baptismal scenes that require theological analysis to unpack. At the heart of the game’s narrative, too, is an embedded critique of American exceptionalism, the damage of racism on a society, and a Christianity compromised by partisan politics (see 234-40 for Bosman’s analysis). This kind of in-depth analysis and engagement with both the theological disciplines and the intricate workings of the games themselves is a clear strength of this volume.

Bookending these chapters is Bosman’s articulation of two hypotheses that guide his approach to engaging video games theologically. His first major assertion is that “video games are genuine loci theologici” (6). By this Bosman means that video games can be “sources of God’s self-revelation” alongside of Scripture, tradition, creation, and culture (7). This assertion is expanded in Bosman’s development of a cultural theology that involves “the academic-theological search for God’s self-revelation in our cultural artifacts” (7; cf. 15-32). His second major assertion is that “the act of playing particular games can, in some specific cases, be interpreted as a religious act in itself” (8). Defining a religious act as in part a “repeatable symbolic action involving God,” Bosman defends the idea that “certain gamers, when playing certain games, can interpret—and be interpreted—as acting religiously” in a similar fashion to “more traditional acts like praying, fasting or celebrating” (9).

For Bosman, these two assertions are integrally linked. In his concluding remarks, Bosman extends these claims. Because God’s self-revelation can be found in cultural objects like video games, Bosman contends, playing them can be a genuinely religious act. As he states directly, “God reveals Himself to us as Creator, Savior and Whole-Maker” (250). In this scenario, the player is “not only a witness to God’s self-revelation but also an actualization of this revelation” (253). Because games are participatory by nature, this action involves “contributing to God’s self-revelation” (253). In the end, Bosman sees video games and the playing of them as “semi-sacramental” acts that convey grace, reveal God, and participate in the divine economy (255-56). In this sacramental understanding, video games are “new vehicles of God’s self-revelation and grace” (256). 

While Bosman clearly articulates and forcefully argues these two contentions, many Protestant or evangelical theologians will disagree at just this point of his approach. From this vantage point, cultural texts like video games could be a source of theology but never a locus of divine revelation. Video games can contain theological content, make theological arguments, and enter a discourse about God and the world. However, they would not in and of themselves reveal previously undisclosed meaning about who God is and how he works in the world. 

As influential works of art, quality video games merit theological analysis and often directly or implicitly engage theological areas (making the bulk of Bosman’s work here a major contribution to this area). However, the further claims about video games having the sacramental capability of conveying grace and revelation are much more controversial from an evangelical perspective. Benefiting from the careful development of theological categories throughout the volume and their intersection with the detailed examination of a wide spectrum of games does not require acceptance of these aspects particular of Bosman’s overarching approach.

In summary, this work helpfully highlights the quality and depth of many video games. They are worthy of analysis because of the achievement of their form and also the real effect that they have on players of all ages. Bosman successfully demonstrates that a serious study of video games from a theological perspective is possible and profitable. Because of its comprehensive framework, further work in this area can both build upon and extend Bosman’s work and also dialogue with it as new directions are forged.   

Book Review
July 17, 2022


Popular Posts

Why did Jesus have to heal the Blind Man Twice in Mark 8?

In Mark 8:22-26, Jesus encounters a blind man in Bethsaida. To heal the man, Je…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Historical Theology w/ Madison Grace

In this episode, I talk with my friend Dr. Madison Grace about Dietrich Bonhoef…

"The Gospel" as the Unifying Theme of Theology and the Rule of Faith for the Churches

Mike Bird ends his articulation and apology for the structure of his systematic…