Matt Millsap admits he made up the word “theoludology” for his doctoral dissertation in systematic theology.
Google theoludology (pronounced theo-lude-ology) and literally every result includes Millsap’s name. Broken up into its roots, his dissertation topic becomes clearer, even if doesn’t become easier to pronounce. “Theo-” and “-ology” are clear enough. “Ludo” is the Latin root for “game” or “play.”
Illustration by Brian Koonce
Mashed together, Millsap created a new discipline: thinking about video games from a theological point of view.
Millsap is assistant director of library services at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., and teaches courses such as Christianity and the Arts at the seminary’s Spurgeon College.
And he’s a bit of a video game nerd.
Literally every surface of his office is piled high with systematic theology textbooks and academic journals, but his home entertainment center is piled high with a PlayStation 4, Xbox One and a Nintendo Switch.
While some may dismiss gaming as a time-wasting holdover from boyhood or a trivial escape from the rigors of academia, Millsap would ask them to press pause.
Theologians regularly interact with media and the arts, he notes. Film and television are common topic for theological dialogue, and religious thinkers have been pondering painting, literature, sculpture and music for thousands of years.
Why isn’t the same true, he asks, for an art form that’s emerged in the past 40 years?
Beyond Pac-Man & Super Mario
One reason Millsap feels the time has come to consider video games with God in mind is that they have seriously evolved as technology has improved.
“We are naturally a storytelling people; that’s how God made us to communicate,” Millsap said. “You think back to arcade games of the late 1970s and the graphics were very crude. There wasn’t a whole lot technologically we could do to convey a story.”
So there basically wasn’t one. Games were simple and straightforward. Players dropped Tetris blocks into place, urged a hapless Frogger across a busy road, or frantically pressed UP UP DOWN DOWN LEFT RIGHT LEFT RIGHT to cheat an early shoot ’em up. Forty years later, gone are the primitive pixels of Pong or Pac-Man and the simple sprites of Super Mario or Space Invaders.
“Now, in 2018, game designers have millions of dollars and all sorts of technology at their disposal,” Millsap said. “They can tell a story much in the same way that a film can. Not all games do this, but people want to play stories.”
Indeed, it’s now common for the most popular and awarded games to feature 10-, 20- or even 50-hour storylines complete with motion-capture acting and top-tier voice talent. Many high-profile games are essentially interactive movies, and a compelling single-player story can overcome technological weaknesses or the occasional gameplay flaw.
And just like the opening level of an unfamiliar game, Millsap has come up with a tutorial for tackling these story-focused games and figuring out and critiquing what they might communicate about God.
“Games are their own thing,” he said. “You have to respect the medium in terms of what it does and how it communicates, then bring theology into the conversation and meld them together.”
So he came up with a game studies – or ludological – method, drawing from the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, a traditional Methodist way of approaching Christian theology that begins with scripture, then folds in tradition, reason and experience.
Being a good Baptist, Millsap keeps scripture primary – an “extraludic norm,” he calls it. With that in mind, Millsap cautions that Christians should be discerning about which games they play to ensure that no content will cause them to sin, just as they should do with movies or literature, and they should limit games to their appropriate audiences.
“Anything we discover as we dialogue with a video game has to be held up against the standard of scripture,” Millsap said. “If it doesn’t, then we have to reject whatever they might be saying about God as false.”
With the overarching umbrella of scriptural primacy in view, game studies had its own versions of tradition, reason and experience. Gaming’s traditions, or doctrines, become a sort of gaming literacy. Once a player “gets” how a certain genre of game works and is structured, they know what to expect and how to approach the next one. One doctrine informs the next.
“It’s much like how you can’t talk about Christology [the doctrine of Jesus] without having that bleed into your soteriology [the doctrine of salvation],” Millsap said.
Video gaming’s milieu
Next, reason equates to game mechanics and structure: the press of a button or the nudge of a joystick will trigger this. Just as there is order and structure to the universe as God created it and He has given mankind reason to ponder it, video games follow the rules of their own creator.
For experience, its ludological twin is what Millsap calls player identification and agency. “We have to be careful not to elevate an individual experience to a level it should not be in theology,” he said, “but the way it interacts with a video game is different. You’re transporting yourself into the role of that character.
“When your character performs an action, it’s different than an actor on a movie screen performing that action. You are the one controlling it. If that character believes something, do you believe it too? Are you acting in your own beliefs or that character’s?”
Millsap’s go-to illustration of this type of theological thinking is the game “Journey.” A title originally released for the PlayStation 3 in 2012, it is also available for the PlayStation 4. Players take control of a mysterious, unnamed, hooded character to go on a journey. You wake up, see a light on top of a mountain, and start your story. That’s it. The Game of the Year according to the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, it racked up plenty of praise: various gaming publications called it “a hallmark of excellence,” “a glorious, thoughtful, moving masterpiece” and “mysterious and beautiful.” Not bad for a game with no dialogue, no instructions and no text. Players inherently know the game’s designers have something planned out to experience.
“They wanted to make something you could interpret, and that’s where I apply that [theoludology] framework,” Millsap said. “What might this say about a Christian’s journey through life in terms of what God has called us to? It all leads up to the final culmination which is this great eschatological [having to do with the end times] scene where you think that – ”
Millsap won’t give away the ending for those concerned with spoilers, but the scene “makes a lot more sense from a Christian interpretation than any other religion.”
So what’s the point? Millsap is not saying that mashing buttons is a path to a deeper understanding of God or defeating the next game’s challenge is a discipleship tool. The idea is just that it’s worth considering the stories and scenarios that gamers encounter from a theological perspective.
“I play video games anyway as a form of recreation,” Millsap said. “It’s something I enjoy in my spare time much in the same way I enjoy reading a book or listening to music, which are gifts from God that He made us able to enjoy as recreation. It’s like watching someone play football or playing it yourself; we play and watch sports and games for the sheer joy of playing, even without that explicit theological component to the narrative.
“But because so many video games now go in a narrative direction and tell a story, it makes sense that we would want to consider them from that perspective. I need to ask myself important questions, and think about whether I believe what it’s saying is true. If a video game is intending to tell a serious narrative and I don’t approach it seriously, thoughtfully and from a Christian perspective, then I’m not doing it justice.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Brian Koonce is assistant editor of The Pathway, mbcpathway.com, news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.)