Video games are the pinnacle of modern entertainment for many. They can be complex storytelling devices that allow us to explore new worlds. In fact, plenty of established game series have rich lore that draws on ancient myths. However, the similarities go deeper than lore and worldbuilding, as both video games and ancient worldviews are concerned with how we experience things.
Exploring how the two intersect can offer insight to what these foundational stories mean, as well as offer game designers pragmatic tools to give meaningful experiences to players. This article will take a look at how the best-selling game Minecraft compares with the story of the fall from paradise, and then the article will look at how the structure of games in general applies to the cosmological model that comes with the story of the fall.
Minecraft serves as an interesting example for a comparison of games and cosmology. It’s the best-selling video game to date and has enchanted young and old alike by offering worlds full of creative potential, ready to host anything you can make with blocks. The way the players interact in these worlds has a certain structure that can be interpreted by the story of the fall from paradise. This story is the foundation of our cosmological model.
The story of the fall starts with Adam and Eve in the nurturing walled garden of Eden. By eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree, they discover their nakedness, and are exiled from the Garden of Life. Down the mountain of Eden is a fallen, chaotic world of thorns and meaninglessness. They toil in the soil by their own hands. To protect themselves against the thorns of the field, a symbol of death itself, they have to put on clothes and work. They gather and craft with material from outside the garden to augment their limited naked ability. Later, the descendants of Adam’s son Cain take this a step further by creating tools, weapons, and cities. These constructions protect them from the destructive forces of time and chaos, the thorns of creation. Eventually though, the Flood comes to destroy everything.
Similarly, a Minecraft game starts in an unexplored world filled with danger. The player is naked and has full health, an allusion to life right before the fall. The first thing they have to do is to work. They have no tools, so their only option is to punch down a tree. With the wood they create tools, and then they equip those tools to artificially augment their power in the world. They can make armour to cover up their vulnerabilities, but the player can’t tarry too long… It may still be daytime, but the night crouches at the doorstep. Zombies and other monsters will appear in the darkness and try to kill them. The player has the choice to settle where they started, but if the land isn’t fertile enough for future plans and adventures, they can wander more in exile until they find the promised land.
The first night can sometimes force players to dig themselves in a cave to ward off danger. This is an analogy with an extra-canonical story that Adam and Eve took shelter in caves right after the fall2, using the protection of Mother Earth itself to hide their nakedness against the thorns of creation.
The following day, the player can build their base from which they are able to spread out their identity. To become stronger, they need to venture outside of the safety of their walls. With the rising Sun, the player can now better confront the zombies that have been tormenting them earlier. Some zombies stay in the shadows, but others are exposed, the sunlight burns them, and they catch flame and die.
Light in our cosmological worldview is, as author Matthieu Pageau puts it in The Language of Creation, the purest expression of higher meaning.3 It is directly linked to meaning and language, since it was created by God’s first spoken word. In Genesis, before the light was made, the earth was described as without form and meaningless4. This kind of darkness symbolizes unanswered questions, it’s the unexplored world of minecraft, formless in the fog of potential, waiting for the player to act on it. The answer God gives to darkness, spoken out loud, is “Light!”. In the era of Enlightenment, man used science to shine a light to previously unanswered questions.
Just as Light is analogous to meaning, so is the player the Light of the world of Minecraft. They bring purpose and meaning to the material they gather. They put their identity in the arrangement of blocks by building castles, taverns, or whatever they like. They explore the lands around them and by doing so, expose what had been hidden. Throughout history the association between the Sun and higher meaning has been used by kings and pharaohs alike to portray themselves as either the source or the mediator of higher meaning. Think of how crowns, anointing oil, and royal lions symbolize the Sun.
Zombies, on the other hand, are bodies without meaning. They are rotten flesh meaninglessly wandering in exile, animated by the desire to consume the very thing they don’t have: our brains. However zombies actually cannot host meaning and language, so when they are exposed to it, it destroys them. As the player is answering the problem of monsters with his sword, he is acting like the burning sunlight. Sword, light, and fire come together in the story of the fall too. It is the flaming sword that guards the garden of Eden after the exile of Adam and Eve. This sword prevents anyone from entering if they do not host God’s principles correctly. Later in the game, the symbolism becomes more explicit as the player can upgrade his sword so it sets the zombies on fire too.
To deal with the zombies, the player has to have the most sought-after material, diamonds, which reflect light in a thousand angles. With these precious gems they can make the best armour and tools. In order to find these, they have to delve deep into the depths of the earth. Their best bet is to explore the caverns that slither and twist underground. They use torches to bring light to the darkness, as they fight monsters and avoid death. However, if they’re not careful, the player can lose track of their sense of time and space.
Having reached as deep as the caverns can go, they finally find some precious diamond ore, only to find out that their food ran out and they’ve forgotten the path to the exit. The player can follow the thread of their torches to find their way, but these tunnels are a maze, and around every corner can lie new monsters. Not a moment too soon they recognize the path up to the surface and begin their climb. They start to see daylight pouring in as they make their way to safe grounds. Like so many old stories, the player has entered the dark underworld and come back up to the light.
There are valuable items found above the surface too, so the player needs to make sure they don’t lose their way. A good solution is to make tall structures that can be visible from far away, so that the way home can be found. If the player can’t see the towers they made, they can climb up a mountain and let the overview of the landscape orient them. Receiving guidance on mountains is a trope in both biblical stories and video games.
The pillars the player erects can be compared to the pillar Jacob, grandson of Abraham, made when he encounters God in a dream. In this dream, God says to Jacob that he will spread out in all four directions. Then he makes the promise that he will return Jacob to this land. When Jacob awoke, he raised the stone his head had rested on and made a pillar. Then he anoints the pillar with shining oil and names the place Bethel, which means house of God.
The anointing of oil makes the pillar reflect light, standing out from the rest of the stones so that Jacob will recognize this place in the future. The player does something similar when they make a tower of blocks stand out from the rest of the landscape. Naming a place also sets it apart from other places as every name carries its own meaning. 6
As demonstrated, there are overlaps between the player’s experience and the story of the fall. In the same vein, the question game designers ask themselves overlaps with the fundamental question the cosmological worldview tries to address: “What does this experience mean?”.
As Matthieu Pageau explains in The Language of Creation, the essential difference between the modern materialistic worldview and the traditional one is the questions they ask. To interpret reality today, we often ask questions like “How does it work?” and “What material is it made of?”. This is contrasted by the ancient questions “What does it mean?” and “What truth does it embody?” 7. The first two questions are great for improving the technical aspects of a game, but the latter two are what have the most impact on the experience. Designers constantly ask themselves what an interaction or a moment in the game means to the player. They are first and foremost concerned with the perceptions of the player.
Traditional worldviews too put perceptions first; the Sun rises in the east because we experience it that way. Therefore, east embodies the notion of new beginnings and a return to your identity. Because of this emphasis on perceptions, the ancient cosmological model is a flat disc with a dome on top. Similarly, this model is the most efficient way to give the player the experience of a 3D world. The terrain of a game level will be built along the horizontal plane, and the sky will often be half a sphere on which images of atmospheres and a sun will be put.
This may seem coincidental, but the analogy goes further. The cosmological model has the mountain of Eden at the centre of the disc, as the source of identity, cohesion, and meaning. At the edges of the disc are chaotic waters, snakes, monsters, and cannibals, symbolizing the pointless breakdown of structure and meaning and the dominion of cyclical time.
The same structure can be found in a video game level. There are the places the player can roam, which is the disc. There are the places that give the player meaning, letting them follow the main questline, which can be considered as the road to the top of the mountain. And there are the places that threaten the player’s identity as the hero, leading them into death.
The last concept can be seen in two ways. It is both the dangerous monsters that the hero must confront, but also all the places the game makers did not intend for the players to go. These do not have the same cohesion as a normal part of a level, but often glitch or fall apart, exposing the smoke and mirrors of games. They often allow the player to fall off the edge of the world into a meaningless void.
The breakdown of structure in games can be shown in a different example. Endless runner games, like Temple Run and Subway Surfers, have the player running forever on a track, as long as they keep avoiding the obstacles on their way. The best way to make these games is to keep the player at the origin, while the world moves around them8. This is because the player can get so far from the mathematical origin of the world that certain calculations will become less and less precise, introducing bugs into the game. A more technical explanation of this can be read in the footnotes9.
This phenomenon can also be seen in Minecraft. Players roam in a randomly generated near-infinite world, but when they reach the limits of this world, things become messy. First, player movement starts to become slightly jittery, then animals and monsters in the game will have impaired movement too. Even further away, the 3D models of the game begin to morph: walls render wider than normal, doors become thinner, and torches become invisible10.
This distortion is analogous to the disfigured monsters at the edges of the world. Travelling further, movement slows down even more, making it increasingly pointless to inhabit this part of the world. At a certain point, any movement forward will make the game client crash11, the final result of the breakdown at the edge.
It can be interpreted that not only the story of a game, but also the gameplay and the game structure point towards ancient truths, even though it’s unlikely for the game creators to have had that intent. Other examples of games pointing towards the old stories include the role-playing game Skyrim, where the player ascends the highest mountain of the world, High Hrothgar, to receive guidance and instructions from priests12. This is a parallel to Moses climbing mount Sinai to receive guidance from God. For racing games, the most exciting moments are when the player falls behind, but then makes a spectacular comeback and receives a glorious victory, akin to the death and resurrection of Christ. Even the classic game Tetris is all about shining light on continuously forming confusion, trying to become better at warding off death.
Ultimately, games themselves can be interpreted as participating with the cosmological story itself. They are forms of entertainment and rest13, and in the strictest sense don’t produce anything, making them akin to the ‘pointless’ edge. However, the edge in the cosmological model isn’t fully pointless: it is a necessary component, completing the model. In the same vein, games too can help us complete our days. Moreover, they point us to what is meaningful in the world.